For about as long as many people can remember, Hungarian composer György Kurtág has been working on his first opera, based on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. It’s been announced, postponed, re-announced and re-postponed to the point where one begins to wonder if it will ever become a reality, but if all goes well, the opera will finally be unveiled in Salzburg next year.
In the meantime, Kurtág has made available a typically minuscule sliver of music either directly taken or derived from the opera, in the form of a three-minute work for string quartet, titled Clov’s last monologue (a fragment). It’s cast in a simple ternary form structure (A1-B-A2), quickly establishing – after a fortissimo opening blast – an achingly fragile but lyrical primary idea. A wafer-thin melody that falls more than it rises, Kurtág barely nourishes it with bleached harmonies and almost casually disinterested pizzicati, in the process providing just the barest hint of development. Read more
Today marks the start of Lent, and for this year’s Lent Series i’m turning to the world of the small: miniatures. i’ve written in the past with no little enthusiasm about ‘epic’ compositions, but there’s something equally remarkable about a piece of music that’s able to convey something cogent in a seriously limited amount of time. i haven’t set myself a strict time-limit for the pieces featured in the series, though i suspect nothing longer than around three or four minutes. Read more
To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more
For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more
Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more
A recent new work permeated by the subject of death is Trauermärsche for chamber orchestra, by French composer Philippe Manoury. By tapping into the funeral march idea, Manoury sought to engage with what he has described as its dual character, “at the same time something tragic but also something derisory … and macabre”, elaborating how the use of the plural in the title—literally ‘Funeral Marches’—is “because it will be like several funeral marches mixed together so one can imagine that there are several orchestras, one appearing when another disappears, and then the first one comes back, etc.” Although he cites influences from both Mahler (the famous ‘Frere Jacques’ music in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1) and Webern, the music of Trauermärsche is most concerned with alluding to practices of processional, with the funereal processions of New Orleans especially in mind. Read more