I have been fascinated by the myth of Icarus. As a child, I lived in ancient Greece. The book of myths was my favorite and the world of jealous gods and god-like humans was more real to me than the world outside of my windows, full of bloody red flags (the red of the Soviet flag symbolized the blood of the heroes of the Revolution) and the Soviet-trinity portraits of Lenin-Marx-Engels with the occasional bushy eyebrows of Brezhnev looking at me from the walls of the buildings. In some ways the two worlds blurred. The world outside made much more sense through the perspective of the ancient Greek myths, where it was quite common for a power-protective god to devour all his children.
Icarus was one of my heroes (or antiheroes, depending on the interpretation) – the winged boy who dared to fly too close to the sun. The wings were made by his father, Daedelus, a skilled craftsman, who earlier in his life designed the famous labyrinth in Crete that held the Minotaur. Deadalus was held prisoner in Crete and the wings were his only way to escape.
Deadalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or too close to the ocean, but what teenager listens to his father? Exhilarated by freedom, by his own youth, by the feeling of flight, Icarus soared higher and higher until the wax on his wings melted and he fell into the ocean. Oh, gravity! Sometimes I think it is the law of gravity that truly defines our existence.
What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly safely – there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses a question – from Deadalus’s point of view – how can one distinguish success from failure? Deadalus’ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly, was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Deadalus was brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not truly understand his child. If he did, he would realize that the road to freedom leads to its ultimate form – death, which Icarus, with the uncompromising daring of youth, achieves. The desire for freedom, taken to its extreme, receives its absolute form – a closed circle in which success means failure and freedom means death.
The desire to go beyond the boundaries into the ecstatic visionary realm of soaring flight is essentially human. In some ways this desire to transcend the everyday-ness is what it means to be human. That is why this myth has resonated for centuries. Icarus knows the danger of flying too high, but the risk is justified in his eyes. He needs to fly as high as he can, beyond what is possible – it is his nature.
Next week, on February 18, 19 and 20, the National Symphony in Washington D.C., conducted by James Gaffigan will perform American
premiere of my symphonic poem, titled “Requiem for Icarus”. The title was given to this work after it was
written. All my music is abstract, but by giving evocative titles I invite the
listener to feel free to imagine, to access his own memories, associations.
“Requiem for Icarus” is what came to my mind, listening to this work at that
time. Each time I hear the piece – it is different. What is important to me is
that it connects to you, the listener, in the most individual and direct way,
that this music disturbs you, moves you, soars with you, stays with you. You
don’t need to understand how or why – just allow the music to take you wherever
it takes you. It is permissible to daydream while listening or to remember your
own past. It is fine not to have any images at all, but simply experience the
sound. These program notes are a door to your imagination. The music is your
guide. But it is up to you to take the step and cross the threshold.
Listen: Requiem for Icarus [by Lera Auerbach]