Louis Andriessen discusses his new orchestral work Agamemnon, receiving its first performances in New York, London and Amsterdam to launch celebrations for his 80th birthday in 2019.
Agamemnon is only your second work in recent years for symphony orchestra. How did this surprise return to orchestral composition come about?
My generation of Dutch composers had a real problem, not with the classical orchestra, but the apparatus that surrounded it, particularly in Amsterdam. It was a conservative world, averse to risk, and we tried to break away from this from the 1960s through to the '90s, using pop, jazz and instruments alien to the orchestral world. But things eventually changed with a new generation of orchestral administrators who were open to our ideas, and orchestral musicians who were more comfortable playing Steve Reich and Phil Glass. When the Concertgebouw asked me to write Mysteriën in 2013, I heard the voice of my father saying “Louis, you should do this now”. Mysteriën was a philosophical and mystical work, but I’d also had for a long time the idea of a war-like piece, full of fast music and nervous terror, which became Agamemnon, written for the New York Philharmonic and its new Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden.
You’ve drawn Agamemnon from the Iliad. What continues to attract you to Greek mythology?
I’m interested in how mythology is constructed and how that can be mirrored in music. It’s not the specific story or setting, which could be in Japan as much as in ancient Greece. It’s how the author creates the fantasy with all its levels and references. There are theories that Homer’s Iliad was assembled by multiple writers, so you’ve already got an argument of voices going on. The greatest example of a musical construction of a mythology is how JS Bach built a musical world to reflect his Christianity, with all its symbolism, ciphers and games. In more modern times Stravinsky explains how best to deal with mythology.
How do you view the person of Agamemnon? He often gets a bad press.
Well it’s true that he’s often viewed as a villain and he was certainly a brutal warrior and a womanizer, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in a deal to get the right winds to sail to Troy. Yet he was an inspiring leader who was originally reluctant to go to war and only agreed to support his younger brother Menelaus, whose wife Helen had been abducted by a Trojan prince. I don’t want to pass judgement on Agamemnon because he lived in a very different moral world to ours, where the humans – particularly their leaders – were largely puppets of the Gods. I think of him as a double character, part good guy and part bad guy, so interesting because he is like a lot of us.
You list the cast of Agamemnon at the front of the score. How do they act out the drama?
It’s not a literal drama depicting specific scenes in the narrative. It’s more an interplay of characters, who are distinct but can also be grouped into the men – Agamemnon, Achilles and the seer Kalchas - and the women – the two daughters Iphigenia and Klytaimnestra and the Trojan prophetess Kassandra, daughter of the defeated Trojan king who was taken back to Greece as Agamemnon’s concubine. You might hear Achilles running around the battlefield one moment and then perhaps Iphigenia in a few quieter bars in B minor. And Kalchas is there arguing in declamatory music about the will of the Gods.
You’ve described the work as a symphonic poem. Were there particular models you had in mind, to follow or avoid?
I’d normally look for French models but Debussy and Ravel were too dreamy for a war piece driven by fierce energy. I heard Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel again after many years and, though I don’t generally respond to his German musical world, I found his piece very interesting for Agamemnon. It had the sudden film-like cuts from one scene to another and was quick-paced, like a cartoon film, with the characters running around the screen. It also had a naughty, subversive streak and an in-built unreliability of mood which was something I wanted to capture.
How do you balance the mythic and the modern in your music and the soundworld for Agamemnon?
I don’t worry about an authenticity of style – trying to create a historic ancient Greek music. We can never know, so any attempt would be artificial. I always remember when I was a young composer and was worrying about style, my father said to me “Just do it, and you will find your own voice”. It is just the same with Bach and Stravinsky – they created their own language as a personal construct of what was around them. Though Agamemnon is for symphony orchestra, the scoring is slanted to my personal soundworld with some typical Andriessen additions: soprano sax, two pianos either side of the conductor, electric guitar, bass guitar and drum kit. This allows enough martial brutality.
You’ve composed extensively for the stage, from incidental music, through danceworks to full-evening opera. Is all your music, in some sense, theatrical?
It is true up to a point but I see a clear division between pieces that have singers and those that don’t. If there are singers you need texts and this fundamentally changes the nature of the piece and how you approach it. Early in my career I wrote a lot of theatre music, which had to be composed quickly and required spontaneity. This seemed a long way from concert music, which required extended periods reading books and meticulous care, and often ended up being slow in composition and performance. My generation had a challenge in how to create genuine fast music, in the era of Boulez and Stockhausen. I thought there had to be a compromise between these two approaches, fast and slow, and this was why I decided to compose De Staat. Looking back, it was a very good decision, showing me the way forward.
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2018
Agamemnon (2017) 20’
Commissioned by The New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, Music Director
With the generous support of the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music
4-6 October 2018 (world premiere)
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden
16 January 2019 (European premiere)
Royal Festival Hall, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
19 January 2019 (Dutch premiere)
Zaterdag Matinee series
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
> Further information on Work: Agamemnon
Photo: Francesca Patella
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