Jörg Widmann: Fleurs du mal – Sonata after Baudelaire

The German composer Jörg Widmann composed his Fleurs du mal in 1996-97, at the young age of 23. At this point he had already composed an opera, a violin concerto and several chamber works, as well as completed his clarinet and composition studies, the former in Munich with Gerd Starke and at Juilliard with Charles Neidich, the latter with Henze, Rihm and Boulez, amongst others. I had been acquainted with him through school – we both attended the same grammar school in Munich, where he had already become active as a composer, writing an opera for the Munich Biennale and appearing on local television as a clarinettist. He was always very focused, naturally, but never seemed set apart from his fellow pupils who, in turn, were curious about his scribbled pieces of note paper. His career since then has been a steady progress from local wunderkind to one of the most celebrated younger composers of the day, showered with prizes for his compositions, enjoying an unusual double professorship for composition and clarinet at one of Germany’s most prestigious music academies and performing his own works as well as the classics in the great concert halls and festivals of the world. To see the artists and ensembles premiering his works is to read a Who’s Who of classical music – Andras Schiff, Juliane Banse, the Leipzig String Quartet, Sergei Nakariakov, the London Symphony and New York Philharmonic Orchestras – Widmann’s music clearly arouses a huge amount of interest and support.

One of the possible reasons for this interest could be the sheer musicality of his works. In line with the recent softening of ideological demands in contemporary music, Widmann has eschewed any formal dogmas in his music, without thereby losing any compositional credibility: his music sounds as modern as it needs to. Contemporary music often likes to disassociate itself from the past, regarding any recognizable continuity as a weakness in the search for new frontiers and experiences. Ever present in Widmann’s works however is a sensuality, a fondness for beauty, resonance and sonority, that testifies to his interest in history. Added to this, Widmann has a penchant for virtuosity, and the many prestissimo and feroce markings in his pieces provide excitement of an extrovert nature to compliment the many subtler features. However crafted, calculated or constructed his music, it is always accompanied by indications such as misterioso, visionario or cantabile, emphasizing the aesthetic experience underpinning it. If one is therefore to present a work of contemporary music to an untrained ear, Widmann’s music offers many footholds, many familiar features to reassure one that this clearly belongs to the same family of music as Bach, Beethoven and Bartok. Furthermore, Widmann accentuates his lineage by frequently referring openly to works of the classics, whether it is his “Fieberfantasie” that searches for and eventually finds Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 73, his “Con Brio” that deconstructs a Beethoven overture or his Intermezzi that pay homage to Brahms.

Without abandoning that precious link to the past completely, there is very little novelty composers of today can still conjure up in their probing of the aural experience. The novelty in Widmann’s music lies in the detail, the exploration of each instrument’s sonic possibilities. No individual aspect of his music is new, but his fusion of these elements creates a whole that is instantly recognizable. He makes use of every aspect of his instruments, plucking the strings of the piano and knocking its casing, for instance, but always in the service of a musical phrase. It is as if, now that these once unusual techniques have ceased to shock, we can use them for purely musical reasons. Novelty in this sense is the freedom to use the techniques developed by the collected avant-gardes of the last century, blending them into a new language of classical music that can thereby gain some stability. It has been a while since composers last had the opportunity to employ an established language, concentrating on the material to be expressed rather than the means of expression; the end of competing ideologies and the exhaustion of barriers to demolish could now herald a highly fertile period for music.

“Fleurs du mal” is a Sonata much in the classical sense of the word – it has three movements, albeit through composed, the first of which even sports two contrasting subjects, a development and a recapitulation of sorts. The composer tells us as much in a brief preface, as well as revealing that the principle interval of the work is the minor third, the characteristic feature of a minor key. Widmann also indicates that the Sonata is inspired by Baudelaire in more senses than one: The work’s dark and violent atmosphere reflects the menacing nature of the poetry; the entire work is dominated by a very low B Flat (in German just B), in reference to the author’s name. There are many correspondences between verse structure and rhythmic structure. Furthermore, Baudelaire’s achievement of expressing violent, demonic and visionary images in the strict verses employed in his poems is mirrored in the music, where the widest possible range of expression, dynamics and tempo is demanded in a score dense with performance indications and constantly changing metres, as well as metronome and pedal instructions. It is the challenge of expressing frenzy and hysteria, sloth and idleness in a tightly constructed and articulated form that interested Widmann here, and he passes on a good deal of that challenge to the pianist.

According to the preface, the Sonata is also saturated with actual literary references. There is no mention of specifics, other than the inclusion of the opening of “The Albatross”, one of the poems from Baudelaire’s collection, exactly half way through the piece. The quote in question is “Souvent, pour s’amuser...”, which, in the poem continues:

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

(Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.)

It is a poem which compares the poet to an albatross, a majestic creature of the sky that is clumsy and defenceless when dragged to Earth, where cruel men humiliate and ridicule it. Judging by the preface, this is not the only literary reference present in the score, but it is the only explicit one, and it is placed at a crucial juncture of the work, at the beginning of the second movement, in the 246th of the Sonata’s 491 bars. One must therefore assume this poem to have some significance for the piece – perhaps in a self referential, biographical allusion by the composer? The identification of further references is pure conjecture, and since Widmann gives no further hints, they must presumably be immaterial to the listener. However, it is tempting to assume that the very distinct characters and textures present in the Sonata relate to distinct poems; the title given to the last movement, “caccia”, is graphic enough, except that there is no poem by Baudelaire specifically relating to a hunt. Perhaps “Fleurs du mal” relates to the poetry in a more general way, as does Liszt’s Dante Sonata to its literary model.

The Sonata is composed in three movements, a fast but erratic first movement being followed by a lengthy slow movement before a short furious caccia (a favourite genre for Widmann) brings the piece to a frenzied conclusion. The first movement opens with a short, vicious chord in the bass, producing a cloud of harmonics, from which a flourish emerges: arpeggios race up to the very top of the keyboard where a single note is then repeated at great speed, surging and subsiding, occasionally interrupted by short interjections. This energy gradually drops, a low B Flat settling the colour into something dark and menacing. The first subject, a triumphal exclamation, commences, followed by a series of chords and single notes dotted around the keyboard, in jagged rhythm and volume, soon descending into the depths, from which the opening flourish re-emerges and subsides. The jagged movement is taken up again, lasting longer this time, with frequent recurrences of the initial exclamation in varied expressions, ending with a sudden interruption. A short garland of notes introduces the second subject, short phrase fragments floating high above a repeated B-Flat in the bass. These fragments rise up the keyboard, gradually merging into a tremolo at the very top of the piano. This tremolo is suddenly cut off, the music searching for a continuation. A scale passage plunges into the depths and finds the same vicious chord that opened the work: the development has begun. The main thrust of this section concerns a motif introduced in the first subject area, a decisive sounding leap of a ninth, echoed several times in different registers. This motif is altered here to a seventh, initially with the same decisive character; the leaps are soon combined to form chords, the same series of intervals forming a more lyrical but unsteady chain of short variations. The exclamatory motif is introduced, unsettling the momentum. A short transition then reinforces this motif and leads into the recapitulation, which angrily affirms key fragments of the opening material in vastly condensed form, gradually increasing in continuity and intensity until a series of ffff chords at the extremities of the keyboard signal that nothing further can be gained in this direction.

The following passage could be understood as a coda to the first movement, as it makes use of motifs and intervals of the preceding music and leads towards the flourish that signals the start of the second movement. However, the texture is dominated by flowing arpeggios and a much more pronounced continuity that makes this passage sound quite different to all that we have heard so far – if the composer had not stated that the Sonata has three movements, one could almost see this as a short Scherzo leading to the slow movement. In any case, the arpeggios widen in amplitude and grow in volume, becoming more and more frenetic until they again plunge into the depths over a scale of descending octaves, leading once again to the flourish of the beginning that races to the summit, vibrates furiously on the interval of a minor third and then slams the door shut.

The second movement begins with an improvisatory monody of rising and falling ninths and sevenths over long notes in bass. The bass line is an inversion of the descending octaves at the end of the previous movement, and in this new guise these five ascending notes form the principle motif of the second movement. The improvisatory passage leads into a descending sequence of chords that feature another key motif, that of a descending minor second. Derived from the sevenths and ninths of the previous passage, the minor second is used both as a melodic and harmonic interval throughout the movement, to the degree that one could see it as the dominant interval, in contrast to the first movement, where the minor third is ever present. A sudden screeching at the upper end of the keyboard indicates the arrival of the Albatross. The theme of the albatross is fairly short, punctuated by screeching minor seconds in the high treble, and disintegrates in a cloud of bass notes. A sudden recurrence of the furious tremolo from the first movement destroys the calm and initiates a searching passage where motifs from both movements alternate in jagged and angry succession, culminating in a transposed version of the very first, vicious, chord. A lyrical plaintive version of the ascending scale motif seems to reflect on the fate of the bird, with occasional screeches interjecting. Another monody over more angry interjections becomes gradually more impassioned, leading to a beautifully sonorous passage based on the exclamatory motif of the first movement; at least four distinct layers of sound complement each other here in a manner recalling the most complex of Debussy’s Preludes. At this point, the movement seems to have said what it has to say, but seems unable to find a route to the next – momentum is alternately lost and gained, snippets of previous motifs suggest openings but are rejected, until a series of furious screeches signal that the chase is about to begin. The little garland of the second subject is mutated into the rumbling of thunder, lightning flashes and the dogs are let loose.

The main features of the last movement, entitled “Caccia”, are extremely fast arpeggios, displaced accents and a rise in intensity that seems never to stop. Motifs from both previous movements provide the material in a virtuoso onslaught reminiscent of Schumann’s sonata finales with their incessant accelerandos, prestos and piu mossos. Ingenious changes of meter and groupings assist in creating the illusion of a constant stretto, and textural shifts create scope for ever increasing volume. There is much more continuity than in the previous movements, with the whole section unfolding in one breath. After reaching an unsurpassable climax, the opening flourish reappears, extended from the very bottom to the very top of the keyboard, where it pulsates at the greatest possible speed and volume in ever narrowing intervals until it is merely a trill of a minor second on the highest notes of the piano, then takes a deep breath (an actual performance indication in the score) and races to the depths, where raging note clusters pulsate in seven fold forte until the savage exclamation of the first movement and the vicious chord of the beginning obliterate the piece, leaving only the dust of the harmonics in the air.

In his preface, Widmann notes that the Sonata is dominated by development, and it is striking how dense the web of motivic references throughout the piece is. As well as the interval of the minor third, the augmented fourth (that diabolic interval) and minor seventh carry motivic significance and generally dominate harmonically. The principle motif of the first movement is a leap upward of a minor third, and this motif is heard throughout the Sonata and also concludes it, in a blaze of rage. The second subject of the first movement, a sort of garland around a minor second, also makes many reappearances throughout the work. A third figure, consisting of two rising semitone steps, is introduced as a sort of coda to the first movement and continues to reappear in the remainder of the piece. The exact forms of these motifs are handled with flexibility, as is their harmonization, but their identity is always apparent, mainly through accentuation and gesture, and their constant reoccurrence and motivic use gives the piece a strong feeling of unity. It is quite legitimate to state that there is little material in the Sonata that cannot be derived from these motifs. The regular and recognizable appearance of key motifs at significant points in the piece gives a sense of stability in a work that seems for long periods to be searching, and provides insight into the overall form. Widmann states that the minor third appears not only with harmonic and motivic significance but also carries structural functions. These are not immediately apparent, but could relate to the proportions of the three movements. Due to the difficulty of deciding the exact function of various passages such as the transition from first to second movement or the opening flourish and its repeats later, the exact dimensions of the individual movements are debatable, and structural definitions therefore difficult to establish.

Whilst the Sonata reveals strong motivic unity, it utilizes a wide variety of textures and pianistic styles. Much of the first movement consists of chords and single notes with constantly changing dynamics, rhythms and meters, dotted around the keyboard in a manner reminiscent of serial compositions. Almost every note has a specific dynamic marking, and the changes to meter and rhythm allow no feeling of pulse to emerge. Examining the notes carefully, one detects that the pitch organization is close to serial, with recurring pitch sequences being reused with octave transpositions and displaced emphases to obscure the resemblances. The uneven and erratic texture is however not only reminiscent of serialism, it also recalls speech patterns, with accents and dynamics mirroring strong and weak syllables – perhaps these are poems, translated not so much by atmosphere as by the actual sound of the words. However, this texture is characteristic only of the first subject area of the first movement, with other areas differing markedly. Already the second subject area is more consistent in line, not only producing a vastly different atmosphere, but employing quite different pianistic techniques. Both the last movement and the transitional passage between first and second movement use fairly conventional virtuoso techniques such as leaps, large chords, scales and arpeggios that would not be entirely out of place in a Sonata by Bartok or Prokofiev. Widmann states in the preface that he has restricted himself to using only the keyboard in this work, rather than delving into the interior of the instrument as he habitually does in his piano compositions. Within that, however, he does make use of most techniques offered by the piano, with plentiful harmonics, employment of the sostenuto pedal and clusters. On the other hand, none of these is a particular feature of the work, only adding colour where the occasion seems to demand it, rather than becoming a trademark effect.

Overall, one can admire how successful this composition is on many levels: it sounds like Baudelaire, with all his excess, his violent and demonically sensual imagery and his discipline in portraying it; pianistically, the Sonata offers the player many challenges, most of which are perfectly suited to the instrument, both technically and audibly – it sounds like a well written piano piece; as a composition, it is constructed with great density and economy, using traditional and contemporary forms and techniques in tandem, appealing to the analytical mind as much as to the ear. It is a great achievement for a young composer and goes some way to explaining why Widmann is in such great demand.

© Béla Hartmann 2011


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