One of the most challenging assignments for a composer is to write an elegy for an event or person of national significance. But John Adams was up to the task when Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write a memorial to the victims of September 11th. Adams describes his On the Transmigration of Souls as “a memory space — a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions.” It’s an apt description of the work. The composer assembled the text from sources that included messages about missing loved ones posted near Ground Zero. Pre-recorded sounds include street noises, a siren, the recitation of names, and the soft voice of a child saying “missing” — which opens the work and is repeated over the choral background. The 22-minute elegy veers between eerie calm and climaxes of tolling bells, sirens, voices, and blaring brass. Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a stirring performance of this profoundly spiritual piece, featured on a Telarc release called Transmigration. The disc also includes elegies by Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, and Samuel Barber — including the latter’s Adagio for Strings. Spano offers a richly hued performance of this famously poignant work, which was played on the radio following the announcement of Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and is now an instantly recognized symbol of grief. Also included on the disc is Barber’s Agnus Dei (a choral setting of the Adagio), sung gracefully by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. Walt Whitman wrote his “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” as a tribute to the slain Abraham Lincoln. Jennifer Higdon evocatively sets his poem in her recent Dooryard Bloom for baritone and orchestra. John Corigliano’s Elegy is based on an incidental score composed for an off-Broadway production of Wallace Frey’s Helen, about the aging Helen of Troy. Corigliano dedicated his Elegy to Barber, his mentor, whose musical ethos is reflected in this soaring neo-romantic work.
About the Author
Vivien Schweitzer is a Manhattan-based music critic, reporter and pianist. She regularly contributes classical music reviews and features to The New York Times and also writes about music for The Economist and The Gramophone, as well as many other publications.