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Garden of Eden and Paradise fires are inspiration for new work by Yale composer

The Garden of Eden, ca 1611.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections
Getty Images
The Garden of Eden, ca 1611.

This Sunday, the Yale Schola Cantorum will perform the world premiere of “Edensongs,” a new work by Yale professor and composer Aaron Jay Kernis. As the title suggests, the work draws on a range of depictions of the Garden of Eden. Poet and Yale lecturer Peter Cole wrote the libretto, borrowing from a number of sources, including poetry by Rumi, Paul Celan and St. Francis of Assisi.

For both Kernis and Peter, the Garden of Eden represents a concern and care for the earth.

“Eden represents our garden, which is the earth, and where we live, and what we must take care of,” Kernis said. “That really comes into play in many, many ways in the text. It was woven very beautifully, not only with Peter’s own voice, but with the poetry of others in the piece.”

Kernis’ work is an oratorio, a 16th- and early 17th-century Baroque form of music that tells a story through a mix of choral works, instrumental movements, as well as solo voice arias and recitatives. Kernis says that his fascination with Baroque instruments and musical forms inspired the work.

“There’s a lot of chorale-prelude going on, and arias, some Baroque figuration, but it’s really hidden within my own language,” said Kernis. “I did a lot of concentrated listening to Baroque instruments and instrumentation, to get accustomed to what those instruments can do, and then I proceeded to break the rules and do things the instruments can’t do.”

Kernis said musically, “Edensongs” begins as a lush, unspoiled paradise, but the mood takes a dark turn in the 4th movement.

“It was influenced very much by the fires in Paradise, California. There’s an irony between the paradise we were presenting in the garden, and then what happened in California, so things grow very quickly into a very dark, fiery and conflicted place.”

Along with the world premiere of “Edensongs,” Sunday’s 5 p.m. concert at Yale’s Woolsey Hall also includes works by Amy Beach and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Note: The Yale Institute of Sacred Music is a funder of Connecticut Public.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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