Arcadiana was commissioned by the Endellion Quartet and premiered at the Cambridge Elgar Festival in 1994 (and subsequently recorded by that ensemble on Adès’ EMI Debut disc). The sixth of these seven nostalgic homages, “O Albion,” is a slow, hushed hymn very like Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, and in the same key (E-flat). There is no direct quotation in these miniatures, but rather a remembrance of things past or imaginary. All of the even-numbered movements, it has been noted, relate to land or lands, and the odd ones to water in various forms.
The first of the “water” movements, “Venezia notturna,” is a mysterious night, slipping in and out of sly references, with plunking pizzicato punctuations and the suggestion of a rocking gondola. The third movement, “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” takes its title and abstracted figuration from Schubert’s famous song. The muted, gracefully dancing fifth movement, “L’embarquement,” refers to Watteau’s painting L’embarquement pour Cythère (Cythera was the mythological birthplace of Venus), as well as to music by Adès’ beloved Couperin. Lethe, in the seventh movement, is the river of forgetfulness in Hades (which is sometimes spelled without the ‘H’ – Ades), and the music is a haunted reminder of how serial techniques can suggest tonality – or perhaps the reverse.
The first “land” movement, referring to The Magic Flute and in particular the sacred grove, is high drama in more ways than one, with intimations of the Queen of the Night and of Papageno’s bells. The title, “Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön,” are lines the comic villain Monostatos sings when he is bewitched by Papageno’s magic bells and releases Papageno and Pamina from their very brief captivity. For the fourth movement, “Et in Arcadia ego” (usually translated as “Even in Arcadia I [death] exist”) is the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin, the better-known of which, in the Louvre, figures in the creative history of The Da Vinci Code. The dark fierce “tango mortale” suggests Carmen and, again, death, with the same sort of ambiguous irony. The sixth movement, as noted above, refers to England and Elgar with great affection (also suggesting, in key and slow, expressive poignancy, the Cavatina of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130).
— John Henken