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Jacob vs. Angel (2007)

 

For solo organ; premiered Sunday, May 20, 2007, 4:00 P.M. at Parish of All Saints Church, Ashmont in Dorchester, MA; Heinrich Christensen, organ; prelude to choral evensong as part of the American Guild of Organists Annual Meeting (Boston Chapter). Composed for Heinrich Christensen's summer 2007 concert tour of Denmark and Sweden.


 

Program notes from premiere:

Jacob vs. Angel is a piece about crisis of conscience, ambiguity, and misinterpretation expressed through the depiction of a major battle, the goal of which is never made entirely clear. Based on the biblical story, this solo organ work evolved from an idea for an oratorio. Composed as a vehicle for organist Heinrich Christensen, Jacob vs. Angel is an unusual collaboration between composer, performer, and librettist. Graham Gordon Ramsay originally conceived the work as an oratorio with text by Alice Flaherty. At the same time that Ramsay and Flaherty were discussing the libretto for the oratorio project, Christensen and Ramsay were planning the creation of a new solo organ work, one to be performed on a summer 2007 concert tour of Denmark and Sweden . The organ piece, too, began to revolve around the battle of Jacob and the angel. Composing for organ generated not only a piece in its own right, but also an opportunity to work out musical materials that would later expand into a full oratorio. For the solo organ work, Flaherty contributed six short stanzas, each reflecting the tone of the corresponding musical movement.

The piece is structured in six movements. The first movement introduces the main musical material--a five note motive, the intervals of which are reorganized to create melodic and harmonic development throughout the piece. Movements II., III., and IV. depict the battle and lead one to the next without pause. The fifth movement is about the post-battle scene, and the final movement is an epilogue, reframing the ideas from the previous movements. Highly programmatic, the music elucidates various actions from the Flaherty poem—sand skittering across the desert, aggressive acts of violence and sensuality between the protagonists, the beating of wings, the blowing of feathers, and even portions of dialogue. But beyond the music's more literal elements, the work is designed to express an abstract state of mind, a sense of unease, and anticipation of what is yet to come.

 

Text for Jacob vs. Angel by Alice Weaver Flaherty

I. East of Jordan

Jacob returned to Jordan
to ask for Esau's pardon.
He brought all his bleating flocks and wives.
Nearly there, he said,
"I want to be alone."
He paced among the hills.
It grew quiet.
Sand skittered on the ground.

 

II. Crash

At nightfall, with a crash,
Jacob was knocked flat.
It seemed to Jacob
that a thief should strike and go.
This one wanted more,
all of him.
Jacob fought with all his strength.
The robber pinned him easily.
Jacob was enraged; he kicked and bit.
The thief sat on his head. 

 

III. Fracture

The fight went on and on,
their bodies became slithery with sweat.
Where Jacob got his strength from, we don't know.
It seemed he might go on forever.
Finally, the assailant had enough,
and threw Jacob away.
Jacob heard his thigh bone snap,
and the assailant scream.   In sympathy?
What strange attack was this?
Jacob came back for more.

 

IV. Renamings

As the sky grew light
Jacob saw his rival had two wings--
an angel.
Even then, he didn't miss a beat.
He clasped the being in his arms,
and kicked it again.
Affliction is a blessing we don't part with lightly.
"Tell your name!" he said.
"No."
Tell it me!"
"No."
"Tell it me, tell it me!"
The angel chanted, "You must know your name first:
It is Israel."
Jacob was delighted.
He let the angel go and turned away.

 

V. Carnage of Feathers

Jacob said, "I will name this place:
Peniel , the face of God."
But when he turned to face the angel
it was gone.
Feathers like snow
blew down the valley in the wind.
Soon only sand was left.
Jacob's sweat cooled.
He shivered,
and limped away.

 

VI. Epilogue: The Ladder

What if Jacob hadn't struggled?
Perhaps the angel had not come to fight.
Afterwards, Jacob told his family
that his resistance was his strength,
his broken thighbone an anointment.
But in the angel's eyes,
it may have been that not esteem,
but sorrow,
made it give up.
We see Jacob's ladder every day,
and fight to stay below,
and then we make up stories
to explain why.