Mi quam een schoon geluit in mijn oren, on language and musical composition
‘Mi quam een schoon geluit in mijn oren’, a beautiful sound came to my ears. These words come from a poem by the 15th-century female recluse Suster Bertken, who is the subject of the opera I am currently writing, which will receive its first performance in December in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Suster Bertken, (Sister Bertha) had herself bricked in, at age thirty, next to the Buurkerk, a church in the center of medieval Utrecht, to devote her life to God. In this cramped and tightly confined space, which measured approximately 3 by 5 foot, she spent the remaining 57 years of her life. Her outlook on the world was limited to two tiny windows, one giving view to the altar, enabling her to witness the masses that were performed there, and the other looking out on the street. Through this window she received food and help with her basic needs, and in return she would give good advice to passers by and rendered her poetry to those who were interested. That her poetry was popular amongst her contemporaries, can be measured by the fact that it was printed, and reprinted, until several generations after her death in 1514, not only in Utrecht, but elsewhere, as in Leiden and Antwerp, as well. Our perception of a recluse as someone who lived and pondered in strict isolation in a remote and rural place, is correct with regard to the men. For a female recluse in the middle-ages this was considered too dangerous, they would always live within the shelter of city walls. While Suster Bertken’s tiny brick cell has since long been torn down, there is another one, next to the Jacobi-church, which has remained intact and offers some insight in the harsh, Spartan conditions in which these women decided to live their lives. That they were bricked in at the south side of a church, which would enable them to catch some warmth of the sunlight, was about the only sign of luxury they would bestow upon themselves.
Suster Bertken stood in the midst of life, in the hubbub and buzzing activity of medieval city life, while at the same time, in a demonstrative way, she was not taking part in it. The Buurkerk, home of Suster Bertken, was the center of communal life for the inhabitants of Utrecht. It was not merely used for religious purposes, but for all kinds of meetings regarding community matters and city regulations. Right nearby two markets with livestock were held daily.
On the eastside entrance of the Buurkerk, nowadays a museum for mechanical instruments, one can still see one of the oldest traffic signs in the Netherlands. In a highly Monty Pythonesque style it reads, freely translated: ‘Thou shalt not drive thy pigs or cattle through this church.’ This in order to discourage merchants attempting to make a shortcut from one market to the other.
My first acquaintance with Suster Bertken took place some years ago, literally by realizing that I was standing on her grave. In the Choorstraat in Utrecht, there is a plaque in the pavement commemorating the place where her little hermitage once stood, and where she was also buried, according to her wishes. Nowadays, it is right underneath a shop window displaying smart dresses, and the street is otherwise also busily advertising the requisites of modern life. If you look carefully, you can still see the marks in the pavement of the outlines of the choir section of the Buurkerk, against which her miniature house shouldered. This section was torn down when it was converted into a protestant church in the 16th-century. Utrecht is a place which is dear to me, because its history runs so much deeper than that of Amsterdam, which is in fact only a couple of hundred years older than New Amsterdam, or Boston. The name Utrecht is derived from ‘Ultra Trajectum’, the name the Romans gave to the castellum, a wooden fortress, they built there in the year 48, but how much deeper the history of the city runs prior to that date, we do not exactly know.
When I started reading Suster Bertken’s poetry, who up to this first accidental encounter was completely unknown to me, I was instantly enchanted by the qualities of her language, immediate and intimate, even though it describes a world that is very remote to my own frame of reference. And fairly soon, I also discovered a piece of prose which was titled Kersttractaet, (Christmas tract) a story about the birth of Jesus, but told from the perspective of Mary.
It relates how the Holy Virgin at first becomes ecstatic and translucent, hovering above the ground, before suddenly taking off to the sky like a missile, passed the stars and choirs of angels, straight to the very center of heaven, where in a big flash she gives birth, without any hindrance or pain: ‘like an arrow that shot through the air, where neither the arrow was stopped or obstructed by the air, nor the air was hurt by the arrow’. For an instant she sees God, right before she faints, only to regain consciousness again back at ground level, awakened by the soft cries of baby Jesus. The moment I became aware of the discrepancy between the extreme limitation of space in which Suster Bertken decided to live her life, and the vast, infinite amounts of space she covered in her Christmas-vision, was also the moment I realized she was a most suitable subject for the music-theatre.
This epiphany-like moment of the birth of an idea is actually difficult to describe. Because it comprehends a sudden sense of identification, a deep sympathy for, and a fascination with another person’s life and experiences. But at the same time, there is also an element of calculative speculation involved: the sensation of a possible match between my music and somebody else’s world of thought. At first, this consist of mere pondering, of playing with an idea; the consideration of a possibility of a piece, interspersed with pangs of enthusiasm, followed by doubts and new questions that arise. This sensation can be strengthened by further research and reading about the subject. It can of course also go the opposite way, and lead to disappointment and an abandonment of the whole idea. In the case of Suster Bertken, the idea grew stronger once I learned that when she became a recluse, it was a custom that a funeral ritual was performed, including a requiem-mass. It meant her goodbye to earthly life, from then on she would be officially dead. This aspect added to the story some sort of a cycle of life and death in reversed form: first she would die from an earthly perspective, and then she would give birth to Jesus in her imagination. This put things in balance and added an arch to the drama from the beginning to the end of the piece.
Along with this, runs a process of realization of why I actually want to make this piece. On a more intuitive level, I think it has to do with a fascination for her absolute lack of vanity, and her peculiar but strong sense of self-determination, which ultimately leads to an extreme form of selflessness. I also see the piece as a tribute to the power of the human ratio and imagination, which is so vividly expressed through her writings. Since I have moved from the city into the countryside about five years ago, I have become increasingly aware of the stupidity of animals.
I do not necessarily mean this as a deprecatory reproach towards those who populate nature and crawl about, nor am I implying that people do not possess the ability to be stupid. But there is this awful and painful gap between humankind and the rest that puzzles me. It has aroused in me a strong interest in spirituality, perhaps in what religious people call ‘the divine spark’, or others might approach through the metaphysical. Ironically enough, a substantial part of spiritualism is aimed at trying to bring us back to an ego- and self-less state, which is actually quite close to the unaware state of being of the animal in nature.
But this ‘divine spark’ is also the point where the music comes in. Music is by nature a most suitable and comfortable transportation device to move us from our earthly confinements into the ethereal. And in the case of Suster Bertken and her imagination of the Virgin Mary, music is a most apt vehicle to move her from ground level into the realms of heaven. And ultimately, Suster Bertken’s desire to be in the midst of life, while not actually taking part in it, is a desire which I recognize as being part of my own nature. But altogether, there is also something of a gut-feeling involved in the creation of a new idea. The moment I realized that I was standing on Suster Bertken’s grave, while still being completely ignorant about her poetry, I somehow sensed that I had incidentally stepped on a new piece.
There are two aspects of vocal music that make it stand apart from purely instrumental music. First of all, the use of text immediately provides an idea of form, regardless of what the composer actually intends to do with the text. Utilized in a straightforward linear sense, or even with the text hacked into small syllabic units, put in a completely different order, where the phonetic qualities prevail over the actual meaning of the words; there will always be the general idea of structure of the basic text lingering in the background. The vocal line is the spinal chord of a piece, which I will always compose first. Without it, I can feel quite lost, drifting along on an ocean of possibilities with no particular goal in mind. The second aspect, is that the deployment of a voice in a piece of music automatically brings in an element of theatricality. Even when a musical instrument possesses great qualities to sing, as do the clarinet or the violin, it will never quite achieve a similar amount of directness and concentration as does the voice. Because whereas an instrument is always an extension of the body, the vocal chords are part of the body itself. This brings about that the voice will always inevitably get the focus of attention, and it is at this point where this element of theatricality creeps in. It is always there, even when it concerns a work of a non-operatic nature, such as a song-cycle. And quite often it is even there while the singer is not singing, but is simply present on the stage.
To demonstrate these two aspects of vocal music I just described to you, I will now play you a movement of my Calligrammes, for soprano and mezzo-soprano unaccompanied, on a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire.
The musical ideas behind it, are inspired by music I heard for female voices from Burundi, central-Africa, rapidly hocketing and jumping through the registers, which I tried to pin down to a more fixed, continuous rhythm and a pitch-structure. The fast rhythmic material is juxtaposed by slow and stretched-out vocal lines, inspired by the madrigal-writing of Claudio Monteverdi. Though this all may sound like it was a premeditated structure, it is actually the opposite: when I first read the poem, I immediately knew I wanted to set it to music, and also how. The music was in fact already there. What I had to do, was to bring it to the surface. This is how the lines of the poem translate into English :
It is raining women’s voices, as if they were dead even in memory
It’s raining you too, marvelous encounters of my life, oh droplets
And those clouds rear and begin to whinny a universe of auricular cities Click for lyrics Calligramme/il pleut
Listen to it rain while regret and disdain weep an ancient music
Listen to the fetters falling that bind you high and low
I am in the fortunate position to be a composer and a librettist unified into one person. And while I will certainly not exclude the possibility to collaborate with a text writer in the future, it has thus far always been the case that ideas about the text evoked ideas about the music, and vice versa. Like Richard Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, the composer and the librettist in me often quarrel and debate. But the librettist won’t get too upset if the composer decides to delete an entire passage from the textbook, while he feels that what is being said there, is already expressed in the music and therefore redundant. And for the same token, the composer can be very understanding when the librettist tells him to take a step back at a certain spot, because what is being brought forward in the text there is utterly important and demands the focus of attention. They get along so well because they share a common goal: the desire to make the strongest possible piece.
With regard to the line ‘mi quam een schoon geluit in mijn oren’, or, translated into pidgin-English: ’me came a beautiful sound in my ears’, they would first of all notice that it is a passive phrase, of a rather contemplative nature.
The beautiful sound is not made by the singer, it came to her ears. So it is important that something noteworthy is happening in the music, immediately preceding or while this line is being sung. It should also be taken into consideration that the ultimate purpose of this line is not to express beauty, though in general the most desirable goal for any vocal line, but rather to express a certain sensation of amazement and astonishment, since the beauty is in this case of an external nature. ‘Me came’ is a iambic figure, meaning that ‘me’ should be on an upbeat and ‘came’ on the downbeat. What could cause a wonderful sensation of amazement, would be the insertion a brief pause after ‘me came’, so we would get: ‘me came …. a beau-ti-ful sound (we are not dealing with the pitches here yet, but only with the structure of the vocal line) Since ‘a beautiful sound’ are the most essential words of this phrase, they are the ones on which we could consider to apply some form of extension or embellishment, preferably something that is in relation or conjunction with the beautiful sound that is already being depicted in the music. Most likely, it will also form the top of the curve of the vocal line. When we reach ‘in my ears’, we should already start to wonder about what comes next. What matters, is that the ears in this case are merely receptacles, we are back in the passive state, on the receiving end. Vocal lines should of course never be approached phrase by phrase, but always in the context of its surroundings, per entire section of the text. And as a whole, these sections should also have a certain relation to each other and be telling a story in itself, in the form of the outlines of a curved landscape.
With the creation of vocal lines, some idea of tone-painting is an indispensable asset for any composer. Tone-painting is often frowned upon, as it seems to belong to a world of thinking in tricks, recipes and clichés. When for example in a piece of baroque music somebody dies, one will almost automatically hear a chromatically descending bassline. But tone-painting can be applied in a much more lucid and imaginative way, not dissimilar to the way in which we are susceptible to minute inflections in the voice of someone speaking to us. These inflections can reveal the emotions that lie underneath the actual meaning of the words that are being spoken, and can at times emphasize, pretend to ignore, or even contradict them. A sensitive ear can apply these attributes to the creation of vocal lines, and give them rugged and whimsically mercurial curves, displaying with seismographic detail the emotions and events that pass by along the way.
Another crucial element with regard to the writing of vocal music has to do with timing, or rather: the pacing of text material over a prolonged stretch of time. A very basic lesson about the treatment of text for the theatre, teaches us that even the simplest of dialogues, such as: ”Do you want coffee?”, “Yes, please”, can be interpreted in a thousand different ways, each of them bringing forward some aspect of the relation between the two people speaking these lines. Who is the dominant character of the two, or are they on equal terms? Do they like each other or not, or don‘t they quite know yet, because they have never met before, etc. The lines can be dealt with rapidly in a jovial manner, like two good friends who haven’t seen each other for quite a while: “Hey, you want some coffee?”, “Oh yes, please!” But the first character might just as well completely ignore the second, who perhaps came in for a job interview, for over ten minutes, scuffing about doing petty chores, or leafing through paperwork, before asking in the most uninvolved tone; “You want coffee?”. Whereas in the spoken theatre the way dialogues are interpreted usually rests upon the director or the actors themselves, it is the composer who does all this work in the music-theatre. Apart from an occasional ritenuto here and there, an opera score offers a very fixed timeframe in which dialogues and events are to take place. There is little escape from it, without destroying the fabric of the music itself.
My initial curiosity with regard to the theatre was aroused through the banal reason that the women are prettier there. Only subsequently, I also became interested in what actually was going on onstage. And though I had already discovered the marvelous qualities of vocal music, it somehow never really crossed my mind to bring my interest in music and theatre together. That necessary push in the right direction came from Hans Werner Henze, in the early 1990’s. Himself the composer of more than two dozen operas, and at that time the director of the Biennale for new music-theatre in Munich, Germany, he thought that I should have a go at composing an opera. I was commissioned to write a piece for the Biennale of 1994, and was thrown into the deep, because he also thought I was the type capable of writing his own libretto. And though the resulting piece, FREEZE, based upon the story of the Patricia Hearst-kidnap, to my taste was far from satisfactory, I felt that his hunch had been right on the mark.
Composing operas has become my utmost desire ever since. Hans Werner Henze became a very dear friend of mine, and my mentor in the land of opera. Most of what I know about music-theatre I have learned from him, through discussions while strolling along the Lago Albano, a volcanic lake nearby his home, outside Rome. And though these walks have become shorter, slower and more sparse over the years, due to the climbing of his age, there is no other composer with such a phenomenal theatrical instinct than his.
While the possibility of beautiful song is the most prominent difference between the spoken- and the music-theatre, it also has consequences with regard to the theatrical maneuverability. Because when people start to sing, the tempo of the dramatic action simply falls flat on its back. Compared to speech, singing is a time-consuming activity.
And although there are various ways to speed up the amount of text which can be conveyed through song, they all have a detrimental effect on the quality of the vocal line. This inhibition of song on the tempo of dramatic action can be the Achilles-heel when it comes to moving along with an elaborate plot. But it can also be seen as one of the strongest trump cards that music-theatre has to offer. One only has to think of Isolde’s Liebestod, and then try to imagine a character in the spoken theatre, that would take about three quarters of an hour to die on stage, in such a manner that the dramatic tension would never wane nor wither, not even for a split second. Such a thing would be impossible there. The real power and potential of the music-theatre lies in its ability to manipulate the experience of the passing of time, and through this mechanism to enter the realm of thoughts and sentiments that lies behind the actual meaning of the words that are sung. It somehow seems to be more closely related to the world of dreams and the imagination, than that of reality. Over the years, I have come to understand that there is actually a rather narrow bandwidth on the entire spectrum of theatrical possibilities, through which music-theatre will fully work and optimally blossom. The idea of keeping things exciting and spectacular through kidnaps and bank robberies was abandoned, and gradually made place for the understanding of what I really want my operas to do: to describe a state of mind, a heightened state of concentration, focused on the sentiments and emotions that are involved with it, brought into life through streams of language and music, which at moments blend into one, diverge and become stratified, or are juxtaposed and comment on one another.
A first step on this path I made with Rage d’amours, which I composed in 2003 for Tanglewood. Rage d’amours almost entirely focuses on the mourning of queen Johanna the Insane on her deceased husband Philip the Handsome. Their relationship was of a turbulent nature, both before and after Philip passed away. While he was still alive, Philip the Handsome was unfaithful to her in the extreme, the bishop of Besançon provided him with several attractive girls per day. Once he was deceased, probably by poisoning through the hand of his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon, Johanna could not part from his body, and took his corpse out on nightly processions through Spain, heading for Granada, where he would resurrect, such was the conviction of Johanna at least. In the section of the opera we will shortly listen to, Johanna extols on the beauty of Philip, whose corpse is being embalmed by monks on a table on the background. His heart, brains and intestines are taken out and put in a gilded box which is to be sent to his hometown Brussels. The lyrics of Johanna are derived from the Biblical Song of Songs, those of the monks come from a chronicle by Petrus Martyr, Johanna’s tutor.
Rage d’amours, scene 5
The problematic relation between song and the tempo of dramatic action has of course been noted before.
The German composer Boris Blacher tried to overcome it with his ideals of an Abstract Opera. In collaboration with his librettist Werner Egk, he tried to abandon the whole idea of representational art and attempted to replace coherent dialogues with freely combined syllables and sounds of a fantasy language, where symbolism replaces logic. Similar to the esthetics of 'poésie pure', the word is treated only according to melodic and rhythmic guidelines, and every scene depicts one basic emotion : love, fear, panic, etc. The Abstrakte Oper No.1 was first performed in 1953, a number 2 did not see the light.
A more interesting solution was found in A King, Riding, an opera by my former teacher Klaas de Vries, first performed in 1996. A King, Riding is based on the novel The Waves by Virginia Woolf, where interior monologues by six characters are interwoven into a dreamlike tapestry of thoughts. The six characters, three men and three women, all muse and reminisce about a seventh and absent character, Percival, who represents Virginia Woolf’s deceased brother. What is fascinating about this opera, is that it succeeds to bring these six characters into life simultaneously, something that Woolf attempted to do, but which is technically impossible in a novel. In A King, Riding the singers, each with a solo-instrument linked to their part, create an uninterrupted stream of thoughts and monologues, moving into multiple directions simultaneously and effortlessly fading in and -out.
It is my perception that bad poetry can be an excellent source of inspiration for a composer. Dante, Virgil, or Goethe; they evoke reverence and awe, and reluctance to open all portholes in the battleship of the imagination. And this is not without reason: after all, good poetry is already music in itself, and it fares well without support. My most fruitful venture into the realm of bad poetry thus far, has been the setting of two poems by William McGonagall, a Scottish weaver and teetotaler from the Victorian age, with a striking talent to confuse, startle and amuse his readers:
“Alas! The noble Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast.”
“Therefore, cease from strong drink,
And you will likely do well.
Then there’s not so much danger
Of going to hell!”
Leafing through the countless pages of his oeuvre, filled with bombastic verbosity through which runs a touching vein of unconscious tristesse, I came across a poem in which McGonagall brings a lengthy ode to a bridge nearby his hometown Dundee, which starts as follows:
“Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array.
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee, my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day”
Fate decided however, to make the bridge collapse a few years later, during a heavy thunderstorm, which urged him to write The Tay Bridge Disaster. Together with the Address to the New Tay Bridge, it forms the core of the Mc Gonagall- Lieder. The structure of this approximately 55 minutes long work, is modeled after a bridge: the two songs form its arches, which are interspersed with ‘strong brick piers’, blocks of instrumental music. I will now play you a brief section of the Address to the New Tay Bridge.
Address to the New Tay Bridge
When I decided to use Joost van den Vondel’s play Adam in Ballingschap (Adam in Exile, written in 1664) as the material for a new opera, which was first performed in 2009, I should perhaps have taken better heed of what I said before: that bad poetry often forms a better source of inspiration for a composer. Vondel’s lyricism perhaps got me a little carried away here and there, because his poetry is the best what the Dutch language has to offer. It carries the jubilant, triumphant tone of a nation that has only recently gained its independence, and is in many ways inventing itself, including its new official language. Vondel freely experiments with Dutch, inventing new words and forms. Many lines from his poems and plays have since become standard expressions or gained a proverb-like status. I only truly learned to appreciate Vondel since I moved to Flanders, because the tone of the language that is spoken there is much closer to that of Vondel. Flemish, or southern-Dutch, is in essence an archaic language, because it was only spoken by the working classes and for centuries hardly knew any development. Everybody who was in some form educated, from lower middleclass to higher up, spoke French. Only late in the 19th century authors such as Guido Gezelle and Stijn Streuvels started to write in Flemish. The First World War formed a turning point, when many Flemish soldiers were killed because they could not understand the orders that were given to them in French by their officers.
Since then the language has emancipated. With regard to the opera Adam in Ballingschap, I think I treated Vondel’s play with too much respect, and was not rigorous enough. Not that I am implying the piece was a total failure, it simply wasn’t always as targeted as I want my music to be. The play, when performed in the spoken-theatre, takes about three and a half hours, I managed to scale that down to two hours of music. And probably it was not out of reverence that I did not trim it even more drastically, but simply because I liked the fabric of his verse too much to really tear it apart.
It always amazes me what a tremendous impact such a basic decision as in what language an opera will be sung has upon the outcome of a piece. Ultimately, the consequences of such a decision will permeate through every vein of the musical language as well, even though the message that is conveyed is generally of a universal nature. Apart from the obvious differences in phonetic qualities between languages, it are the differences in grammatical structures that play an important role in this. Every language works through its own grid, has its own set of rules and particular order in which things are done. The music that comes along with it, will always have a tendency to adapt itself to this grid. And the vocal lines will drape themselves to the mold that a language offers them accordingly. In French for example, if it is not submitted to something like a rigid rhythmical machinery as in the Calligramme which I played earlier on, it is almost impossible not to create vocal lines which do not lucidly meander back and forth around a tone center. One hears this in the baroque operas of Charpentier and Lully, in Debussy’s Pelleas, and still in the vocal pieces of Boulez and Vivier, or in Messiaen’s François d’Assise. Personally, I have a slight preference for Spanish, which is almost as concise as classical Latin, both rich in vowels and in harsher sounds, and has a tendency to put the important things right at the beginning. Older languages, such as the middle-French which plays an important role in Rage d’amours, can through their richer sonorities and surreal and fairytale-like qualities also quite easily set off my musical imagination.
My interest in older languages, and in history in general, also reflects on my conviction that the 'new mankind', as promised to us by the 20th century-doctrines, and which is in essence also at the core of Christianity, is not coming.
In the 21st century, it seems we are back once more to the old, seemingly unchangeable mankind, which has its flaws, but also the capacities to create marvelous things. I do not see this as a deception, but more as a lesson in realism, which ultimately could turn into something positive. It urges me to delve deeper into history, not out of a retro-sentiment, but more to find plausible reasons for optimism towards the future. This tendency to stick to the original languages of the interesting writings I find on my search, comes forth out of musical reasons, a desire to explore a world of sound unknown to me. Of course it creates an increased distance towards the contemporary listener, which needs to be overcome. It somehow bothers me that the Dutch listeners will need subtitles to be really able to follow the lyrics of Suster Bertken. But then again, subtitles have become an indispensable attribute in modern opera.
With all this, I hope I have in some way managed to bring across to you what fascinates me about vocal music, and to give you some insight in how I work and approach musical matters. I find this difficult, because I am not a composer with a strong methodological drive, nor with strongly outlined convictions. Or maybe I am, but then these methods and convictions tend to alter and change perspective as I wander along from piece to piece, on a journey that hopefully is not anywhere near its final destination. What I find intriguing, is how one piece or subject matter automatically seems to evoke the other, and how they seem to be connected in ways which sometimes only become clear to me long afterwards. When I composed Rage d’amours for example, I wanted to make music that was completely free of irony, and straight from the heart. The piece I made after that, Der Hund, was about the misogynist Otto Weininger, who shot himself through the heart out of self-hatred, in the same room in the Schwarzpaniergasse in Vienna, where Ludwig van Beethoven also died. His problem was that he did not have any irony whatsoever. It could very well be for that matter, that the pious and serene Suster Bertken will be counterbalanced by a future work of sheer hedonism and lascivious extravaganza. Possibly about a man, the 19th century British adventurer Alexander Hare, who decided to abandon civilization altogether and set sail, accompanied by fourteen gorgeous women, to the remote and deserted Coconut-Islands in the Pacific Ocean, to live happily ever after. But this only time will tell.
Once again, I thank you very kindly for your attention, and let me conclude by expressing that it has been a great honour and pleasure to give these Erasmus Lectures to you.
©Rob Zuidam 2010