Christmas Offering: Adams/Hoyland

Christmas Polyptych, Francis Hoyland, 1961
El Niño
John Adams

I studied this piece for a semester as an undergraduate in Westmont in Form and Analysis. I quickly learned that it had nothing to do with weather patterns and most everything to do with American composer John Adams' (b. 1947) desire to make his own Handel's Messiah. The lengthy, two-part piece is a patchwork of texts including the Bible, Gnostic Gospels, Spanish Poetry, Hildegard of Bingen, and Middle English mystery plays. The strong Hispanic influence gives it a raw and fervid religiosity and mysticism and poetry by women highlight the miraculousness, pain, subjectivity, life/death of birth. Musically Adams uses minimalistic devices with changing but organic rhythms, a plethora of interesting percussion, and the alien sound of three countertenors for the angel Gabriel and elsewhere. One of my favorite parts is The Babe Lept in Her Womb from Part I, the piece right before a rendition of the Magnificat. At the end of the class we were able to watch a live performance of this piece in Disney Hall in Los Angeles with Dawn Upshaw as the soprano, Esa Pekka Salonen conducting, and the composer himself appearing for the applause at the end. I sat in a balcony for Part I next to an old woman who was not at all pleased that this wasn't Beethoven, but with an excellent view of the percussion section, and got into the first row for Part II!

British painter Francis Hoyland (b. 1930) was inspired by the narrative power of Renaissance Italian painting, especially when presented as a series. He is currently working on a Life of Christ project which is projected to contain some 91 paintings. The Christmas Polyptych reminds me of John Adams' El Niño in the patchwork format, switching from one idea and century to another. It also has a kinship through the shared hatred of war which Adams brings to life with Memorial de Tlatelolco and In the Day of the Great Slaughter from Part II, depicting the Slaughter of the Innocents. Peace in this painting seems focused by Mary's gaze on the lamp hanging from the ceiling. It is a somewhat lonely and fragile hope, surrounded by human woes. Jesus, Mary, and sleepy Joseph are the only ones who are not fleeing. Strangely powerful.

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