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Per Nørgård : Siddharta

Work Notes Libretto by Ole Sarvig and Per Nørgård, originally in Danish. Versions in Swedish availabl. Versions in English and German in preparation.
Wilhelm Hansen
Category Opera and Music Theatre
Duration 2 Hours
Solo Instrument(s)
2 Sopranos, Mezzo Soprano, Alto, 2 Tenors, 2 Baritones, Bass
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Full Score(s) KP00861

Programme Note

Opera-ballet in 3 acts (I. Morning. II Noon. III. Evening).
Libretto by Ole Sarvig and Per Nørgård, originally in Danish. Version in Swedish available. Versions in English and German in preparation.
For soli, mixed choir, children choir, ballet dancers and orchestra.

Note: the entire Programme note-material consists of three texts by Nørgård (I. Introduction and synopsis., II. Play for the Expected One – The opera “Siddharta” and Its Music. III. Creation - the Collaboration with the poet Ole Sarvig), to be used as needed.

The drama deals with the birth and youth of Siddharta — the prince who, later, after much suffering and privation, became Buddha. The opera’s three acts move gradually from a ‘mythical passage of time’ in the first act to a purely naturalistic rendering in the third act. You could compare to the landing of an aircraft: From high up the overall view is the greatest though the details be obscure, while on ground level the overall view is lost though the details become visible, scented and audible. The main theme of the legend, as enacted here, is the sheer loneliness and despair that Siddharta feels when the successful deception of his father and everyone around him — carried out with the best of intentions — is revealed. And how he rejects a manipulated existence based on a lie.

Night at the palace of Kapilavastu. Dancing and ceremonies in honor of King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. But Queen Maya is lonely and sad. She feels that she will soon leave this earth. King Suddhodana prays to heaven for a son. The ceremonies are repeated and time passes. Maya’s sister Prajapati plays a singing game with some children about “grief, which strikes at random”. Three itinerant beggars join in the children’s singing game. They witness how Maya emerges from her solitude to dance for an unborn child. Suddhodana goes to her.
At daybreak Maya goes out into the garden to give birth. The sun rises and a messenger proclaims the joyful news about the newborn child, Prince Siddharta, to whom Maya has given birth. He tells of the remarkable boy who was “immediately able to stand up and walk seven steps towards all four points of the compass”. The wise astrologist Asita interprets these signs: “The child shall attain life’s zenith and be given the flower of life on earth, but he shall leave his father’s kingdom”. Suddhodana and all his counselors are worried. Is the newborn child to leave the palace and renounce his inheritance? No, his spirit shall remain dormant, he must be protected from the courtiers and ail the people are convinced of this, all except the doubting Asita. The prince is to grow up in a realm of bliss, his spirit bound with the fetters of beauty and pleasure; sickness, old age and death must never be mentioned. Thus the sick, the old and the ugly are to be hidden away. In a violent outburst of mass hysteria all that bears these ´visible signs of life´ are seized and thrown into the dungeons. The first victim is the happy, yet lame, messenger.
A procession with the dead Maya’s body interrupts the mass hysteria. Prajapati, who, like Asita, has taken exception to the violence, condemns it openly, but all are bound by the king’s great plan. The work of building the sheltered pleasure-garden now begins, and the people start preparing themselves for the new ‘dolca vita’.

Suddhodana regards his work contentedly. Everything has succeeded. Beautiful young people dance in the pleasure garden, among them Siddharta. Prajapati warns: “Under each bloom, see — root and earth and night-black kingdom of worms. Don’t lie to the prince!” Prajapati has also noticed the strange absent-mindedness that sometimes comes over the prince when “he gazes around as in wonder”. Suddhodana turns a deaf ear to Prajapati’s doubts. The prince must find himself a wife. Suddhodana arranges a game in which Suddhodana is to offer a gold ring to three princesses, Tara, Kamara and Yasodhara, who regard each other anxiously. The wise and lovely Yasodhara resolutely takes the ring and Siddharta fails head over heels in love with her. Yasodhara is the boldest of them all; she knows that life is a dance. The other princesses are seized with anger and despair. Kamala breaks down from her unrequited love, and Siddharta, for whom everything is a game, admires what he believes to be her acting for his pleasure. Yasodhara has second thoughts. Can she love someone who is ‘blind’? She puts Siddharta to the test. Having defeated the other princes in a merry contest he must immediately pick out the veiled Yasodhara. Siddharta is victorious and finds Yasodhara. The wedding festivities begin. Suddhodana and the court are triumphant. The prince is now “caught up in life” — caught in the meshes they themselves have spun. But Asita is still doubtful. In the middle of the merry feast Siddharta notices his father’s and the counselors’ almost brutal triumph and Asita’s doubts. At times the festivities seem like a nightmare, but he cannot understand why. When the wedding guests depart Prajapati is left alone with her uneasiness and her anxiety
Yasodhara has borne her husband a son. Late one afternoon she and Siddharta are sitting with some friends in the garden. They beg the dancing-girl Amra to entertain them as the enchantress “Mragatrashana”. Arnra dances while her sister Gandarva relates an old love story about the boy who loved Kairia, who turned out to be the princess Schirma. Siddharta and Yasodhara themselves take part in the story and Siddharta wonders at the ambiguous spectacle Kairta who is Schirma played by Mragatrashana played by Amra! But who is playing Amra? What if everyone around him is always acting parts…? Anxious thoughts are aroused and the play proceeds with increasing agitation. The story takes a dramatic turn and the word ‘grief’ revives vague memories in the prince. Something he once overheard. Amra, who is ill, can no longer hide the fact and collapses from her dancing. Her distracted sister Gandarva cries out that everything is now lost and that they must flee, “down into hell”. At first Siddharta cannot, or perhaps will not, understand. He stares at the sick Arnra. Then the truth strikes him. In “three visions” he sees sickness, old age and death. He sees his father’s aging face, and sees the sick Amra die and be dragged away. Prajapati enters and realizes that the moment of truth she has both dreaded and hoped for has arrived. She takes the half-crazed prince’s head in her hands and tells him everything —about his mother Maya’s death and the deception his father has staged in order to protect him from life. She unlocks the dungeons and Siddharta sees all the victims of the realm of bliss that has been created for his sake. But the mechanism of violence functions yet again and the poor wretches are driven back into their holes. Siddharta makes as if to leave, but Suddhodana and the court beg him to stay nevertheless, and to carry on the heritage of his forefathers. Yasodhara implores him to take her with him, but Siddharta refuses. With melancholy irony he takes leave of his father and of all those who have deceived him. He removes his princely garments and, as the sun sets, he turns his back on his childhood home and leaves the Palace.
Per Nørgård (1984)

Although the entire opera takes place in the garden of Kapilavastu palace the setting of the first act is vastly different from that of the last two. Whereas the old feudal order, with its king, counselors and the entire pyramid, right down to the poor children and the itinerant singing beggars, influences the scenery and sound of the first act, the last two acts are a princely construction — an intervention in the ‘natural pecking order’, made even more rigorous, for that matter, by the fact that ‘the beautiful’ have become even more beautiful, while ‘the ugly’ have simply been tucked away down in the palace dungeons. But how does this difference between act 1 and act 2-3 ‘sound’?

In the first act there are many levels of musical effect — from the pompous, ceremonial Palace music to the children’s Dancing Song and the singing beggars’ Ballad. The palace music that introduces the opera is almost tone painting, depicting as it does the soaring palace associated with the indomitable weight and power of the princely-patriarchal order.
Contrasting with this is the other-worldly (and — as the king later discovers — most inconvenient) choric prophesy regarding the events that are to shake the palace out of its routine and even affect the whole way of the world.
Unlike the above, the children’s Dancing Song is catchy and playfully melodious. On the other hand, the singing beggars’ Ballad is serious, and almost melancholy and archaic in character.
Despite the dissimilarity of these four ‘palace’ themes, they all never the less originate from the same musical source — an endlessly ramifying sequence, the so-called infinity series, whose continuous stream from note to note (with harmonics and sub-harmonics) can be used to extract melodies, not least by ‘filrering the stream’, e.g. By using for instance every 3rd note (the Palace), every 15th (the Dancing Song) or every 45th (the Ballad), whereas the prophecy is the slowest ‘wavelength’ at all used in the opera, i.e. every 75th note. (Note that the infinity series and melodies extracted from the series reappears in slower tempi with every 4th, 16th, 64th etc. note, like fractals):
After having been extracted, the themes can also be converted into new ones by changing the rhythm and accentuation such that they acquire an entirely new dress and yet retain their special character. As you will hear for example, the Dancing Song, which rouses Queen Maya to a slow sensuous dance for the King —which leads in turn to Siddharta’s conception, and thereby sets the whole opera going. This spring directly from the beggars’ song, but has been given an entirely different rhythm. In Nature, e.g. in the relative lengths of our finger joints, or in old temples and paintings, we find what is known as the “Golden Section” — the mysterious circumstance that the division of a line is such that the whole is to the greater part as that part is to the smaller part – as expressed in the so-called Fibonacci-numbers: 2-3-5-8-13-21 et cetera).

In various works I have converted this ‘beautiful circumstance’ into rhythmical proportions, and precisely the Ballad melody acquires its grace from this gliding, intangible and yet concise rhythm.
When incorporating a given melody in another equally organic rhythmical pattern by changing the accentuation, not only the character of the melody is transformed but even the theme itself may be transformed into something only barely recognizable~ despite the fact that not a single note or duration is altered. This (new) technique is employed particularly in the ‘pleasure-garden music’ of the two following acts, as a seductive (‘black-magic’) trick for combining the familiar (and safe) with the unfamiliar (and titillating!).
In the first art such a transformation occurs only once - organically and naturally incorporated in the conception, pregnancy and birth episodes. The ‘innocent’ Dancing Song acquires a touch of syncopation and now forms the basis for an orgiastic (almost ´Lennart Nilsson-like´ spermic) dance far removed from the simplicity of the original, in which the exhilarating background of trumpets, piccolos and percussion instruments increases the rhythmical élan.

There are no ‘leitmotifs´ in this opera, bur the unity underlying even the most contrasting passages makes possible reappearances and transformations that are capable, for example, of illuminating a state of mind, and possibly its similarity to dissimilarity to a previous state. Thus, Prajapati sings an aria (“Men under hver blomst..”), which reoccurs twice in the second act, in which her protest against her brother-in-law’s regal command — to remove the painful sides of life from the young prince’s sight — is expressed in an accelerating cadence which rises at the finish (in English translation: “But under each bloom, see – root, and earth and night-black kingdom of worms.”)

The exactly opposite mood is manifested in a related passage, when king, counselors and people extol the blessings of the new order — a kind of ´golden canon´ that nevertheless reveals the dissonance underlying the manipulated ‘unity’. The people all believe they are living (and singing) in mutual harmony, oblivious of the fact that they are really living in a ‘curved’ tonal universe in which what, in the high octave, is, for example, a sharpened note is in the lower octaves a natural ‘dissolved’ note and, further down in a deeper octave, possibly even a flattened variant of this! Something scours…

Since Siddharta is an opera of melodies and clear-cut motifs, it is difficult for me to limit my examples. They insist on being mentioned; but lack of space compels me to impose stricter limits than the composer in me really cares for. That most of the examples mentioned here are taken from the first act is due to the need to illustrate interconnections between the various themes of the opera. So, as far as the last two acts are concerned, I shall limit myself to a couple of examples, purely in order to illustrate the artificial, prescribed ‘pleasure-garden music’, of which most of the music in act 2 and act 3 consists.
As mentioned, what I express as desirable is a combination of the “familiar and safe” — and the “unfamiliar and titillating”. The sparse use in the first act of a technique involving a change of accentuation almost becomes an orgy of transformation music in the second act, where theme after theme, orchestral passage after orchestral passage, is revealed on closer hearing (or reading)being identical with earlier passages or themes. A “new metric structure” is solely responsible for this illusion of musical change! For example, the ambiguity of the “Ball-music” in opening of the second act is immediate manifested in the two main themes underlying the dance in youth’s ‘eternal’ noon. One of them is merry — festive — square cut, while the other is restless – elegant – scudding. But the notes of the two passages are identical; the change is hidden in a ´new metric structure´.

When Siddharta finally leaves the palace he must necessarily sing his farewell-song in precisely the style he has been brought up with — what else would he have at his disposal? Despite its painful contents the farewell-aria there by acquires a strangely ironical change in relation to the pleasing and conflict-free surface of the ‘pleasure-garden music’, which constitutes the entire repertoire he can draw upon. This irony is nevertheless only a mask covering an almost explosive yearning for everything he had not previously known, but which now insists on being seen and felt. Thus, paradoxically, the constant ambiguity that pervades Siddharta reaches its culmination in precisely the aria with which the prince rejects the palace and all its work!

And as he walks away he is met by delicate, soft motifs, rhythms and tones, which are as new and unfamiliar as the very future he is about to enter.
Per Nørgård (1984)

Note: The above is Nørgårds programme article for the premiere (1983), the enclosed music examples being omitted. The examples are to be found and downloaded via “Per Nørgårds skrifter online” (The writings of Per Nørgård online) – on this link:

Having completed my opera Gilgamesh (1971-72), I contemplated a kind of ‘sequel’, though on a different level. Gilgamesh, as I saw him, was a person lacking in self-control, who nevertheless acquired it through experiencing loss — thereby breaking through to a new level of consciousness, that of brotherly love. Now, almost waggish, my question was “How in fact would a ‘self-controlled person’ act — and what would that person’s reaction be to the experience of loss?” Eventually a couple of figures came to my mmd: Jesus and —no, not Buddha, but that Prince Siddharta, who only achieved the state of ‘Buddha-ness’ after the trials and tribulations of many years. With the figure of Jesus it was especially His tremendous loneliness during the last night in the Garden of Gethsemane that interested me. There, on the eve of His approaching death, not even His nearest and dearest could support Him during the agonizing period of waiting — before the arrest, torture and terrible execution.
I visited the Danish poet Ole Sarvig (1921-81) at his home in Glumsø in the south of Zealand and told him of my interest in the loneliness-theme associated with the figure of Jesus. With that idea in mind, to whom else could I turn than to the originator of the unique book “Evangeliernes Billeder belyst af denne tid” (Images of the Gospel Illuminated by Our Time)? I explained to him that his mythical poetic sounding-board would obviously appeal very strongly to me in connection with precisely the figure of Jesus, but so would his “Krisens Billedbog” (“Picture Book of the Crisis”), with its metaphysical, sleuth-like eavesdropping on this century’s gradual, almost exhibitionist self-unveiling — spiritual ‘strip-tease’ right through to the marrow.
Sarvig listened — his head characteristically bent and slightly on the slant — as he smiled amiably and archly into his comforting teddy-bear beard. But he instantly found the Jesus-idea too difficult — and therefor a bad one. The danger of the “emblematic” was more than imminent, he said, and I soon came to realize that he was right.
I had in a letter murmured something about Siddharta though, and now Ole suddenly brought up the idea himself with warmth and interest. A Seven-year collaboration had begun. I added the Jesus-idea to my list of shipwrecked works and thereafter concentrated entirely on the Siddharta-theme.
Siddharta’s great despair and horror on learning the truth probably on a par with that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane — and his feeling of having been let down by his entire surroundings must even have exceeded what Jesus felt? The creation of the libretto for “Siddharta - Play for the Expected One” took place on my terms, which Ole generously accepted. This was not to be yet another ‘author’s opera’ (my words) which the composer merely ‘sets to music’ according to the author’s forms — recitatives, arias and chorus — but an opera composition, in which the words may well be essential but also closely integrated with and subordinate to the music-drama. In short, having mapped out the theme (for which Ole produced an astonishing ‘collection of elements’, or details regarding the background story, we proceeded to outline the acts. And from a few crucial sentences, or ‘modules’, arose the scenes and acts that followed upon the composition of the music/word-pictures.
Unfortunately Ole came thereby to produce rather more verbal material (in “module form”, as we had agreed) than the composer in me could absorb — and reproduce in music. At lunch in a provincial cafe where I happened to let most of the contents of a hors d’oeuvre platter return to the kitchen, he could not help sarcastically comparing his own plentiful proposals with the untouched dishes that now left the table. In addition (‘carried away by the process’, as Ole kindly yet euphemistically put it) I had begun to find sentences myself, since now and again snatches of song in combination with the contents of a scene, suddenly ‘heard’ and thereupon composed, prompted me to concretize the dramatic picture also in words, even though Ole might not yet have managed to provide ‘module texts’ for that particular place.
However, Ole received these young verbal cuckoos in a fatherly fashion, preened their feathers with his poet’s breath, so that they slipped in among Ole’s original contributions relatively unnoticed. Moreover, as a by-product of this quite special collaboration, Ole insisted on being merely credited for his ‘assistance’. Nevertheless, I feel that throughout this not always easy process some good strong Sarvig-lines have appeared in Siddharta — lines that arouse that special feeling of a ‘mythical flow’ which is associated with Sarvig’s oeuvre. Both Ole and I regarded this approximately 2500 year-old Siddharta story as both timeless and, in several respects, of burning current interest. Without directly adhering to any conspiracy theory as concerns ‘the international military, financial and political demonism’, nowadays everyone must be able to perceive the efforts to repress — to scour off life’s raw edges, to beautify the horrific with comforting manners of speech - which reduce, as in a universal mass media-trance, both life and death into a kind of non-stop, harmless-grotesque, Evelyn Waugh-style ‘American funeral’.
Even Siddharta’s unwavering resolution to leave the very palace and the very structure that had for so long deceived him touches on a current problem. How many young people (and old) have not felt the absence of this Siddharta-like resoluteness when yet another of the numerous present day infamies has come to light?
What happened, for example, to the political cleaning up process following Khrushchev’s disclosure of Stalin’s reign of terror at the 1956 Party Congress? How could people go on living with an organization that had made such perverse monstrosities possible? How can today’s telling figures concerning the cancer risk incurred by daily exposure to radioactivity in uranium mines and nuclear power stations fail to put a stopper to this long-drawn-out cannibalism?
Such and similar questions in our time — with the rearmament-craze, pollution and inequality in the center —appeal to all those who don´t obediently say “yes, my father!” to the ever more demented consequences of traditional power political measures to adopt this uncompromising attitude. Siddharta’s ´no!´ would at first glance appear insignificant — as helpless in its protest as ‘Women’s fight for freedom’ — but people must say no, and people must fight, however impotently, until sufficiently many fighters find a common tempo.
Per Nørgård (1981)
‘(From an article in the book in Danish ‘Tidstegn -en bog Ole Sarvigs forfatterskab”(Signs of Our Time, a book about Ole Sarvig’s oeuvre), Centrum Publishers, 1982.)


    [...] Per Nørgård with his character and originality he reaches far beyond national borders.
    With Nørgård music is a means of expansion of consciousness.
    His music takes place in newly discovered country, where the abstract clashes with the physical laws - and actually can only reach its final formulation in the consciousness of each single listener.
    To experience "Siddharta" is a luminous and glowing experience - an insigth into another possiblily, possibly another musical reality.
    , Aktuelt, 06/04/1987


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