Claude Vivier's Orion is at last receiving its UK premiere at the Proms, conducted by Charles Dutoit. From the commentary, it's being presented as a kind of upmarket Star Wars to fit the theme of astronomy. Which is a real pity, as Orion stems from a much larger, much more radical work, Vivier's opera Kopernickus.
It's poignant that Vivier is still so unknown in the UK. He was an extremely influential figure, but most famous in the popular imagination for writing a piece which was found on his desk, possibly incomplete, after he was murdered in exactly the way described in the song. But Glaubst du an der Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) is a masterpiece whatever the circumstances around it. Obviously there's no connection between the song and Vivier's death, but since when was fate logical?
That's an idea to bear in mind when listening to Vivier's music. Rêves d’un Marco Polo is an Opus Arte DVD, so it's more widely available than a lot of recordings of Vivier's music. It's an "Opéra fleuve in deux parties" . Part one is the opera Kopernickus, while part two is a programme of various Viver works, including Glaubst du, performed as a group in a staging directed by Pierre Audi, filmed at the Holland Festival in 2004. This was a hugely important concert for it put Vivier on the map. The notes say the two parts fit together "like shadow and light, forming a dreamlike ritualistic experience". Whatever, but it's certainly interesting, and the performances are extremely good - the Asko and Schönberg Ensembles, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and including excellent singers. Also included is a documentary about Vivier's life, and how it pertains to his music. Vivier was a loner, something of a Marco Polo, who ventured into territories still unexplored.
In Kopernickus a woman named Agni (Susan Narucki) enters a mysterious landscape. A strange man speaks about a melody, more tender than a mother's caress, which will reveal a new dawn , where the sadness - and evil - of this world will be forgotten in "the dreams of the night that is over". Like Alice in Wonderland, Agni is on a journey where she meets strange and wondrous ideas, expressed in musical references. "Visionaries of all times, gather together !" These encounters are not at all literal, as they're introduced by figures dressed in similar costumes. But that's the point, I think, you don't know who's really significant til they're gone.
Orchestral players walk around the stage, painted, masked and costumed like the singers and actors, further integrating the music into the whole. They weave their way through the action – each soloist a "player" in every sense. It's odd, but once you get used to the strangeness it starts to feel real. It's surreal, and faintly ludicrous, but it's meant to confound, to make you lose your bearings. The strange man whom Agni thought was Lewis Carroll starts to expound crackpot theories of the universe. Logic has no more meaning here than the physics of time and space. Sometimes invented words replace language altogether.
"We shall see God!" the voices sing and Agni looks transfixed by something we can't see, the strange man waving his hands behind her head like wings, or an aura. It's an image that keeps recurring, sometimes as subtle as blinking. Once you divest yourself of the usual signposts of literal meaning, Kopernikus comes together in a magical way. Musically this is a marvel, long swaying arcs of sound, trumpets, flutes, profound clarinet, mad violins. Audi's staging and choreography - the best way to describe the complex interactions between people and objects in stage - is wonderfully inventive and expands detail in the music. In the film we see important close-ups, like a man listening to a long tube into which a clarinet is played. It's a powerful image conveying the idea of sound travelling distances through different dimensions, which in many ways is what the whole opera is about.
Gradually it dawns on Agni that she's not dreaming at all, but in another plane of reality, vaguely sinister. A trumpet calls out and Claron McFadden appears on high, a rope around her neck. An indication perhaps of what has brought Agni to this strange place. Not for nothing Vivier subtitled this work Opéra rituel de mort. It's not a fantasy game, but a solemn and purposeful progression, despite the hallucinatory quality of the images. Suddenly the bird-like masks of the players falls into place. In Egyptian ritual, bird spirits accompany the soul on its transition to death. As Pierre Audi says in his notes, this is "the closest music theatre has come to the medieval mystère, a form that is able to stretch from deep meditation to the extreme grotesque". Brian Ferneyhough goes on to do something similar in his astounding opera Shadowtime.
Hence the figures who chant about "monks who abandon themselves to mystic rituals in secret". Agni proceeds roward the "purifying waters" of a river that marks some kind of major divide, a clear reference to the River Styx. As she approaches, she "sees" "Herr Mozart" and asks him if it's true that on the other side there is music so beautiful that even gods and angels swoon. Do people communicate by music, the "songs of all of the people of all dimensions are in harmony with cosmic rhythms". It's enticing: Agni imagines she'll be able to dance from "galaxy to galaxy".
Now individual concerns don't matter. The strange man sings "Truth is not to be found in short term things but in ideas. Uppermost is the idea of good". He gathers up the Christmas lights that amused Agni for a while: brightly coloured bulbs, not the idea Christmas commemorates.
"You shall hear Orion's music", the voices sing as Agni, transfixed, listens to trumpets heard from a distance, and sees the heavens revealed as the gates of Paradise are thrown open. The strange man tells of philosophers and astronomers of the past, and their contribution to knowledge and the mysteries of the universe. It's a procession from the ancient past towards greater wisdom, and a procession Agni is about to join. She heads offstage. leading the singers and musicians behind her in solemn single file. They head into the auditorium, into the darkness and beyond. You hear echoes of the music from afar. Then Agni runs back, to check on the strange man, but he slams the book he was reading from at the beginning. No more answers. The last image is Agni's face, deep in shock.
Of course as a stand alone, Orion works as beautifully vivid music, conducted with authority by Charles Dutoit who premiered it years ago and knows why Vivier is such an important composer. It's published as a completely independent orchestral work, but both Orion and Kopernickus were written at the same time (1979) and there's a great deal of quite explicit overlap, the same material being used in both, even the faint chorus "Die-u, Die-u". the Middle Ages, astronomy was a dark art, only slightly more respectable than alchemy, so Copernicus was lucky he wasn't born earlier, wen his ideas might have been thought heresy. So it's useful to think of Orion in the context of Kopernickus, as it gives it greater resonance and opens up windows on Vivier's work. "Opening the curtain", as the strange man said at the beginning. Vivier is very profound, deeply interesting: and he died aged only 34.
I wonder whether Stockhausen heard Orion ? He knew who Vivier was, for sure. Vivier went to Europe, hoping to study with him, but Stockhausen could not stand the guy and took him on in sufferance. Yet Vivier had his head in the stars just as Stockhausen did, except Vivier didn't believe for a moment he came from them, and had much more literary and cultural underpinnings. Listen to Stockhausen's Michaels-Abschied from his LICHT cycle. Trumpeters sound out from way on high, the sounds they make arching into the heavens. Orion got there first.
When i get time I'll write about the second disc on the Opus Arte DVD which has other Vivier treasures like Wo bist du, Licht, the Lonely Child, Zipangu and the masterpiece Glaubst du an der Unsterblckheit der Seele. There is a lot that could be said and needs saying but another time. Please come back to this site, subscribe and bookmark for more ! (Lots here too on Gerard Grisey and others influenced by Claude Vivier)