Written by Ronald Comber
Nacht und Trompeten
Hans Abrahamsen (1952- )
One of Denmark’s most important composers, Hans Abrahamsen has had a storied career marked by periods of silence, during which he would re-appraise his artistic vision. From being a follower of the central European Avant-Garde school of composers, he later espoused what was termed ‘the new simplicity’, which offered a more human alternative to the rather doctrinaire reticulations of the central European style.
Nacht und Trompeten, written in 1981, offers a glimpse into Abrahamsen’s oeuvre – a musical world that combines modernity, with all of its uncertainties, with a glimpse into a Romantic past. He writes:
“The piece is dedicated to Hans Werner Henze, from whose request the piece arose. The music unfolds in a space, in which the memory of the earlier music has the same reality as the music of today. But the music of the memory is naturally distant and vague, whereas the music of today is present and gesticulated.
“In the opening section the past and the present are clearly separated, but during the piece, this balance is lifted, as “the music of the past” (trumpet signals, Sicilian melodicity, romantic Pathos, Stravinskian neo-classicism) in a dynamic and often dramatic surrealistic play with minimalism and modernism of today is unravelled.”
Seven Early Songs
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
One of the most important composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Alban Berg was the first composer of the new Second Viennese School, to allow a certain gentle humanism back into what was an increasingly intellectual approach to the art of composition. At the time of writing today`s work, he was exploring the very edges of the Viennese post-Romantic world.
As an adolescent, Berg was more interested in literature than in music, and had only a limited musical education, but intrigued and then fascinated by the views and art of the iconoclastic Arnold Schoenberg he went on to study harmony and counterpoint with him. This was the time of Schoenberg’s monumental Gurrelieder, a work that stretched traditional harmony to its limits and Berg, using it as a demonstration of what was possible began to work on his Seven Early Songs, initially for low voice and piano. Three songs, Die Nachtigal, Liebesode, and Traumgekrōnt, were first performed at a concert put on by Schoenberg on behalf of his pupils. Ten years later, Berg made a careful revision of what were now Ten Songs and had them published. Finally, in 1927, Berg determined to recast the original seven for high voice and orchestra, changing the order and keys in a series of attempts to make seven quite disparate works into a single cohesive song cycle. After much effort he succeeded brilliantly, capturing the evanescently shifting moods within a subtly varied orchestration that reinforces the lyrics and makes them shimmer and glow.
Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
There are many people who find Mahler’s symphonies too overpowering for comfort. The strangely challenging part writing, the sudden fierce climaxes, the unnerving grotesqueries, and the underlying morbidity all combine to produce an emotional effect quite unlike the work of any other composer, and often not a little harrowing in its cumulative force. Mahler strove to express his inner-most feelings through his music, and in his tragic, perverse, heroic way, he succeeded, influencing the creative development of music as he went. He was, in many ways, the last and the greatest of the Post-Romantics, though Elgar outlived him, but it was his misfortune to have achieved a purpose not universally acceptable.
Mahler wrote one symphony, however, that has proven to be a delight to all, the Symphony in G Major, no.4. It is the resolution of the emotional conflicts developed in his first three symphonies and the reflection of Mahler’s short-lived spiritual peace. As a result, it is a work filled with a rare serenity and occasional gaiety, written for a much reduced orchestra. It is less obviously ambitious in his scope, because it doesn’t need to be.
The Fourth Symphony was written in the summers of 1899 and 1900 at Maiernigg, Carynthia, in periods of calm following turbulent musical seasons with both the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler, as one of the acknowledged greats of all conductors, performed continually in these years. Controversial, political and demanding, he drove himself as well as his orchestras to the very pinnacle of musical expression through interpretation. His summers were always devoted to composition, partly as a form of therapy, partly because it was the only time he could find that was free from distractions.
Mahler conducted the premiere of the Fourth Symphony in Munich on November 25, 1901, to really vitriolic reviews from the musical press. As the composer they had for years loved to hate, Mahler, in writing more palatably to their way of thinking, had sold out. Viennese critics were even more hostile later. But when the furore died down, the work’s merits were so obvious that it became the standard by which Mahler’s new works were to be judged, to Mahler’s sardonic amusement.
The Symphony No.4 is in four movements and follows standard symphonic form, at least in its first three movements.
The first movement, marked “deliberate, unhurried”, presents us with a spirit of Viennese charm. The four principal themes: dapper, gay, whimsical, and tender, in turn, vie for supremacy with an almost Schubertian clarity and vigour. Structure and form are strongly marked here, giving the movement a rare drive.
The second movement, a Scherzo marked “in easy motion, without haste”, is a droll Danse Macabre, featuring a major solo for a violin tuned a whole tone up. Shrill and a trifle grotesque, the violin solo sets the tone for the movement, yet is answered by the sensible Romanticism of the two Trios. A remarkable, slightly tongue-in-cheek exercise.
The adagio movement, marked “restful”, was by Mahler’s account, his “…vision of one of the church sepulchres showing a recumbent stone image of the deceased with his arms crossed in eternal sleep”. The music is gentle, spiritual. In double-variation form, the movement builds to only one climax at the end, leading to the Finale, a song.
The last movement, marked “very comfortably”, achieves the perfect contrast with the elegiac preceding variations without once resorting to violence. Taken from Mahler’s 1892 setting for Des Knaben Wunderhorn, it expresses Mahler’s new-found peace of mind with joyful naivety.
by Ferdinand Max Hauptmann (1858-1921)
The clouds embrown the night and valley;
the mists float above, the water rushing gently.
Now all at once they unveil themselves:
o listen! pay heed!
A broad land of wonder has opened up.
Silver mountains rise up, fantastically huge,
silent paths lit with silver
from the hidden lap of the valley;
and the noble world is so dreamily pure.
A mute beech stands by the path,
black with shadows; a breeze from a distant,
lonely grove wafts gently by.
And from the deep darkness of the valley
flash lights in the silent night.
Drink, my soul! Drink in this solitude!
O listen! pay heed!
Along a secret forest path
I like to creep in the evening light;
I go to the desolate, reedy banks,
and think, my maiden, of you!
As the bushes grow dark,
the reeds hiss mysteriously,
and lament and whisper,
and thus I have to weep and weep.
And I think that I hear wafting
the gentle sound of your voice,
and down into the pond sinks
your lovely song.
In the chamber
The lovely evening peers so quietly in.
A little red fire
crackles in the stove and flares up.
And with my head upon your knee,
I am contented.
When my eyes rest in yours,
how gently do the minutes pass!
In the arms of love we fell blissfully asleep;
at the open window the summer wind listened
and carried the peacefulness of our breath
out into the bright, moonlit night.
And out of the garden, feeling its way randomly,
the scent of roses came to our bed of love
and gave us wonderful dreams,
dreams of intoxication, rich with yearning.
Now the days drag through the world,
sent forth from blue eternity;
time dissipates in the summer wind.
Now at night the Lord weaves
with blessed hand wreaths of stars
above the wandering wonderland.
In these days, o my heart, what can
your brightest wanderer’s song then say
about your deep, deep pleasure?
In meadow song the heart falls silent;
now there are no words, and image upon image
visits you and fills you entirely.
Lyrics::Mahler Symphony No. 4
The Heavenly Life
(from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.
John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn’t cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.
Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.
Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.