John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

You’re so close, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and grand choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratiorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

2. The Christmas Star 

One of the most dramatic moments in Adams’s work occurs in the finale of part one—a setting of the poem “The Christmas Star” by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. An allegory of religious zeal, the text opens with these evocative lines:

A little girl comes running,

she caught and carries a star.

She goes flying,

making the plants and animals she passes bend with fire.

Her hands already sizzle,

she tires, wavers, stumbles, and falls headlong,

but she gets right up with it again.

Adams’s music is appropriately frenetic, with skittering string figurations in the opening underscoring. However, this fiery text is soon juxtaposed with a setting of O quam preciosa, a chant by Hildegard von Bingen that venerates the Virgin Mary. Hildegard’s chant appears peacefully in the background, intermingling with the fervor of Mistral’s text. Both gradually build to a transcendent climax—an aural image of the Earth burning with Holy fire—before ultimately fading into nothingness.

3. When Herod Heard/Woe Unto Them That Call Evil Good

Unlike most seasonal music, El Niño doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of the Christmas story. In the second part of the oratorio, Adams explores King Herod’s horrifying response to the news of Christ’s birth—his order for the slaughter all of the male children two years old and under within the vicinity of Bethlehem.

Herod’s music is rhythmically and harmonically slippery, with a jagged baseline undercutting strained outbursts from the bassoon. A baritone soloist and the three countertenors tell of Herod’s actions before the chorus enters with words from the book of Isaiah: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.” This text is declaimed through dramatic blocks of sound, accompanied by a threatening, minimalist “groove” in the orchestra.

4. The Three Kings

In this section, each of the countertenors gets a solo turn, portraying the three kings who visit Jesus and present him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The text comes from the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and is set with quiet reverence, letting the haunting, otherworldly quality of the countertenor voices soar over the orchestral backing.

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