Interplay of Colours and Forms
Works by Zimmermann, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Debussy
Echo of war and the post-war era: Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin Concerto
Born in 1918, Bernd Alois Zimmermann belonged to a generation in which many did not live to see the end of World War II. When he finished his studies in post-war Germany, he was considerably older than up-and-coming composers of that day such as Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez, who from then on dominated the stages, market and media of contemporary music. Being overshadowed by these younger composers was a trauma for Zimmermann, from which he suffered all his life.
The experiences of the war left their mark on the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which was composed in 1949/1950. “It was written during a creative period for the composer,” Zimmermann wrote in a brief note about the work, “which is still strongly influenced by wartime and the post-war period.” The echo of the apocalypse can be clearly heard, particularly in the second movement, when Zimmermann quotes the Dies Irae sequence from the Latin Mass for the dead three times, combining it with expressive gestures and explosive outbursts.
The introductory Sonata opens with a virtuosic figure played by the solo instrument before the main section begins with a continuous rhythmic pulse. The opening gesture is both abbreviated and varied and forms the transition to the second theme, which has a blues character. After the exposition, Zimmermann deviates from the model of sonata form: the movement lacks a development section and recapitulation. Instead, the composer reduces the thematic material to small components, then repeatedly recombines them in a random sequence. The Sonata closes with a spirited recollection of the opening of the movement. The second-movement Fantasia is an expansive improvisation with recitative-like interpolations. The closing Rondo consists of two parts: an almost kinetic Allegro con brio and a Tempo di Rumba, which in a way is a continuation of the dance-like second theme of the Sonata. Both segments become more virtuosic with every repetition until, after a brief cadenza by the solo instrument, a broadly sweeping gesture in the orchestra concludes the movement.
Sound metamorphoses: Atmosphères and Lontano by György Ligeti
György Ligeti began arranging Hungarian folk music in the late 1940s. When he fled to the West after the Hungarian revolution, he already had completely different aesthetic ideas in mind, however. The two orchestral pieces Apparitions and Atmosphèreswere composed during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The spectacular success of these works made Ligeti famous overnight in the music world.
“In Atmosphères,” the composer wrote, “I attempted to transcend the structural compositional thinking which replaced motivic-thematic thinking and thus achieve a new concept of form. In this musical form there are no events, but only states of being, no contours or shapes, only unpopulated, imaginary musical space; timbres, the real vehicles of the form, become – detached from the musical shapes – values in their own right.” From the complex interweaving of a multitude of independent voices (the score comprises more than 60 staves and up to 87 individual parts), which move so close together, however, that they lose their individuality, a polyphonic structure of static iridescence results – Ligeti coined the term “micropolyphony” for this compositional technique. Nevertheless, subtle metamorphoses also occur which shape the amorphous flow of the musical material. Stationary clusters are set in motion, suggesting rampant growth processes; sound masses glide imperceptibly from rich string colours to metallic brass tones. Beginning with the subdued entrance of the instruments a gigantic acoustic wall is gradually built up. The clearest caesura, approximately in the middle of the piece, is marked by a sudden plunge from the highest registers of the piccolos and violins to the extreme depths of the double basses – a passage with a disturbing effect which evokes apocalyptic associations.
A short time later, Ligeti proceeded in a similar fashion with the orchestral work Lontano, which was composed in 1967. Here, as well, the micropolyphonic structure is the dominant formal element. Whereas Atmosphères seems to stand still in time, however, the canonic structures in Lontano move in long lines. Flutes and trumpets play in an awkwardly high register over long stretches. The tuba, contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet emphasize the lower end of their respective registers as a counterweight. “Technically,” Ligeti said, “Lontano is a completely and strictly structured polyphonic work; there is a definite part-writing, there are vertical relationships between the parts and the individual instruments play their parts as autonomous units. Through the complex interweaving and overlapping of the parts, however, the listener loses sight of them, although perhaps not entirely; that is to say, the traces of this polyphony remain audible.”
Archaic and ritual: Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies d’instruments à vent
Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, composed in 1920, does not follow in the tradition of symphonic works from the 18th and 19th centuries. The composer instead used the term “symphony” with its original meaning of “sounding together”. Beethoven and Brahms were not the inspiration for the work but rather the composers of the early 17th century. The starting point for the composition was a chorale which Stravinsky dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy in 1918 and published in the magazine La Revue musicale. He later added other numbers of extraordinary incisiveness, which suddenly confront each other, as it were. The original chorale became the closing section, which Stravinsky preceded with eight brief episodes. The result is music that is almost archaic – Stravinsky himself spoke of an “austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments”. Because Stravinsky dispensed with connecting material, the music does not go through a musical process or development, resulting in a stern, almost abstract character. The Symphonies d’instruments à vent had its premiere in London in 1921, but Stravinsky did not complete and publish the revised version until 1947.
Feelings, impressions and psychological moods: Claude Debussy’s Images pour Orchestre
Images (pictorial pieces) were a key category in Claude Debussy’s oeuvre. After the Images oubliées for piano, which remained unpublished for many years, he composed two sets of three such musical pictures for the piano and finally topped off his series of Images with a large cycle for orchestra, composed between 1906 and 1912. Debussy’s Images were never intended as tone-paintings, however; his aim was to set feelings, impressions and psychological moods to music.
The Gigues, with their subdued colours, convey the melancholy of autumnal English landscapes. Fragments of the English folk tune “The Keel Row”are quoted throughout this movement, although Gigues is no more genuinely English than Ibéria is genuinely Spanish. Debussy structured Ibéria, the longest of the three Images, as a self-contained triptych. He provides the vivid titles “Par les rues et par les chemins”(In the streets and byways), “Les Parfums de la nuit” (The fragrance of the night) and “Le Matin d’un jour de fête” (The morning of a festival day) with musical approximations of an imaginary Spain, reflected in bolero rhythms, habanera idioms and march-like episodes. The cycle closes with the Rondes de printemps(Round dances of spring); within its rondo-like structure the old French song “Nous n’irons plus au bois” (We’ll go to the woods no more) is heard again and again.