The Human Condition and Hatzis’ Lament

The SSO is proud of its commitment to Canadian music, and we’ve been waiting all season for this one!  Composer Christos Hatzis is a mighty figure in the landscape of new music – his work knows no boundaries and has garnered him the interest and intrigue of audiences around the globe.  Hatzis is always exploring new ways to make music, and recently his ballet “Going Home Star” has blended the world of modern dance and reconciliation.

His Lamento caught our attention has a passionate exploration of a love affair.  When the SSO was bringing this particular concert program together we noted that the pairing of Nuits D’Ete and Lamento made for exceptional story-telling, something so basic that everyone can relate – love and loss.  A human condition that is undeniably relevant today as when Purcell wrote his lament, to Berlioz’s lament, and finally a new Canadian Lamento written specifically for Sarah Slean.

From the composer:

Lamento for pop singer (contralto) and orchestra is a cycle consisting of three songs built on top of a chromatically descending bass line, known in classical music as the “lamentobass.” The composition was commissioned by CBC Radio for Canadian pop diva Sarah Slean and Symphony Nova Scotia and it received its premiere performance in April of 2012 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The idea for Lamento came to me after reading an article by Alex Ross, the music editor of the New Yorker magazine, on the history of the lamento bass, the best known example of which is the aria “When I am Laid in Earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. It was Ross who, through this article, brought to my attention that the lamento bass, after a protracted absence, had migrated into the popular music of the 20th Century in such classics as Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin and Hotel California by the Eagles,[1] among others. It seemed natural that both this memorable baseline and the unforgettable Purcell aria should act as the guide for my cross-genre compositional experiment. The lamento bass is reputably a stylized musical rendering of the mourning human voice and the Purcell aria is uttered by the opera’s lead female character immediately before she takes her own life due to broken heart.

The first two songs of Lamento are two contrasting studies of the female mind confronting the loss by death of a lover. “When This is Over,” the first song, focuses on the agonizing transformation from initially resenting the “pull” from the other side to ultimately seeking it. In the lyrics, this song plants the dark seeds of suicide and the personal experience of mental illness, which are more fully explored in the last song of the cycle. In the music, the dark clouds of orchestral dissonance give way to a jazz-like verse, which alternates with a chorus in a distant key, a key that reveals its affinity to the Purcell aria halfway through the song in the strings under a jazz trumpet solo.

“My Song”, the second song of the cycle, could not be more different in character from the first. While personal loss is still pronounced, the memory of the departed becomes a source of power, even when frailty is claimed. The music is more symmetrical and strophic (this is the most “pop” of the three songs.) The lamento bass appears only in the chorus section and it is atypically extended beyond a chromatically descending octave, thus causing harmonic progressions reminiscent of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and other late nineteenth century composers. Accepting personal loss is here equated with empowerment climaxing with the words “I’m calling to you” set to music reminiscent of Elgar-like triumphalism. Viewed from a different angle, the celebratory nature of this song, especially the way it is sandwiched between two much darker ones, may also signify denial—one’s refusal to accept the inner devastation caused by an adverse turn of fortune. Which of the two it is depends entirely on one’s personal outlook.

“Despair,” the third song and the darkest of the three, can be best described as self-reflection of a suicidal mind. It is the most complex and eclectic of the three songs. Musical genres change suddenly, while high percussion lines remain unchanging over sharp tempo changes by means of metric modulation. Purcell’s aria is ever-present, either as instrumental accompaniment or in its entirety at the end of the song. In the middle, conspiratorial references to treatment of mental disease are linked with sound samples reminiscent of musical experiments during the Weimar Republic just before the dawn of Nazism (Kurt Weill and Alban Berg come to mind) which eventually surrender to the darkest of all thoughts that, after we die, we can only remain alive to the extend that we remain in other people’s memories. The repeated request by the singer to “remember me” is finally taken outside the representational space of the song and into direct experience, as she makes a full circle asking remembrance, first from the musicians of the orchestra, and finally from the audience.

Let me close this note by saying that my own outlook on life and death is invariably luminous, spiritual and optimistic. In this juncture of my spiritual development, however, I felt the need to personally undergo a psychological rite of passage through the waters of Hades, perhaps in order to confront the darkness lurking in me and better understand my own and only adversary hiding somewhere inside the left side of my brain. In this sense, the composition of Lamento has been a spiritually cathartic experience. I hope it becomes a similar experience to the work’s musical interpreters and listeners.

[1] As a matter of fact, the harmonies of both songs are all in root position but their sequence implies a virtual lamento baseline.

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