commentary to opus 84

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"Eight Fragments from letters of Vincent van Gogh" for Baritone and String Quartet, op. 84

First performance : December 2, 1985, Würzburg, Hochschule für Musik
Martin Hummel / Seraphim-Quartett Stuttgart: Margret Hummel / Sonoko Imai / Florian Hummel / Matthias Neupert

Duration: 19 minutes

Publisher: Schott Music ED 20241 / ISMN: M-001-14888-7



Eight fragments from letters of Vincent van Gogh

I feel a force in me - a fire that I must not put out, but must keep ablaze, although I don't know to what end it is leading me and I dare say, a sombre one would not surprise me.
to Theo van Gogh, 5 November 1882, The Hague

Outside it is dreary; the fields are a clay-pit all clumpy with heavy earth and a little snow; the days here mostly are misty and dirty; morning and evening the ruddy sun, crows and dried-up grass and withered rotting green; black are the bushes and the twigs of the poplars and the willows sharp as wire rigid against dismal sky.
to Theo van Gogh, 1 January 1885, Nuenen

Those who believe not in sunlight truly are infidels.
to Theo van Gogh, 11 August 1888, Arles

Oh, that beautiful sun just here in midsummer. It beats down on one's head now and for me there's no doubt that it's leading to craziness. But, since I'm crazy anyway, I simply enjoy it.
to Emile Bernhard, 18 August 1888, Arles

Though I am often in turmoil, there's still deep in me, despite this, a peacefulness and purest harmony and music.
to Theo van Gogh, 20 July 1882, The Hague

A man may have a great fire in his soul, but no-one ever comes stopping there to warm himself; and the passers-by will only see a whisper of smoke drifting upwards from the chimney and then they will continue along their way.
to Theo van Gogh, July 1880, Borinage

A man who does not feel small, who does not grasp that he's a grain of dust, makes a fundamental error.
to Theo van Gogh, 4 November 1883, Drenthe

I saw in this reaper a vague figure like a devil, battling in the glowing midday heat so that his labour soon may be ended. I see in this man the image of death and mankind is the corn that is reaped; but in this death there is no sadness, all takes place by bright light of day with such a sun that floods all things with pure and richest golden streams of light.
to Theo van Gogh, 4th or 5th September 1889, Saint-Rémy

English translation of German Version by William Buchanan and Martin Hummel (2006)

Reaper. 1889. Oil on canvas. Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

This picture is the theme of the last fragment.


With his "Eight Fragments from letters of Vincent van Gogh" for Baritone and String Quartet, op. 84 (published in 1988), Bertold Hummel put musicians together in a way which probably appeared for the first time during the 20th century. There are few song cycles - and these are hardly known - for this distinctive combination. Yet this is not the only reason why Hummel's Van Gogh songs are striking: the setting of prose is unusual in lyrical composition and expresses a modern attitude. As in the category opera ("Pelléas et Mélisande" (1902), a prose drama by Maurice Maeterlinck), Claude Debussy takes the leading place in the category song (with piano), setting in his "Proses lyriques" (1893) his own prose texts. In more recent times, let us note Paul Hindemith, important as "school founder" for Hummel, who in 1933 - certainly with a clear reference to political events - wrote songs with piano with prose texts by Matthias Claudius. As later examples, prose texts from the "Illuminations" by Arthur Rimbaud were set by Benjamin Britten ("Les Illuminations", op.18, 1939) and by Hans Werner Henze ("Being Beauteous", 1963), both by the way with strings - though not with quartet accompaniment. The prose text results in Hummel's music also generally having no regular periodic metre, although in parts of the Van Gogh cycle he does not do entirely without symmetrical correspondences and sequences. We see here also the transition to simple speech: in Fragment III as well as in the Fragments VII and VIII, in which speaking appears more or less as a dying echo of the preceding sung phrase.
The selection of these text fragments seems additionally justified because Van Gogh's letters to his brother have the rank of literature. Religious feelings, sensitive expression of visual impressions, existential loneliness and a burdened mind struggling in vain for balance (Van Gogh shot himself at the age of 37) are all made manifest in these self-testimonies. One of the principal elements in Van Gogh's great pictures - sunlight - is also a central theme of these text passages. The Fragments III and IV relate directly to this, and the final, VIII, leads to the closing words "with a sun shining upon everything with light and superabundant gold." Hummel repeats the last word ("shining" in the German text) several times and expresses the glitter in the quartet through the tremolos, arpeggios, harmonics and trills (at the end superimposed layers of trills in thirds), with which the work finally fades from pianissimo to al niente in extreme upper tessitura.
Even more unmistakably than here, the centre E, yes, explicitly E major, functions as a symbol of light at the end of Fragment III, as does the E major to which Hummel leads at the end of Fragment V on the word music, clearly to be seen in the same context. In Fragment IV, the e''' in the 1st violin represents the sun, but the motif that develops out of it suddenly plunges aggressively into the depths and threatens "the head".
We find a parallel to the light symbolism of the E in Gerhard Frommel's "Vier Gesängen nach Gedichten von Baudelaire-George" ("Four Songs after Poems by Baudelaire-George") of 1942. In Hummel's case, the E left sounding alone can also characterise loneliness, as at the end of Fragment VI ("and go on their way, leaving it behind").
Corresponding to the sun is the great fire in the soul (Fragment VI), a fire that I must not allow to be extinguished, as Fragment I puts it.
The chromaticism shows the completely different character of this inner force, as does also the pressing, restless changing time signature. Typical for Hummel are the successively superimposed intervals (double-stopping in sixths), which here result in a composite sound of eight notes. They appear similarly in the final Fragment at the words I see in this the image of death, but now pianissimo and in closer tessitura. Here we have a fitting demonstration in this, the Fragment of latest date amongst the selection (1889), of the unity we once again observe in a Hummel cycle.

Wolfgang Osthoff (in "Zu den Liedern Bertold Hummels", Tutzing, 1998)



Mittelbayerische Zeitung Regensburg, 31st November, 1987

With the "Eight Fragments ", Bertold Hummel has successfully created a most impressive work. Uncommonly concentrated in the evoking of atmosphere and reflecting the texts strongly, these "dark grey songs" - to quote Ludwig Hirsch - develop a sadly expressive, almost somnambulant charm. These songs seem to have become Bertold Hummel's completely inwardly turned "Winterreise", the epigram of a psychosis, full of concealed suggestion and dark references, but always more full of hope. The "sun" becomes the constantly invoked bearer of hope. The music is highly expressive, exploiting the various performing and bowing possibilities of the stringed instruments and their capacity for nuances to the limits; occasionally oppressive visions in sound appear. It is music in danger, of a most fragile balance. Nor are subtle musical references missing. With only one note, following the word "music", harmony and tonality are conjured up.
Reinhard Söll


Neue Musik Zeitung 4/5, 1986

A setting of burning, glowing inner intensity, to whose melodic motion the prose texts of the painter van Gogh have been accommodatingly entrusted and whose artistic message was perfectly fitted to present to the audience, gathered eagerly out of personal sympathy and objective interest, as a statement of faith.

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