If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Tuesday, January 12, 2010



Akhenaten known before the fifth year of his reign as Amenhotep IV, was a Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt who ruled for 17 years and died perhaps in 1336 BC or 1334 BC. He is especially noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centered on the Aten, which is sometimes described as monotheistic or henotheistic. 

An early inscription likens the Aten to the sun as compared to stars, and later official language avoids calling the Aten a god, giving the solar deity a status above mere gods.

Akhenaten tried to bring about a departure from traditional religion, yet in the end it would not be accepted. After his death, traditional religious practice was gradually restored, and when some dozen years later rulers without clear rights of succession from the Eighteenth Dynasty founded a new dynasty, they discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors, referring to Akhenaten himself as "the enemy" in archival records.

An opera in three acts. Possessing a theatrical almost romantic quality,
Philip Glass takes the ancient myth setting it into the contemporary music
landscape with consummate ease while retaining the
primordial substance of the original story.

Akhnaten, the third of Philip Glass's "portrait" operas
(composed in 1983), is based on the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who ruled Egypt from 1375 BC to 1358 BC. Like Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, it is not a "story" opera but an episodic-symbolic portrait of a historical personality whose visionary ideas dramatically changed the perceptions of the world around him. Here, Glass, in his own libretto, tells the story of the man who supposedly introduced monotheism into classic Egyptian culture (and thereby the Western world), thus complimenting the realms of science and politics as portrayed in his previous two operas.  

After Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, now an exponent of religion is the protagonist of the opera, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Akhnaten revolutionized the leading religion in ancient Egypt by introducing the monotheism, that means, for him "Aton" was the only god. But after all he failed because of the striving for power and force of the traditional priests, and he was overthrown.

The score of the opera is a bit strange, because it is a mostly classical orchestra but without the violins. One reason for this kind of orchestration was the fact that the premiere took place in the state-theatre Stuttgart (Germany), where the main house (the "Großes Haus") was closed this year because of some renovation, and in the little house there was not enough place for a full orchestra.

But the lack of the violins fits very good to Glass' intention with this work: the music has a warmer, deeper and darker sound, and the contrast to the winds is more intensively. Also the percussion-instruments get more place, especially in scene 2 of the first act, the funeral of Akhnaten's father. There is a kind of music, which never appears in "Einstein on the Beach" nor in "Satyagraha". 

In fact, this "Funeral" was the first piece of "Akhnaten" that was played in public, because there is a special version for the Philip Glass Ensemble. This piece was recorded for the CD "Dancepieces", which might be one of the best Ensemble-CDs.

In most parts of the opera there dominates a restful and nearly calm sound; most of it stands in a-minor. The strength and power of Akhnaten himself is represented with the trumpet, which is used as "his" instrument. But there is another really emotional scene with the full orchestra: Akhnaten's fall.

Act II portrays the changes Akhnaten wrought: he leads a revolt that deposes the powerful priests of Amon, the old older; he abandons the polygamy of prior pharaohs for the love of his beautiful wife, Nefertiti; and he creates Akhetaten, "City of the Horizon of Aten", a temple of art and beauty in honor of his new god.

Like the legendary King Arthur, here he seeks to create his Camelot, inspired by the beneficence of his god Aten. The act ends with Akhnaten's hymn to the god, praising its beauty and recognizing it as the force of creation which only he, as the son of Aten, can recognize.


The Scribe speaks the first part of this scene alone, without musical accompaniment. His speech is taken from the boundary markers (or stelæ) of Akhnaten's new city, Akhetaten (The Horizon of the Aten).

During his speech, Akhetaten - a new city of light and open spaces that represents architecturally and visually the spirit of the epoch of Akhnaten - appears behind him.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from the boundary markers found in the valley at Tel-el-Amarna, in Breasted, A History of Egypt)

Stela 1

And his majesty said unto them, "Ye behold the City of the Horizon of the Aten, which the Aten has desired me to make for him as a monument in the great name of my majesty forever. For it was the Aten, my Father, that brought me to this City of the Horizon.

There was not a noble who directed me to it; there was not any man in the whole land who led me to it, saying, 'It is fitting for his majesty that he makes a City of the Horizon of Aten in this place.' Nay, but it was the Aten, my Father that directed me to make it for him.

Behold the Pharaoh found that this site belonged not to a god, nor to a goddess, it belonged not to a prince or to a princess. There was no right for any man to act as owner of it.

Stela 2

"I will make the City of the Horizon of the Aten for the Aten, my Father, in this place. I will not make the city south of it, north of it, west of it or east of it. I will not pass beyond the southern boundary stone southward, neither will I pass beyond the northern boundary stone northward to make for him a City of the Horizon there; neither will I make for him a city on the western side.

Nay, but I will make the City of the Horizon for the Aten, my Father, upon the east side, the place for which he did enclose for his own self with cliffs, and made a plain in the midst of it that I might sacrifice to him thereon: this is it.

"Neither shall the Queen say unto me, `Behold there is a goodly place for the City of the Horizon in another place', and I harken unto her. Neither shall any noble nor any man in the whole land say unto me, `Behold there is a goodly place for the City of the Horizon in another place', and I harken unto them. Whether it be downstream or southward or westward or eastward, I will not say, `I will abandon this City of the Horizon.',"

The dance, which immediately follows the brass fanfare, contrasts with the heavy traditional ritual of the temple scene which opened this act.

Musicians (triangle, wood block, and tambourine) appear on stage with dancers, as well as Akhnaten and principal members of his entourage, in a dance that marks the celebration and inauguration of the city of Akhetaten.


  1. I'm a fan of glass and this piece stirs the soul... hypnotic! Your accompanying text enhanced my enjoyment of this wonderful composition.

    Thank you again!

  2. Unparalled and impressive in
    Glass' efforts on mounting
    such an expressive opera like this.
    Simple yet spectacular,
    he presented ancient history
    rendering of Emperor Akhnaten
    like the same kind of charismatic,
    spiritual leader as the Dalai Lama.
    Akhnaten's individualism here
    is apparently viewed as a
    forerunner of today's liberalism.
    Glass makes every effort to
    interpret the emperor's personal
    characteristics as signs of
    a spiritual enlightenment.
    By avoiding an extensive
    political or historical argument, however,
    the composer's artistry resembles
    nothing so much as religious ritual.
    May seem prodigious an artistic endeavor,
    but Philip Glass was drawn to the
    emperor's artistic side.

    Glass asserted that it was the poets
    and not the generals who
    create a lasting history.
    For Glass, Akhnaten's tragic end
    was due to his embrace of an
    artistic vision that was dashed
    by the more conservative forces.....

  3. Yes!
    this is just the kind
    of music one could be
    listening out there in
    your veranda for
    hours on end,
    like, listening to
    your soul.
    After which, you still
    keep re-hearing it play
    and play powerfully
    in your mind,
    like a puzzle needing
    to be solved,
    like a mystery
    awaiting full revelation.