The second piece i’m featuring in this year’s 5:4 Advent Calendar is STANZA, a short orchestral work by German composer Arne Gieshoff. The work’s title is a two-fold reference, to poetic structure (which in Gieshoff’s programme note seems to point toward Italian forms derived from the ‘strambotto‘, comprising eight lines of eleven syllables each) and also to the German word ‘Stanze’, which translates to the equivalent of a punchbag. The first of these references has influenced the structure of the piece, the second its high-octane character.
The combined result of these references is a music that’s continually twisting back and forth between discretely characterised attitudes. Even within the opening minute this basic paradigm has become clear, pitting muted brass clamour (reinforced by a loudly cracking whip) against mischievous wind chatter and a brief moment of reflection. It’s clear that STANZA is all set for a variety of head-on collisions.
i love the fact, although the piece lasts barely five minutes, and Gieshoff has structured the piece according to a clear sectional scheme, it nonetheless feels decidedly difficult to navigate. It’s like trying to ride a bucking bronco sat on top of a runaway train: a pure, exhilarating adrenaline rush but with the constant sense that everything could come unstuck and go flying at any moment. An integral part of its navigational challenge is the way instruments change their attitude and affiliation throughout the course of the piece. Those brash trumpets that got the piece going and rudely propelled it along, less than a minute later are holding everything back, preventing the accumulated weight achieved by wind and strings from continuing with a cheeky series of wah-wahs. Likewise, the strings, which early on in the work display some of the most potent quantities of implied power, end up switching to an altogether more lyrical demeanour.
That shift in the strings is part of a large-scale move away from the hyperactive energy that dominates the first half. This climaxes around two minutes in, becoming huge before a kind of false repose is answered by further surging accents, a deliriously intense sequence. Whereupon Gieshoff pares things back, focusing on percussion while the orchestra is restrained behind. The strings quiver, but then initiate a new melodic vein that seems to want to take STANZA into a slow, dreamy denouement. Elements continue to collide, though, with vestigial appearances of the irrepressible winds and further loud percussive potshots, though it’s a tiny woodblock that ends up having the final word.
This performance of STANZA took place in March 2013, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Baker.
STANZA is a short piece for orchestra. The work was commissioned by the St Magnus International Festival with support from Robert Clark and Susan Costello for performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård at the 2012 festival.
The title is drawn from the poetic verse format with the same name. In versification a stanza describes a pattern of eight verses which consist of eleven syllables. A similar structure determines the overall shape of the music: The piece consists of eight sections of differing proportions which are further divided through rhythmic patterns consisting of eleven beats and eight articulation points. The music unfolds in a disruptive manner presenting the described patterns as horizontal lines and vertical ictus.
Beyond the structural considerations there is also a more immediate relation between the choice of the title and the emotional content of the music: When translated to German the word Stanze has an alternative meaning relating to a ‘punching device’. In musical terms this correlates with the directness in character as well as with the maintaining of momentum that I wanted to achieve in this piece.