Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 (1597)
IN-SCHRIFT 2 Première of a work commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Sonata quasi una fantasia
... quasi una fantasia ... for piano and instruments dispersed in space
Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale
It is well known that the nature of musical space has had, and still has, great importance for many composers of the 20th and 21st century – György Ligeti for one commented that he had always sought to “suggest space”. The Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, dedicate this gala concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Philharmonie to the theme of “space music”, including a new work written specifically for the occasion by Wolfgang Rihm.
As early as the 16th century, composers of the Venetian School created highly diverse “space music” based on the principle of polychoral writing, exploiting the two opposing organ galleries of San Marco, as is impressively documented by the works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis also creates the impression for the listener of near and distant music, with the music that seems to come from afar representing a long past chapter in music history.
Similarly shrouded sounds are provided by the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una fantasia op. 27 No. 2, known as the Moonlight Sonata, performed by Mitsuko Uchida, while György Kurtág’s spatial composition ...quasi una fantasia... played by the students of the Orchestra Academy together with the pianist, also requires spatially distributed instrument groups in addition to the piano. Hector Berlioz was yet another composer who knew how to use remote instruments skillfully and create imaginary spatial scenes. His monumental Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale op. 15 concludes this concert to celebrate the architect Hans Scharoun’s most significant creation.
“I have seldom been so pleased by a work of modern architecture as by the Philharmonie in Berlin,” declared the Swiss author Max Frisch in spring 1964 in a letter to Hans Scharoun. “This space is one of the great creations of our century, new and incomparable... One is right there where the music emanates, in the music itself.” Scharoun consciously developed his bold spatial conception of the Philharmonie as a contrast to the classical “shoebox” structure. In 1956 he won the competition to build “a new concert hall with ancillary rooms for the Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester” to a design based on the simple idea of putting “the music in the middle”. This novel idea, with blocks of seats rising around a central platform, has been inspiring the composers’ imaginations for more than 50 years and opened new possibilities for the performance of works, both old and new, by situating instruments or groups of instruments in different parts of the hall.
The early flowering of spatially conceived compositions dates from before the first concert halls. Proceeding from the liturgical practice of setting psalms antiphonally, 16th-century Italian composers developed a style of performing vocal (later also instrumental) works using multiple choirs in alternation. Inspired by the architectural and acoustical characteristics of large sacred edifices, there arose the notion of positioning different musical groups in separate locations, not only to increase the sonority but also to create a more plastic interplay of choirs performing together or against one another.
Giovanni Gabrieli, organist and composer at St. Mark’s in Venice from 1584 to 1612, represents a high point in this development. In 1597 he published a collection of largely polychoral vocal and instrumental music entitled Sacrae symphoniae. These magnificent virtuoso works, including the Canzon septimi et octavi toni a 12 for three instrumental choirs, made full use of the performing space on important religious and political occasions.
When Wolfgang Rihm received the commission to write a new orchestral work for the historic architecture of St. Mark’s some 400 years after the publication of the Sacrae symphoniae, he consciously avoided playing with real spatial effects. Rather than resort to polychoral music making that distributes different-sounding individual groups in the church’s nave and galleries, in IN-SCHRIFT (1995) he set himself the challenge of achieving a spatial perspective through purely musical means: “All spatiality should be written into the music itself.”
In the orchestral piece IN-SCHRIFT 2, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation for this concert, Rihm has further developed his preoccupation with different forms of spatial writing. There are six clarinets as well as three percussionists positioned in different locations in the auditorium. This orchestral disposition enabled the composer to play with spatial effects, both real and imagined – for example, in the quiet opening passage – and to cross-fade them in highly subtle ways.
The compositional preoccupation with spatial effects is also a feature of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Dating from 1910, it pays homage to one of the greatest English composers of the Tudor period, who had made a name for himself as a master of spatial writing. In the TallisFantasia Vaughan Williams illuminates Tallis’s music and the phenomenon of polychoralism from an early 20th-century aural perspective. His medium is a string orchestra divided into three groups: two orchestras of sharply contrasting scoring to be separated according to the possibilities offered by the space, as well as a solo quartet comprising the principals. In the course of the work, these three “choirs” appear in different constellations and project the Fantasia’s underlying Tallis theme in a variety of imaginary and actual musical spaces.
Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia… for piano and instrumental groups is among the works directly inspired by the architecture of the Berlin Philharmonie. For three decades Kurtág had exclusively been publishing works for small instrumental and vocal ensembles when, in the mid-1980s, he was commissioned to write a piano concerto for the Berlin Festival. Soon, however, the project stalled: to write an instrumental work for large forces in several connected movements seemed an impossibility to this master of musical miniatures for whom any loss of concentration and repetition were anathema. The dilemma was resolved by a tour of the Philharmonie’s chamber-music hall, at the time still under construction: “It now became clear to me that one could resort to repetition even within the form if it was motivated by projection in the space,” Kurtág later recalled: “...The spatial disposition of different instrumental groups enabled me to find a whole new way of thinking and perceiving.”
The extent of his differentiation of the sound groups within the space is already apparent in the slow opening movement. At the verge of inaudibility, Kurtág unfolds – as György Ligeti once marvelled – “a masterpiece out of musical scraps”. The piano, playing ppppp, intones a sequence of diatonic scale fragments. After several unaccompanied bars of introduction, several groups of percussion enter almost unnoticed, distributed throughout the hall. Gradually they expand the resonating space while making the hall’s architecture musically palpable.
Surely no other 19th-century composer was as preoccupied with the relationship between music and space as Berlioz. In the final chapter of his treatise on orchestration, he explains how the place where sound is produced is a central compositional parameter. At the same time he laments the lack of imagination in the traditional orchestral disposition and dreams of a monumental work for 800 musicians, spatially distributed in a “purpose-built hall (designed by an architect who understands acoustics and music)”.
This daring vision of a building designed expressly for the performance of music deployed spatially was realized only long after the composer’s death. Nevertheless, Berlioz wrote a series of monumental works in which the spatial factor was elevated to central importance – among them the Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. The three-movement work was commissioned by the French state to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution. Its premiere took place on 28 July 1840 as part of an ostentatious funeral procession through the streets of Paris. “It seemed to me that for such a work the simpler the plan the better,” wrote Berlioz in his Memoirs, and that only a large body of wind instruments would be suitable for a symphony that was to be heard – the first time at any rate – in the open air.” The version with added string orchestra was given its premiere on 1 February 1842. Richard Wagner was in the audience and related in a letter to Robert Schumann: “In the last movement are things which nothing can surpass in their grandeur and loftiness.”
Mitsuko Uchida is admired throughout the whole world for performances marked by a rare degree of intellectual acuity and profound musical insight. She specializes in the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, while also performing a repertory that includes works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Messiaen. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1984, performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and has returned to the Philharmonie on many occasions since then. During the 2008/09 season she was the orchestra’s pianist in residence, performing all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. Among the orchestras with which she appears on a regular basis are the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia of London and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam. She is also active as a chamber recitalist and has appeared not only on her own but also with other artists such as the Hagen Quartet and the tenor Ian Bostridge. Together with the pianist Richard Goode she currently runs the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. She also supports young artists through her active involvement with the Borletti Buitoni Trust. In 2009 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Her last recital on invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation was in October 2010 when she performed works by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin .