Philip Glass: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Clouds darken the sky
The stars rain down
The constellations stagger
The bones of the hell hounds tremble
The porters are silent
When they see this king
Dawning as a soul

Such are the first words (from the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts) spoken by the Scribe in the prelude of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten. The setting for the immediately following Act I Scene 1 is the funeral of Amenhotep III, which contains two rousing pieces sung in ancient Egyptian. The opera includes a number of other pieces in Egyptian, as well as one in Akkadian (a section from Amarna Letter EA 288), and a few verses in Hebrew from Psalm 104, which naturally follow the end of the English translation of The Hymn to the Aten. Though many may find much of Glass’ work repetitious, it is much less so in this work than in others. In any case, the novelty of the ancient languages is just too much to pass up! In addition, the performance and recording are exquisite. I hadn’t listened to this in a long time before today, and had forgotten how enjoyable it is. It’s a two CD piece, with (at least in my old CBS Masterworks edition) a 93 page booklet with the credits, introduction, libretto and translations in German and French, performed by the Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Akhnaten was the third work in Glass’ Trilogy: Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980; depicting the life of Gandhi, with Sanskrit libretto), and Akhnaten (1984; it seems the boxed Masterworks edition is out of print; I don’t know what that Sony one is like).

Those of you teaching or learning Egyptian, Akkadian, or Hebrew could no doubt use parts of Akhnaten for counting some “ancient meets modern” classroom coup, I would think. The rest of us can just plain enjoy it!

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