— By Amanda Patrick
An oratorio specially commissioned for Yale Schola Cantorum and chamber orchestra will be performed live at Yale’s Woolsey Hall on Sunday, February 19 at 5 p.m. Composed by Aaron Jay Kernis, with Peter Cole as librettist, the exciting new work focuses on themes of care for the earth.
The idea of Edensongs was birthed before the pandemic when Dr. Martin Jean, director of the Institute of Sacred Music, and Dr. David Hill, director of Yale Schola Cantorum, approached Kernis about writing the piece with the hopes that the work could derive inspiration from themes and theologies of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions. Locally, Kernis serves as professor of Composition at Yale School of Music and artistic director of New Music New Haven, but his reputation extends globally. A Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-Award winning composer, he is considered to be one of the most esteemed musicians of his generation.
Kernis enthusiastically agreed to the commission and suggested a collaboration with Peter Cole—renowned poet, translator, and the Horace W. Goldsmith Senior Lecturer in Judaic Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale—who he had worked with previously on his Symphony in Meditations. Cole, who is especially fascinated by the relationship between music and words, said the prospect of working with Kernis again was “immensely appealing.”
The direction of the newly commissioned piece for the ISM came into sharp focus very quickly for both artists. For Kernis, the Garden of Eden theme was in some ways a natural progression. Images of gardens, past and present, have been a prominent source of inspiration in much of his work. He had also previously worked on a composition called Earth with poet and former Yale colleague, Kai Hoffman Krull, that addressed concerns about the planet from the angle of sustainable farming and the effect of changing weather on the environment. It seemed only natural that Edensongs should be the next piece in the budding series of ecologically themed compositions.
The theme also resonated with Cole who had been working for some time with medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry and religious texts where gardens play a major role in consciousness. As he studied these topics, he described feeling an increasing sense of “the precariousness of our ecological crisis in my bones, and in the roots, trunks, stems, and leaves of the gardens that have mattered to me.”
Much of the project evolved during the COVID-19 lockdown when this sense of precarity was only heightened. As Cole says, the pandemic exposed something very fundamental—the “miraculous and truly frightening interdependence of all things, for better or worse.” Cole couldn’t help but consider the interesting parallel between peoples’ response to the pandemic and the themes innate in the Garden of Eden story. “The (pandemic) situation was like the Eden situation, bringing us back to a very sharp and focused sense of what matters.” Listen to more of Cole’s experience working on Edensongs during the lockdown in this Creativity in Isolation video recorded in his own garden in New Haven (thanks to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.)
Using new poems written by Cole for this libretto, as well as texts he translated or adapted for it from all three Abrahamic religions, Edensongs embraces and addresses many of these themes as it ventures from an ideal world of musical beauty in Movement I towards the ever-more conflicted and anguished music in Movement IV, and back again to an uneasy balance in the final section.
Kernis says that although Edensongs may sound “like today’s music,” it is inspired by the past. He spent an entire year before and during the composition listening to music from the Baroque period—including the works of Bach, Handel, and Corelli—by orchestras using original (or copies of) instruments from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Baroque forms, such as the chorale-prelude, aria, and imitative counterpoint, strongly shaped the direction of the oratorio. The orchestral parts similarly combine Baroque and modern-day elements.
But Kernis is quick to acknowledge that the contribution of his friend and colleague, Peter Cole, was a major catalyst for his creativity. “Without question the crucial inspiration arose from Peter’s marvelous libretto and the themes it explores.” He says the concepts and poetics of the text—what Kernis refers to as “word-painting in sound”—were fundamental to bringing about the structure of the music “from the emotions I seek to transmit, the tone and various intensities of the movements, and the way they relate to each other.”
Cole described the whole experience as both “exhilarating” and “terrifying” since this was the first time he had been involved in the actual composition of a piece of music. “Composers have generally taken my work and set it to music, without any active involvement on my part. But the collaborative dimension here meant a great deal to me and working closely with Aaron was central to the evolution of the text.”
With the project now completed, both Kernis and Cole say that it has been a “wonderful collaboration” with one another and with the ISM and they are greatly looking forward to hearing Yale Schola Cantorum perform Edensongs for the first time on February 19.
It has been an exciting and rewarding journey for all involved. ISM director, Martin Jean, says “it has been a joy to collaborate with Aaron and Peter on this new work, a long time in the making. And I am particularly happy that it folds into our larger recent initiative on Religion, Ecology, and Expressive Cultures.”
The Breath of Earth concert on Sunday, February 19 at 5 p.m. is free and open to the public. Although Edensongs is the feature, two other works will also be performed—Canticle of the Sun, Op. 123 by Amy Beach and Solemn Prelude, Op. 40 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. View the full program here. Yale Schola Cantorum (pictured above) is a chamber choir that performs sacred music from the sixteenth century to the present day in concert settings and choral services around the world. Read more here about the choir and about its director and conductor, David Hill.
Prior to the concert, all are invited to ‘Wanting Song, In the Beginning’: A Roundtable on Images of Eden in History, Culture, and the Environmental Crisis at 3:30 p.m. in Sudler Hall, where a panel of distinguished Yale scholars and writers (including Peter Cole) will reflect on the image of Eden and the garden, whether as a site of hope or loss, promise or peril, crisis or sustenance. Read more about the roundtable.
Photo: Woven Nº 33, 62 x 124” 2019 by Tanya Marcuse