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About this Piece

Composed: 1983

Length: 43 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (both = oboe d'amore), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbal, finger cymbals, snare drum, tom-toms, tubular bells, wood block), synthesizer (= celesta), strings (no violins), chorus, and vocal soloists

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

The third in a trilogy of operas about men who changed the world in which they lived through the power of ideas, Akhnaten was commissioned by the Stuttgart State Opera and premiered in Stuttgart in 1984. Akhnaten, pharaoh of Egypt in the 14th century B.C. and the husband of Nefertiti, was the first recorded monotheist, and the subject of Akhnaten is religion. (The other operas of the trilogy are about science [Einstein on the Beach, 1975-76] and politics [Satyagraha, 1980].) The opera traces the rise of Akhnaten following his father's funeral through his reign and ultimate downfall, overthrown in violent reaction to his revolutionary monotheism.

"Musically speaking, I was clearly on my own, since the only hints we have of how Egyptian music sounded comes from pictures of lutes, lyres, and so forth found in tombs," Glass wrote. "To judge from that evidence, Egyptian music was soft, lyrical stuff. About funeral music, no mention is made at all. Thus the music I designed for the funeral of Amenhotep III in the opening scene of the opera does not resemble any funeral music I have ever heard before. The drumming that begins it, the flourishes for brass and winds and the emphatic entrance of the singing, give it a raw, primitive, quasi-military sound.

"In this music, coming as it does right after the Prelude to Act I, my idea was to give an unmistakable and clear image of how, at least in part, 'our' Egypt would be portrayed. By vividly portraying that world through the music, I hoped to set off the idealism of Akhnaten even more strongly. The blaring brass and pounding drums introduce the world into which Akhnaten was born.

"By contrast, the 'Hymn to the Sun' - the only text we had which may have been written by Akhnaten himself - occurs at the end of Act II and portrays, both musically and emotionally, the opposite end of the spectrum. Here Akhnaten, alone in the desert, sings a hymn to his god in words startlingly similar to the psalms of the Old Testament."

Akhnaten begins with a lengthy Prelude firmly rooted in A minor. The scoring is dark - because the Stuttgart opera house was being renovated, the premiere took place in a smaller theater and Glass eliminated violins to save space in the orchestra pit - and the Prelude builds gradually in powerful rhythmic and metrical elaborations until the scribe serving as a narrator intones ceremonial words that prepare us for the funeral of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's father. Glass has withheld the percussion until the funeral procession enters, accompanied by Amon Priests and Aye, the father of Nefertiti.

Act II presents scenes from Akhnaten's reign, including a love duet with Nefertiti, and the "Hymn to the Sun." Glass cast Akhnaten as a countertenor to emphasize the otherworldly individuality of the pharaoh in sound. This voice is almost always shadowed by solo trumpet.

In the final Act Akhnaten is overthrown. The military leader (and future pharaoh) Horemhab, Aye, and the Amon High Priest incite a mob, which bursts into the palace and carries off Akhnaten and his family.

In the restoration of polytheism, efforts were made to erase all trace of Akhnaten and his ideas. Only fragments remain, but Glass came to see that as an important metaphor for the opera, "that the missing pieces, far from needing to be filled in or explained, actually added to the mystery and beauty of our subject." When Glass explained this concept to historian Shalom Goldman, who helped compile texts for the libretto, Goldman exclaimed "Ah! Singing archaeology!"

- John Henken