commentary to opus 108

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Kopflos (Lost his head) Song Cycle on scurrilous poems by Hermann Hesse for Medium Voice and Piano, op. 108 (2002)

1. Kopflos

2. 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

4. Soirée

5. Bildnis eines zu alt gewordenen Literaten

6. Belehrung


First performance: August 9, 2003, Calw, Georgenäum
Martin Hummel / Markus Bellheim

Duration: 15 Minutes

Publisher: Schott Music ED 9706 / ISMN M-001-13627-3

Nr. 1 Kopflos Nr. 3 Waldnacht Nr. 6 Belehrung

Musicaphon 55719

The 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.
That 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 his death.
My father died on the 9th August, 2002 - the 40th anniversary of the death of the poet.

Martin Hummel

Wolfgang Osthoff

Bertold Hummel's last song-cycle: Kopflos (Headless)

When 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.

Mehr oder weniger, mein lieber Knabe,
Sind schließlich alle Menschenworte Schwindel

(It is more or less the case, my dear boy,
that ultimately all the words of man are swindle.)

The poem 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:

Noch ist er fähig, manche Eule / Behutsam nach Athen zu tragen.
("He is still capable of carrying an owl or two carefully to Athens.")
(this verse set by Hummel in "Sprechgesang" ("spoken-song")) or
Doch fallen ihm die Pleonasmen / Noch immer dutzendweise ein.
(Yet he continues to notice the pleonasms in dozens.)

Hummel, 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

Zwölfergesang / Mit oder ohne Adorno
(Song in twelves / with or without Adorno)

It 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:

Wie lebt nach abgeschnittnem Kopfe / Das schwere Leben sich so leicht!
(After your head's cut off, / heavy life becomes so light!),

we 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.

"But we can of course cut your head off, if you have such stupid thoughts in it."
Mr Schmitt: "Please do, perhaps it will help."

Brecht's 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.
The image 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).
Bertold Hummel's 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" .

(This article appeared with musical examples and footnotes in "Musik in Bayern" 65/66, 2004, pp. 121-131.)

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