A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

“He speaks truly who speaks the shade.” (Wahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht, translated into English by Michael Hamburger.) A single line from a poem by Paul Celan, one of the most enigmatic of postwar German poets, offers us the merest wisp of insight into the equally enigmatic music of Heinz Holliger. “Schatten” also typically means shadow, but Hamburger’s choice of shade deepens the pool of possibilities; shadows suggest mystery and obscurity, an unsubstantial outline of the real as if hidden from the light, a visual reference to time passing (as shadows lengthen), even (according to my dictionary) a persuasive, albeit dark, influence – while shade can inhabit those meanings and include another, the ever-present specter of death. Celan’s intense, elliptical writings are obsessed with death, post-Holocaust horrors, and psychological transformation. Holliger, a Swiss-born (1939) composer better known as the foremost oboe virtuoso of our time, has explored the boundaries of musical form, tone, and expression to satisfy what he has called (in a 1972 interview in Gramophone magazine) his own “uncertain attitude to life itself.”


As a performer, Holliger is recognized for his thoughtful perspective on Baroque repertoire – Bach, Albinoni, Handel, and especially Jan Dismas Zelenka, an idiosyncratic Czech composer with a predilection for daring harmonic modulations and fanciful counterpoint, long-neglected until Holliger helped in the rediscovery of his works – and adventurous 20th century pieces, often composed specifically for his skill with extended oboe techniques, from the likes of Berio, Penderecki, Vinko Globokar, Elliott Carter, and Isang Yun. In recent years he has ventured into conducting, favoring modernists like Schönberg and Alban Berg (whom, the former notwithstanding, he has cited as “probably the most important composer of our [the 20th] century”), his first compositional mentor Sándor Véress,  and outsiders such as Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Charles Koechlin, and, from the previous century, Robert Schumann.


Holliger’s interest in Schumann, who had psychological problems throughout his lifetime which likely affected his occasionally unorthodox musical choices, reveals a concern for art that reflects hypersensitive or depressed mental states. Holliger’s ear is attuned to poetry, and among his compositions which have received the most attention are settings of texts by Friedrich Hölderlin (who was at one time declared mentally unfit and institutionalized), Robert Walser (who suffered a nervous breakdown), Georg Trakl and Celan (both of whom committed suicide). In the case of Schumann, research into his life led Holliger to uncover details about music which was destroyed 37 years after his death by wife Clara and longtime family friend Johannes Brahms – the so-called “Cello Romances,” which may have portrayed, in Schumann’s hyper-Romantic musical language, his feelings about the relationship between his friend and his wife. Holliger’s response was to compose the six-movement Romancendres (2003), which hides Schumannesque quotations and allusions in a sequence of modern gestures – string harmonics, elliptical phrasing, ambiguous tonality, and percussive piano effects – that he admits are intended to suggest “the viewpoint of a dying man whose entire life passes through his mind in fractions of a second at the moment of his death.” It can be found, accompanied by several of Schumann’s works, in an ECM album titled Aschenmusik (“music from the ashes”).


Holliger’s earliest pieces, from the 1960s, “clearly characterize him as a follower of Webern,” according to Willi Reich (Contemporary Music in Europe: A Comprehensive Survey, Schirmer, 1965). But by 1973, the date of his first String Quartet, he had become more of an abstract expressionist in sound, creating an uncompromising alien (but not completely alienating) environment of non-melodic activity, the rustle and friction of the strings exploiting extended techniques, with an occasional vocal-like moan and barely audible whispers. His String Quartet No. 2 didn’t arrive until 34 years later; a dense, tightly knit confluence of voices, with a greater contrast of moods, linear phrasing, and instrumental colors and chiaroscuro, more expressionist than abstract, but still keeping its secrets hid. In between these two non-referential works, Holliger conceived his most powerful and revelatory instrumental score to date.


The Violin Concerto, composed between 1993 and ‘95 and recorded for ECM by the brilliant violinist Thomas Zehetmair, is – in style and intent – indebted to the tense, psychologically formalized expressionism of the aforementioned Alban Berg. It is subtitled “Hommage to Louis Soutter,” the Swiss painter (and, significantly for Holliger’s transformative symbolism, orchestral violinist) who spent the last 19 years of his life institutionalized, but remained prolific as a visual artist, creating numerous ink drawings of people reduced to silhouettes (or their shadows) engaged in ritualistic or possibly sexual activities, and rough, unflattering, intentionally crude portraits, a manner of (conscious? subconscious?) primitivism anticipating Art Brut. Beginning with an arching, lyrical violin melody reminiscent of Berg, over its three-quarters-of-an-hour the music reaches deep into the psyche (the movements are titled “Mourning,” “Obsession,” “Shades,” and “Epilog”) with seething complaints; jittery moments of unrestrained anxiety or deceptively lighthearted fantasy; dark, rumbling retorts; and torturous episodes of collapse and regeneration. If there are hidden messages or references, a la Berg’s Lyric Suite – for example, is the prominent cimbalom (a touch of Hungarian exoticism) in honor of Sándor Véress? – they are submerged in the concerto’s gripping intensity and lyrical fervor.


ECM has done a valuable service in documenting Holliger’s confrontational music, and their most recent release is one in which his transformational/psychological perspective is extended, musically and symbolically, over time and manner. By choosing to reply to poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut, Holliger enters into a conversation with an avant-gardist of the 14th century. Working no doubt out of necessity in both sacred and secular realms, Machaut has been credited with the first full, polyphonic setting of the Catholic Mass attributed to a single composer. But as a poet who experimented with and helped to codify genres, forms, elaborate rhyme schemes, and rhythmic variations – only a portion of which he set to music – he dazzled the courts of France, Bohemia, and Navarre with his wordplay regarding the unusual, some might say perverse, conventions of courtly love. Today, the idealized, unfulfilled relationship between a medieval lady and her lover seems like the frustrating byplay of sadomasochistic mind games – and Machaut wrote over 200 versions in Ballades alone. Consider “Biaute qui toutes autre pere,” where he confirms that the exquisite sweetness of beauty in truth tastes bitter, that he can “enjoy no mirth, pleasure or music,” and shall “die of loving.” Likewise, in the Complainte from “The Cure of Ill Fortune,” Machaut admits “He laughs in the morning who weeps in the evening,” and that Fortune is “stingy, / hard, fickle, frightening, / treacherous, biting, deceptive ...” to the extent that “I don’t know what I should do, / I’m so miserable.”


These are two of the pieces which Holliger, in his sequence of six so-called Machaut-Transcriptions (2001-09), not merely transcribes but fully transforms into instrumental statements of 20th century angst. The simplest is a note-for-note adaptation of “Biaute qui toutes autre pere” in natural string harmonics (played by three violas), adding a chilling, celestial resonance to Machaut’s plaintive harmonies. But he emphasizes a Monkish “wrong note” quality to the contemplative mood of “Donnez, Seigneur” (a plea for royal generosity), and brings the “Hoquetus David” to the brink of chaos by combining Machaut’s isorhythms (a set rhythmic pattern with varying series’ of pitches) with what he calls “quasi-atomized motivic units,” a device which he associates with Paul Celan’s elliptical line and word breaks. The most imaginative transformation is the three-part reinvention of the Complainte, which uses extended string techniques and chromatic extensions to unravel the original melodies and recombine them in layers of multiple keys, tonalities, and voices. To intensify the contrast, ECM wisely includes Machaut’s original setting of the two Ballades and “Hoquetus David,” exquisitely sung by the Hilliard Ensemble.


Inspired by the shadows of memory, guilt, and sorrow that haunt and heal us by degrees, Holliger has devised a manner of collaborative expression that transforms traditional questions of style and content into a contemporary experience that provokes thought and imagination. In his music, shadows illuminate the darkness.

Art Lange©2015

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