Philip Glass



© GlassPages, 1998

Cover Picture

CD Cover (Georgina Lehner)






by Philip Glass

From the book Minimalists: Glass looks Akhnaten score (Clive Barda)Akhnaten marks the culmination and conclusion of a lengthy period in my compositional life. It completes the trilogy of "portrait" operas I began in 1975 with Einstein on the Beach (in collaboration with Robert Wilson) and continued in 1979 with Satyagraha (whose libretto was a joint effort by me and the writer Constance de Jong, with the assistance of designer Robert Israel).

I will leave detailed remarks about the historical Akhnaten to Shalom Goldman who, with Robert Israel and Richard Riddell, shared with me for over a year the pleasures and pains of shaping this libretto. That shaping began in January 1982, after Akhnaten had been commissioned by the Stuttgart Opera, and continued during the actual process of musical composition, which I started in the summer of 1982. Work on Akhnaten was hardly continuous, though, for during that same time span I wrote such fairly sizeable pieces as The Photographer and Koyaanisqatsi, as well as a number of less expansive works. Numerous performances and tours, some of them international, with the Philip Glass Ensemble further interrupted any musical excursions to ancient Egypt. Eventually, though, both music and text were finished (in July 1983) and, working with Michael Riesman, Kurt Munkacsi and Richard Einhorn, I proceeded to make a complete synthesizer recording of the opera "in real time". I then sent the tapes to the Stuttgart production team eight months before the scheduled date of the opening. On March 24, 1984, Akhnaten had its world premiere in a production by Achim Freyer.

Akhnaten, Gandhi and Einstein - three men who revolutionized the thoughts and events of their times through the power of an inner vision. This, then, is the theme of the trilogy. Einstein - the man of science; Gandhi - the man of politics; Akhnaten - the man of religion. These themes (science, politics, religion) are, to an extent, shared by all three and they inform our ideological and real worlds.

We took all our texts from Akhnaten's own time, the Amarna period. Decrees, titles, letters, fragments of poems, etc., were all left to be sung in their original languages, thereby emphasizing the artifactual slant of our approach. The greater part of the Amarna period has come down to us as fragments. Therefore, rather than to "make up" the missing parts of this ancient story - to fill in the gaps, as it were - we chose to present the historical period as we found it, much as we might learn from Akhnaten and his time from the partially told story revealed in the exhibition cases of modern museums. The original languages, their sounds and cadences as understood by contemporary scholarship, became part of the story to me and my collaborators.

Our narrator provides the audience, in today's language, with an account of what is being sung and spoken during each scene.

Each of the three operas of this "portrait" trilogy has its own distinctive sound world. Einstein on the Beach, an opera about a great mathematician who loved music, is for amplified ensemble and small chorus singing a text compromised of numbers (actually the beats of the music) and solfège syllables. Satyagraha, a work about one man leading his people to freedom, is a large choral opera with text taken directly from Gandhi's philosophical guidebook (the Bhagavad-Gita) in the actual language (Sanskrit) in which he read it. In Akhnaten, my emphasis is orchestral, with choral and solo voices sharing common ground with the orchestra.

Despite the differences in timbre and mood of the three operas in the trilogy, they are strongly linked musically. The "knee plays" (short connecting scenes) of Einstein on the Beach became the source of primary musical materials of the other operas. (In Akhnaten this should be particularly noticeable in the Epilogue.)

Should the three operas be performed within a fairly narrow time span (within the same week, for example), I believe their internal connection will become increasingly obvious and provide the audience with a coherent musical and theatrical experience.


by Shalom Goldman

Very deep is the well of the past,
Should we not call it bottomless?
- Thomas Mann

Amenhotep III (Brooklyn Museum) The recorded history of ancient Egypt extends over a period of three thousand years. This vast time span opens with the legendary Menes, the king who unified the upper and lower kingdoms in 3100 BC and closes with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Our selection of these dates is, of course, arbitrary: as Westeners looking at the ancient Near East, we feel compelled to set definable limits and to describe dynasties and historical periods.

(The Egyptians themselves felt no such compunction. The priests of Memphis told Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 450 BC that they were in possession of a papyrus listing the 330 royal predecessors of the great Menes and that this list covered the last eleven thousand years of Egyptian history! His Greek readers, themselves heirs to ancient traditions, were astounded by these claims, but grew to accept them as proof of the antiquity of the wisdom of Egypt.)

Akhnaten appears in the midpoint of the time span of three millenia. His dynasty was the eighteent to rule since the time of Menes, and, when he ascended the throne in 1375 BC, he fell heir to centuries of rigid conservatism and inflexibility. Though there had been political upheavel and even foreign domination during the preceding centuries, the structure of society and its relation to the royal court remained unchanged.

This fanatical conservatism, noted by the Greeks and other early visitors to Egypt, was the product of the secure, cyclical nature of the Egyptian environment. Unlike its neighbours in Asia and Africa, Egypt was not dependent on the rains to ensure its food supply: the Nile rose with predictable certainty, inundating the land and allowing for continuous cultivation of crops. The complex series of canals dug to facilitate irrigation had to be maintained and controlled by a strong central authority, personified by the king.

These environmental factors, combined with the tendency to elevate the kind to divine status, gave the Egyptian state and religion an inflexible character. Indicative of the effect of the land and the environment on the culture was the fact that Egyptian religion did not travel well. Unlike later, monotheistic faiths that spread successfully beyond their own borders, Egyptian religious devotees outside Egypt itself were limited to members of the various mystery cults that flourished in the last centuries of the pre-Christian era.

During the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's father, the Egyptian religion, characterized by a bewildering multiplicity of gods, was dominated by the priesthood of Amon, god of Thebes. Economic and political power lay in the hands of that priesthood, and the priests' influence over the royal court was considerable. The art and architecture of the period betray a strong clerical influence. The obsessive nature of the temples of Karnak at Thebes - with their endless rows of sphinxes, columns and royal statues - testifies both to the wealth of the priesthood and to the rigid conventions of their art. The pharaohs were portrayed as frozen in the "correct" posture; rarely was a sense of individuality conveyed.

The kings of the 18th Dynasty, founded two hundred years before Akhnaten by Ahmose I, had carved out a vast empire in Africa and western Asia. In a wave of conquests they took Nubia and the Sudan to the south, and Syria, Lebanon and Canaan to the east. The Egyptians held these territories by installing vassals over the area's city-states.

Amenhotep III solidified these holding. An able administrator and statesman, he encouraged trade with foreign lands. Goods and services flowed between Egypt, Syria and Phoenicia, as well as Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus and northern and eastern Africa. With the increase in trade came an exchange of cultural artifacts and religious ideas. The latter part of Amenhotep III's reign ushered in international trade, exchange of ideas and religious ecumenicism.

This great age in Egypt's cultural and religious history might have remained unknown if it had not been for an accidental discovery: in 1887 an Egyptian peasant woman went to gather fertilizer in the ruins of Tel-el-Amarna, a site on the Nile midway between Memphis (near modern Cairo) and Thebes, turned over the soil and discovered hundreds of clay tablets covered with wedge-shaped characters. This proved to be the site of Akhetaten, the center of Akhnaten's empire.

These tablets made their way into the hands of local smugglers and later into thoe of antique dealers, though the first archeologists who saw them dismissed the tablets as an elaborate hoax. It was a number of years before the language of the tablets was identified as the Akkadian cuneiform script of Babalonia, and the tablets themselves found to be the correspondence between the Egyptian royal court and the kings and princes of western Asia. Though Egypt was the dominant world empire of the time, Egyptian scribes carried on their correspondence in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the age.

There are more than 360 of these tablets, now known as the Amarna letters, and one of their recurrent themes is the forging of political alliances through marriage: Amenhotep III marries the sister of the king of Babylon, and we find him requesting a royal daughter as well. He also marries a daughter of the ruler of the northern kingdom of Mittani, and when Amenhotep III dies, this woman, Tadukhipa, becomes the property of his son. In addition to these royal wives, he amasses a collection of royal concubines from the neighbouring states.

In that new age of internationalism, religious and theological distinctions tended to blur. Men of neighbouring countries realized that there could be only one set of divine powers, though the names of the gods might differ from locale to locale. Within Egypt itself there were ideological forces tending toward monotheism. Each nome (district) has its own god, usually in animal form, but this same god tended to be identified with the god of another nome. The god Thoth, deity of wisdom and writing, was portrayed as the sacred ibis in one district, as a baboon in another. Thus the idea arose that the gods might be different manifestations of the same creative power.

The most frequent worshipped force in the natural world was the sun. Its power was represented by the falcon-headed god Horus, by the human-divine figure Atum, or by the dung beetle Kheper. The sun also had a secular designation - aten - which symbolized the sun disk itself. The stage was thus set for Akhnaten's introduction of the aten as the manifestation of the supreme power of the universe.

Akhnaten's reign, and his revolution, lasted only seventeen years. His rebellion against the massive weight of tradition encompassed religion, statecraft, art and language; and in each of these areas he attempted revolutionary innovations.

His reign ended violently. The forces of conservatism and reaction were too powerful, and the old order prevailed. The failure of his revolution strengthened the conservative trend in Egyptian life. The vehemence with which his very memory was defamed (his successors subsequently labeled him "that great criminal of Akhetaten") knows no parallel in Egyptian history.

With the demise and disappearance of Akhnaten and the end of the Amarna period, a dark curtain descended over Egypt. The Kingdom of Light was no more.


by Philip Glass
and Shalom Goldman

From the book "Music by Philip Glass": Akhnaten, Act II, Scene 2, Houston (Jim Caldwell)

By the time of Akhnaten, the god of Thebes (Amon) had emerged from the highly elaborate Egyptian pantheon as the dominant deity. The challange Akhnaten posed to the social order of his day was twofold. First, Akhnaten's god, Aten, was presented to the people of Egypt as a wholly abstract idea of God (the first abstract idea of a godhead that we know of). Secondly, he sought to preempt the place of Amon (which had allowed an established priesthood to be lavishly maintained) with the relatively obscure god of Heliopolis, whose slight political and religious ties Akhnaten attempted to support by his personal and invested authority.
The funeral of Amenhotep III, father of Akhnaten, appears as a central theme of the opera and embodies concepts central to the vision of life in ancient Egypt. In Act I, Scene 1, the funeral of Akhnaten's father is presented as the first major image. The other appearances of the funeral offer glimpses (some quite short) of the "progress" of the funeral. The funeral, then, appears as an ongoing event throughout the opera - an event that serves as a context in which all the other action appears.
It is evident that within the three thousand years of recorded Egyptian history, the seventeen-year reign of Akhnaten known as the Amarna period stands apart as a brief, vivid aberration within the context of an extremely traditional, conformist society. This was apparent not only in Akhnaten's religious ideas but in the art and even in the manners of the time. The opera Akhnaten, therefore, aims at presenting a strikingly different picture of the "old" order as it appears in Act I, Scene 1, and the years of Akhnaten's reign. The gods of ancient Egypt were effectively banished by Akhnaten. Their somewhat exotic treatment, both musically and visually, during the scenes of the "old" order are meant to heighten this difference.
The narration - delivered by the Scribe (Amenhotep, son of Hapu) - presents all the spoken text in the lanuage of the audience. This material, drawn directly from monuments, letters and inscriptions from the time of Akhnaten, accompanies the action and provides the audience with a text both understandable and descriptive.

The opera is divided into three acts, each about fifty minutes in lenght. The music in each act is continuous and the scenes follow each other without pause.

The vocal text of Akhnaten, with a single exception, is sung in three languages of the ancient Near East (Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew). Ancient Egyptian, written in hieroglyphs, was the language of Akhnaten and his court. Akkadian was the language that he and his scribes employed in their diplomatic correspondence. Biblical Hebrew was still developing at this time, for Akhnaten ruled more than a century before the commonly accepted date for the Hebrew exodus from Egypt (1250 BC).

The words of these vocal texts have been adapted from the foregoing ancient languages. They are not exact transliterations of the three ancient scripts, since these languages present multiple problems to the transliterator. Egyptian, for example, has no system for indicating vowels, and all of these languages contain sound which are impossible to reproduce in English. We have attempted, therefore, to establish a vocalization that can be effectively rendered by modern singers, enabling them to recreate the rhythms and cadences of the languages of a long- forgotten era.

The previously mentioned exception is Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Aten" in the second act. In this moment of deeply personal religious emotion, Akhnaten clearly was expressing his innermost thoughts. Therefore we have stipulated that the Hymn should always be sung in the language of whatever modern audience is hearing it.


From the book Music by Philip Glass: Akhnaten, Act II, Scene 2, Stuttgart (Horst Huber) Akhnaten, the third of Philip Glass's "portrait" operas, is based on the life og the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who ruled Egypt from 1375 BC to 1358 BC. Like Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, it is not a "story" opera but an episodic-symbolic portrait of a historical personality whose visionary ideas dramatically changed the perceptions of the world around him.

Act I reveals Akhnaten's ascendency to the throne. It commences with the death of Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's father and introduces one of the major recurring themes of the opera - the Egyptian funeral rite. The funeral symbolizes the Egyptian interest in life after death, and, through its recurring presence, it becomes the unifying image of the opera: a shimmering epiphany in which death merges with life and man meets his image of God. It is an image reverberating with the ever present reminder of our shared mortality where ideas are the only accomplishments that survive. Amenhotep IV (meaning "spirit of Amon") is crowned pharaoh, but when he rises to address his people he has become Akhnaten (meaning "spirit of Aten"), signifying his abolition of the god Amon and the pantheistic past of the Egyptians in favor of the innovative concept of the monotheistic god Aten. Unlike other gods who were represented by idols, Aten was the first totally abstract concept of God, and Akhnaten calls on his people to join him in worshipping this revolutionary god. The act ends with Akhnaten watching the funeral of his father crossing into the Land of the Dead. The age of Amon has ended, and the time of Akhnaten has begun.

Act II portrays the changes Akhnaten wrought: he leads a revolt that deposes the powerful priests of Amon, the old older; he abandons the polygamy of prior pharaohs for the love of his beautiful wife, Nefertiti; and he creates Akhetaten, "City of the Horizon of Aten", a temple of art and beauty in honor of his new god. Like the legendary King Arthur, here he seeks to create his Camelot, inspired by the beneficence of his god Aten. The act ends with Akhnaten's hymn to the god, praising its beauty and recognizing it as the force of creation which only he, as the son of Aten, can recognize.

Act III depicts Akhnaten's fall. Isolated from his people and oblivious to the pleas of the outlying lands of his kingdom, where foreign barbarians are attacking the Egyptian empire, Akhnaten dwells in an insular world of his own creation: his city Akhetaten and his family. The priests of Amon emerge from the gathering crowds and call for the people to overthrow this pharaoh who ignores the suffering of his people and, lacking a male heir, must be thought cursed by the gods for his heresy. The temple of Akhetaten is destroyed. The old order is restored. Akhetaten is now a ruined city, recently excavated and on view for tourists only to hint at how much has disappeared with time, and in the Epilogue we find Akhnaten and his family wandering among the ruins. Slowly realizing that their time has passed, they join the funeral procession on their last journey... The age of Akhnaten has ended.

Vocal Text Sources:

Act I, Scene 1:
E. A. Budge. The Egyptian Book of the Dead (3 vols.). London: K. Paul, 1909.
Act I, Scene 2:
E. A. Budge. An Egyptian Reading Book. London: K. Paul, 1904.
Act I, Scene 3:
E. A. Budge. The Gods of the Egyptians. London: K. Paul, 1904.
Act II, Scenes 1 & 2:
Sir Alan Gardiner. "The So-Called Tomb of Queen Tye." Journal of Egyptian Archæology, 43. Copyright 1957 The Egypt Exploration Society, London; reprinted by permission.
Act II, Scene 3:
J. H. Breasted. A History of Egypt. New York: Scribners, 1909.
ACT II, Scene 4:
D. Winton Thomas, trans. "Akhnaten's Hymn to the Aten." In Documents from Old Testament Times, ed. by D. Winton Thomas. Copyright 1958 Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., London; reprinted by permission.
ACT III, Scenes 1 & 2:
S. A. Mercer. The Tel-el-Amarna Tablets (2 vols.). Copyright 1939 Macmillan Canada Ltd., Toronto; reprinted by permission.
ACT III, Scene 3:
Eugene Fodor. Fodor's Egypt. Copyright 1975 Fodor's Travel, Inc. New York; reprinted by permission.
Arthur Frommer. Frommer's Guide to Egypt. Copyright 1982 Frommer/Pasmantier Publishing Co., New York; reprinted by permission.



The opera begins with an orchestral Prelude. The curtain rises towards the end of the Prelude, revealing the Scribe in the funeral setting. He delivers the Refrain, Verse 1 and Verse 2 of the text as the Prelude is completed. In the moments of silence before the funeral begins, he continues his speech through Verse 3.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom)

Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Verse 1
Clouds darken the sky
The stars rain down
The constellations stagger
The bones of the hell hounds tremble
The porters are silent
When they see this king
Dawning as a soul
(repeat above)
Verse 2
Men fall
Their name is not
Seize thou this king by his arm
Take this king to the sky
That he not die on earth
Among men
(repeat above)
Verse 3
He flies who flies
This king flies away from you
Ye mortals
He is not of the earth
He is of the sky

He flaps his wings like a zeret bird
He goes to the sky
He goes to the sky
On the wind
On the wind


The scene presents the funeral of Akhnaten's father, Amenhotep III. As the starting point of the opera, it represents the historical moment immediately before the "Amarna period" or the reign of Akhnaten and depicts the society in which the reforms of Akhnaten (reforms which appeared so extreme that they can be called revolutionary) took place. The action of the scene centers on the funeral rites of the New Empire of the 18th Dynasty. It is dominated by the Amon priests and appears as ritual of extraordinary traditional character drawn from The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The funeral cortege enters downstage led by two drummers and followed by a small body of Amon priests who in turn are led by Aye (father of Nefertiti, advisor to the recently dead pharaoh, and the Pharaoh to be).

Text: Sung in Egyptian by the Funeral Chorus (from Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead)

Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shall exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years

Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Aha en heh

As the music goes to the cellos alone, the deceased Amenhotep III enters behind the procession. He appears to be headless and is holding his head in his hands.

The music for orchestra, small chorus and solo bass voice (Aye) resumes:

Text: Sung in Egyptian by small chorus (from Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead)

Hail, bringer of the boat of Ra
Strong are thy sails in the wind
As thou sailest over the Lake of Fire
In the Underworld

Ya inen makhent en Ra,
rud akit em mehit
em khentik er she nerserser
em netcher khert

During the next section for orchestra alone, the funeral cortege (Amon priests and Amenhotep III) moves upstage. Akhnaten and the people of Thebes join Aye downstage.

In the final section of the funeral, the people of Thebes and Aye join the orchestra in a last salute to the departing Amenhotep III:

Hail, bringer of the boat of Ra, etc.

Live life, thou shalt not die, etc.

Ya, inen makhent en Ra, etc.

Ankh ankh, en mitak, etc.


From the book Music by Philip Glass: Akhnaten, Act I, Scene 2, Houston (Jim Caldwell) The short opening to the second scene show Akhnaten alone as the Scribe, Aye and the people of Thebes leave and the funeral cortege departs. Akhnaten's attendants appear and, by changing his costume, prepare him to receive the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. There is not singing or narration in this section.

The next section for orchestra accompanies the appearance of the Scribe, the Amon High Priest, Aye and Horemhab as well as the people of Thebes. Akhnaten has remained with his attendants.

The following section includes the trio of Amon High Priest, Aye and Horemhab with orchestra. The dramatic intent of this moment is to prepare Akhnaten to receive the double crown.

Text: Sung in Egyptian by Amon High Priest, Horemhab, Aye and Large Chorus (from Budge, An Egyptian Reading Book)

Hail to thee, thou who art in peace
Lord of joy, crowned form
Lord of the wereret crown, exalted of plumes
Beautiful of diadem, exalted of the white crown
The gods love to look upon thee
The double crown is established upon thy brow

Ye-nedj hrak yemi em hetepu
Neb aut yeb sekhem kha-u
Neb wereret ka shuti
Nefer seshed ka hedjet
Mertu netcheru maanek
Sekhi men em weptek

The opening music of the scene recurs as the Scribe announces the names and titles of the new Pharaoh. During this speech Akhnaten receives the double crown from the Amon High Priest assisted by Aye and Horemhab.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from a list of Akhnaten's titles).

Live the Horus, Strong-Bull-Appearing-as-Justice;
He of the Two Ladies, Establishing Laws and
causing the Two-Lands to be Pacified;
Horus of Gold, Mighty-of-Arm-when-He-Smites-the-Asiatics;

King of Upper and Lower Egypt,
Nefer Kheperu Ra Wa en Ra,
Son of Neb-maet-Ra
(Lord of the Truth like Ra)
Son of Ra, Amenhotep (Amon is pleased)
Hek Wase (Ruler of Thebes), Given Life.

Mighty Bull, Lofty of Plumes;
Favorite of the Two Godesses,
Great in Kingship in Karnak;
Golden Hawk, wearer of Diadems in the Southern Heliopolos;
King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Beautiful-is-the-Being of Ra,
The Only-One-of-Ra,
Son of the Sun,
Peace-of-Amon, Divine Ruler of Thebes;
Great in Duration, Living-for-Ever-and-Ever,
Beloved of Amon-Ra, Lord of Heaven.


A windowed balcony of the palace used for state appearances.

The music from the opening of the coronation scene is heard again, played on large bells and providing a musical and dramatic transition to what follows.

Akhnaten is joined by Nefertiti and his mother, Queen Tye. They approach the Window of Appearances and sing (first a solo, then duet, then trio) through the window. It is a hymn of acceptance and resolve and, in spirit, announces a new era.

Text: Sung in Egyptian by Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye (from Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians)

Oh, one creator of all things
Oh, one maker of all existences
Men came forth from his two eyes
The gods sprang into existence at the utterances of his mouth

Tut wu-a yeri enti
Wa-a wa-u yeri wenenet
Perer en rem em yertif
Kheper netcheru tep ref

He maketh the green herbs to make cattle live
And the staff of life for the use of man
He maketh the fish to live in the rivers,
The winged fowl in the sky

Yeri semu se-ankh menmen
Khet en ankhu en henmemet
Yeri ankh-ti remu en yetru
Apdu genekh pet

He giveth the breath of live to the egg
He maketh the birds of all kinds to live
And likewise the reptiles that creep and fly
He causeth the rats to live in their holes

Redi nefu en enti em suhet
Se-ankh apnentu yeri ankhti khenus
Djedfet puyu mitet yeri
Yeri kherti penu em babasen

And the birds that are on every green thing
Hail to thee maker of all these things
Thou only one.

Se-ankh puyu em khet nebet
Hrak yeri
Enen er a-u

The music continues with full orchestra. Tye and Nefertiti leave Akhnaten alone. He stands gazing at the distant funeral cortege floating on barques across a mythical river to the Land of the Dead.



The scene begins with a short introduction for orchestra. We then see an Amon temple and a small group of Amon priests led by their High Priest. They sing a hymn to Amon.

Text: Sung in Egyptian by Amon High Priest and Amon Priests (from Gardiner, "The So-Called Tomb of Queen Tye", Journal of Egyptian Arch\ae ology)

Oh Amon, creator of all things
All people say
We adore you
In jubilation
For resting among us.

Amen men khet nebet
Ya-u-nek em em djed
Sen er ayu
Nek henu nek en
En wered ek imen

The following orchestral section introduces Akhnaten, Queen Tye and a small party of followers (Aten priests, soldiers, etc.) of the new order.

After surrounding the temple, Atenists, led by Akhnaten and Queen Tye, attack it. Here we see Akhnaten for the first time as the rebel he was, venting his hatred if the old order on the Amon temple. The attack is complete, and the roof of the temple is pulled off as the light of "the Aten" pours into what once was the "holy of holies." The attackers sing a vocalise, no words being necessary here.


From the book Music by Philip Glass: Akhnaten, Act II, Scene 2, Houston (Jim Caldwell) An orchestral transition prepares the scene, which is devoted entirely to a duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti.

With the introduction of the solo trombone, the Scribe begins reciting a poem. The first time we hear the poem it is as if addressed to a god.

With the entrance of the strings, the poem is heard again, this time spoken as an exchange between two lovers. During this second reading, Akhnaten and Nefertiti appear. There follows the duet between the two, not alone together. The vocal text is the same poem sung in Egyptian.

At the end of the duet the music returns to the orchestra alone. There is a brief pause, then Akhnaten and Nefertiti resume singing while behind them is seen the funeral cortege in a later stage of its journey, this time ascending on wings of large birds to the heavenly land of Ra.

Text: Recited by the Scribe and then sung in Egyptian by Akhnaten and Nefertiti (love poem found in a royal mummy of the Armarna period, from Journal of Egyptian Archæology, translated by Sir Alan Gardiner)

I breathe the sweet breath
Which comes forth from thy mouth.
I behold thy beauty every day.
It is my desire
That I may be rejuvenated
With life through love
Of thee.

Sesenet neftu nedjem
Per em rek
Peteri nefruk em menet
Ta-i nehet sedj emi
Kheruk nedjem en mehit
Renpu ha-i em ankh
en mertuk.

Give me thy hands, holding thy spirit.
that I may receive it and may live by it.
Call thou upon my name unto eternity
And it shall never fail.

Di-ek eni awik kher ka-ek
Shesepi su ankhi yemef
I ashek reni er heh
Ben hehif em rek


The Scribe speaks the first part of this scene alone, without musical accompaniment. His speech is taken from the boundary markers (or stelæ) of Akhnaten's new city, Akhetaten (The Horizon of the Aten). During his speech, Akhetaten - a new city of light and open spaces that represents architecturally and visually the spirit of the epoch of Akhnaten - appears behind him.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from the boundary markers found in the valley at Tel-el-Amarna, in Breasted, A History of Egypt)

Stela 1
And his majesty said unto them, "Ye behold the City of the Horizon of the Aten, which the Aten has desired me to make for him as a monument in the great name of my majesty forever. For it was the Aten, my Father, that brought me to this City of the Horizon. There was not a noble who directed me to it; there was not any man in the whole land who led me to it, saying, 'It is fitting for his majesty that he make a City of the Horizon of Aten in this place.' Nay, but it was the Aten, my Father, that directed me to make it for him. Behold the Pharaoh found that this site belonged not to a god, nor to a goddess, it belonged not to a prince nor to a princess. There was no right for any man to act as owner of it.
Stela 2
"I will make the City of the Horizon of the Aten for the Aten, my Father, in this place. I will not make the city south of it, north of it, west of it or east of it. I will not pass beyond the southern boundary stone southward, neither will I pass beyond the northern boundary stone northward to make for him a City of the Horizon there; neither will I make for him a city on the western side. Nay, but I will make the City of the Horizon for the Aten, my Father, upon the east side, the place for which he did enclose for his own self with cliffs, and made a plain in the midst of it that I might sacrifice to him thereon: this is it.

"Neither shall the Queen say unto me, `Behold there is a goodly place for the City of the Horizon in another place', and I harken unto her. Neither shall any noble nor any man in the whole land say unto me, `Behold there is a goodly place for the City of the Horizon in another place', and I harken unto them. Whether it be downstream or southward or westward or eastward, I will not say, `I will abandon this City of the Horizon.',"

The dance, which immediately follows the brass fanfare, contrasts with the heavy traditional ritual of the temple scene which opened this act. Musicians (triangle, wood block, tambourine) appear on stage with dancers, as well as Akhnaten and principal members of his entourage, in a dance that marks the celebration and inauguration of the city of Akhetaten.


The music that follows the dance is taken from the orchestral introduction to the coronation scene and serves as preparation for Akhnaten's "Hymn to the Aten". At its conclusion, Akhnaten is left alone.

The "Hymn to the Aten" is a central moment of the opera. In it, Akhnaten espouses in his own words the inspiration for his religious and social reforms. The Hymn is sung in the language of the audience.

Text: Sung by Akhnaten ("Akhnaten's Hymn to the Aten", from Winton Thomas's English translation published in Documents from Old Testament Times)

Thou dost appear beautiful
On the horizon of heaven
Oh, living Aten
He who was the first to live
When thou hast risen on the Eastern Horizon
Thou art fair, great, dazzling,
High above every land
Thy rays encompass the land
To the very end of all thou hast made

All the beasts are satisfied with their pasture
Trees and plants are verdant
Birds fly from their nests, wings spread
Flocks skip with their feet
All that fly and alight
Live when thou hast arisen

How manifold is that which thou hast made
Thou sole God
There is no other like thee
Thou didst create the earth
According to thy will
Being alone, everything on earth
Which walks and flies on high

Thy rays nourish the fields
When thou dost rise
They live and thrive for thee
Thou makest the seasons to nourish
All thou hast made
The winter to cool
The heat that they may taste thee

There is no other that knows thee
Save thy son, Akhnaten
For thou hast made him skilled
In thy plans and thy might
Thou dost raise him up for thy son
Who comes forth from thyself

At the close of the Hymn, Akhnaten leaves the stage deserted, and the act ends with distant voices singing.

Text: Sung in Hebrew by Offstage Chorus (from Psalm 104, Hebrew Bible, Masoretic text)

Oh Lord, how manifold are Thy works
In wisdom hast Thou made them all
The earth is full of Thy riches
Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment
Who stretchest out the Heavens like a curtain

Thou makest darkness and it is night
Wherin all the beasts of the forest do creep forth

Ma rab-bu ma-a-se-kha ha-shem
Ku-lam be-khokh-ma a-sita
Ma-le-a ha-a-rets kin-ya-ne-kha
O-te or ka-sal-ma
No-te sha-ma-yim ka-yi-ri-a

Ta-shet kho-shekh vi-hi lay-la
Bo tir-mis kol khay-to ya-ar

(repeat first three lines)

Translation: King James version



From the book Music by Philip Glass: Akhnaten Act III, Stuttgart (Horst Huber) The stage is divided, one side showing a room in the palace in which can be seen Akhnaten, Nefertiti and their Six Daughters. Outside the palace, on the other side of the stage, are the people of Egypt, soldiers, outlawed priests of Amon and the Scribe. The opening of the scene depicts Akhnaten and his family in a moment of intimacy, oblivious to the crowd outside. As they sing to each other a sweet, wordless song, it is apparent that in their closeness they have become isolated from the outside world.

The focus shifts to the people outside the palace. The Scribe (drawing on tablets known as the Amarna Letters that were sent to Akhnaten from Syrian princes) begins to incite the crowd, which presses toward the palace and becomes increasingly restless.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from the Amarna Letters as cited in Mercer, The Tel-el-Amarna Tablets)

Letter No. 1:
I have written repeatedly for troops, but they were not given and the king did not listen to the word of his servant. And I sent my messenger to the palace, but he returned empty-handed - he brought no troops. And when the people of my house saw this, they rediculed me like the governors, my brethren, and dispised me.
Letter No. 2:
The king's whole land, which has begun hostilities with me, will be lost. Behold the territory of Seir, as far as Carmel; its princes are wholly lost; and hostilities prevail against me. As long as ships were upon the sea the strong arm of the king occupied Naharin and Kash, but now the Apiru are occupying the king's cities. There remains not one prince to my lord, the king; every one is ruined. Let the king take care of his land and let him send troops. For if no troops come in this year, the whole territory of my lord, the king, will perish. If there are no troops in this year, let the king send his officer to fetch me and his brothers, that we may die with our lord, the king.
Letter No. 3:
Verily, they father did not march forth nor inspect the lands of the vassal-princes. And when thou ascended the throne of thy father's house, Abdashirta's sons took the king's lands for themselves. Creatures of the king of Mittani are they, and of the king of Babylon and of the king of the Hittites.
Letter No. 4:
Who formerly could have plundered Tunip without being plundered by Thutmose III? The gods of the king of Egypt, my lord, dwell in Tunip. May my lord ask his old men if this not be so. Now, however, we belong no more to our lord, the king of Egypt. And now Tunip, thy city, weeps and her tears are flowing and there is not help for us. For twenty years we have been sending to our lord, the king of Egypt, but there has not come to us a word - no, not one.

The scene shifts back to the palace. This time Akhnaten is alone with his two eldest daughters. They continue to sing, appearing more withdrawn and isolated from the events outside.


Horemhab, Aye and the Amon High Priest push to the front of the crowd and also begin to rouse the people (Large Chorus). The principals and chorus sing a text taken from the Amarna Letters. Soon the palace is surrounded.

Finally, the mob bursts through the palace doors and windows in a wave of shouts, overwhelming Akhnaten and his remaining family and carying them off.

Text: Sung in Akkadian by Amon High Priest, Horemhab, Aye and Large Chorus (from Mercer, The Tel-el-Amarna Tablets)

Let the king care for his land
The land of the king will be lost
All of it will be taken from me
There is hostility to me.
As far as the lands of Seir even to Carmel,
There is peace to all the regents.

Lim-lik-mi sha-ri a-na ma-ti-shu
Khal-kat mat sha-ri Ga-ba-sha
Tsa-na-ta-ni nu-kur-tu a-na ya-shi
A-di ma-ta-ti She-eri Gin-Ti-kir-mil
shal-nu a-na gab-bi kha-zi-a-nu-ti
u nu-kur-tu a-na ya-shi.

But to me there is hostility
Although a man sees the facts
Yet the two eyes of the king, my lord, do not see
For hostility is firm against me.

Ip-sha-ti e-nu-ma a-mel a-mi-ri
u-l a-mar i-na sha-ri be-li-ya
ki nu-kur-tu
a-na mukh-khi-ya shak-na-ti

As sure as there is a ship in the midst of the sea
The might arm of the king
Will seize Nahrima and Kapasi.
But now the Apiru are taking
The cities of the king.
No regent is left to the king, my lord,
All are lost.

E-nu-ma e-lip-pa i-na lib-bi tam-ti
kat sha-ri dan-na-tu
Ti-lik-ki Nakh-ri-ma u kapa-si
u i-nan-na a-la-ni sha-ri
Ti-li-ki-u Kha-bi-ru
Ya-nu-mi ish-ten kha-zi-a-nu
a-na sha-ri be-li-ya khal-ku gab-bu


In the silence at the close of the last scene, the Scribe appears out of the chaos to announce the end of Akhnaten's reign.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from Aye's tomb)

The sun of him who knew thee not
Has set, O Amon.
But, as for him who knows thee,
He shines.
The temple of him who assailed
Thee is in darkness,
While the whole earth is in
Who so puts thee in his heart,
O Amon,
Lo, his sun hath risen.

The next section for orchestra and the Scribe is a reprise, in shortened form, of the opening Prelude. It serves as a transition to the present day and is divided as follows:

The Scribe describes the rebuilding of the Amon temples after the fall of Akhnaten.

Text: Recited by the Scribe (from Tutankhamen's tomb)

The new ruler, performing benefactions for his father Amon and all the gods, has made what was ruined to endure as a monument for the ages of eternity, and he has expelled the great criminal and justice was established. He surpassed what has been done previously. He fashioned his father Amon upon thirteen carrying poles, his holy image being of fine gold, lapis lazuli, and every august costly stone, whereas the majesty of this august god had been upon eleven carrying poles.

All the property of the temples has been doubled and tripled and quadrupled in silver, gold, lapis lazuli, every kind of august costly stone, royal linen, white linen, fine linen, olive oil, gum, fat, incense, myrrh, without limit to any good thing. His majesty (Life! Prosperity! Health!) has built their barques upon the river of new cedar from the terraces. They make the river shine.

The orchestral music becomes very full and no action is indicated. Finally the city of Akhetaten appears as it exists in the present: a ruined city, recently excavated, the walls barely three feet high at most.

Several groups of tourists wander through the ruins taking photos, exploring, looking about.

The last group of tourists is led by the Scribe, now appearing as a twentieth-century tour guide describing to the group what they are seeing.

Text: Recited by the Scribe as tour guide (from Frommer's Guide to Egypt} and Fodor's Egypt)

To reach Tel-el-Amarna, drive eight miles south of Mallawi to the point where you cross the Nile. On the east side of the Nile the distance is less than a mile and can be covered on foot or on donkey.

Behind the present village, at the ancient site of Tel-el-Amarna, the ruins known as the palace of Nefertiti are among the very few remnants of the Akhnaten period. Tablets in cuneiform writing, which contain correspondence between Egypt and Syria, were found here and are now the the Cairo Museum. (To see any sights on the Eastern bank of the river you must cross by ferry which carries cars along with the usual donkey carts and local traffic. The ferry docking station is located at the southern end of the town. You should arrive there at least one-half hour before the 6:00 AM crossing. The ferry does a brisk business and you will need every available second for sight seeing.)

There is nothing left of this glorious city of temples and palaces. The mud brick buildings have long since crumbled and little remains of the immense stone temples but the outlines of their floor plans.

In addition to the tombs and ruins of the city, there are several stelæ scattered around the plain which mark the limits of the land belonging to the city - most of them are too widely scattered to visit and are also in bad condition.


All the tourists have left. The ruined city is empty. The ghosts of Akhnaten and the other principals appear moving about their now-dead city. Singing parts are taken by Akhnaten, Nefertiti and Queen Tye, but they sing no words. At first they seem not to know that they and their city all are dead and now a part of the past. They become aware of the funeral cortege of Akhnaten's father (Amenhotep III) moving across the background. They form a procession of their own and, as the opera ends, can be seen moving off toward the first funeral group still on its journey to the heavenly land of Ra.

Audio samples

Act I, Scene 1: Funeral of Amenhotep III (39 secs., 307 Kb. ).

GlassPages Review

"Akhnaten" (composed in 1983) is the last part of Philip Glass' "Portrait-Trilogy". After Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, now an exponent of religion is the protagonist of the opera, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Akhnaten revolutionized the leading religion in ancient Egypt by introducing the monotheism, that means, for him "Aton" was the only god. But after all he failed because of the striving for power and force of the traditional priests, and he was overthrown.

In the three operas of the trilogy there is a slow changing noticeable. In "Einstein on the Beach" the person of Einstein has a more metaphoric meaning; in "Satyagraha" appears the real person Gandhi but the scenes are not ordered chronologically and have changed metaphorically. In "Akhnaten" there stays a certain metaphoric contain, but the scenes are taken chronological from the live of the main character. Similar for all three operas is the use of the language. In "Akhnaten" too, it stays unintelligible most of the time, but also there appears for the first time (spoken) text in a common language. Only the central aria of Akhnaten, his prayer to Aton, has to be sung in the language of the audience.

The score of the opera is a bit strange, because it is a mostly classical orchestra but without the violins. One reason for this kind of orchestration was the fact that the premiere took place in the state-theatre Stuttgart (Germany), where the main house (the "Großes Haus") was closed this year because of some renovation, and in the little house there was not enough place for a full orchestra.

But the lack of the violins fits very good to Glass' intention with this work: the music has a warmer, deeper and darker sound, and the contrast to the winds is more intensively. Also the percussion-instruments get more place, especially in scene 2 of the first act, the funeral of Akhnaten's father. There is a kind of music, which never appears in "Einstein on the Beach" nor in "Satyagraha". In fact, this "Funeral" was the first piece of "Akhnaten" that was played in public, because there is a special version for the Philip Glass Ensemble. This piece was recorded for the CD "Dancepieces", which might be one of the best Ensemble-CDs.

In most parts of the opera there dominates a restful and nearly calm sound; most of it stands in a-minor. The strength and power of Akhnaten himself is represented with the trumpet, which is used as "his" instrument. But there is another really emotional scene with the full orchestra: Akhnaten's fall.

"Akhnaten" is a good work for a start into the sound of Glass' music, as some of the other works I comment. If someone would like to start with something more peaceful and meditative, then "Akhnaten" is a good choice.

© Mathias Sträßer
Nov, 1998 [ ]


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