Posted by: rbbadger | October 30, 2010

Philip Glass, Dance from Akhnaten

In the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and other places, there began to be a retreat from the strict atonality and serialist practices favoured by academic composers.  This new music featured a lot of repetition, pretty stable harmonies, and sometimes was quite lengthy in duration.  It was dubbed “minimalism”, a name perhaps inspired by the artistic work of Stella and Rothko. 

American composers who are associated with this school are LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, and others.  Glass has been one of the most successful of them all, having been commissioned to compose operas in both the United States and Europe.  John Adams has also written operas, one of them being Nixon in China

Philip Glass’ third opera, Akhnaten, is set in Egypt during the reign of the pharoah Akhnaten.  Akhnaten is one of the most intriguing figures in Egyptian history.  Unlike his ancestors, he extolled monotheism, destroying the temples to other Egyptian deities.  Rather than worshipping the vast pantheon of Egyptian divinities, Akhnaten eventually decreed that there was one sole deity, the Aten, and that he alone was the intermediary between his people and the Aten.  He decreed the destruction of temples to Egypt’s other deities and also gave strictures as to how the Aten was to be displayed in art.  Rather than appearing in a physical body, the Aten is represented as a sun disk. 

Needless to say, not all were happy with Akhnaten’s changes and he was eventually overthrown.  The worship of Amun Ra was reinstated and Akhnaten was basically erased from Egyptian history until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.

Philip Glass has taken on a number of unusual subjects for his operas.  This opera is also unusual, given that the role of Akhnaten is sung by a countertenor, a species of tenor capable of singing very high notes as well as very low ones.  Also, the texts are sung in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, or in English.  One of the most popular parts of the opera is the dance scene, arranged for piano by Dr. Paul Barnes of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Here is Professor Barnes playing his arrangement of the “Dance” from Akhnaten.


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