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Allusion in the Composition of Contemporary Opera

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2022

W. Anthony Sheppard*
Williams College, Williamstown, MA, USA

Abstract in memoriam

Contemporary opera exhibits a wide range of motivations for and approaches to making musical allusions to the past, more so than in any other period in the genre's history. I find, contrary to common definitions of musical postmodernism, that allusions are typically meaningful and symbolic in recent postmodern operas. I briefly consider musical collage in operas that represent a proverbial ‘postmodern’ approach to the past, with operas by Cage and Corigliano serving as extreme cases. The core sections of the article are devoted to three of the most prominent contemporary composers whose operas illustrate the range of forms and motives musical allusion has taken over the past few decades: John Adams's Nixon in China (1987), Louis Andriessen's ‘film opera’ La Commedia (2008) and The Exterminating Angel (2016) by Thomas Adès. By detailing musical allusion in these works, I offer evidence in support of a revisionary understanding of these operas and the aesthetic stances of these composers, who each engaged extensively in musical allusion to varying degrees. I conclude with rather unexpected examples of operatic allusion by composers (Glass, Nova, Mazzoli) who typically do not reference the past in their works. For numerous recent composers, opera appears to function as a particularly powerful magnetic attraction to the past, pulling into its orbit the most unlikely figures and warping their proclaimed aesthetic profiles. For opera audiences, allusion is experienced differentially and shapes popular perceptions of the genre as a whole.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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In memoriam


1 In the past decade, younger American composers have been particularly drawn to the genre. In 2014, as we began to prepare to team-teach a new course entitled Opera Since Einstein, the composer and new music impresario Judd Greenstein told me that everyone he knew was writing an opera.

2 In Gordon's opera the title character, Ellen, is obsessed with the figure of Maria Callas and we hear these quotations from pieces associated with Callas as Ellen describes the diva's career, as though the ensemble offers a soundtrack to Ellen's narration. Ellen views Callas as a chaste diva who conquered her weight but thereby lost her voice, leading to late performances that made her noble sacrifice audible, a gambit that the obsessively weight conscious Ellen attempts to emulate, resulting in both her severe eating disorder and the cessation of her own poetic production. (I will discuss Mazzoli's far more subtle allusion to Purcell later.)

3 Reynolds, Christopher Alan, Motives for Allusion: Context and Content in Nineteenth-Century Music (Cambridge, MA, 2003), 44Google Scholar.

4 Among his multiple publications on this subject, see in particular, Burkholder, J. Peter, ‘The Uses of Existing Music: Musical Borrowing as a Field’, Notes 50/3 (1994), 851–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Burkholder suggests a broader terminology, an investigation of ‘the uses of existing music’ (861–2). For another taxonomy for allusion and borrowing analysis, see David Cope, ‘Computer Analysis of Musical Allusions’, Computer Music Journal 27/1 (2003), 11. Cope writes: ‘My taxonomy for referential analysis includes Quotations (as in citations, excerpts, or renditions); Paraphrases (as in variations, caricatures, or transcriptions); Likenesses (as in approximations, translations, or similarities); Frameworks (as in outlines, vestiges, or redactions); and Commonalities (as in conventions, genera, or simplicities).’ On such taxonomical issues, also see Henry-Louis de La Grange, ‘Music about Music in Mahler: Reminiscences, Allusions, or Quotations?’, in Mahler Studies, ed. Stephen E. Hefling (Cambridge, 1997), 122–68.

5 J. Peter Burkholder, ‘Borrowing’, in Grove Music Online (Oxford, 2001),

6 Burkholder, J. Peter, ‘Musical Borrowing or Curious Coincidence?: Testing the Evidence’, Journal of Musicology 35/2 (2018), 223–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Burkholder notes that a composer's ‘typical practice’ offers support for assertions of borrowing (p. 246) and most of my examples will be from composers known for their use of existing music in new works.

7 Reynolds, Motives for Allusion, 6.

8 Karol Berger, A Theory of Art (New York, 2000), 177.

9 Leddy, Michael, ‘Limits of Allusion’, The British Journal of Aesthetics 32/2 (1992), 113–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Raymond Knapp, ‘Brahms and the Anxiety of Allusion’, Journal of Musicological Research 18/1 (1998), 7.

11 Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (London, 1959).

12 Kaija Saariaho, ‘Five Acts in the Life of an Opera Composer (2010)’, trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman, Music and Literature 5 (2014), 29. On the allusion to the Tristan chord, see Sanna Iitti, ‘L'amour de loin: Kaija Saariaho's First Opera’, IAWM Journal 8/1–2 (2002), 11. Peter Sellars has also noted the importance of Tristan to Saariaho and to her L'amour de loin. See Braun, William R., ‘Reflections on Tristan’, Opera News 71/10 (2007), 40Google Scholar.

13 Hautsalo notes that in her 2000 interview with the composer about this opera, Saariaho had pointed to similarities in the plots between L'amour and Tristan but had ‘expressed doubts as to whether there were any musical similarities’ and in 2004, just before the premiere, Saariaho asked that the programme notes avoid any mention of Wagner's opera. Liisamaija Hautsalo, ‘Whispers from the Past: Musical Topics in Saariaho's Operas’, in Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues, ed. Tim Howell with Jon Hargreaves and Michael Rofe (Farnham, 2011), 108n4, and 108–9. A more detailed discussion of musical parallels between the two operas is presented in Hautsalo's published dissertation Kaukainen rakkaus: Saavuttamattomuuden semantiikka Kaija Saariahon oopperassa, Acta Musicologica Fennica, 27 (Helsinki, 2008). I note a similar submerged reference to the opening of Tristan in section No. 24 of Péter Eötvös's 1998 opera Three Sisters as a character declares his illicit love.

14 Yayoi Uno Everett, ‘The Tropes of Desire and Jouissance in Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin’, in Music and Narrative since 1900, ed. Michael L. Klein and Nicholas Reyland (Bloomington, 2012), 329–45. Everett states: ‘While the lovers’ brief union before Jaufré's death may call to mind the final scene from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, this narrative altogether avoids the romantic notion of transcendence’ (p. 331). To my mind, the opera's ending stages Clémence's rather Romantic experience of religious transcendence. Joy H. Calico, ‘Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin: Modernist Opera in the Twenty-First Century’, in Modernism and Opera, ed. Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith (Baltimore, 2016), 341–59. Calico notes that the two operas share gestures of the ‘ebb and flow of waves and the churning danger beneath’ and that there are ‘parallels in the finales of each opera as well’, but concludes that ‘musically they are quite different’ (p. 354). Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Champaign, 2009), 100.

15 This paper was titled ‘Exoticism, Do Women Do it Differently?’ and was delivered on the ‘Women Writing Modern Opera’ panel with Kaija Saariaho at the 2015 meeting of the American Musicological Society. I had discussed Saariaho's opera along these lines in more detail earlier that year in my keynote address, ‘“No Ordinary Opera”: Contemporary Opera and the Grawemeyer Award’, Grawemeyer conference on contemporary music, University of Louisville, March 2015. In a 1999 interview Saariaho made clear her general disinterest in allusion and borrowing: ‘I find it so boring, somehow, to take pre-existing music. That's often the issue in post-modernism where people make collages. I just don't understand the idea.’ Quoted in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music: Conversations with Composers of Our Time (Aldershot, 2000), 309.

16 This interview was held on 10 October 2019 in North Adams, Massachusetts.

17 Reynolds, Motives for Allusion, 168.

18 On the fraught relationship between musical allusions and originality, see Reynolds, Motives for Allusion, 101–3.

19 Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Late Twentieth Century (Oxford and New York, 2010, 1st publ. 2005), 422.

20 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, 1991), 3, 16–17.

21 See Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd edn (London and New York, 2002), 3, 9, 89; David Metzer, Quotation and Cultural Meaning in Twentieth-Century Music (Cambridge, 2003), 69–73; and Pasler, JannPostmodernism, Narrativity, and the Art of Memory’, Contemporary Music Review 7/2 (1993), 1718CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a somewhat more extensive overview of this topic and summary of these various positions, see my ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Tan Dun's tinte and The First Emperor’, Journal of Musicology 26/3 (2009), 308–13.

22 Hal Foster, ‘Introduction’, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York, 1998), xi. I should note that Foster appears to conflate relativism and pluralism here.

23 See, for example, André Brégégère, ‘The Serial Concept in Pousseur's Votre Faust’, in The Oxford Handbook of Faust in Music, ed. by Lorna Fitzsimmons and Charles McKnight (New York, 2019), 392–5.

24 On Ligeti's allusions, see Yayoi Uno Everett, ‘Signification of Parody and the Grotesque in György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre’, Music Theory Spectrum 31/1 (2009), 26–56. Everett points to moments of borrowing from the Poppea/Nero duet in L'incoronazione di Poppea (p. 36), the Dies irae chant (p. 54), and to an allusion to Tristan (pp. 40–2). Andriessen approached the spirit of Ligeti's opera most closely in his 2015 opera Theatre of the World. I also note that Ligeti was influenced by Breughal and somewhat by Bosch, whereas Andriessen directly referenced Bosch in La Commedia and that opera's director and cinematographer Hal Hartley was influenced by Breughal.

25 On allusions in this opera, also see Jürg Stenzl and Sue Rose, ‘York Höller's “The Master and Margarita”: A German Opera’, Tempo 179 (1991), 8–15. Stenzl and Rose claim that ‘the few quotes (Berlioz, Busoni, Ravel) are very discrete and the allusions to ancient music (in Satan's Ball) are perfectly integrated’ (p. 15).

26 See, for example, Jürgen Köchel's liner notes to Life with an Idiot (Sony Classical, CD S2K 52495, 1992), 14; Andrew Ford, Undue Noise: Words About Music (Sydney, 2002), 69–70; and Lukomsky, Vera, ‘Russian Postmodernism on Absurdities and Realities of Soviet Life: Alfred Schnittke's Opera “Life with an Idiot”’, International Journal of Musicology 8 (1999), 425–48Google Scholar. Lukomsky does point to the quotations of folk songs, political songs associated with Lenin, and Mussorgsky as a form of satire in this opera (pp. 431–46).

27 For a discussion of specific and general stylistic allusions in Schnittke's cantata version of this work, see Charles McKnight, ‘The Paradoxical Faust Cantatas of Adrian Leverkühn and Alfred Schnittke’, in The Oxford Handbook of Faust in Music, ed. Lorna Fitzsimmons and Charles McKnight (Oxford, 2019), 232–3 and 236–7.

28 I delivered a preliminary version of this material on Cage and Corigliano as a lecture entitled ‘The Persistence of the Past in Twentieth-Century Opera’, for the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Opera Experience series, February 2007. I am grateful for comments made by audience members at this event.

29 Andrew Stiller, ‘Cage, John’, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992), 678. Also see Laura Kuhn, ‘John Cage's Europeras 1 & 2: The Musical Means of Revolution’ (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1992); and Kuhn, ‘Synergetic Dynamics in John Cage's Europeras 1 & 2’, The Musical Quarterly 78/1 (1994), 131–48.

30 For performances of Europeras 1 & 2 (1985–7), singers (one of each of nineteen different vocal types) select arias from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century operas. The costumes, sets, lighting, props and stage directions are selected through chance operations and the orchestral musicians play excerpts lasting from one to sixteen bars in length extracted from seventy operas from the Metropolitan Opera's library. All this collaged performance is presented within fixed time brackets. Europeras 3 & 4 (1990) and Europera 5 (1991) are much smaller in scale and are designed for concert performance. In addition to a limited number of vocalists in these later works, Cage called for Victrolas playing scratchy 78rpm opera recordings, which strongly suggests the ghosts of opera's past are present, and live pianists to perform opera transcriptions.

31 Some audience members respond to the Europeras as a challenge to identify as much of the source material as possible during a performance. For example, see Herbert Lindenberger, ‘Regulated Anarchy: The Europeras and the Aesthetics of Opera’, in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago, 1994), 146–7. Lindenberger counters the critical assessment that Europeras 1 & 2 are parodies (pp. 144–5, 159).

32 Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner, ‘An Interview with John Cage’, The Tulane Drama Review 10/2 (1965), 53.

33 Metzer, David, ‘Musical Decay: Luciano Berio's Rendering and John Cage's Europera 5’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 125/1 (2000), 105, 108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Bernstein, David W., ‘Techniques of Appropriation in Music of John Cage’, Contemporary Music Review 20/4 (2001), 84–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Some of the material I present here on Corigliano's opera also appeared in my programme essay ‘Hearing History in Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles’, for the Wexford Opera Festival, Ireland (Fall 2009). In addition, see my ‘Blurring the Boundaries’, 310–11.

36 K. Robert Schwarz, ‘Ghosts busters’, Opera News (1995), 44. Also see John Corigliano, ‘The Composer and the Opera’, BBC Music Magazine 5/3 (1996), 60–1. In this later publication, Corigliano explained that it felt natural for him to draw on ‘many different idioms’ given that so much music is now available and that ‘shifting between worlds would not only broaden my vocabulary, it might also empower me to find a kind of intelligent syncretism that thinking people need now as they never have before’ (p. 61).

37 Edward Rothstein, ‘At the Met, Ghosts Come to Applaud “Ghosts”’, New York Times (5 January 1992), A27–8. Also see Edward Rothstein, ‘For the Met's Centennial, a Gathering of Ghosts’, New York Times (21 December 1991), 11, 14.

38 Shreffler, Anne C., ‘Phantoms at the Opera: The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William Hoffman’, Contemporary Music Review 20/4 (2001), 118–20; 126–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On allusions in this opera, also see Renihan, Colleen, ‘“History As It Should Have Been”: Haunts of the Historical Sublime in John Corigliano's and William Hoffman's The Ghosts of Versailles’, Twentieth-Century Music 10/2 (2013), 249–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, particularly on allusions to Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (266).

39 Alex Ross, ‘The Ghosts of the Met’, The New Republic (March 1992), 30. Bernard Holland issued a more strident verdict: ‘mocking opera's hard-won conventions as these two creators [Corigliano and the librettist William Hoffman] have done, is the work of cultural terrorists. What they have written may be less an opera than a commando raid against operatic cant. It is also perhaps more music criticism than music.’ Holland, ‘“The Ghosts of Versailles” Fills the Tumbrels with Conventions’, New York Times (31 December 1991), C9. Perhaps the most negative detailed critique was offered by John Simon in ‘Other People's Music: Corigliano at the Met’, The New Criterion (February 1992), 16–23.

40 For more on this connection, see my ‘Exoticism’, in The Oxford Handbook of Opera, ed. Helen M. Greenwald (New York, 2014), 808–12.

41 I delivered earlier versions of this discussion of Nixon in China in 2011 at Harvard University and for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and am grateful for comments offered by students and audience members at these events. Also see my article ‘The Persistence of Orientalism in the Postmodern Operas of Adams and Sellars’, in Representation in Western Music, ed. Joshua S. Walden (Cambridge, 2013), 272–6.

42 Robert Fink, ‘(Post-)minimalisms 1970–2000: The Search for a New Mainstream’, in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople (Cambridge, 2004), 553–4.

43 Max Noubel has referred to Adams's allusions, including his ‘barely veiled references to music of the past’ in Nixon in China, without detailing them. See Noubel, ‘John Adams's Post-stylistic Approach to the Past: A Response to the Uncertain Future of a Globalized World?’, in Postmodernity's Musical Pasts, ed. Tina Frühauf (Woodbridge, 2020), 61. Noubel stated that Adams ‘built his musical thought and his philosophy on a dynamic and inventive integration of musical references from the past. This compositional approach is rooted in Western musical heritage, but without seeking to demythologise it or to reproduce it faithfully with unreserved veneration’ (p. 56). Noubel does list several past European composers who have influenced Adams (pp. 58–9). For brief references to the influence of Wagner in Adams's Doctor Atomic, see Ryan Scott Ebright, ‘Echoes of the Avant-garde in American Minimalist Opera’ (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2014), 182, 184, 191, 210. As Yayoi Uno Everett notes, Adams's allusion to J.S. Bach in ‘Aria of the Falling Body’ in his opera The Death of Klinghoffer has inspired commentary, though I note that this opening passage – in its melodic shape, instrumentation, and with its rise in register in several following phrases – also resembles the poignant opening of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. See Everett, ‘Pianto as a Topical Signifier of Grief in Contemporary Operas by John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho’, in The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification, ed. Esti Sheinberg and William P. Dougherty (Abingdon, 2020), 337–9. Allusion in minimalist and post-minimalist music has received some attention in general, though with little focus on Adams. For example, see Pwyll ap Siôn, ‘Reference and Quotation in Minimalist and Postminimalist Music’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, ed. Keith Potter, Kyle Gann and Pwyll ap Siôn (London, 2016), 259–78; and Pwyll ap Siôn, The Music of Michael Nyman: Texts, Contexts and Intertexts (Aldershot, 2007), 115–46.

44 Timothy A. Johnson, John Adams's Nixon in China: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives (Farnham, 2011).

45 Matthew Daines, ‘Telling the Truth about Nixon: Parody, Cultural Representation, and Gender Politics in John Adams's Opera Nixon in China’ (PhD diss., University of California, Davis, 1995). Daines notes (in one sentence) the allusion to Wagner during the Cultural Revolution ballet scene in his ‘Nixon's Women: Gender Politics and Cultural Representation in Act 2 of Nixon in China’, The Musical Quarterly 79/1 (1995), 24.

46 Andrew Porter, ‘“Nixon in China”: John Adams in Conversation’, Tempo 167 (1988), 26–7.

47 John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (New York, 2008), 131.

48 Daines, ‘Telling the Truth about Nixon’, 136, 144, 151.

49 Schwarz, David, ‘Postmodernism, the Subject, and the Real in John Adams's Nixon in China’, Indiana Theory Review 13/2 (1992), 126Google Scholar.

50 Adams, Hallelujah Junction, 143. I recently learned that I am not alone in hearing a ‘sly quote of the magic sword motif from Wagner's Ring’; see Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times Essential Library: Opera: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings (New York, 2004), 1.

51 Cooke, The Language of Music, 120–1.

52 On Stravinsky's influence on Adams's instrumental works, see Jonathan Cross, The Stravinsky Legacy (Cambridge, 1998), 174–8. Cross notes Stravinsky's general influence on minimalism in chapter 5 (pp. 170-89). On Stravinsky's influence on Adams's Doctor Atomic, see Rebecca Cypess, ‘History and Faust in Doctor Atomic’, in The Oxford Handbook of Faust in Music, ed. Lorna Fitzsimmons and Charles McKnight (New York, 2019), 430–8.

53 I discussed this allusion to The Rite as well as an echoing of Stravinsky's ballet in Adams's Doctor Atomic in my ‘The Persistence of Orientalism in the Postmodern Operas of Adams and Sellars’, 275, 280. Richard Taruskin points to the presence of Stravinsky's Petrushka-chord in Nixon in China. See Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, 519.

54 For more on the depiction of the Chinese in this opera, see my ‘The Persistence of Orientalism in the Postmodern Operas of Adams and Sellars’, 272–6.

55 Willem Jan Otten and Elmer Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, Key Notes 7 (1978), 23.

56 Otten and Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, 27.

57 Otten and Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, 25. They state that the music ‘moves between the two poles of Bach and Stravinsky’.

58 Otten and Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, 26.

59 Otten and Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, 30. Given its blatant, absurdist play with the past, the same might well be said of Andriessen's The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for Orchestra and Ice Cream Bell (1970).

60 Otten and Schönberger, ‘Louis Andriessen's Matthew Passion and Orpheus’, 32.

61 Robert Adlington, Louis Andriessen: De Staat (Aldershot, 2004), 9.

62 Yayoi Uno Everett, ‘Parody with an Ironic Edge: Dramatic Works by Kurt Weill, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Louis Andriessen’, Music Theory Online 10/4 (2004), paras 10, 19–21. Everett states that in Rosa, Andriessen explored violence and brutality ‘from an objective, critical distance’, and quotes the composer describing the opera as a ‘parody or a lampoon of Hollywood film music’. Yayoi Uno Everett, The Music of Louis Andriessen (Cambridge, 2006), 171. Everett discusses Andriessen's early collage works (pp. 46–56) and details musical allusions in both Rosa (particularly to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring) and Writing to Vermeer (with quotations from Lully and Sweelinck and a structure inspired by Cage) in chapter 8 (particularly pp. 180–1 and 186–8).

63 Rokus de Groot, ‘Music and Irony: The Case of Louis Andriessen's “Hadewijch”’, Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 54/2 (2004), 144–8.

64 Timo Andres liner notes La Commedia (Nonesuch 534877-2, 2014).

65 Louis Andriessen and Edward Harsh, ‘The Past as a Presence in Part One of Louis Andriessen's De Materie’, Contemporary Music Review 6/2 (1992), 59–60.

66 Andriessen and Harsh, ‘The Past as a Presence’, 60, 64. They detail the use of the ‘L'homme armé’ melody and how it brings its accumulated meanings and historical associations with it to Part I of De Materie (p. 67). They make a similar point concerning Andriessen's extensive use of the ‘B.A.C.H.’ motive throughout the work (pp. 67–9).

67 Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky, trans. Jeff Hamburg (Oxford, 1989), 236–8, 166–8. Robert Adlington discusses the influence of Brecht on Andriessen in ‘Louis Andriessen, Hanns Eisler, and the Lehrstück’, The Journal of Musicology 21/3 (2004), 381–417. On the impact of Brecht on Andriessen and on the influence of Ravel in Writing to Vermeer, also see Louis Andriessen and Jonathan Cross, ‘Composing with Stravinsky’, in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge, 2003), 256–7, 259.

68 Andriessen and Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, 41.

69 Andriessen and Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, 216, 220. A more irreverent view of Stravinsky's aesthetics of objectivity is evident in pages 83–6.

70 Cross, The Stravinsky Legacy, 181, 186. For a survey of Stravinsky's influence on Andriessen, also see Adlington, Louis Andriessen: De Staat, 47–56.

71 Andriessen and Cross, ‘Composing with Stravinsky’, 253, 255. In a discussion of Stravinsky's Orpheus in The Apollonian Clockwork, Andriessen appears to reveal indirectly a structural influence on his own Orpheus of 1977. Andriessen and Schönberger state that at the end of Stravinsky's piece: ‘The only thing left to do is to wait for a new Orpheus/Orpheus’ (p. 61). A ‘new Orpheus’ does appear after the demise of Orpheus in Andriessen's piece.

72 For a detailed study of the broader intersection of music and Dutch politics in the 1960s, see Robert Adlington, Composing Dissent: Avant-Garde Music in 1960s Amsterdam (Oxford, 2013) and Adlington, ‘“A sort of guerrilla”: Che at the Opera’, Cambridge Opera Journal 19/2 (2007), 167–93. For a specific focus on Andriessen in these terms, see Adlington, Louis Andriessen, 10–30. Also see Everett, The Music of Louis Andriessen, 59–99.

73 Timo Andres, however, does point out that the extended filmed spoken section in Part V, rather freely adapted and translated into Dutch by Andriessen from Cacciaguida's monologue in Dante's Paradiso, functions as a rap jabbing at elitism in general. Timo Andres liner notes La Commedia (Nonesuch 534877-2, 2014).

74 Hartley apparently created the film independently from Andriessen. In Hartley's 2010 short documentary on the making of this film opera, Implied Harmonies, the director declares ‘I must invent a narrative’ for the film component and reveals that he agreed to work with Andriessen on the opera ‘because I wanted to get to know him’. The implication is clear that Hartley studied Andriessen's career and life, and drew on this knowledge in creating his film and staging the opera.

75 Maria Anna Harley, ‘A Mystic in the Cathedral: Music, Image, and Symbol in Andriessen's Hadewijch’, The American Journal of Semiotics 13/1–4 (1996), section 3. She also discussed this topic in her book on Andriessen: see Maja Trochimczyk, ed. The Music of Louis Andriessen (New York, 2002), 197, 292. Likewise, Everett has noted that Andriessen's works after 1996 reveal a ‘growing preoccupation with the subject of death’. Everett, The Music of Louis Andriessen, 207.

76 Trochimczyk, ed., The Music of Louis Andriessen, 183, 184.

77 Novak, Jelena, ‘Music on Music: A Conversation with Louis Andriessen’, New Sound 18 (2001), 89Google Scholar.

78 Adlington, Composing Dissent, 185. (On this topic, also see pp. 203–4, 208 and 210–11.) Adlington discusses Andriessen's view that all past music is part of the present and his declared avoidance of parodying or undermining the musical past in his quotations and allusions (pp. 205–7).

79 Adlington, Composing Dissent, 212–14.

80 Adlington, Louis Andriessen: De Staat, 111. Also see Adlington, ‘Louis Andriessen, Hanns Eisler, and the Lehrstück’, 415–16, where Adlington states that ‘the alighting upon a musical model because it is pleasing, rather than in order to subject it to a detached, critical examination – may be sensed in all of Andriessen's negotiations with other music’. On this topic, Everett has argued that the analysis of ‘Andriessen's music often calls for negotiating the significance of references that arise from seemingly incompatible sources. It is precisely his strategy of recontextualization – how and why he alters the borrowed musical references to form a commentary – that renders his “concept” work meaningful in creating a multi-layered musical discourse.’ Everett, The Music of Louis Andriessen, 6.

81 In a 1999 interview Andriessen mentioned that he hoped to compose a work that would employ material from all three sections of Dante's Divine Comedy. See Trochimczyk, ed., The Music of Louis Andriessen, 85.

82 David Allenby, ‘Louis Andriessen Interview: Creating La Commedia’ (2008),

83 For a discussion of the differences between Andriessen's and Hartley's synopses for the opera, see Jelena Novak, Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body (Farnham, 2015), 113–31. (Novak's focus is on the synopses, multimedia staging, and casting rather than on the music of the opera.) My analysis of the opera's production is based on the DVD recording of Hal Hartley's film of his Dutch National Opera and Holland Festival Opera premiere production of La Commedia at the Amsterdam Koninklijk Theater Carré (Nonesuch 534877-2, 2014).

84 Jelena Novak, ‘From Minimalist Music to Postopera: Repetition, Representation and (Post)modernity in the Operas of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, ed. Keith Potter, Kyle Gann and Pwyll ap Siôn (London, 2016), 137–8. Also see Novak, Postopera, ch. 7, (particularly pp. 115 and 121). Novak does not discuss Lucifer's evident love for Dante and instead focuses on the relationship between Beatrice and Dante, hearing ‘a homoerotic dimension between the voices’ – an interpretation for which I am unable to find evidence in the score or in the staging (Novak, Postopera, 128). Throughout the film opera, shot rhythm frequently matches the musical rhythm, and cuts and transitions between shots and settings are very often made in conjunction with musical phrases and the entrance of new melodic material. In several instances, the return of thematic material is even matched by the recurrence of the same or similar shots on screen.

85 These connections are too numerous to detail here and I will note only a few examples, with others mentioned in the course of my discussion. The textual reference in Part I to the approach of a ‘little boat’ and a ‘single boatsman steering’ on the river Styx is accompanied by a shot of the approaching chauffeured car. The description of the violent furies near the end of Part I is matched on screen as we see two women fighting. In Part II, as Dante on stage lists the names of the ten demons we see shots of the individual musicians on screen.

86 Andriessen refers to Cristina as ‘the personification of Dante’ in his synopsis. See Novak, Postopera, 117. (Novak discusses the complex intersection of gender representation and casting in this opera on pp. 124–31.) I note also that Christina Flick played the political activist named Lucia in the film. St Lucy of light and vision also appears in The Divine Comedy. In the film, Lucia appears to commence a romantic relationship with the horn player Farfarello who initially approaches her on screen in conjunction with the sung text ‘who like to caper with pretty women’.

87 Though this part is labelled ‘Dante’ in the score, that labelling – as with ‘Virgil’ in the score – only indicates the speaker in the literary source, for the actor portraying Lucifer delivers this line in the performance (as is indicated in the libretto and by the bass clef for this vocal line).

88 On the extreme intricacies of Messiaen's use of borrowed materials, see Yves Balmer, Thomas Lacôte and Christopher Brent Murray, ‘Messiaen the Borrower: Recomposing Debussy through the Deforming Prism’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 69/3 (2016), 699–791.

89 The big melodic arrival at No. 34 in West Side Story is clearly paralleled, half a step lower, at No. 3 in Andriessen's score. (As with other examples, Andriessen somewhat deliberately fumbles the allusion here.) I note that Andriessen's opening melodic gesture also resembles the opening Bebop lick in John Coltrane's ‘Blue Train’, which was recorded in mid-September 1957 with West Side Story opening on Broadway later that month.

90 Andriessen's Facing Death string quartet opens with quotations of Charlie Parker. Andriessen's allusions to jazz and popular standards emboldens me to suggest that his simple, fragmented F–G and F–A@ gestures throughout the opening of Part III are a fumbled allusion to the chorus melody of the 1928 song ‘She's Funny That Way’ (m. Neil Moret, w. Richard Whiting). At No. 4 Andriessen seems to obscure Moret's melodic gesture with a triplet rhythm. The male protagonist's self-disparagement in the lyrics of the song are apt for Lucifer's evident emotional state.

91 Matt Mendez has also noted the allusions to Parker and Ravel. Though Mendez states that ‘Even the ironic bits aren't always ironic’ in this opera, Andriessen's ‘iconoclast’ image leads him to miss the deep poignancy of the final section in Part IV. See Matt Mendez, ‘Iconoclast Andriessen's La Commedia at National Gallery of Art’, I Care if You Listen website (posted 9 April 2014), On Andriessen's attraction to Ravel's music, see Louis Andriessen, The Art of Stealing Time, ed. Mirjam Zegers, trans. Clare Yates (Todmorden, 2002), 99–108. In this 1996 lecture, Andriessen stated that he loved Ravel's music ‘with all my heart and soul’ (p. 99).

92 As Timo Andres notes of Andriessen's harmony: ‘Chords take on an overwhelming gravity; normal major and minor triads have been larded with tritones and seconds, and can do nothing but descend.’ Timo Andres liner notes La Commedia (Nonesuch 534877-2, 2014).

93 Quoted in Trochimczyk, ed., The Music of Louis Andriessen, 9. Andriessen also discussed the ubiquity of French late Romantic and early modern music in his home during his childhood (p. 8).

94 See Nash, Pamela, ‘A discussion of Overture to Orpheus with Louis Andriessen’, Contemporary Music Review 20/1 (2001), 113CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Andriessen's father, Hendrik Andriessen, was a major composer of Catholic music.

95 Robert Adlington has pointed to the ‘Nocturne’ in Andriessen's 1966 Souvenirs d'enfance as being in the style of Fauré. See Adlington, Louis Andriessen: De Staat, 8–9.

96 Quoted in Timo Andres liner notes La Commedia.

97 Andriessen and Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, 7–8.

98 Also note the similarity between the ostinato at bar 35 in the Stravinsky movement and No. 23 in Part I of Andriessen's opera, particularly with the alternation between 7/16 and 5/16.

99 For Andriessen's remarks on Stravinsky's harmony, see Andriessen and Cross, ‘Composing with Stravinsky’, 254. I note that Charles Wuorinen emphasised the same chord and rhythmic gesture in his 1975 A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.

100 For Andriessen's inventory of bell-like sonorities in Stravinsky's music, see Andriessen and Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, 266. Arnold Whittall has identified a parallel between the coda of Andriessen's 1997 Trilogy of the Last Days and the postlude to Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, noting that Andriessen makes this allusion ‘not just by bell-like chords, but by harmonically centring on the pitch-class F’. However, Whittall describes Andriessen's music as ‘more Marxist than Christian’ and claims that it ‘retains more of Dionysian abandon than of Apollonian serenity’ and that it avoids ‘ceremonial, ritual procession’. As La Commedia has made clear, a Catholic, ritualistic expression is not foreign to Andriessen's music. See Arnold Whittall, Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation (Cambridge, 2003), 169. Andriessen's Bells for Haarlem (2002) is also relevant here. Andriessen's evocations of bells influenced by Stravinsky, as well as multiple other details from La Commedia, are also evident in another work, the brief Signs and Symbols (2016) for wind ensemble. I commissioned this work on behalf of the Williams College Music Department in memory of a colleague who had been devoted to performing Andriessen's music. The commission was funded through modest student donations and Andriessen was happy to compose this musical memorial.

101 Burkholder, ‘Musical Borrowing or Curious Coincidence?’, 227–9.

102 Andriessen and Schönberger, The Apollonian Clockwork, 106.

103 I note that Andriessen wrote for a solo boy soprano in movement one, ‘The Last Day’, in Trilogy of the Last Day (1997), and as in La Commedia the end of the final movement, ‘Dancing on the Bones’, features an impudent children's choir section.

104 Andriessen, The Art of Stealing Time, 303.

105 Allenby, ‘Louis Andriessen Interview’.

106 Thomas Adès and Tom Service, Thomas Adès: Full of Noises (New York, 2012), 26.

107 Adès and Service, Thomas Adès, 26–7. He discusses his use of material from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Powder Her Face (pp. 75–6) and other borrowings in this opera as well (pp. 152–4).

108 Guy Dammann, ‘Interview: Thomas Adès’, The Financial Times (18 November 2016). Drew Massey has explored Adès's use of pre-existent keyboard music as related to the composer's experience as a pianist in Drew Massey, Thomas Adès in Five Essays (New York, 2021), ch. 1.

109 Arnold Whittall, ‘James Dillon, Thomas Adès, and the Pleasures of Allusion’, in Aspects of British Music of the 1990s, ed. Peter O'Hagan (Aldershot, 2003), 5. Also see Wells, Dominic, ‘Plural Styles, Personal Style: The Music of Thomas Adès’, Tempo 66/260 (2012), 214CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Edward Venn has noted brief allusions in Powder Her Face to Berg's Lulu as well as to Stravinsky's Rake. See Venn, Thomas Adès: Asyla (New York, 2017), 4. For a list of other works in which Adès evokes pre-existent music, see Venn, ‘Thomas Adès and the Spectres of Brahms’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 140/1 (2015), 167–8. In line with Whittall, Alastair Williams has described Adès's allusions in his orchestral piece Asyla as ‘understated’ and ‘taken for granted’. See Williams, ‘Between Modernism and Postmodernism: Structure and Expression in John Adams, Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès’, in The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music, ed. Björn Heile and Charles Wilson (London, 2019), 339–44, 340.

110 I delivered some of the material presented here in a lecture on Adès's The Exterminating Angel at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, October 2017, and in the Metropolitan Opera Guild Podcast episode 85 (2017).

111 Richard Taruskin, ‘A Surrealist Composer Comes to the Rescue of Modernism’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley, 2009, first publ. New York Times, 5 December 1999), 147.

112 Massey, Drew, ‘Thomas Adès and the Dilemmas of Musical Surrealism’, Gli Spazi della musica 7 (2018), 98112Google Scholar and Massey, Thomas Adès in Five Essays, ch. 4. Also see Christopher Fox, ‘Tempestuous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adès’, The Musical Times 145/1888 (2004), 42–3. On surrealism and postmodern music more generally, see Anne LeBaron, ‘Reflections of Surrealism in Postmodern Music’, in Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, ed. Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner (New York, 2002), 27–73.

113 Massey has recently noted this variation in repetition as well. Massey, Thomas Adès in Five Essays, 155.

114 See Tom Service, ‘Rifles, Bears and Buñuel: Thomas Adès on His New Never-Ending Opera’, The Guardian (24 July 2016),

115 Christian Arseni, ‘Interview with Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns About the World Premiere of The Exterminating Angel’, Seen and Heard International (2016), See also Venn, Edward, ‘Thomas Adès's The Exterminating Angel’, Tempo 71/280 (2017), 3840Google Scholar.

116 Arseni, ‘Interview with Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns About the World Premiere of The Exterminating Angel’.

117 Adès's quotation of Ravel and multiple allusions to the waltz genre are rather similar in spirit to his macabre cancan in Lieux retrouvés, which he referred to as ‘a cancan of doom, cancan to the abyss’. See Adès and Service, Thomas Adès: Full of Noises, 111–12.

118 Reynolds, Motives for Allusion, 69–87.

119 In addition, William R. Braun hears a ‘perverted, crippled version’ of Siegfried's funeral march from Wagner's Götterdämmerung as Russell dies at the end of Act II in The Exterminating Angel. See Braun, ‘Further Dimension’, Opera News 82/4 (2017), 26.

120 Arseni, ‘Interview with Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns About the World Premiere of The Exterminating Angel’.

121 I discussed allusion in the operas of Philip Glass in ‘Exotic Models in Glass’, delivered at the 2017 meeting of the American Musicological Society, and in a pre-performance lecture on Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, November 2019 (available in the Metropolitan Opera Guild Podcast, episode 141).

122 On this subject, see my forthcoming ‘Desiring the Countertenor: Operatic Indulgence in Corigliano and Adamo's The Lord of Cries’, Opera Quarterly and ‘The Countertenor Voice in Contemporary Opera’.

123 In addition to the examples I discuss here, I note that Glass nearly parodies Baroque opera in the diegetic operatic performance near the end of Galileo Galilei. Audible stylistic reference and rare moments of near quotation tend to occur in Glass's operas in the service of satire and exotic representation, as in The Voyage (1991). Act I in Glass's Orphée (1991/1993) includes strong stylistic allusions to the musical past in the service of suggesting local colour, in this case to cabaret music, that are otherwise uncommon in his operas. A flute solo with woodwind accompaniment heard in scene 5 – an interlude as the Princess passes through the bedroom where Orpheus and Euridice are asleep – suggests shades of Gluck.

124 I presented much of this discussion in ‘Shara Nova's YOU US WE ALL and #MeToo’, a paper delivered online for the ‘Why Opera/Studies Today (YOST)’ symposium, Yale University, May 2020.

125 Unless otherwise noted, my quotations and paraphrases of Nova and Ondrejcak are derived from my Zoom interviews and email exchanges with each of them in April and May 2020. I am also grateful to both for providing me with source material on YOU US WE ALL.

126 YOU US WE ALL could be fruitfully compared with the operatic works of Jonathan Dawe, such as his 2010 Cracked Orlando, which typically engage extensively with the Baroque. Following YOU US WE ALL, Nova and Ondrejcak had intended to create an opera entitled Not Virginia Woolf's Orlando. This project would have allowed them to explore further their interest in travelling from the Baroque to the present. However, funding proved an impossible hurdle to overcome.

127 See at 1:02. In addition, Nova refers to the two-against-three rhythmic design in this number as a ‘total ripoff’ from David Lang's 2012 Death Speaks, which she premiered.

128 I discussed Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar previously in ‘Indie Opera: Out of the Pit and Into the Audience’, a paper delivered at the ‘Why Opera/Studies Today (YOST)’ symposium, Yale University, May 2019.

129 Wasserman, Adam, ‘Sonic YOUTHS’, Opera News 80/4 (2015), 51Google Scholar.

130 Roach, Joseph, ‘The Blunders of Orpheus’, PMLA 125/4 (2010), 1078–86Google Scholar.

131 Roach, ‘The Blunders of Orpheus’, 1078.

132 Though coincidental, and certainly not uncommon to the genre at large, the emphasis on death in the contemporary operas that I have considered here is striking: a funeral rite runs throughout Akhnaten; Corigliano's ghosts fail to revivify; in La Commedia a requiem appears to be buried in the scene of Dante's double death; three deaths and a ‘Solemn High Requiem’ are staged in the deadly titled The Exterminating Angel; Song from the Uproar is framed as a post-death reflection for the heroine; and in the opera's final act the main characters of Nixon in China each reflect back on their lives, as though trapped in their histories and engaging in postmortems, as they prepare for sleep in beds the director Peter Sellars intended to look like coffins. Of course, staging fictional death has been central to the genre all along, but death as a topic and the clear resonance, either intended or not, between a given opera's presentation of diegetic death and the genre's own delicate vital signs is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

133 I have also made these observations in ‘Puccini und der Exotismus’, in Puccini Handbuch, ed. Richard Erkens (Stuttgart, 2017), 144–58, at 154–5. Perhaps Stravinsky returned the favour: Stephen Walsh has suggested that Stravinsky alluded to Turandot in his 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex (Cambridge, 1993), 65.

134 I have found that uncovering allusions tends to lead one to hear further evidence of buried allusions. For instance, having previously revealed several allusions in Turandot to Puccini's earlier opera Madama Butterfly, and after somewhat tenuously suggesting a reference to Butterfly's plot in Turandot's retelling of the abduction by a foreign man of her ancient ancestress Lou Ling, I now hear a distinct musical resemblance between this moment in Turandot (Act II scene 2, six bars leading up to No. 46, at ‘da un uomo, come te, come te, straniero’) and the moment when the Bonze and chorus renounce Butterfly (Act I, four bars before No. 107, at ‘Ci hai rinnegato e noi / Ti rinneghiamo!’). Both moments feature prominent tritones in the accompaniment and a similar melodic gesture starting on the same pitch, as well as the dramatic and textual parallels. Though this resemblance conveniently offers further support for the interpretive connections I have suggested between these two operas, I suspect that for some readers this claim might fall within Burkholder's category of ‘curious coincidence’ rather than proven allusion. For my exploration of connections between these two operas, see ‘Puccini and the Music Boxes’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 140/1 (2015), 41–92, esp. at 64–70.

135 Reynolds, Motives for Allusion, 21.

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