The Named Angels (2012)
Commissioned by ROKI for The Borromeo String Quartet
I. Mikhail’s Thunder
II. Azrael, Malak al-Maut
III. Jibreel at Hira
IV. Israfel’s Spell
Since I was a little boy, I’ve been fascinated with the mythology of angels in Middle Eastern folklore. They embody justice, power, kindness, healing, death, and other universals that have made them pervasive in many of the world’s cultures. It is natural to express these attributes musically, since music is present in all human communities — it transcends the present and expresses the eternal, never-changing truths of the human condition.
The Named Angels refers to those angels that are named and recognized in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions: Michael, Israfel, Gabriel and Azrael. Each of the four movements represents a character portrait of a specific Angel. The piece begins with a quick and vigorous movement titled Mikhael’s Thunder. Mikhael (Arabic for Michael, an archangel in Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings) is an angel attributed with great visceral strength. He brings thunder to Earth but is also identified in the Quran as an angel of mercy, and in Book of Revelation he leads God’s armies against Satan’s forces. The movement captures that dichotomy as it vacillates between thunderous gestures and what I’ve marked as a “Hymn of Mercy” in the score.
Following Michael’s explosive portrait is a slow movement called Azrael, Malak Al Maut (Arabic for Azrael, Angel of Death). Azrael is the name used commonly used to refer to the Angel of death in the three Middle Eastern Monotheistic faiths. This narrative movement is framed by two chorales: an opening funeral chorale and a closing transformative chorale. It captures the attitude of the naturalness (even innocence) of death described in the Quran. This movement is more programmatic in structure than the others. It begins with a depiction of the exhalation of a last breath and proceeds to depict Azrael carrying the spirit beyond life and the metamorphosis of the human spirit in the apotheosis that ends the movement.
The next movement, Jibreel at Hira, begins without a pause. Jibreel (Gabriel) is the chief angel in Islam. He is the main messenger to the Prophets, delivering important words from God to Moses, Abraham, Jesus and others according to the Quran. In the Quran as well as the New Testament, Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary while in the Old Testament he appears on several occasions as a messenger to the prophets. Gabriel delivers his final message to Mohammed at a cave called Hira. On a night that Muslims celebrate yearly as the Night of Power, Gabriel appears to Mohammed as he is meditating and commands him to read. The illiterate Mohammed begins to miraculously read in what becomes the first revelation of the Quran. The first part of the movement captures Jibreel’s tender and simple voice as he speaks to Mohammed and the movement builds in intensity capturing the transfixed ecstasy of the Prophet repeating the Angel’s revelation.
The final movement Israfel’s Spell, begins with an invocation of Israfel’s trumpet sounding the Day of Judgment. This heralding theme interweaves with hints of a quick dance. In the Quran, the shaking of the Earth is described as the Earth dancing a dabkeh (a vigorous and ancient Arabian dance form). This develops into a fullyfledged apocalyptic dance. Edgar Allen Poe’s rendition of Israfel was the point of departure for this musical movement. At the opening of the poem Israfel, Poe quotes a particularly musical passage of the Quran: “And the angel Israfel, whose heartstrings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures.” This informs the first lines of the poem that, in turn, gave me the title for this movement:
In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
“Whose heartstrings are a lute”
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.
– Mohammed Fairouz (2012)