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Composed: 1999
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd & 4th = piccolos), 4 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st = piccolo trumpet), 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, field drums or tom-toms, rattle, rototoms, snare drum, tam-tam with rubber ball, temple bells, tenor drums), harp, piano, strings, chorus, and solo mezzo-soprano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Prophets had better be historians. As one of six composers invited by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic to provide “messages for the millennium,” for performance on the eve of 2000, Adès turned his gaze from a thousand years ahead to five hundred back, and looked for his message in the events of the Spanish conquest of the Maya in the Yucatan peninsula. A benign civilization, living in harmony with nature, was destroyed by looters. Or, looking at the case differently, a people in bondage to priests and princes was liberated to join the modern world of advancing knowledge, technology, and self-determination.

Music can have it both ways, and Adès’s does. The Maya music of America: A Prophecy, as it first appears, is both blissfully simple – a rotating pattern of three, then four notes – and constricted, dogged, numbed in sensibility. As it changes and develops, it maintains this duality, becoming at once exuberant and a stern exercise in control. Similarly, the Spanish music, when it bursts in halfway through, after forewarnings, abound not only with bellicosity but with a wild, free excitement, pushing up into the flamboyant decorations, for three trumpets, one of them small, extra-high.

This whole passage is based on an ensalada (a musical salad of popular melodies) entitled La Guerra, written by the Spanish composer Mateo Flecha, quite possibly at the very time, the 1530s-40s, when the Maya were being subdued-released. The militant Christianity of the choir’s text comes from the same source. But while Adès lets the words speak (or sing) for themselves, he sets the music prismatically, bending rhythms and harmonies, adding whole new sways of texture, and making his own edit that includes one incursion of Maya music.

One of the ironies of the piece is that there is no real Maya music to be quoted – not only because the Spanish did everything they could to obliterate everything Mayan but because there was no musical notation before they came. Words, though, did survive, passed down and copied through the centuries, and these, from the books of the chilam balam (jaguar seers), provide Adès with the text for his mezzo-soprano’s prophecy-lament. She sings like a seer indeed, mostly in slow, sure phrases in the strong middle register, increasing in speed only as she registers alarm that “they will come” (words to which she takes up the initial Maya motif). Her song could well be the sacred chant of a lost culture: it leans towards old modes, with a flavor of B Dorian early on, and yet ensconces itself comfortably in the rainbow world of Adès’s harmony.

So does the Maya music of the introduction. This wobbling, warbling iteration is soon embraced in – and part of – a forest polyphony, between a bass line that develops into a hubbub in the low wind and a high treble, traced overhead (to quote another Adès title) by piano with string harmonics. As all these things collide and set up interference patterns, in between breaks for the voice, marches of downward chords join in, until the whole hyper-alive texture vanishes up into a counterpoint of camel bells. A second section – the dream sequence – starts with wide-oscillating flutes and slow contrapuntal streams, like currents in a sluggish river, of which the voice becomes one. Then, as the singer exactly repeats ‘O my nation’, intimations of the Spanish music lead up to the full-scale musical battle alla Flecha, after which destruction is graphically portrayed in the musical imagery and in the shredding of the Maya ostinato. There follows, as a separate movement, what is both elegy and hard awakening. Instruments partly echo the singer’s beautiful melody, as if trying to imitate it and not getting it quite right, until trumpets triumphantly take it over. Finally comes the singer’s rueful assurance that “ash feels no pain,” and the chilling of ember to ash in four final chords.

Paul Griffiths is the author of several books on music, including The Penguin Companion to Classical Music and The Substance of Things Heard: Writings about Music.