A Life’s Work and a Turning Point: New music from three centuries
The orchestra sounds – Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, op. 3
The 6th of February 1909 was to change the life of the 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky overnight. Until then he was virtually unknown in the music world. He had not attracted early attention with youthful inspirations but instead learned his compositional trade alone, in private lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov during his legal studies. Two of Stravinsky’s orchestral scores were premiered on that fateful February day, however, at the highly acclaimed St Petersburg concert series of the conductor and pianist Alexander Siloti: the Scherzo fantastique op. 3 and Fireworks op. 4. Sergei Diaghilev, the celebrated impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, was sitting in the audience. He was so impressed that he immediately asked Stravinsky to orchestrate two pieces by Chopin, which were incorporated into the ballet Les Sylphides. Shortly afterwards Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose his first full-length ballet score, for the Firebird. One of the most productive artistic friendships of the 20th century began.
Why was Diaghilev so captivated by these “journeyman’s pieces” of the young Stravinsky, particularly the Scherzo fantastique? If we compare the Scherzo, which was written between June of 1907 and March of 1908, with the three Russian ballets composed only a short time later, it seems even more conventional – its surreally iridescent tonal language, which still exudes the spirit of the fin de siècle, and the brutal radicalism of the Rite of Spring are worlds apart. On the other hand, Stravinsky’s early work already demonstrates the composer’s unique feeling for instrumental colours: the score calls for triple or quadruple winds, divided strings, three harps and celesta, and the various timbres are distinctively brought out. Fifty years after the Scherzo fantastique was completed, Stravinsky conducted it again himself and was pleased: “The orchestra ‘sounds’, the music is light in a way that is rare in compositions of the period.”
The horn sings – Hans Abrahamsen’s Horn Concerto
The goal of the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen is also to write light music that sounds pure and clear. And, in fact, anyone who hears his song cycle of Ophelia scenes Let me tell you, which was premiered by Barbara Hannigan and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Andris Nelsons in 2013, is astonished at the ethereal beauty of this sound world.
There is also a connection between his most recent work and Let me tell you. At the time of the world premiere, in December of 2013, Abrahamsen offered to compose a concerto for Stefan Dohr, the principal horn of the Philharmoniker. Although a few years passed before the Danish composer could begin work on it, he completed the concerto in summer of 2018. “Stefan Dohr visited me in Copenhagen for two days,” Abrahamsen recalls. “I explained to him what I had in mind, and he showed me what is possible on his instrument. Stefan has tremendous skill and an incredible imagination, so I made a lot of notes during our meeting. Afterwards I withdrew, however. During the composition process I have to be completely in my own world. We didn’t meet again until September of 2019 in Berlin. I showed Stefan the score, and he played the solo part for me. It was wonderful.”
Magic and nature are the two elements that Abrahamsen associates most strongly with the horn, much more than the hunt or its brassy sound. Naturally, he thinks of German Romanticism; that is also apparent from the many German-language titles of his works, such as Märchenbilder [Fairy-tale scenes], Schnee [Snow] and Winternacht [Winter’s night]. “I could also have called the concerto Wald [Forest],” he says. But he preferred to stay with the neutral generic term. He wanted to emphasize the pastoral quality of the horn, he admits, and also introduce melodies which otherwise rarely play a role in new music. “For the horn I compose very much like I do for the voice, which also passes through different registers. I was able to draw on the experience I gained with my opera The Snow Queen again in the Horn Concerto, which one could also call an opera in three scenes. The horn sings here.”
Abrahamsen describes the first movement as a slowly flowing river with an expansive melody in the solo horn. The character changes in the second movement, however, which is restless and fast: “A storm builds up and reaches its culmination, then everything calms down and becomes quiet again,” he says, outlining the development. “The finale begins very slowly but becomes more dramatic towards the end and soars upwards. At the close I add a couple of short greetings to the two great masters of the horn concerto, Mozart and Richard Strauss. But I don’t want to reveal any more yet.”
The world goes under – Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, op. 14
Hector Berlioz was an incomparable sound magician who caused a revolution in musical history, particularly with his Symphonie fantastique of 1830. First of all, that came about because he employed instrumental effects which had never been used before: from rippling harps (second movement) to an offstage oboe (third movement) to the col legno [played with the back of the bow] clattering of the strings (fifth movement). In addition, he also extended the boundaries of the entire genre, because he composed an orchestral drama in five movements or acts and gave it a highly subjective extramusical programme: in the Symphonie fantastique Berlioz recounts his own unhappy love story – a musical ego trip lasting nearly an hour.
Berlioz called the work “an episode in the life of an artist” and wrote a plot for it which describes in great detail what happens in each of the five movements. The “hero” is a young musician who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who is unattainable to him. He encounters her again at a ball, where he sees her dancing a waltz. He then retreats into seclusion but even there cannot forget his beloved. In his despair, he takes opium in order to ease his pain. But under its influence he is overcome by terrible delirious fantasies. He dreams that he has murdered his beloved and has been sentenced to death. He is beheaded on the scaffold with a guillotine. Finally, he witnesses a witches’ sabbath at midnight, a hellish orgy during which his beloved joins in the dancing and the world descends into madness.
In order to depict these events, Berlioz devised a new musical technique: he introduced a distinctive main theme which reappears in all five movements. This idée fixe is the portrait of his beloved and is always heard when the artist thinks about her or sees her in front of him. Since Berlioz set his own fate to music in the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe also refers to an actual person: the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz encountered for the first time in 1827. An English theatre company was appearing in Paris at that time and sent France’s intellectual elite into a Shakespeare frenzy with performances of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. After the company moved on, Berlioz was left alone in his delirium of love and got his worries off his chest by composing the Symphonie fantastique. Perhaps it was this emotional euphoria that enabled him to attempt all sorts of experiments with orchestral timbres. In short, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is a spectacle for the ears – and, quite literally, music for the future.