his head) Song Cycle on scurrilous poems by Hermann Hesse for Medium
Voice and Piano, op. 108 (2002)
Antwort an Freunde, die mir ein sehr schwieriges Gedicht im neuen Stil geschickt und gefragt hatten, ob ich es etwa verstehe.
3. Waldnacht - Gedicht eines Schwabinger Symbolisten
Bildnis eines zu alt gewordenen Literaten
First performance: August 9, 2003, Calw, Georgenäum
Martin Hummel / Markus Bellheim
Schott Music ED 9706 / ISMN M-001-13627-3
1 Kopflos ||Nr.
3 Waldnacht ||Nr.
6 Belehrung |
song cycle Kopflos is part of the repertoire for the International
Competition "Franz Schubert und die Musik der Moderne" in Graz (Austria).
As my father sketched the present
song-cycle in May, 2002, a commission for the Hermann Hesse Festival in Calw,
he could not know that these songs would be his last completed work. He was full
of enthusiasm for the scurrilous texts, which show the venerated poet in a way
he has seldom been seen in previous song composition, and set about the task with
high motivation. During the further process of composition, the results of medical
tests became increasingly and unmistakably clear. Despite this, he worked with
unusual stamina and satisfaction on the details of the score, checking the last
corrected version on the 21st July. The styles with which he was certainly very
familiar - dodecaphony, jazz, the music of the 19th century - appeared in parodied
forms reflecting the sense of the poetic texts themselves, his own personal and
unmistakable musical language not being exempted form the treatment.
these light-hearted songs in analmost comedy style should come at the end of a
lifetime's production involving a vast variety of works corresponds to the serene
wisdom Bertold Hummel had gained with age, an attribute attested by many after
My father died on the 9th August, 2002 - the 40th anniversary
of the death of the poet.
Hummel's last song-cycle: Kopflos (Headless)
Bertold Hummel died a year ago, he left behind a work just completed: Kopflos
(Headless), a song-cycle in 6 parts on scurrilous poems by Hermann Hesse,
for medium voice and piano, op. 108. Hummel began this opus ultimum in May, 2002,
shortly before the diagnosis of the fatal illness, and then completed it with
unusual intensity in the same month. He made a final proof-reading on the 21st
July, four days before the operation with its grave consequences. On the 9th August
- exactly 40 years after Hesse - Hummel died. The songs are dedicated to his son
Martin, who was due to give them their première at the Hesse Festival in
Calw on the 17th August. This did not happen, naturally, eight days after the
death of the composer. But Martin did première the cycle one year later,
on the double anniversary (9th August, 2003) in Calw. (It is published by Schott).
Martin Hummel also selected the texts and suggested them. It is fitting to
reflect on the fact that such a light-hearted, almost clowning work came a the
end of a career in which heavyweight material often dominated, but one should
not read too much into this. There is no shortage of humorous touches in Hummel's
earlier songs, for example those on poems by Eichendorff or Arno Holz. It is however
significant that the composer changed the order of the poems from that suggested
by his son, so that "Belehrung" ("Instruction")
came at the end.
oder weniger, mein lieber Knabe,
Sind schließlich alle Menschenworte
more or less the case, my dear boy,
that ultimately all the words of man are
is included in Hesse's Versen im Krankenbett (Verses on the sick-bed) (from
the years 1919 to 1928). For Hummel, we can no doubt speak of the wisdom and scepticism
of age. The "Tutto nel mondo e burla" at the end of Verdi's Falstaff
is here sharpened into doubt about "the truth" - a reflection "on
the sick-bed"? At any rate sceptical humour, as one can recognise in the
elements of this musical language. The slightly staggering sixteenth-note motif
shows that this "instruction" is offered with a loving twinkle in the
eye. The A-major chord (bar 15), starting from a foundation in the depths
and completed in the following accented chord in the treble, as well as the E-major
chord concluding the second verse seem to
place an audible question mark against
the otherwise dominating chromaticism with its tendency to blur tonality. Which
of the two is truth, which the swindle? Is the answer to be found in the "imperfect"
seventh chords which emerge for the duration of a quarter-note in bar 16 and 18/19?
This formulation would probably be too "direct" if we wanted to commit
ourselves to a strict interpretation. But at the same time, the impression should
not be given that, in the course of a non-committal improvisation or some kind
of naturalistic response to the text particles, something has come together without
any basis in musical rules. A glance at the structure of the vocal part proves
the opposite: a singable motif in E minor ("Mehr oder weniger"
/ "More or less") is transposed with slight transformation to G
minor ("mein lieber Knabe" / "my dear boy"), while
the second line is initially based on a sequenced motif of an ascending seventh
and descending sixth (bars 16-18) before then breaking down and leading to that
seventh chord (bar 19) that - in a different setting - we had already found in
the accompaniment. The E major chord already referred to (bar 20) finally
rounds off the composition of the first half stanza, which had begun with e. In
such "constructionism" (a general mark of Hummel's music), wisdom is
presented - here, in a transparency which sweeps away everything superfluous,
no doubt the wisdom of age.
In the further course of the "Instruction",
it can be observed how this at first sight "difficult" musical language
is in fact subject to the rules of an immediately perceptible "songlike-ness".
Thus the song is based in the second half of the first stanza on sequence, here
achieving as a sequence the proportions of a complete melodic line (bars 22-31),
and the same applies to the first half of the second stanza (bars 35-45) as well
as to the beginning of the last line in the same stanza. Yet, within this development,
the sceptical, yes, even merciless humour comes to the surface. The words "am
ehrlichsten" ("most honestly") are spoken (bar 27) between
existence "in der Windel" ("in nappies") and "im
Grabe" ("in the grave"), relating then to both. "With
free declamation", the final line is spoken from the point where the sung
melody stops: "und mancher lög' und lebte lieber wieder" ("and
some lied, and would rather have lived again.") (bars 19/60). The rattling
of the "blanken Knochen" ("bare bones")(T. 46/47) is
portrayed with repeated hollow fifths (f'-c') into which cacophonous "cluster"
chords, based on the six-note series above g-sharp, are hurled. Before the speaking
in the last line, mentioned above, Hummel sets the beginning of the line ("und
mancher lög"`) as song, using the sequenced and somewhat rounded-off
motif from the opening (cf. example 1, bars 9-13), extending the sequence upwards
by a third (bars 56/57). The "Schwindel" ("swindle")
appears in this whole passage in an unexpected light, namely with ragtime-like
rhythms and correspondingly robust see-saw accompaniment (left-hand); a syncopated
variation of the sixteenth-note motif from the beginning of the song with a peppery
addition of parallel fourths (bars 51-54).
The compositional traits identified
in this final song of the cycle are found equally in the previous numbers. In
terms of content, the nearest relation is last to be composed, the "Bildnis
eines zu alt gewordenen Literaten" ("Portrait of a man of
letters grown too old"), no. 4, on a Hesse poem of 1958. Here the mild
treatment of the swindle reduces it almost to irrelevance:
ist er fähig, manche Eule / Behutsam nach Athen zu tragen.
still capable of carrying an owl or two carefully to Athens.")
verse set by Hummel in "Sprechgesang" ("spoken-song")) or
fallen ihm die Pleonasmen / Noch immer dutzendweise ein.
(Yet he continues
to notice the pleonasms in dozens.)
transforming this into a portrait of a composer grown too old, uses here for characterisation
primarily the typically 19th century harmonic construction of superposition of
thirds (e.g. in Parsifal's "Glaubens"-Motiv ("Belief" motif),
there first heard in bars 39 ff.). More than other constructional devices which
we touched on in considering the "Belehrung", such successions
of chords dominate here. Thus we encounter at the end "Paradies"
("Paradise") rising in a radiantly jubilant triad above a series
of triads sequenced in steps of a third. This reminds one of a typical work of
the 19th century, Liszt's B minor Sonata. The second subject ("Grandioso")
appears first in bar 105 ff. in the form D major - B minor - G
major - E minor - C major. This is however not the only reminder
of Liszt. Hummel's chord series finally dissolves (bars 47-50) into parallel chords
moving up in whole-tone steps, the last chord (E-flat minor) being diverted
via a tritone to A major, fading away with the arpeggiated second-inversion
sounds in a high register in pianissimo. Liszt's Sonata floats upwards
very similarly at its conclusion: roots falling a third (A minor - F
major), a tritone step (F major - B major), second inversion in
high register and double, even treble piano. It is a fair observation that parody
of historical musical jargon of one sort or another plays a leading role in this
scurrilous cycle. This is particularly true of no. 2, Hesse's "Antwort
an Freunde, die mir ein sehr schwieriges Gedicht im neuen Stil geschickt und gefragt
hatten, ob ich es etwa verstehe" ("Answer to friends who had sent
me a very difficult poem in a new style and asked whether I perhaps understood
it") (1960). Here it is Hesse himself who leads from his poetic incomprehension
of the "des dunklen Violetts gelblicher Verse" ("dark violet
of yellowish verses") to his musical incomprehension of
/ Mit oder ohne Adorno
(Song in twelves / with or without Adorno)
goes without saying that Hummel not only sets the second of these lines in twelve-tone
technique complete with instrumental echo (bars 23-26), including a characteristic,
hardly singable leap of a tenth on "A-dor... ", but also uses
twelve-tone technique for almost the entire horizontal and vertical construction.
In this process, the most precious intervals of the dodecaphonists, the tritone
and the major seventh, are lavishly exploited.
Whether the chords based on
a whole-tone scale (bars 10/11 and 29 /30) can be interpreted semantically has
to be left open; in Hummel's music whole-tone constructions are not unusual. But
at the "dark violet" (bars 13/14) of the "yellowish verses",
one is all the more tempted to see impressionistic-symbolic language because such
sounds appear more frequently in the third song, "Waldnacht"
("Night in the Forest"), Hesse's parody of the poem "eines
Schwabinger Symbolisten" ("of a symbolist from Schwabing")
(1902). At the end of this, the symbolist dreams of the bliss of "stumm
zu herrschen über violette Weiten!!!" ("ruling in silence over
violet expanses!!!") In the piano an a' sounds, while at the beginning
of the song a sub-contra A was heard - the highest and lowest notes of a normal
piano. Beside the whole-tone constructions (e.g. bars 10/11), superposition of
thirds play a stronger role, in that rather sweetish triads succeed each other
at intervals of a ninth (bars 7-9, later 45/46 and 65-67), whereby particular
intervals are also suggested for the sprechgesang ('spoken song') (Example 5).
Ninths as consecutive and simultaneous intervals also form, incidentally, the
constantly recurring instrumental motif of this song.
Layers of triads, this
time however at the interval of a seventh, are also found in no. 5, "Soiree"
(bars 12/13 and 47/48). In this, a certain relationship with the parody of the
"symbolist from Schwabing" is apparent (no. 3). Both Hesse texts
are from 1902 and have related contents. The men of letters aimed at in no. 5,
with their "slender calves", having requested Hesse's company
- "I didn't know why" - , were followers on the one hand of aesthetic
doctrines, knew on the other hand "how to cut a fine figure",
for they were "gentlemen with a name / and of mighty reputation".
The one side is already illuminated by Hummel with the twelve-tone construction
with which the song begins and which repeatedly - above all as a "ritornello"
- reappears. The second bar presents the six-tone row of the first bar transponiert
and in inversion, so that the wished-for number twelve results. Hummel captures
the other side in a swaggering march-like movement, tonal with mixture-like extensions.
One of these "gentlemen with a name" writes "dramas",
at which the piano most dutifully obliges with a "dramatic" tremolo
(bar 41). The other writes novels, expressed in a long-winded coloratura (bars
45/46). Both "released a great cry", marked by the voice for
the only time in this cycle with trill-like vibrato, while the piano quakes again
with a tremolo (bars 58-61). But Hesse is too ashamed "to say / that I
am also a poet".
While "Belehrung" ("Instruction"),
closing the cycle, casts up with raised finger the eternal question of truth,
the opening song "Kopflos" ("Headless)", giving
its name also to the whole work, sounds a half comical, half earnest tone in a
nothing less than grotesque manner:
lebt nach abgeschnittnem Kopfe / Das schwere Leben sich so leicht!
head's cut off, / heavy life becomes so light!),
read in the first stanza. Hummel's gentle humour can be recognised in the oafish
lines of the voice and piano bass - one recalls for example "Se Falstaff
s'assottiglia" in the first scene of Verdi's opera - but then also in
the slightly jazzy syncopation in the second stanza. There is a close correspondence
with the content of the Clowns' scene no. 6 in Lehrstück (1929) by Bert Brecht
and Paul Hindemith, where the gullible Mr Schnitt has his limbs cut off step by
step, and at the end his head as well.
we can of course cut your head off, if you have such stupid thoughts in it."
Schmitt: "Please do, perhaps it will help."
malicious humour is accompanied by Hindemith's cocky march in the off-stage orchestra.
At the cutting off of the top half of the head, a march fragment begins. This
act, in contrast to Hesse-Hummels "Kopflos", is presented with
black humour and all kinds of socially critical background ideas.
in Hummel's case does not of course symbolise death, for the third stanza praises
pleasure. The music illustrates the banality of this praise with the primitive
V - I steps in the bass as we know from waltzes by rustic dance bands, against
which the equally simplistic V - I steps of the voice appear, however in a bitonal
relationship to the bass - i.e. in the key a second higher. The voice also follows
the upper notes of the off-beat four-note chords in the right hand of the piano.
But these sounds are whole-tone constructions and harmonise neither with the voice
nor the bass. With similar means, Hummel had already musically depicted primitive
lower life musically in his second Hesse song from op. 71a (1978), "Handwerksburschenpenne"
(Journeyman's Lodging). Thus, in the very first song of this opus ultimum,
graphic quality is combines with constructional principle, a process for which
further examples could be quoted, such as the ingenious musical correspondence
to Hesse's careful alliteration "Kein Wort, kein Lärm, kein grelles
Licht!" ("No word, no noise, no glaring light)", where "Lärm"
and "Licht" are sung on d2, but with grace notes - "Lärm"
from above, "Licht" from below (bars 37/38).
song composition differs from that of comparable composers for voice not only
in its relatively late start and its almost total ignoring of love poetry, but
also in this farewell in good-humoured satire and cheerful wisdom of old age.
After the autumnal themes of early songs and the strongly atmospheric swan-song
closing his Eichendorff cycle, op. 88b (1988), the real swan-song - as the composer
knew - now followed as an epilogue with the appearance of jesting but at the same
time - everything but "headless" - containing and representing
an earnest "instruction" .
article appeared with musical examples and footnotes in "Musik in Bayern"
65/66, 2004, pp. 121-131.)