Following the extremely arduous and protracted work of composing the Concerto for String Quartet SOLO, this piece was initially conceived as a short and simple work for flute, viola and harp—an instrumentation which preoccupied Debussy among others in one of his late works.
However, it soon became clear that for ‘programmatic’ reasons, the score would have to be expanded, first to include a trombone, and then later also a soprano voice. As a result the piece grew into a highly complex opus both musically and contrapunctally, as well as ‘metaphorically’.
The preparatory work for this composition included intensive engagement with the central questions of metaphysics, specifically ontology, which were bound together rather unconventionally with religious themes taken from the first and last books of the Bible, Genesis and Revelations. These studies generated the titles for the movements, which were decided upon before the actual start of the composition process itself.
The first movement begins in great stillness with calm, static tones and simple lines. Then follows a passage of open fifths and octaves played on the harp, which I have chosen to call a ‘mystical chord sequence’ because of the unique bond between the notes. This sequence is of immanent significance for all of the following movements. In addition, a dissonant triad played earlier on the harp is given the quality of a leitmotif as the piece progresses.
A sudden, virtuosic whirring in all voices follows, then blasts from the trombone, and the movement ends.
The second movement presents a fugue of extreme contrapunctal complexity. Using increasingly multi-layered contrapunctal techniques, what begins as a youthful and exuberant theme becomes calm, detached and almost worldly-wise, before the viola begins to intersperse an inverted canon on the cantus firmus
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (Bach BWV 26) towards the end of the movement. Here mankind is reminded of its own perishability and transience—an idea which is underlined at the movement’s conclusion by the soprano, who sings the third line of the second verse from the so-called Seikilos Epitaph, an inscription from the ancient city of Tralles in Asia Minor and one of the earliest surviving examples of written musical notation:
pros oligon esti to zēn (
Life exists only a short while). The first two lines of the verse are spoken by the soprano at the beginning of this movement:
“Hoson zēs, phainou mēden holōs sy lypou”
(“While you live, shine Don’t suffer anything at all”)
The next two movements flow into one another without pause. The third movement opens with a repeating dirge rhythm played on the trombone, a motif which later develops into the Dies irae of the Gregorian funeral mass. Then comes a contrapunctal interweaving of the fugue theme from the second movement and the Geister-Thema (Ghost Theme) by Robert Schumann—intended as an homage to the great Romantic composer on the occasion of his 200th birthday, and at the same time as a signal of the onset of delirium, both in Schumann and in mankind/the world/all entities. A recapitulation of the Dies irae is heard, this time at a faster tempo—a brief Dance of Death.
With the chorale line
Gute Nacht, du Stolz und Pracht! (Bach BWV 227) begins the gentle expiration of the world. The soprano, taking up the dirge rhythm from the opening of the movement, quotes the final line of the Seikilos Epitaph
to telos ho chronos apaitei (
and time demands its toll).
The final movement is introduced by the hymn In paradisum deducant te angeli, which is hummed by the soprano. Multiple cantus firmi, the texts of which borrow from the Book of Revelations, are woven together in a simple manner against a background of whirring harp tones. At the same time, the soprano repeatedly interjects with the
O Lord, come!) invocation from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, referred to by John: first in the version
maranâ thâ in expectation of the imminent Second Coming, and then in the only slightly different Aramaic version greeting Christ’s arrival:
maran athâ (
Our Lord has come).
The soprano makes her last contribution with the singing of
O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit (Bach BWV 60). There follows a repetition of the ‘mystical chord sequence’.
Impressions First Performance
Hoson zēs, phainou
mēden holōs sy lypou
pros oligon esti to zēn
to telos ho chronos apaitei
Gute Nacht, du Stolz und Pracht! dir sei ganz, o Lasterleben, gute Nacht gegeben!
maranâ thâ … maranâ thâ …
O Ewigkeit, Zeit ohne Zeit.
Ancient Greek version of the Seikilos Song
Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ·
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν.
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.
Translation of the Seikilos Song
While you live, shine [be happy ]
don’t suffer [be sad] anything at all;
[because] life is short
and time demands its toll [time leads to death].