IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (used with permission)
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Each passing year, I find myself becoming increasingly fervent about our fragile environment, and as climate change is rapidly moving from an issue of political debate to obvious reality, this crucial issue seems to finally be gaining traction with the global community. Musically, my two greatest passions are the voice and the orchestra, and so I jumped at the opportunity to combine these forces in a work concerning the danger to the world we live in.
The impetus for “OZYMANDIAS To Sell a Planet” origianlly came from Michael Butterman, Music Director of the Boulder Philharmonic. From our discussions came the idea of setting the 19th century poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley, as well as experpts from the IPCC Climate Change report (and I admit that seemed like quite a challenge...). Further research led to a range of texts--from inspiring Native American speeches to Greta Thurnberg's passionate voice and the cold reality of the IPCC Climate Change report--all dealing with our understanding and treatment of the environment from different perspectives.
Structurally, there are five movements, all with text except the 3rd, which is orchestral only. The only somewhat unusual instrument is the alto saxophone, but of course there is a great tradition of using sax is classical music in special cases – Ravel did it brilliantly – and I love the color, plus the fact that it can suddenly turn to jazz on a dime. I like to think of the piece as an “environmental oratorio,” beucase of the forces—tenor, chorus and orchestra—and the dramatic metaphorical narrative. An oratorio is a dramatic work, usually for voices and orchestra, performed in concert without sets. We usually think of oratorios as being sacred, but there are many examples of secular ones, and I find it helpful looking at “Ozymandias” in this way. Let me explain why:
I. “The Spring is Come,” is for chorus and orchestra, and is a setting of a quote from the great Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux Nation, ca. 1877. The part I chose talks about the beauty and joy of the earth and all who live on it “...we therefore yield to our neighbors, even to our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land.” The speech actually continues in a very different tone, and is a call to the Sioux to take back the Powder River region (Montana and Wyoming) which had been given to them by the U.S. government, but was violently taken away once gold was discovered. However, its place here is the beauty of the earth from the perspective of the Native American's who honored and cared for it.
II. “The World is Too Much With Us” is for tenor and chorus, and is a setting of the English poet's sonnet of the same name, ca. 1802. Wordsworth wrote several sonnets exploring the theme of humanity becoming too materialistic and the need for a return to nature. It can be viewed as a metaphorical censure of the Industrial Revolution, and it does so very eloquently: “Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
III. “Migeloti” [pronounced ma-jee-l?-ta] is a Shawnee word that essentially means “disrespecting and destroying.” I found this word after quite a bit of searching, and ultimately speaking to George Blanchard, a language specialist and tribal elder of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, who works to promote and preserve the Shawnee language. You'll hear in the music a gradual build to an ecstatic climax, overlayed with a long and wild alto saxophone solo, which is partly improvised. You'll also hear several different parts from earlier in the movement, now superimposed on top of each other. I was thinking about “Le Valse” when I wrote this, Ravel's famous tone-poem about the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and similarly wanted to portray a decadent soeicty on the verge of collapse. After the “collapse” the music plunges down into the depths, leaving only the lowest instruments: contra bassoon, contra bass, and tuba.
IV. “Sell a Country?” is performed attacca, meaning there is no break between movements--the music keeps going from III to IV. Here we have chorus and orchestra and the text brings us to the present day. We've come from pre-industrial times, “The Spring is Come,” to the Industrial Revolution “The World is Too Much With Us,” to the 20th Century “Migeloti,” and finally to what's happening now. You'll hear spoken chorus initually with excerpts from the IPCC Climate Change Report, overlayed with sung snippets from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh's famous statement to Governer William Henry Harrison in 1810, popularly known as “Sell a Country!” As the music builds, you'll hear the spoken chorus evoke the words of Greta Thurnberg, the tennage Sweedish envirnomental activist, spoken to the United Nations in Septemember, 2019: “This is all wrong....I should be back in shool on the other side of the ocean...all you can talk about is money... how dare you!” Finally you will hear Tecumseh's great speech such in full chorus.
V. “Ozymandias” is Shelley's famous sonnet and a Greek name for Ramses II, Pharoh of Egypt. In 1817 the British Museum acquired a fragment of a statue of Ramses II, from the 13th Century, which inspired Shelley to write this poem about the ravages of time and the impermanence of the creations of humanity. “I met a traveller from an antique land, who said - “Two vast and trukless legs of stone stand in the dessert....” In our chronological oratorio, I see this as a post-apcalyptic warning: if we don't act now, look what will happen. It's also scored for chorus and tenor (and you will hear the chorus eerily echoing the words of Ozymandias in a whisper) and after a massive fugue, the music, like the poem, fades away like the blowing dust in the dessert – all that is left of our supposedly great monuments to power.
-Drew Hemenger, March 2019