Commissioned by Eric Owens for The Crossing, Donald Nally, conductor, The Consolation of Apollo premiered at Princeton University, Wolfensohn Hall, on October 10th and 11th, 2014, and at The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, on October 12th.
When he approached me with the idea that became The Consolation of Apollo, The Crossing’s conductor Donald Nally had been looking for a companion piece to David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. They had been performing it since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and were looking for a work, that, with the Lang, would comprise an evening’s concert. So, along with an otherwise unaccompanied chorus I used some of the percussion and, significantly, the context of Christmas from the Lang work.
The spine of Apollo is Nally’s vision for some use of the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast by the crew of Apollo 8, as they became the first astronauts to leave Earth’s orbit, circle the moon, and photograph the entire Earth. With the transcript of their communications I interspersed selections from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (480–524).
Philosopher, Christian apologist, and translator of Aristotle, Boethius was one of the greatest thinkers and authors prior to the Middle Ages, combining Classical thought and theology. In the Consolation he considers good and evil, our place in creation and on fortune’s wheel, and, at times, Apollo (Phœbus), the mythical charioteer of the sun. A consul to the Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric, he wrote this while imprisoned by Theodoric, who suspected him of treason, as Boethius attempted to improve relationships with Constantinople. Boethius was executed shortly after completing the Consolation.
The Consolation is not overtly Christian and mentions God, as a higher power, only briefly. In this it is a cousin to the Seneca texts I set in The Waking Sun, also composed for The Crossing. In my selections from Boethius, I attempted to highlight his appreciation of myth, but also his judgment of it as inadequate. The compelling translation/adaptation attributed to King Alfred has the rhythmic and imaginitive power of Beowulf. It and the lyrical James and Cooper translations provide textured counterpoint to the Apollo 8 transmissions.
That 1968 Christmas Eve television broadcast famously (and in some quarters, infamously) included the recitation by the astronauts of the first ten verses of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth….” This text is mixed together with the prosaic chatter among the crew and Houston as they position the craft for what are now the iconic photos of Earth.
The setting of the prose was the tallest musical hurdle for me, as I wanted to convey the informal, even chaotic quality of the speech without sacrificing lyricism. The model that offered a solution was the sung Passion, where three singers of different ranges portray Christ, the narrator, and the crowd. I assigned Commander Frank Borman to the basses, Command Module Pilot James Lovell to the tenors, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders to the altos. Astronaut Ken Mattingly, on the support team in Houston, is voiced together by the altos, tenors, and basses.
The distance and low-quality sound of the transmission was something I wished to approximate. I was unwilling to use percussion for this purpose mainly because of the length of the text, as percussion quickly tires the ears. After rejecting some vocal techniques, I decided to employ the sopranos in a halo of pre- and post-echoes of the lower three voices.
In the Genesis reading the lower three sometimes switch this sonic role with the sopranos. Again, a hurdle in Genesis 1 is the length of a not obviously musical text. One technique I used—interesting to me, anyway, as I don’t believe I’ve used it before—is bitonality, or the sounding of two tonal centers at the same time, the idea coming from the description of God’s dividing the light from darkness, and the firmament from the waters. At one point the women are in one key, the men in another; or I combine the sopranos and basses in one key, and the altos and tenors in another.
The bass drum drives the rhythm here and there, and the crotales are mostly simple—even simplistic—bell-like heralds of the astronauts, resolving into an evocation of the sincerest of wishes for a Merry Christmas for all. This, I believe, is the emotional center of the piece.
The Consolation of Apollo
SATB, Crotales, Bass Drum, 35′
1. Thou may’st know, if thou wilt notice
from Metres of Boethius, XXXI. Adapted by King Alfred the Great (849-899) from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (480-524), and translated by Walter John Sedgefield, 1900.
Thou may’st know, if thou wilt notice,
That many creatures of various kinds
Fare over earth with unlike motions,
With gait and colour quite diverse,
And aspects also of endless kinds,
Queer and common. Some creep and crawl
With all their body bound to the ground;
No wings them help; on feet they walk not,
Nor pace the earth, as was them appointed.
Some on two feet fare o’er the ground,
Some are four-footed; some in flight
Wing ’neath the clouds. Yet each creature
Is drooping earthward, stooping downward,
On the ground looking, longing for earth.
Man only goeth of all God’s creatures
With gait upright, gazing upwards.
This is a token that he shall turn
His trust and his mind more up than down,
To the heavens above, lest he bend his thoughts
Like beasts earthward. It is not meet
That the mind of a mortal should remain below
While his face he holdeth up to heaven.
2. Yes, it’s beautiful
The crew of Apollo 8, December 24th, 1968
Borman: How’s that steam pressure, Bill?
Anders: It isn’t even boiling yet. Yes, we just started.
Borman: Here it comes!
Borman: Oh boy!
Lovell: Get a good shot of her?
Borman: Yes, see it?
Lovell: Well, keep the camera there. Keep the camera.
Anders: Here it comes. Here it comes. But you’re not on yet. You got it…you got to do something. Pitch up or yaw.
Borman: Yaw right?
Anders: Yaw right.
Lovell: Oh, Jesus.
Lovell: Houston, Apollo 8.
Anders: Roll her a little bit. Roll her a little bit to the…to the right.
Lovell: Here, you want me to fly it just to come a…
Anders: That one’s got it, the roll. Yes, yes. It’s the roll that’s got it. Roll right, if you can.
Lovell: We’re rolling.
Anders: Come on, gang.
Lovell: We’re going to radial out. Are we…you got her coming up? You see her, Frank?
Borman: Yes, it’s beautiful.
3. Wings are mine
The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 4, Song 1. Boethius, trans. H. R. James, 1897
Wings are mine; above the pole
Far aloft I soar.
Clothed with these, my nimble soul
Scorns earth’s hated shore,
Cleaves the skies upon the wind,
Sees the clouds left far behind.
Soon the glowing point she nears,
Where the heavens rotate,
Follows through the starry spheres
Phœbus’ course, or straight
Takes for comrade ’mid the stars
Saturn cold or glittering Mars;
Thus each circling orb explores
Through Night’s stole that peers;
Then, when all are numbered, soars
Far beyond the spheres,
Mounting heaven’s supremest height
To the very Fount of light.
There the Sovereign of the world
His calm sway maintains;
As the globe is onward whirled
Guides the chariot reins,
And in splendour glittering
Reigns the universal King.
Hither if thy wandering feet
Find at last a way,
Here thy long-lost home thou’lt greet:
‘Dear lost land,’ thou’lt say,
‘Though from thee I’ve wandered wide,
Hence I came, here will abide.’
Yet if ever thou art fain
Visitant to be
Of earth’s gloomy night again,
Surely thou wilt see
Tyrants whom the nations fear
Dwell in hapless exile here.
4. The Sea of Tranquility
Lovell: Houston. Go ahead, go ahead.
Mattingly: Loud and clear and an initial look at your systems are good.
Anders: Houston, Apollo 8. Over.
Mattingly: We’ve got a picture, Apollo 8.
Anders: Roger. We’ve got the T…Roger. We’ve got the TV…
Lovell: Roll…roll left.
Borman: Roll left a little, can you?
Borman: Did he say it was a good picture?
Anders: How’s the picture look, Houston?
Mattingly: Loud and clear.
Anders: The TV look okay?
Mattingly: That’s very good.
Lovell: Welcome from the Moon, Houston.
Borman: And the world.
Mattingly: Thank you.
Anders: Is this our landing site we’re going over now?
Lovell: Yes, this is our landing site right down here.
Anders: We’re now going over our…
Lovell: Approaching our landing site.
Anders: …approaching one of our future landing sites…
Lovell: Right now.
Anders: …selected in this smooth region to…
Lovell: Called the Sea of Tranquility.
5. While the bright sun
Metres of Boethius, VI
While the bright sun most clear is beaming,
Gleaming in heaven, gloom enwrappeth
Over the world all other bodies;
For their light is nought, nothing at all,
When set against the sun’s great brightness.
When softly bloweth from south and west
The wind ’neath heav’n, then soon wax
The flowers of the field, fain to be able.
But the stiff storm-wind, when it strongly bloweth
From out of the north-east, how soon it nippeth
The rose’s beauty! By the northern blast
The spacious ocean is helpless spurned
Till strongly heaving it striketh the beach.
Alas, that in the world nothing weareth
Firm and lasting long on this earth!
6. In the beginning
Borman: Hey, why don’t we start reading that thing, and that would be a good place to end it.
Lovell: No, we’ve got to go into it very nicely. Why don’t we…as we go into sunset…
Lovell: …or is it sunrise? This is sunrise, yes. We’re approaching lunar sunrise.
Anders: We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, Let there be light. And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. And let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together into one place. And let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth. And the gathering together of the waters called he seas. And God saw that it was good.
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you…all of you on the good Earth.
7. The stars shine
Consolation, Book 3, Song 1, trans. W. V. Cooper, 1902
The stars shine with more pleasing grace when a storm has ceased to roar and pour down rain. After the morning star has dispersed the shades of night, the day in all its beauty drives its rosy chariot forth. So thou hast looked upon false happiness first; now draw thy neck from under her yoke: so shall true happiness come into thy soul.