Light and Shadows of the Night
HK Gruber and Béla Bartók Find New Paths off the Beaten Track
Vienna and Budapest, solo concerto and opera, 2016 and 1911 respectively. And what a contrast of tones and moods. HK Gruber’s new work, the first piano concerto by the composer, who was born in 1943, is an exuberant, bustling work that is ambiguous from the start, but high spirits prevail. It changes its pace constantly. Béla Bartók’s one-act, two-character drama Bluebeard’s Castle, on the other hand, leads to a world within damp old walls, to rooms in which only tentative, solemn movements seem possible, while every glimmer of light from outside becomes an event. One can scarcely imagine temperaments more different than those of the inspired communicator and sensuously subversive “extreme musician” Gruber and the reserved, always penetratingly serious ascetic Bartók. And yet, what unites the two masters is their determination to bridge the gulfs between entirely different musical cultures.
Symphonically interwoven solo and orchestral parts: HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto
Heinz Karl Gruber’s artistic breakthrough can be dated precisely. It was in Liverpool at the end of November 1978, when the 23-year-old Simon Rattle conducted the sensational premiere of Frankenstein!!, Gruber’s “pan-demonium” based on bizarre children’s rhymes by the poet H. C. Artmann. “Nali”, as he is still generally known, composed equally satirical, easily accessible music for the surreal distortions of naïve verses, behind which more or less covert political statements were hidden. Black humour and Dadaistic boisterousness were combined with a delight in brilliantly skewered triviality.
As a child Gruber travelled throughout the world with the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He took up an orchestral position as a double bassist at the age of 17 and served as principal bassist of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra until 1997. The highly talented young musician studied composition with Gottfried von Einem, coming of age at a time in which the authoritarian attitude of the avant-garde with its “structural tyranny” had almost become an “ersatz religion”, as Gruber saw it. He was also influenced by serial composition techniques, which he still uses at times. But the desire for simpler, tonal, more communicative forms of expression and his affection for jazz, pop music and blues were stronger. Gruber describes the suggestion of his colleague Kurt Schwertsik that he should simply write music that he wanted to hear himself as the best piece of advice he ever received. In 1968 Gruber, Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan founded the ensemble MOB art & tone ART, in which they explored new forms of staged musical performances; Gruber’s career as a chansonnier began in this group.
Gruber’s characteristic synthesis of cabaret songs and serious concert hall music also dominates the piano concerto for pianist Emanuel Ax. The demands on a “classically” trained soloist are high. Before the premiere in New York, Ax candidly admitted that he was not accustomed to the rhythmic complexities posed by the constantly changing bar lengths and irregular metres of the score, which is interspersed with jazz elements – although he negotiated them brilliantly in the opinion of the critics.
According to Gruber, the creative starting point of the new work was a key scene in his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods, based on the folk play by Ödön von Horváth, which was premiered in Bregenz in 2014. The scene in question takes place at Maxim’s, the legendary Vienna nightclub, where there is an unexpected encounter between the heartless “magic king” and his daughter Marianne, the one-time “sweet Viennese girl” who now works there as a nude dancer. “Watching the opera on stage I was intrigued how the ‘shimmy’ music played by the cabaret band is itself simple and emotionless, but forms an effective counterpoint to the powerful drama in the foreground,” Gruber observed. This contradiction between the two levels was the bud from which his instrumental work could grow, said the composer. Following the concerto tradition of symphonically interwoven solo and orchestral parts, Gruber uses the orchestra as “an echo chamber for the material of the pianist, whose ‘factual’ discourse is resonated through tuned percussion and harp”. He describes the formal development in relatively brief sections and changing tempos as a “chain of developing variations” resulting in “a sinfonietta with piano solo”.
Bluebeard’s Castle – a psychological drama
Béla Bartók’s transformation of archaic elements derived from Balkan folk cultures to a decidedly modern expressive idiom is consistent with a general tendency in classical modernism. Béla Balázs, the librettist of Bluebeard, pursued similar goals as a writer. He took the material itself from the well-known collection of fairy tales Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye [Tales of Mother Goose] by Charles Perrault, published in 1697. In search of a specifically Hungarian declamatory style, in his stage version he drew on the “raw material of Székely folk ballads”, on “dark, weighty, uncarved blocks of words”, as he put it, in order to “form modern, intellectual inner experiences” from them. Bartók translated the work into a reciting tone in close intervals with a pentatonic element and the typical Hungarian accent on the first syllable.
As a strong opponent of realism, Balázs advocated a dramatic type which, above all, explores the psychic powers that have an effect on people. “My ballad is the ballad of the inner life,” the author explained. “Bluebeard’s castle is not a real castle of stone. The castle is his soul. It is lonely, dark and secretive: the castle of closed doors.” All Judith wants to do is bring light and warmth into the inner world of her mysterious beloved. In return, she demands access to the seven rooms behind the heavy doors of his hall.
Bartókhandles the large-scale form of the hour-long drama, which was written in 1911, superbly. He connects the scenes as in a suite, capturing the sensory impressions presented behind the seven doors with illusionistic expertise. Although the musical means of representation may seem relatively conventional in the case of the armoury (brass fanfares) or in the gardens (delicate sounds of nature), the refinement of the orchestration is invariably surprising. The relationship of light and darkness is precisely balanced: the gloominess of the opening F sharp minor is gradually lightened as the doors open. This increasing light is depicted by a harmonic ascent, until C major is reached with the fifth door and the view of Bluebeard’s kingdom. Parallel major triads in the orchestra, reinforced by the organ, reflect Bluebeard’s boastful pride; the sumptuous sound of the orchestra confronts a simple pentatonic melody.
Judith, by now extremely frightened, responds in monosyllables with a dissonant phrase. At the opening of the sixth door, the passage to the lake of tears, the scene begins to darken again. The initial F sharp minor becomes the inevitable goal of the development. Harmony and lighting dramaturgy join forces and finally combine in a symmetrical structure. Bluebeard’s previous wives are not dead, as the blood everywhere in his castle seemed to suggest, with harsh dissonant clashes of seconds as the leitmotif. “They are living, living, all are living!” Judith realizes when she opens the seventh door. They are nothing more than cold status symbols for their owner, however, weighed down with crowns and jewellery. Now she can become one of them herself. All the doors have closed again – the endless night of marital tragedy can begin.