Every moment filled with intensity
The works of Iris Szeghy, by Walter Kläy
If music can give expression to something such as truth, so that ‘true’ music would be differentiated from the ‘untrue’, then I would like to describe music such as Iris Szeghy writes as ‘true’ music. Truth tolerates no garru-lousness, no favours. Its beauty is not worn on the outside, but arises from within, from in itself. This is connected to the fact that the music of Iris Szeghy does not have formalistic concepts as its starting point, but is inspired by experiences of nature, art, philosophy and society. Texts by Shakespeare, Hesse, Bach-mann, Celan and Merz, pictures by Klee or sculptures by Rodin are the starting points of compositions in which Szeghy engages with the thoughts and emotions of others.
In working out these moments of inspiration and transforming them into music, Szeghy utilizes the whole spectrum of today’s compositional techniques and expressive possibilities, yet without succumbing to the dangers of a hybrid arbitrariness. What is particularly important to her is using sound colour as a means of expression. Her music does not know any cheap or modernistic effects; this music is intelligent in the sense that it both illuminates and is touching in its emotionality, sometimes even star-tlingly so. The economy and density of her chosen means stand in tension-filled contrast to the dimension of time. Szeghy allows her music time to develop, but every moment is filled with intensity and depth of emotion, always in connection with a clear construction that is also characterized by a fine working-out of the details. Such characteristics can be perceived in quite different ways in the five
works by Iris Szeghy that are presented here. The chronological arch stretches from Psalm to a poem by Paul Celan (1993) to the string trio Goldberg (2006/7), while the forces utilized range from a solo voice to a string orchestra. This allows the listener fundamental insights into the oeuvre of this extraordinary composer.
«Vielleicht, dass uns etwas aufginge»
(Perhaps, we would realize something)
‘In 2002 I was commissioned by the Boswil Artist’s House to write a work for the Boswil Summer Festival on the occasion of the 50th birthday of the Artist’s House in 2003. The topic was “Canton Aargau and the world”. I chose to write a work for soprano and string orchestra after poems by the Aargau writer Klaus Merz. Merz’s poetry was an exciting discovery for me: it says much in few words, and it is precisely this that I am looking for as a composer. The contrast between economy of means and the density of the thoughts, of the “silence” behind it all, was a source of great musical inspiration to me. My piece is also marked by this quiet urge, by the strength of what is left unsaid. From the numerous poems by Klaus Merz, I chose five short, pensive statements on human existence. They deal with hope, everyday life, experience, happiness and death. The piece was conceived not as a song cycle, but as a compact whole – as a kind of rondo in which the poem “Wish” has a central, key function’. (Iris Szeghy)
The piece begins with tender string chords. This is an act of immersion into five texts that Iris Szeghy conceives as a rondo, not a song cycle. And in doing so, her musical language meets that of the poet: few words, as if juxtaposed by chance, create direct sense, evoke strong emotions. The music reflects the texts with few notes, often at a low dynamic level, and the art of suggestion and of leaving out creates enigmatic vistas. The tender, restrained basic atmosphere allows several fierce passages to emerge all the more drastically.
The textual-musical connecting of the five texts in the manner of a rondo produces new meanings, too. The first poem, ‘Perhaps, we would realize something’ appears as a motto refrain three times: at the beginning, in the middle and at the end, and the four other lexis are structured around this motto in two symmetrical sections:
- Wunsch – Sabotage – Echo – Sabotage – Wunsch
- Glück – Kartengruss – Echo – Kartengruss – Wunsch
The emotional climax is in the second section, in the ‘Postcard’ that is employed twice. At the words ‘Where on earth do ihe people get their faces when they pass by’, the singer moves from a pianissimo into a scream, then into whispering, and then finally breaks out into loud, violent laughter that is taken over by the strings and ebbs away.
‘The idea for Canticum came from the Slovakian accordion player Boris Lenko, to whom the work is also dedicated, and who gave its first performance in the year of its composition, 2002, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival.
The structure of the work is based on a simple theme that is similar to a chorale. After a slow introduction, this theme is developed throughout the course of the piece after the manner of variations, some of them in a bizarre way. A peculiarity of the structure is that the theme only sounds in its original, pure form right at the end, after all the variations. The form of the work is thus not a theme with variations, but variations with a theme. It was my intention to present the accordion in all its variety, its plasticity and its range of expression, for it is an instrument that has not yet quite established itself as a solo instrument on the concert platform. And also, of course, I wanted to write effective music in the process’. (Iris Szeghy)
In this piece for solo accordion, an instrument whose musical possibilities the Russian composer Sofia Gubaid-ulina has already explored anew, Iris Szeghy makes even greater use of the instrument’s expressive spectrum.
Glissandi, tremolandi, trills, breathing sounds, clusters, contrasts between extremely high and very low passages, and between massive concentrations of sound and the most delicate of musical fabrics – all this reminds one more of the colours of the organ than of an instrument that is known through folk and popular music. These possibilities are utilized by Szeghy not just as exotic elements of sound, but in a well thought-out conception that one only perceives gradually. The simple, chorale-like theme that sounds right at the end as a tender, monodic melody, winds its way in varied form through the whole piece – as an idea that steers its drama and finally appears unadorned. This is a fascinating experience, reminiscent of a novella with many dark insinuations before their meaning is revealed only at the end.
String Trio Goldberg
‘I wrote the String Trio Goldberg at the suggestion of the Goldberg Trio of Lucerne and the choreographer Oliver Dahler, for their common project “Goldberg Variationen”. It was commissioned by the Goldberg Trio, with support from the Nicati-de Luze Foundation and other foundations. The work was given its world premiere at the Lucerne Festival in 2008. When composing this work, I let myself be inspired by several aspects of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: In the fourth movement, I refer to variation form, and in the motivic working I use, among other things, the bass line of the “Aria” that is the theme of Bach’s Variations. At the beginning of the fourth movement, I incorporated an alienated quotation of the “Aria”; I structured the melodic lines melismatically, in a Baroque-like manner, and the motoric nature of certain virtuoso passages might remind one of Bach.
The subtle inspirational influences of Bach and Baroque merge in my work with my own musical language, my own musical poetics and work structures. My string trio is thus characterized by the significance of tone colour and tonal contrasts in the structure itself, through a preference for fine nuances and moods, by micro-intervals and the confrontation and unification of elements of difference, in many different ways – on the macro and micro-levels. Formally, I decided to write a cycle whose movements are to be played attaca. Individual “choric” movements are linked by three solo cadenzas, “quasi-recitatives”. This is very unusual in chamber music, and was an idea that particularly attracted me. The cadenzas are linked motivi-cally, and at the same time they react
to what has sounded before and antic ipate what is to come. They are one of the uniting elements in the piece -and at the same time are little islands of rest, of reflection. The work is closed by a lengthy coda, in which several motives from the work are elaborated’. (Iris Szeghy)
A musical reflection on Bach’s Goldberg Variations: Iris Szeghy reacts to this summit of the European composing tradition with a wholly individual creation that offers unexpected reflections of Bach’s cycle. Its overall form with its several sections displays Szeghy’s art of bringing contrast and coherence in a logical equilibrium. The Introduzione hovers down from the highest heights, and the three instruments play a fine web of neighbouring chromatic notes in a triple piano and with much vibrato; these several, short phrases end each time in a suggestion of a cadenza. The motion sinks further down into the depths, it intensifies to a triple forte, evaporates once more, and leads into the Cadenza I, in which the solo violin utilizes the motive of thirds from the bass line of Bach’s ‘Aria’ and additional chromatic notes to bring about a powerful climax.
The following Arietta brings the third motive once more, in the muted violin, while the other two instruments, also with mute, have a chromatic cadenza. In the second phrase, the cello sets itself free with an expressive lament reminiscent of the equally expressive g-minor variation No. 25 from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The ensuing Cadenza II (viola) also takes the motive of thirds as its starting point, and this moves from misterioso opening gestures through several eruptions to a climactic passionato. The resultant high tension is continued in the Agitato, in which the accumulated energy surges out and on–wards in irregularly accentuated rhythmic patterns. The eruptive dynamics only find rest in the longer Cadenza III of the cello, but soon the music surges on once more and culminates in the powerful opening of the fourth movement, Variazioni. This begins with a unison and a chorale-like, alienated quotation from Bach’s “Aria” and a harmonized continuation thereof that refers even more clearly to Bach’s original theme. Five variations follow on from this, in which rhythmic and/or melodic particles from the theme appear time and again. After a general pause, the coda begins, pianissimo, with glissandi harmonics, and accompanied by mysterious trills and tremolandi in the viola.
Then the violin begins a quiet song that rises up over more through several phrases, until it dissolves into nothing in the highest registers in which the work had begun,
‘The Psalm is dedicated to the American singer Beth Griffith, who gave its first performance in Stuttgart in 1993. The sadness and the nihilism on the one hand, the humanity and the tender hopes associated with it on the other that nevertheless speak to us from the poetry of Paul Celan – this prompted me to set Celan’s “Psalm” from his poetry volume Niemandsrose (Nobody’s Rose). I was confronted with the following question before I started work on it: Is it possible to set a poem such as “Psalm” in the traditional manner? Basically, it’s an “anti-psalm”, an anti-prayer, in which God has the name “Nobody” and man the name “Nothing” (this is also an expression of the Jewish experience during the Second World War; perhaps only a Jewish writer could wrile such a text). If I wanted to approach the essence of the poem, I could not set it in the usual manner. For this reason, I have the singer only speak and whisper the text like a rapid, incomprehensible prayer wheel that is continually interrupted by a kind of lamenting singing on specific vowels and syllables. After this process reaches a climax and returns to calm, the end of the piece brings the first setting of the text in a traditional manner. The singer sings the key verses of the poem like a Hebrew psalm. For the first time, the words are comprehensible – which fact illuminates the previous musical utterances and the meaning of the work’. (Iris Szeghy)
The manner in which Szeghy treats the text by Paul Celan is proof once again of the truthfulness of her composing. She could not set it in the traditional way, if she wanted to ap proach the essence of the poem, she says. So she allows Celan’s text to be murmured and whispered (it can be either a male or a female singer, she says), like a lonely prayer at the Wailing Wall. In between, the voice is raised into sung cries or petitions, whose length and intensity increase and then reach a point of culmination. Then the performance calms down again, with whisperings and short vocalizations. Only at the close does the singer intone the psalm like a biblical song, with a minimal deployment of just five notes, and the interval (sounded twice) of an augmented second – a melodic element of the Middle East, and thus of Hebraic music. This unusual psalm setting derives its archaic power from the simplicity of the means employed and their direct impact.
‘This piece was commissioned by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia for the Camerata Berne and was given its world premiere in December 2005 in the Paul Klee Centre in Berne. In this work, I engage with the oeuvre of Paul Klee, to which I feel particularly close.
Klee’s oeuvre offers an Inexhaustible richness of inspiration that is formed with an equal richness of artistic-technical means. Klee’s typical playfulness, poesy and the delicate structures on the one hand, and the clear, heavy lines and the darkness of his oeuvre on the other – all this fascinates me and is a source of continuing inspiration for my musical imagination. Ad Parnassum is inspired by seven pictures of Klee’s from different times of his life. The picture with the laconic title “E” plays the role of a brief pizzicato intermezzo in the cycle. The other six pictures serve as the models for the principal movements and are divided between three thematic blocks: pictures with musical inspiration, those inspired by nature and those whose inspiration was, as it were, of a metaphysical, transcendental kind (these being three of the most important themes in Klee’s work). Different characters and moods evoked by the pictures – from meditation via bizarre pictures to virtuoso passages and temperamental outbursts – are depicted by contemporary as well as traditional musical means. This cycle, rich in contrasts, climaxes in the final movement “Ad Parnassum”, a classical finale. Musically speaking, four of the six main movements were inspired by Klee’s favourite composers, Bach and Mozart’. (Iris Szeghy)
It is hardly astonishing that Iris Szeghy feels particularly close to the work of Paul Klee. Poetry, wit and inscrutability, which are to be found in many of Klee’s pictures, are also in her music. She has transformed seven of Klee’s pictures into sounds and rhythms, in a clearly arranged structure. The picture ‘E’ (1918) appears twice and thus serves to structure the three groups of two thematically linked pictures each. Klee himself was inspired by musical themes more than perhaps any other painter of the 20th century. Thus his watercolour ‘Fugue in red’ (1921) almost cries out for a re-transformation into music: a series of geometric and concrete forms that progresses from dark to increasingly bright, luminous colours by means of overlapping. Szeghy structures this by using three fugato sections that are united and ‘framed’ by a motto of four striking, loud chords. The ironically playful watercolour ‘Singer at the Comic Opera’ (1923) finds its witty correlation in Szeghy with a reference to the two arias of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Another such reference is offered by the ‘Fish Picture’ (1925), in which the left hand is quoted from the e minor Prelude (BWV 855) from the 48 by Klee’s favourite composer Bach. The movement to the picture ‘King of the Conch’ (1933) is an ironic reference to the Sarastro aria from the Magic Flute – ironic inasmuch as Klee’s picture shows a conch shell. And the music to the painting ‘Angel becoming’ (1934) was inspired by the famous chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (Ich will hier bei dir stehen’ – ‘I wish to stand here by you’). Bach’s chorale melody appears, very much slowed down, in the high violins.
At the close of the cycle, there is the great oil painting Ad Parnassum’ that Klee painted in 1932 at the end of his Bauhaus time. Szeghy introduces it with the same striking motive with which the ‘Fugue in red’ begins. We experience Klee’s ‘magnum opus’ in Szeghy’s version first as a many-layered event and a construction of forward-surging rhythms and streams of energy, until towards the close, the static nature of Klee’s picture is also drawn in Szeghy’s music – the pyramid-like mountain over a horizontal line, under the orange sun that triumphs over everything; the cycle thus dies away in a powerful E major chord.