EVE & ADAM Program Notes - Amelia LeClair
When I first heard Elena Ruehr’s Eve, as premiered by the Cantata Singers, I was captivated. I loved the beyond
gorgeous harmonies and rhythms, and was transfixed by Ruehr’s redaction of Genesis: the work ends not with the banishment
from the garden, but on the line just before the banishment: “And the eyes of them both were opened.” As Ruehr herself says: “In
a sense, [Eve] is choosing light over darkness, sight over blindness. It’s an astonishing idea.”
That our entire western culture has been built upon blaming a woman is a truth that has yet to be reckoned with. From it
has come our depressingly long and consistent history of accepting misogyny as norm. Our scientific process proves that
knowledge isn’t static, yet we hold to such misogynistic myths as the story of Adam & Eve as if they were absolute. Whole races,
genders, and nations have been and continue to be held hostage by the stories Westerners have invented to explain our universe.
Now we know, perhaps more than ever, that any story can become “truth” with enough telling.
But, Eve and Adam? Turning things upside down, inside out, or left to right tends to sharpen focus: if we take the
Mercator map and turn it upside down we are struck by the unfamiliar look of the earth’s oceans and continents, and have
difficulty naming countries. So it is with gender in our myths. Ruehr’s cantata begs the question: What if the story was different?
What if Eve was the central figure, who by daring to go against given precepts opened the door to knowledge, birthed a race of
enlightened beings with Adam, had daughters with him, begat generations? What sort of world would that be? In her humanist
outlook, Ruehr supposes that it might be a better one.
We at CC like to think that we have echoed the cries from the wilderness of women in music. Yet our standard bearer,
Hildegard von Bingen, one of the first known western composers, and a formidable one at that, presents us with a conflict: she
stands shoulder to shoulder with her male counterparts in soundly blaming the first woman for our human condition; in fact, for
Hildegard, Eve IS the central figure, who has laid upon her progeny the price of forbidden knowledge. And for Hildegard it took
yet another formidable woman, pure, virginal, yet motherly, to open her door and give forth her first born to be the final human
sacrifice; only then, she asserts, would we be able to retrieve the lost love of God.
Arvo Pärt’s Adam is a resounding but utterly sublime cry out of the depths, but this Adam is accountable, never
mentioning any woman, and taking the blame upon himself for all of humanity’s sins. Even when his son is murdered by his
other son, Adam understands it is he, by his disobedience, who is responsible because he has lost the love of God. His prophecy
for himself is harsh: “from me peoples and nations will descend and multiply…and they will seek to slay one another.” (Note that
depite references to multiplying there is no mention of a woman.) Written by St Silouan, a 19th century Russian Orthodox monk,
these words have lost no punch in our modern world. Pärt dedicates this work to Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), a disciple
of Silouan, who translated many of his writings. Pärt wrote, “I wanted to remain as close as possible to Silouan’s words and, as
far as I could, to entrust myself with them, to internalize them.”
In Soviet times, Pärt’s music was criticized because it was 12-tone, and he was censured, his music banned from
concert halls. He removed himself for a long period of study of medieval chant and renaissance polyphony, and emerged in 1976
with a new style which he called “Tintinabuli”, or the ringing of bells. It uses simple triads, broken apart. And as one must with
the ringing of bells, he allows space and time for the dissonances and the naturally occurring partials. This is glaringly evident in
the pizzicato section early on but also in the occasionally spare accompaniment in the strings: in measures of 3 beats each, only
one instrument plays each beat. It is sublimely simple. Pärt also likes to break up his melodies as though they were relays: one
voice carries the melody to another voice.
Pärt has been called a minimalist, and has often been accused of writing for a sort of global religion with only a vague
mystical quality offensive to none. But his sound is steeped in the Russian Orthodox tradition he grew up in, and in the church
Slavonic language of that tradition, which to my mind exudes a deep personal and spiritual longing. It resonates so because we
are all aware of our human condition, that we will always, in Silouan/Adam’s words, “seek to slay one another.”
Elena Ruehr’s musical sense seems to me to explode out of her life as a dancer. She writes rhythms within rhythms, always
surprising, physical, and joyous. Her love of, and knack for, melody is manifest as beautiful lines soar over inner voices churning
away in different keys and hidden rhythms. Her melody for the snake is appropriately serpentine, and for Eve is soaring and
righteous. In one section Ruehr plays with Pärt’s signature tintinabuli by breaking up her chords into bits as Pärt does: in
measures of 3 only one instrument plays each beat, like bells ringing. Ruehr is the absolute maestra of string writing: her many
stunningly beautiful string quartets are a testment to that, and this writing here is no exception. As “Eve” began, it ends on an
ambiguous chord, and lets the big question of our humanity hang in the air. It is breathtaking.
Ruehr herself describes “EVE”:
When I was about 14 or 15, I decided, despite my atheist upbringing, to read the Bible from beginning to end. I read
through Genesis 3, and was suddenly struck by a thought “Eve invented consciousness!” I remember writing about it in my
journal, and being completely captivated by the idea. Then I kept reading, and alas, I never finished. But the moment of
inspiration stayed with me all these years.
Pondering this old idea of mine, I decided that perhaps a cantata about Eve would be a good idea. I researched some
literature and found, as far as I could tell, and unbelievably, that no famous cantatas are dedicated to Eve (I could be wrong
about this!). Then I went about a rather circuitous course of looking for modern poetry that described the Eve story as I
remembered it from my youth. I found many interesting poems, but nothing that captured that original idea. So I went to the
source and pulled out my King James, and read Genesis 3. What I found was an amazing cantata waiting to be written.
For me, the most important part of this text is to stop where I do…mid sentence, before Eve is cast out of Eden. When
the text stops here, the exact idea of my understanding of Eve, in all her complexity, is realized. I think, according to this text,
that Eve chooses to embrace knowledge, the arts, science, language, even though God forbids it. She chooses consciousness over
protection. It’s an astonishing idea.
In my cantata, I try to tell the story in a straightforward manner. References to older cantatas are abundant: the use
of soloists and chorus in counterpoint; the way the final line “And the eyes of them both were opened” is used in extended
canonic treatment recalls such great works as the “Alleluia Chorus” from Messiah; or any choral work that dwells on an idea or
My cantata opens with mystery and ends with a question: are we better off out of the garden? Are we still
experiencing the fall? Sometimes I think, with climate change in mind, that the fall is still in progress, and that our own
consciousness and knowledge is the agent of our being cast out of the garden of earth. But my ending question might be more
prescient: can we be the agents of our own salvation? I sincerely hope so. -Elena Ruehr