Second String Quartet
- roBErt SCHumAnn
- Wilder Reiter (Wild Horseman)
- Scherzo (SHoA 2)
- Warum (Why)
When Martin Dehning (Nomos Quartet) asked me whether I could imagine composing a string quartet that might relate to Robert Schumann or his music, I responded in the affirmative (since I love Schumann). A youthful composition of mine has a Schumann-like title—“Albumblätter” for Piano, even though the piece has otherwise no direct link to Schumann. On the contrary, or perhaps not to the contrary: At the end of the piece emerges, out of a texture typical for new music, a Bach fragment, as if coming from a different world. In any case, the issue was the great German music tradition. A question that I have pondered again and again is how this great musical culture—and, in general, how the great German culture manifesting itself in various areas—was able to bring forth the barbarism of racism, anti-Semitism, and national socialism. It is a question for which I have no rational answer.
While thinking about the new string quartet I had the idea to make these two contrasting aspects of German history the subject matter of my work. But how could I do it in piece without recourse to a text? I took refuge in a procedure that I have frequently employed, namely using the pitch letters contained in a name as basic musical material. Thus I began with Schumann’s first and last names and arrived at b-flat (b), e, e-flat (s), c, b (h), a. The title of the first movement, in turn, is roBErt SCHumAnn.
In the second movement we are already in the midst of horror—it is called SHoA, and in it I use only the pitches e-flat (s), b (h), and a.
The third movement is a Schumann paraphrase, a rather hallucinatory version of the piano piece “Wilder Reiter” (Wild Horseman) from the Album für die Jugend. Here I replace the initial interval of the piece, the fourth, with the augmented fourth that appears in Schumann’s first name: b-flat (b) and e. It seemed to me not inappropriate that this interval was known in music history as “diabolus in musica”.
Then I needed a vocal scene, a voice giving expression to mourning, to lamentation, but also to hope. I gave this movement the Hebrew name “Shir” (meaning “chant”). The name contains the previously used notes e-flat (s) and b (h), which indeed appear at the end of the movement.
Classical string quartets have a scherzo. Even though my work overall does not fall into the classical mold, I wanted to include an homage to the great string quartet tradition. But if it had to be a scherzo, it would be an evil and tragic joke, as life, otherwise wonderful, may occasionally appear. I called the fifth movement Scherzo (SHoA 2). Out of the pitches e-flat (s), b (h) and a—I develop a twelve-tone row (e-flat, b, a—f, d, g-sharp—g, c-sharp, c—e, f-sharp, b-flat) which represents also an homage to the inventor of the twelve-tone technique, the great Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg (whose name happens to begin with the letters/pitches e-flat (s), c, and b (h).
I do not know why Schumann called a piece in his Fantasiestücke, op. 12, “Warum?” But it is a question which one must confront again and again in the most divergent circumstances. It fits here as well, and so does Schumann’s gentle and heart-breaking musical rendition of that question. I have fashioned my own version of it, analogously to “Wilder Reiter”—but in a different way.
The string quartet lacked a farewell gesture, and I selected a word that Jewish people use as a greeting: “shalom” means peace (similar to the Arab expression “salam”)—it is a wish that unfortunately still remains a burning issue, especially in our era that saw virulent anti-Semitism in Europe (and that even today unfortunately flickers now and then) and recently has reappeared in another great culture, or at least its rulers, in modern-day Iran. As Brecht—the fiftieth anniversary of his death is commemorated this year—said (and I paraphrase here): “The womb that produced this barbarism is still fertile.”
But I do not wish at all that my string quartet, after all these explanations, is understood by listeners as a piece of program music. The program, of course, is important for the genesis of the piece, but the composition must be able to walk on its own feet; it is meant to be listened to as a piece of music that, regardless of the program, is logical and consistent according to laws of composition.
17 September 2006