This Same Light
This Same Light was composed for a concert program called “Tracing a Line,” which premiered at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2013. This evening-length program, conceived by violinist Keir GoGwilt, director Victoria Crutchfield, and myself, follows the course of a single melody through four centuries of music history.
The melody in question was written by the 17th-century German composer Johannes Ahle for a chorale called “Es ist genug.” In the next century, J.S. Bach “borrowed” (and reharmonized) this chorale for the finale of his Cantata BWV 60, “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort.” The melody appears again in the finale of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, when – after a huge orchestral cataclysm – it surfaces like a hymn remembered from childhood.
This is an unusual melody. It begins with three consecutive ascending whole steps – a gesture which outlines a tritone. The chorale’s first words are “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”), words called out to God by a soul who is ready for death. But the piquancy of the opening harmonic gesture lends these words an inescapable air of uncertainty, of doubt, perhaps of a lingering longing for the human world.
I was fascinated by the evolution of this chorale’s meaning throughout its history: the original Ahle chorale is a fairly straightforward piece of music, in spite of its harmonic pungency, but Bach complicates matters by placing it at the end of a long dialogue between Hope and Fear. Hope wins out, but the victory is hard-won. In Berg, this innocent death-readiness seems a distant memory, an inaccessible sensation: the melody wafts up like smoke after a catastrophic explosion, far from the world of the rest of the concerto. In other words, this chorale evolves from Ahle’s innocent expression of faith to Bach’s hard-won affirmation to Berg’s remembered innocence, wordless and distant, yet present.
"But the piquancy of the opening harmonic gesture lends these words an inescapable air of uncertainty, of doubt, perhaps of a lingering longing for the human world."
I wanted to try my hand at integrating this melody into a new piece of music, and This Same Light opens with a new harmonization of the chorale’s first chords. Ahle, Bach, and Berg all used this music to explore the question of what is “enough,” what suffices in this life before we are ready to move on to whatever is next, and each came up with a different answer. In the 21st century, the answer was bound to be different yet again – I’ll leave it to the listener to figure out what mine is! It might be useful to know, however, that I took inspiration from the final lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”: “Out of this same light, out of the central mind, / We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.”