Lera Auerbach: Icarus

Context

Lera Auerbach was born in 1973 in Chelyabinsk – a city that borders Siberia. Her mother was a piano teacher, so she received lessons from her at a young age. The Auerbach family have a history of being musical, so Lera was naturally a fast learner. She began composing at a very young age. After receiving the top music education in her home country, Auerbach went to The Julliard School, USA, where she studied composition and piano with Milton Babbitt. As well as this, she also graduated from the piano soloist program of the Hochschule fur Musik Hannover.

As well as making a performance career for herself, Auerbach also started to premiere her compositions. Her works have been commissioned by a wide range of different artists, ensembles and companies, including the Berg Orchestra and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has also worked with festivals such as the Lucerne and Lockenhaus. Auerbach has composed in a variety of different styles which include orchestral symphonies, tone poems, ballets and operas. In 2007 her Symphony No.1 “Chimera” received its world premiere. In the same year she also premiered her Second Symphony as well as a collection of sacred texts entitled Russian Requiem. Most recently, Auerbach premiered her a capella ballet The Blind (2013).

Auerbach has won a menagerie of awards, including the Paul Hindemith Prize and the Bremer Musikfest Prize. She was also, in 2007, selected as a member of the forum of Young Global Leaders. Auerbach has also set up her own organisation called The LeraArt Foundation, which creates opportunities through its “Modern-Renaissance” projects.

 

The Music

Icarus was composed in 2006, and is actually composed of the last two movements of Auerbach’s Symphony No.1 “Chimera”. By taking these two movements out of context, Auerbach created the symphonic poem Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman, Daedalus (the creator of Labryrinth). Auerbach’s comment’s on this work in the program notes:

“What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly safely – there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses the question – from Deadalus‘ point of view – how can one distinguish success from failure? Deadalus‘ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly, was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Deadalus was brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not truly understand his child.”

The world premiere of Icarus was in 2011, and took place at the Verbier Festival. Since then the scaled-down work has been a raging success, receiving a lot of performances from various professional ensembles. The work is about 15 minutes in lentgh, and the intense and explosive journey it takes you on is turbulent, emotional and gratifying.

The piece begins with a low burst of sound from the lower strings. Some are playing col legno, which means with the wooden side of the bow. This creates a banging sort of effect which, in turn, makes the music dramatic and very raw. There is a lot of frantic movement within the strings, which changes tempo into a more lyrical section. The chimes and other tuned percussion create a very creepy atmosphere here. The tempo is very quick and when the brass enter with their fanfare the effect is very tumultuous and thundery.

The next section is very different, with the solo violin playing a variation of the theme and the other strings playing pizzicato. We are led into a more lyrical section once more, which has undertones of something very creepy. There is a climax which builds up to the initial theme being repeated again. The work is very powerful and mature, which is one of the boldest aspects of this composition.

The next section is a downward spiral effect with the horns and strings. This whirling atmosphere is perhaps trying to tell us about the death of Icarus. The rich string writing is very prominent within this work, with it indicating to the listener when the music is moving on. The texture dissolves and we are left with a solo violin and flute, who are soon joined by other members of the orchestra.

There is a section with voices and strings which reaches a fantastically strong and bold climax. The brass and the col legno marked strings play off-beats to represent some sort of distress. The upper strings reach their top registers and this triggers a large climax throughout the orchestra.  The lower brass take the lead here and the col legno strings really add a woody texture to the timbre of sound.

We now move into a slower section, led by the strings playing a pizzicato motif. This section already feels slightly calmer, until the solo violin enters. There is a sense of doom in this section, which is then taken over by the oboe and other instruments. The solo violin is playing an array of harmonics, which creates a squealing sort of sound. The sense of lost tonality is also a very interesting effect in this section, which makes the music rather ominous. This quieter section is very spatially aware of where the sound is heading to and what the effect may be. The use of extreme ranges also gives the timbre here a very unique sound. The work ends by dying away slowly with the sound of the strings. This ending makes me think that it may be representing the “beautiful death” of Icarus. It is incredibly woeful, with very dark undertones.

Icarus is an absolutely magnificent symphonic poem, which tells us about the Greek mythology of Icarus and his death. The work is powerful, dark, mysterious, tumultuous, beautiful and brave.

Happy Reading!

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