commentary to opus 55b

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Symphonic Suite in seven scenes after the ballet "The Last Flower" for large orchestra op. 55b (1975)

I. Movimento infernale beginning

II. Pas de deux

III. Scherzo

IV. Notturno

V. Intermezzo meccanico

VI. Mascherata beginning and the end

VII. Finale. Movimento infernale beginning


Instrumentation: - - Timp., Perc., Hrp., Strings

First Performance : Mai 14, 1975, Schweinfurt, Theater der Stadt Schweinfurt
Städtisches Philharmonisches Orchester Würzburg / Christian Fröhlich

Duration: 32 Minutes

Publisher: N. Simrock Hamburg-London (Boosey & Hawkes)

VI. Mascherata - structure:


see on youtube Fragment op. 55c

Despite the large measure of stylistic unity guaranteed by an unmistakable personal signature, Bertold Hummel's Symphonic Suite for large orchestra from the ballet "The Last Flower" , subject of course to the predetermined programme, presents us with great contrasts. Stomping military marches - childlike games, machine-like precision of the automatons - delicately blooming filigree sound, to mention only the most striking contrasts, are immediately comprehensible. They relate to what is danced on the stage and are easily recognisable as symbols of characteristic basic behaviour patterns. The compositional rules involved are however much more complex and are not limited to such obvious responses to the dramatic events. Seven movements - some unified and organic in themselves, others consisting of sections - follow the dramatic scheme, establishing connections between the phases by purely musical means, the music notwithstanding the programmed content retaining a high degree of symphonic-concertante independence
In the first movement, Movimento infernale and Pas de deux, this dichotomy is demonstrated by a large-scale antagonism. Following waves of a restless bed of sound, in which all twelve tones of the scale sound simultaneously, one of the main intervals of the work, the tritone E : B-Flat, is hammered out with penetrant relentlessness, to become then the companion of one of the two oft recurring themes.

This theme, characterised by superposition of tritones and military rhythms, reappears symbolically in the further course of the piece whenever violence enters the stage. Fanfares in the brass colour and surround the first appearance of the Dictator. The fanfares superimpose pure triads on each other until all chromatic notes are present and the sound darkens itself. In the background, the signature theme of the Dictator continues to be heard, here in transformations:

To this are added the motifs of the Dictator's lackeys. Remains of quasi-tonal elements, such as e.g. dominant fifths, are woven throughout the strongly chromatically coloured material and always lend it a certain triviality whenever empty officiousness and unreflective conventionality are referred to.
After the demonstration of might has reached a climax, a representation of a battle - musically considered quasi the first development section - takes shape, growing out of already introduced motifs and sounds in which the material is unravelled in its rhythm and figuration. At this point there is an anticipation of an effect which reaches virtuoso contours in the 6th movement: in the marching up of the opposing troops, several phrases are layered above each other with independent periodicities and form a densely woven texture. In a bizarre transformation, the tumult remains transfixed on the stage after a climax, while behind the stage, as if from another world, the theme of the flower is heard as a antithesis to all the preceding events.

The vibraphone answers this from the orchestra and, in a dialogue with the flute, brings this almost transcendental vision into the real world. This introduces a pas de deux, a sweeping and increasingly urgent dance of two lovers, which - having twice been set in motion by the Flower theme - neutralises the biting tritone interval of the main theme to leading notes, creating space for the brighter world of pure triads.
This world expands, in a new guise, but always transparent in sound, in the following Scherzo, where thirds and perfect fifths shape the naively childlike melodic ideas and in which the final cadence in the major provides an inner connection to the following movement.
Pure triads dominate the Notturno, the 3rd movement. The main and second themes are transformed in a lyrical tenderness and interwoven with each other and fulfil the function of the slow movement in the organism of a symphony.
The idyllic complex of the 3rd movement is succeeded abruptly by the Danza of the people, carried along by trivial melody and banal rhythmical ideas, a seemingly optimistic movement which is further developed in the collage of the 6th movement, but which at this point shows no connection with the leading themes of the whole work. The latter do appear markedly however in the 5th movement, an Intermezzo meccanico. While the Flower theme shines through only once, like a fleeting vision and with the effect of a foreign body, the main theme appears constantly. It does in fact undergo characteristic transformations, which rework the original agogic elements into the calculated gestures of cold rationality. As its name suggests, the Intermezzo makes deliberately mechanical use of a compositional procedure - serial technique, which leaves its mark on the entire work - thus creating an image of cold-blooded reckoning.
In effective contrast to this is the Mascherata, in which the circle leading back to the 1st movement is closed. More and more inevitably, a single musical profile, that of the Dictator, begins to emerge from the highly artificial superposition of different layers of sound, the only profile that remains after all others have fallen silent. All the themes, whether appearing as quotations from other movements or appearing for the first time, the barrel-organ melody, the dance melody, the Democrat theme derived from the Flower theme, everything that was associated with or in opposition to the main theme falls back and makes room for the Dictator, who in the Finale in a condensed reprise of the Movimento infernale continues to develop his might in the way shown at the beginning. Brief and resigned is the reminiscence in the cadenza for flute before the strings bring down an increasingly dense atmospheric curtain on all that has happened, effacing it.

Klaus Hinrich Stahmer

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