Philip Glass: Prelude to Akhnaten (1987)

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Akhnaten is the third in Philip Glass's trilogy of portrait operas about historical figures. The first, Einstein on the Beach was an obscure meditation on the scientist that played the Metropolitain Opera in 1976 and the second Satyagraha (1979) was based on events in the life of Gandhi. Glass sees these three as responsible for major paradigm shifts in their fields during their age, to quote Glass: "Einstein - the man of science; Gandhi - the man of politics; Akhnaten - the man of religion."

Akhnaten, originally named Amenhotep IV, was a pharoah of Egypt during its eighteenth dynasty. He ruled from roughly 1353 - 1336 BC. His queen was the famous Nefertiti and his son was said to be the enigmaticKing Tut. During his life, Akhnaten instituted reforms to the traiditonal Egyptian polytheism, promoting a change to a religion primarily based around worship of the sun god, Aten. Akhnaten's reforms were not long-lived and after his death the cult of the sun set. In the subsequent dynasty, Akhnaten's name would be discredited and wiped from temple carvings.
Glass's opera Akhnaten is not a story opera, but rather presents fragments from the life of the emperor that taken together present a portrait. The first act depicts Akhnaten's rise to the throne, the second, the changes resulting from his relgious reforms, and the third, his fall and death. Much of the opera uses texts from Akhnaten's period and is sung in the original languages of the era: Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew.

Things to Note
The Prelude to the opera sets the stage for the events of Akhnaten's succession to the throne. The mood is set through an unremiting A minor tonality and a dark sounding orchestra missing violins. The texts spoken are Old Kingdom pyramid texts. Glass livens up the prelude by shifting the metrical feel several times. Thus, at the begining of the prelude we hear repeating groups of four pitches arpeggiating an A minor chord. After 16 groups of four, Glass shifts his grouping to groups of three, keeping the tempo of the individual notes the same. In the second variation he shifts from groups of four notes to groups of six notes while maintaining the same quarter-note pulse. In this way, the listener feels the music speeding up and slowing down.

Philip Glass (1937 - )
Photo by Steve Pike
Listening Chart
A dark mood, A minor arpeggiated chord theme
Shift in beat - two versus three polyrhythm is set up
Return to original figure
Winds enter, activity increases.
Brass enter; A variation with syncopated rhythm and new harmonic progression
A variation on the variation - a new harmonic progression
Return to original figure in octaves
Another variation, some of the ideas we've heard before return. Focus on low brass.
Return to original figure
Amenhotep speaks over the music: Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts...
Return to original figure


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