Proms 2018: Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity; Hannah Kendall – Verdala; Isabel Mundry – Gefallen; Luca Francesconi – We Wept (World Premières)

The London Sinfonietta’s Prom concert at The Roundhouse, on 21 July, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I with great works by Messiaen and Ives, plus a quartet of world premières, commissioned to explore aspects associated with the conflict and its aftermath. Composers are often at pains either to avoid extra-musical content entirely or, if present, to play down its significance and play up the subjectivity of the listening experience. One of the few exceptions to this is war music, when composers can breathe a sigh of relief in the expectation that they can lean on programmatic associations to, at least, steer audiences in the right general direction.

Listening to these four pieces, three of which included mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, it was impossible not to acknowledge their ‘war credentials’ due to the way they were presented, surrounded by discussions with three of the composers about their respective inspirations. Yet the extent to which they spoke with authority, or even authenticity, on this subject, was by no means as obvious.

Though it didn’t remotely seem that it would be at its start, the piece furthest removed from what felt like an authentic expression of its underlying theme was Luca Francesconi‘s We Wept, setting simple words by First World War mechanic Dolly Shepherd. Francesconi establishes a potent atmosphere immediately, extremely soft and very dark, polarised at extremities – deep bass and high harmonics – with vague vibraphone notes sounding from somewhere in the middle distance. Within this foreboding space, a tentative lyricism is established, made fittingly unconvincing by the ensemble who either unleash brief, harsh bursts or just tread water. It’s a powerful opening, ideal for exploring what Francesconi called the “incredible paradox”, the rift between the enormity of mass events and the fragility of individual people affected and/or damaged by them.

Yet these ominous opening couple of minutes are answered by a bizarrely pedestrian second half, entirely Faberian in its colouration, its incessant outlining of the vocal line and also in the embellishments and accents surrounding and punctuating it. Something approximating passion remained to the end, though sufficiently stylised that the authenticity it had carried at the start was now absent, its emotional heft rendered inert. A very, very odd composition – all the more disappointing in the wake of those portentous opening minutes.

The title of Hannah Kendall‘s Verdala refers to the ship that transported West Indian soldiers from the Caribbean to Europe during World War I (the same ship that suffered ‘the Halifax incident‘, inflicting terrible injuries on its occupants in 1916). The piece doesn’t use voice, though Kendall did turn to words for inspiration, by the Guyanese poet and activist Martin Carter, specifically his poem ‘O Human Guide‘.

Quite how these twin elements impress themselves upon the music is hard to say. One can draw certain inferences from the way Kendall juxtaposes lyrical flourishes – something of a constant through much of the piece – with ominous occurrences of near-stasis, underpinned most of the time by the sense of a ticking pulse. It’s an unsettling combination of elements, which finds an equivalence later on in what Kendall calls a ‘chorale’, an episode where cautious brass chords are weakly intoned. However, i can’t help wondering whether, as a whole, Verdala is just too vague and abstract, with too much emphasis on its surface materials, to say anything that isn’t skin deep. Put another way, while it obviously says something musically, does it say anything more than that?

Just as simple as this, but very much more telling, was Gefallen by German composer Isabel Mundry. One of Mundry’s primary concerns in the piece was to explore what it means to express trauma, due to the fact that words are inevitably insufficient. Appropriately, she turned for a text to the poet August Stramm, who was killed in fighting at the Eastern Front in 1915, and whose words bespeak something overwhelming that would otherwise be inexpressible, by avoiding direct statement.

Mundry’s treatment of these words places the voice within an utmost uncomfortable soundworld, full of sharp accents, fretful tremolos and looming surges. Until, that is, the singer arrives at “Frauen”, an acknowledgement of self that then becomes assertively and lyrically extended through the second half of the word, “klage” (complaint), heavily reinforced and supported by the ensemble. It’s a moment that transforms the blank universality of the music’s pervading numb dread into something tangible and personal, allowing the voice, for a short time at least, to express their pain through singing and keening. Whereupon Mundry turns the music even more inward than it was at the start, the final words spoken, peppered with vestiges and shadows of the discomfort from the start. Powerfully eloquent stuff.

Confronted by Georg Friedrich Haas‘ the last minutes of inhumanity, i was reminded of his ‘Meet the Composer’ conversation at HCMF 2016, where he openly and poignantly discussed his formative years within a National Socialist household (an ideology he himself shared until the start of his twenties). Much like Mundry, Haas’ piece avoids ostensibly obvious statements as a means to convey a more authentic truth, exacerbated here by keeping from non-German-speaking audiences a translation of his text, taken from Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind.

Haas transfers the uncomfortability from the music to us, the listener, by setting up a behaviourally polarised habitat, alternating between rhapsodic episodes of song, replete with instances of brief but real lushness (balanced out by soft growls) with supportive if restless counterpoint from the ensemble, and spoken sequences where all lyricism has evaporated, the instruments limited to dull percussive clatter. Rather than focusing on trying to make sense of the words, we instead try to grasp what it is that impels the work’s back-and-forth between these modes of expression. Fittingly, rhyme and reason appear to be things of the past in the last minutes of inhumanity, though Haas magnifies the emotional potential of the piece towards its end – though, again, avoiding anything specific: first, with a distressed, groaning, granular texture within which the voice is reduced to practically reciting as if in a horrified daze, and then by a strange major 9th chord that emerges from nowhere, forming a harmonic frame for the singer to place her impassioned final phrase. Haas taps into a fin de siècle musical wasteland in the last minutes of inhumanity, a place of thousand-yard stares and a loose grip on sanity, yet where everything that remains of humanity is poised to burst into angry, outraged flame. Note that title: the blasted, wrecked remains in the piece are the end of inhumanity; Haas’ music, in the face of events infinitely terrible, is nonetheless a prelude to something altogether more hopeful.

The world premières of these four works were given by the London Sinfonietta with Susan Bickley, conducted by George Benjamin.

Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity (World Première)

FLAC [28Mb]

Programme note
Haas has based his new work on two scenes from the monumental satirical drama The Last Days of Mankind in which Karl Kraus, writing during World War I, exposes the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of his contemporaries who have been complicit in this tragedy. After a conversation between two brutalized regimental physicians who, with absurd nonchalance, exchange tales of the atrocities they have perpetrated on the front lines, the “Utopic Charon Cantata” culminates in Kraus’s apocalyptic finale and God’s last words: “I did not want this.” The composer has deliberately decided against a translation of the sung text in order to preserve the work’s uniquely Viennese sardonic wit – that notorious manner of expressing even vile and gruesome things with macabre geniality, humour and irony. In fact, says Haas, it is precisely “the counterpoint between sound and content – this produces the artistic challenge of piece”.
—Ricordi
Hannah Kendall – Verdala (World Première)

FLAC [24Mb]

Isabel Mundry – Gefallen (World Première)

FLAC [19Mb]

Text
Gefallen

Der Himmel flaumt das Auge
Die Erde krallt die Hand
Die Lüfte sumsen
Weinen
Und
Schnüren
Frauenklage
Durch
Das strähne Haar.

Killed

The sky feathers the eye
The earth claws the hand
The airs buzz
Weep
And
Lace up
Womancomplaint
Through
The straggle hair.
[translated by Isham Cook]

Luca Francesconi – We Wept (World Première)

FLAC [24Mb]

Programme note

For the lyrics of We Wept, Luca Francesconi chose a quote by Dolly Shepherd* (“[…] the silence was so awful…”), which was provided by the work’s co-commissioners. Here Francesconi explains the reasoning behind his choice:

[…] It is a special honor for me to recall the suffering caused by a war that is sometimes almost forgotten, but one that marked the start of a new and terrifying affront to human dignity and life. The Great War, as my parents used to call it, was a monstrous example of ferocity that we should always tell our children about, as a warning against the darkest forces that inhabit the minds of human beings. The 14-18 NOW program is firmly committed to just that. When I decided I wanted to use a voice, they provided a number of texts for the lyrics […] and I chose the less rhetorical or celebrative among them. […] Miraculously, the forces of life continue every day, despite the catastrophe around us. It drives me to tears to consider the frailty of the small individual measuring things with a finite yardstick, someone who actually becomes accustomed to the horror of it all in order to survive. I was moved by the words of one young woman of the period, Dolly Shepherd, who was unexpectedly struck by a sense of cosmic void when at last confronted with silence, a long- awaited and serene silence, which took the place of roaring bombs and guns.

*Served as driver and mechanic with Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps at Queen Mary’s Camp (Calais, France 1917-1918).]
-Ricordi

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Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity
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3 Responses to Proms 2018: Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity; Hannah Kendall – Verdala; Isabel Mundry – Gefallen; Luca Francesconi – We Wept (World Premières)

  1. Martin Walker

    I haven’t listened to this yet – waiting for the right moment. You write:” Haas’ piece avoids ostensibly obvious statements as a means to convey a more authentic truth, exacerbated here by keeping from non-German-speaking audiences a translation of his text, taken from Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind.” I don’t know if he is really “keeping” a translation from his non-German-speaking audiences so much as not being able to find anyone who could render Kraus’s notoriously allusive and involved text in an English remotely faithful to the original. I don’t have my Kraus edition at hand, but if you send me the text used in the work I will have a go for the sake of all those hungry Haas freaks out there (HELLO!), barring any rights problems. I think there is a translation of the whole work, probably horrendously expensive…

  2. Martin Walker

    Forget my over-hasty previous comment: if you know the scene the text was derived from, just check http://www.thelastdaysofmankind.com/index.html
    I had forgotten the existence of this site – blame my age…

    • 5:4

      Hi Martin – yes, i provided a link to that site in my article! i take your point vis-a-vis the nature of Kraus’ text, but from the perspective of someone listening without access to the translation (which usually would be provided in a concert) it does seem to me that this is also part of Haas’ strategy, not even providing a provisional translation but instead letting the words sit within the music without the need to follow or parse them.

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