For centuries, perhaps millennia, storytellers have found the devil more interesting than the Lord. Among the more famous of them is John Milton, whose 17th-century epic poem “Paradise Lost” depicted Satan as so compelling that Romantic poet and artist William Blake argued that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
The latest artist to tackle Milton’s Satan on a grand scale is composer Stewart Copeland. Though best known as the innovative drummer for famed rock band The Police, Copeland, 67, has also spent more than three decades as a composer of symphonic works, film and TV scores, operas, and even ballets.
This week, he’s in Pittsburgh for the world premiere of “Satan’s Fall,” an oratorio co-commissioned by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. The 35-minute work will be performed at the Roxian Theatre, in McKees Rocks, by a choir of 80 and eight soloists backed by 15 musicians, including a string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a brass quartet, piano, full drum kit and electric bass.
“Paradise Lost” tells the story of the Fall of Man; “Satan’s Fall” focuses on the sections that detail how the prideful Satan and his demonic forces lay siege to heaven and do furious battle with God’s army of angels.
“It explains that question that I'm sure we all ask ourselves: Why does the almighty creator of the universe and everything have an adversary?” says Copeland.
An oratorio is basically a short opera without props, costumes, or on-stage action. “Satan’s Fall” employs Milton’s own verse – mostly from books five and six of his 12-book epic -- edited by Copeland from 15,000 words down to about 1,500. It opens with God declaring that his son, Messiah, is now in charge. “Not so pleased was Satan,” writes Milton. Soloists sing the roles of God, Satan, Messiah, and various angels and Satanic “henchmen.”
“Satan’s Fall” is Copeland’s first oratorio. He was recruited by the 112-year-old Mendelssohn Choir, which, like most classical-music troupes, doesn’t stick to Bach and Haydn. Mendelssohn music director Matthew Mehaffey said the group was looking for a follow-up to its 2018 program featuring choral arrangements of Bob Dylan songs. Mehaffey said he connected with Copeland via Bob Moir, a consultant for the Mendelssohn and a former administrator for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which had commissioned Copeland’s 2016 concerto, “The Tyrant’s Crush.”
For his part, Copeland liked the idea of writing choral music for a rather rock ’n’ roll reason.
“To work with this huge vocal power is very, very metal,” he said. “It’s like Metallica, but without the electric guitar. There's percussion, but it's those 80 voices raised in anger. It’s very rhythmic, it’s very strong, it’s very muscular.”
The work’s musical style fits within the tradition of 20th-century composers Copeland admires: Stravinsky, Debussy, and especially Carl Orff, whose famous “Carmina Burana” is the first choral music he remembers hearing as a child. Still, Mehaffey said, “Satan’s Fall” is a real stretch for the Mendelssohn.
“The musical style is very contemporary and is truly unlike any piece I’ve ever done before,” he said. “It has the edge of heavy metal or hard rock. I mean, the choir doesn’t sing like this very often.”
Audiences for choral music don’t often hear music like this, either, he said. Rather than being structured around the melody – like you’d find in the Mendelssohn’s most recent project, a staging of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” with the PSO – it’s driven by Copeland’s complex, ever-changing rhythms.
“If [people] closed their eyes and thought of what a choir sounds like, you’d think something very angelic, and you know, lofty. And this piece, the choir’s very hard,” said Mehaffey, who'll conduct the piece. “They accent really hard, they sing these hard rhythms and these hard you know, hard rhythmic patterns, and they accent the text. Quite aggressive.”
Copeland actually began writing “Satan’s Fall” some years ago, but commissions by other troupes didn’t work out, the composer said; the work is a co-commission by the Mendelssohn and five other choirs (a number likely to grow, said the Mendelssohn). Much of the final version was crafted in an intensive, workshop-like process this past summer at Copeland’s home studio, in Los Angeles, with Mehaffey and several singers.
One of those singers was Jamie Chamberlin, a soprano who’s performed in other Copeland-penned projects. In “Satan’s Fall,” she’ll sing the role of Raphaella, one of two angels who narrate the story. (The other narrator, Raphael, is sung by her husband, tenor Nathan Granner.)
Chamberlin agreed Copeland’s style is challenging.
“It’s definitely less melodic,” she said. “You don’t get to hold onto the notes maybe as long as you want to because he’s always driving the music forward.”
The singers are also required to contribute sound effects that fall outside the usual realm of choral song.
“They do the howling of outrage. They do the howls of pain. When Satan first knew pain: ‘Ahhh, ahh, ahhh!’” Copeland said. “I can tell the choristers are enjoying it, ’cause it’s just so out there.”
“Satan’s Fall” includes unconventional casting, too. For instance, the role of Messiah is sung by a soprano, the Mendelssohn’s Stephanie Sue Curtis.
“It's all men. And so why not find a really good female role in there?” said Copeland.
In more conventional casting, both God and Satan are sung by basses – respectively, Hayden Keefer and Scott O’Neal.
While Copeland often plays drums in performances of his works, he won't here. Instead, says Mehaffey, the drum kit will be manned by Ronald Heid, an instructor at Seton Hill University and a big fan of Copeland’s.
In another departure from standard choral practice, both the instruments and the voices will be amplified. “It’s going to have a feel of like being at a rock concert in terms of the visceral sense of having the sound hit you,” said Mehaffey, who added that the amplification at the 2018 concerts of Dylan songs made a big difference in how the music impacted the audience.
Copeland first read “Paradise Lost” in school. While he doesn’t consider himself a person of faith, he said that wasn’t an impediment to composing the work.
But while – spoiler alert – God defeats Satan, Copeland he did allow that he agrees with William Blake’s assessment of the Dark One.
“Satan gets all the best tunes, the best lines. … His stuff is the cool stuff, and God is kind of one-dimensional,” he said. ”There's no shilly-shallying when it comes to God's pronouncements. It is what it is. It's only the likes of Satan who come along with arguments, and another way of looking at it.”
Likewise in “Satan’s Fall”: “The music of righteousness is very consonant, the music of Satan complicated and squirrelly,” said Copeland.
The program at the Roxian also includes a selection of short choral works. Featured are a medley of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Friend of the Devil” (arranged by Josh Bauder); Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “O quam gloriosum”; Notker Balbus “Media vita”; and Copeland conducting “O fortuna” from “Carmin Burana.” Copeland himself will introduce "Satan's Fall."