Lera Auerbach ‘Icarus’: Scintillating Mythology

Good day, readers! We’ve come to Day 10 of the Female Fortnight Challenge! This is also my 70th blog on the site! Today we will be exploring a modern-day composer who I think is pretty incredible and her name is, Lera Auerbach. For this blog I will be looking into her symphonic poem Icarus. I do hope you enjoy this absolutely fantastic work and composer!

Lera Auerbach was born in 1973 in Chelyabinsk (a city that borders Siberia). Her mother was a piano teacher, so she received lessons from her at a young age. The Auerbach family have a history of being musical, so Lera was naturally a fast learner. She began composing at a very young age. After receiving the top music education in her home country, Auerbach went to The Julliard School, USA, where she studied composition and piano with Milton Babbitt. As well as this, she also graduated from the piano soloist program of the Hochschule fur Musik Hannover.

As well as making a performance career for herself, Auerbach also started to premiere her compositions. Her works have been commissioned by a wide-range of different artists, ensembles and companies, including the Berg Orchestra and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has also worked with festivals such as the Lucerne and Lockenhaus. Auerbach has composed in a variety of different styles which include orchestral symphonies, tone poems, ballets and operas. In 2007 her Symphony No.1 “Chimera” received its world premiere. In the same year she also premiered her Second Symphony as well as a collection of sacred texts entitled Russian Requiem. Most recently, Auerbach premiered her a capella ballet The Blind in 2013, which was controversial in its production as the entire audience were blindfolded.

At such a young age, Auerbach has won a menagerie of awards including the Paul Hindemith Prize and the Bremer Musikfest Prize. She was also, in 2007 (a big year for her it seems!), selected as a member of the forum of Young Global Leaders. Auerbach has also set up her own organisation called The LeraArt Foundation, which creates opportunities through its “Modern-Renaissance” projects.

Icarus was composed in 2006, and is actually composed of the last two movements of Auerbach’s Symphony No.1 “Chimera”. By taking these two movements out of context, Auerbach created the symphonic poem Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman, Daedalus (the creator of Labryrinth). Auerbach’s comment’s on this work in the program notes:

“What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly safely – there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses the question – from Deadalus’ point of view – how can one distinguish success from failure? Deadalus’ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly, was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Deadalus was brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not truly understand his child.”

The world premiere of Icarus was in 2011, and took place at the Verbier Festival. Since then the scaled-down work has been a raging success, receiving a lot of performances from various professional ensembles. The work is about 15 minutes long and the intense and explosive journey it takes you on is turbulent yet emotional.

The piece begins with a low burst of sound from the lower strings. Some are playing col legno, which means with the wooden side of the bow. This creates a banging sort of effect which, in turn, makes the music dramatic and very raw. There is a lot of frantic movement within the strings, which changes tempo into a more lyrical section. The chimes and other tuned percussion create a very creepy atmosphere here. The tempo is very quick and when the brass enter with their fanfare the effect is very tumultuous and thundery. The next section is very different, with the solo violin playing a variation of the theme and the other strings playing pizzicato. We are led into a more lyrical section once more, which has undertones of something (or someone!) very creepy. There is a climax which builds up to the initial theme being repeated again. The work is very powerful and mature for a composer of Auerbach’s age, which is something to relish in.

The next section is a downward spiral effect with the horns and strings. This whirling atmosphere is perhaps trying to tell us about the death of Icarus. The incredibly rich string writing is so very prominent within this work. The texture dissolves and we are left with a solo violin and flute, who are soon joined by other members of the orchestra. Still, the atmosphere is mysterious and quite bizarre. There is a section with voices and strings which reaches a fantastically strong and bold climax. The brass and col legno strings play off beats to represent some sort of distress. The upper strings reach their upper registers and this climax with the whole orchestra is spine tingling! The way that Auerbach writes so beautifully for a large orchestra is incredible and the way the atmosphere is kept so very mysterious is very clever. The lower brass take the lead here and the col legno strings really add a woody texture to the timbre of sound. The sound world that Auerbach creates with this section is very atmospheric.

We now move into a slower section, led by the strings playing a pizzicato motif. This section already feels slightly calmer, until the solo violin enters. There is a sense of doom I feel in this section, which is then taken over by the oboe and other instruments. The solo violin is playing all sorts of harmonics, which creates a squealing sort of sound. The sound creation is so mysterious and it is always unsure as to where it is going next. The sense of lost tonality is also a very interesting effect. This quieter section is very spatially aware of where the sound is heading to and what the effect may be. The use of extreme ranges also gives the timbre here a very unique sound. The work ends by dying away slowly with the sound of the strings. This ending makes me think that it may be representing the “beautiful death” of Icarus. It is incredibly woeful, with very dark undertones.

Icarus is an absolutely magnificent symphonic poem, which tells us about the Greek mythology of Icarus and his death. The work is powerful, dark, mysterious, tumultuous, beautiful and incredibly brave. Lera Auerbach is one of my favourite composers at the moment – her work is so very fulfilling. If you enjoyed this piece then check out her other compositions, she is such a talent! A terrifying musical triumph from life to death – bravo Auerbach! Tomorrow we are on Day 11 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, so I do hope you will all join me to see what female delight is next on my list!

Happy Reading!

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