Kallembach’s Moving “Antigone”


KALLEMBACH: Antigone / Lorelei Ensemble: Sarah Brailey, Rebecca Myers Hoke, Jessica Beebe, Arwen Myers, sop; Christina English, Sophie Michaux, mez; Stephanie Kacoyanis, Emily Marvosh, alto. Cello quartet: Caleb van der Swaagh, Lisa Caravan, Michael Unterman, Jonathan Dexter / New Focus Recordings FCR333

James Kallembach, a name new to me, is an American composer who is also a Senior Lecturer in Music and director of Choral Activities at the University of Chicago’s Music Department. This rather brief but deeply moving and remarkably appealing work was based on both Sophocles’ play on Antigone and the writings of Sophie Scholl, a leader of the Munich-based White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement of the 1940s. Both Sophie and her brother Hans were arrested and executed at the guillotine in 1943.

According to the notes, Kallembach wove Sophie Scholl’s writings into the text of the Sophocles play to create a unified work. As he puts it, “The clash between what we hold to be undeniably just and the decrees of those in power was important two thousand years ago in the public spectacle of Greek drama, it was important during WWII, it is important now and it always will be.” I agree with him and stand by that sentiment, whether the tyrants are Donald Trump or Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or Emmanuel Macron. Those who repress people’s freedoms are to be fought against regardless of political ideology.

Antigone is simply scored for a women’s vocal octet and cello quartet. The piece is divided into a Prologue, three scenes and an Epilogue. The text is primarily Sophocles, but includes fragments from the White Rose writings of Scholl, which are clearly marked in the accompanying booklet. The Epilogue is all Sophie Scholl. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the music is both tonal and melodic but not of the drippy, maudlin school that has so infected many modern-day composers. After a wordless vocal introduction, we hear one of the cellos enter in a different key, which then leads the voices into that domain. The singers all have extraordinarily beautiful voices and completely garbled diction; without the text in the booklet, you wouldn’t have a clue what they were singing (and you certainly wouldn’t suspect the English language) except for the name of Creon. That comes through loud and clear. The cello quartet plays a somewhat repetitive rhythmic pattern behind the voices, but the music is not minimalism since it does change and develop. During the first vocal solo, I also recognized the words “My dear sister,” but nothing else.

white rose

A page from Sophie Scholl’s “White Rose” writings.

The music is modal to a certain extent, using open harmonies, fourths and fifths. Although relatively simple, it has shape and form and is surprisingly lovely and relaxed music considering the serious nature of the text. There is also a sort of continuous development that evolves as each track appears, creating a whole structure rather than a series of episodes. In the fourth track, “Who could be sure,” one of the cellos plays pizzicato in a manner similar to that of a jazz bass but without a real jazz feeling. The ensuing vocal ensemble interweaves the voices in contrasting melodic lines, creating a hypnotic effect. Following this is a purely instrumental passage in which the four cellos also play against one another. The music develops slowly enough that even a lay listener can catch all of what is going on. In track 6, “Then Creon, knowing that the people were uneasy in time of war,” Kallembach uses bitonal harmonies, just enough to give a little edge to the music.

Despite its brevity—only 36 minutes (the album is being marketed as an “EP”)—this is a surprisingly rich and well-written piece. It exhibits a feeling of sadness without belaboring the point and, if one reads the libretto as it plays, you will find that it mirrors the text fairly well. In track 7, “O numberless wonders,” Kallembach has the cellos echo the vocal line. All of this is subtle but not the least boring.

The music, and atmosphere, become more tense in the section “Then, suddenly, a sentry approached, leading Antigone in chains,” followed by a deeply-felt lament in the solo section “But lo, now what dark sign?” In fact, the music from this point on is faster and somewhat edgier than before, and although there is not any real jazz feeling in the music, there is a certain blues feeling that I detected despite the use of non-blues form.

Antigone is proof positive that there is still some interesting and moving music to be written in a tonal idiom. True, it’s not a large-scale masterpiece like an opera or a symphony, but its relatively simple approach works extremely well in getting the message of the Sophocles play and some of Sophie Scholl’s writings across. I cannot recommend this quiet little gem highly enough.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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