Discover our catalogue

Franz Schreker

Chamber Symphony

for 7 winds, 11 strings, harp, celesta, harmonium, piano, timpani and percussion

In a letter to Paul Bekker from 22 August 1918, Franz Schreker (1878-1934) wrote of his sometimes “desperate battles” with instrumentation. “One realizes that there should really be many more instruments. I don’t mean more within the categories we have, but new ones. I often hear sounds that can scarcely be realized with existing means.” Klang, or sound, was a central category of Schreker’s creative persona. His visions were timbral, his complex emotional insights captured in the iridescence of his orchestra. It is an orchestra made up not of individual instruments – ”nothing,” he once wrote, “is more disturbing to me than, for example, a celesta intruding as such – but a dematerialized array of ever-changing colors.” No work better captures this sonic ideal than his Chamber Symphony, written in 1916 in celebration of the centenary of the Vienna Academy and given its premiere there in March 1917. Its shimmering opening, in which first the flute, then the violins float above the aural mists of celesta, harmonium, piano and harp, is music of otherworldly magic. Schreker’s instrumentation refracts thematic ideas through the prism of his orchestra. Lines intertwine, motives move imperceptibly from one instrument to another, transforming a trumpet into a clarinet, wedding the harmonium with a bassoon. And just as thematic ideas give up something of their material autonomy to become immaterial color, formal articulation is blurred through Schreker’s love of mercurial shifts of mood, tempo, and rhythm. The four sections within this single-movement work – an introduction, main movement, adagio, and scherzo – frequently overlap and, with the exception of the scherzo, are all recalled at the end. By its title and formal aspirations, the Chamber Symphony appears to be one of Schreker’s very few works of “absolute” music, yet one cannot overhear the manifold thematic relationships with his opera Die Gezeichneten or with gestures (especially in the scherzo) related to his pre-war ballet and pantomime scores. More importantly, one finds in the Chamber Symphony motivic vestiges of Schreker’s unfinished opera of 1915, Die tönenden Sphären. That, significantly, is the story of a man who collects sounds. Schreker’s own reputation as an aural fantast and collector of sounds became a heavy burden in the 1920s. A younger generation that had once pored over his rich and complex scores now embraced music that was lean, angular, and dissonant. Both Hindemith and Weill, for instance, knew and performed Schreker’s music and had gone through their “Schreker phase”. But the sweet lures of late Romantic harmony and orchestral color were no match for the purifying flames of Expressionism. Ironically, these forces were transforming Schreker’s own style during the very same years. With his Expressionist opera, Irrelohe, written 1919-22 and given its premiere under Otto Klemperer in 1924, Schreker’s music likewise became leaner and more astringent. The world that had given rise to his Chamber Symphony had vanished and in its place new sounds awaited discovery. Christopher Hailey

Go to work

Atmosphères famously overturns all traditional categories of Western classical music. There is absolutely no discernible melody, harmony is reduced to the drifting of saturated chromatic clusters, and pulse – or any sense of normal rhythmical articulation – is entirely absent. All habitual structural sign-posts are also missing as is any relationship to standard forms, despite the ghost of a recapitulation towards the work’s end. Instead the listener is confronted with a slow-motion succession of textures, one oozing into the other, where the instrumental sonority seems to have more in common with the dissolves and hums of electronic music than that of a normal symphony orchestra. Tiny traces of influence can just be discerned – perhaps Debussy, a little Richard Strauss, certainly Bartók – though Ligeti’s vision is of startling, indeed radical, originality. Another striking element is the work’s independence from dogma which prevailed widely in the contemporary music world of the early 1960s: gone are the percussive, pointillistic textures of serialism, and widespread taboos – like the banning of octaves – are ignored. In the use of solo parts for all the strings, and the divisions of the conductor’s beat into separate metrical strands, the influence of 1950s Xenakis can perhaps be discerned – though the artistic sensibility could not be more different. Beyond such stylistic concerns the ear can take immediate delight in the way the work moves, how the sound surface glides across registers with subtle shifts in pace and beguiling transformations in timbre. The music flows like lava, buzzes like a swarm of bees, or glimmers like a multitude of tiny Aeolian harps. Commencing with an immense, suffocating blanket of static sound, Atmosphères traverses an almost unbroken arc before eerily drifting into complete silence at its end. This apparently seamless web of sound is, paradoxically, a collage of independent, discreet compositional modules, all of differing duration and subtly contrasting purpose; these are linked and superimposed in a technique akin to the montage involved in the creation of tape music. Could this powerful degree of internal structure – tied to the highly refined and detailed instrumental writing – explain why this is virtually the only piece of “texture music” from the 1960s which has survived and entered the repertoire? Perhaps it’s simpler to say that Ligeti was a poet in sound of genius, and that this work – a Requiem, like so much of his oeuvre from this period – strikes a very deep note in most listeners from the first hearing. Regardless, there is no question that Atmosphères is one of the most extraordinary utterances from any composer in the 20th century. George Benjamin, September 2013 When György Ligeti’s Atmosphères premièred at the 1961 Donaueschingen Festival, it caused a sensation. The work’s static iridescence so fascinated its listeners that they demanded an immedediate repeat performance. Ligeti had flung the door wide open to new worlds of sound and structure. Some idea of how revolutionary his work was may be gained from a glance at the study score: narrow and tall, it looks like a miniature skyscraper, with up to 87 staves piled on top of one another, each of them representing one instrumental part. Even now, Ligeti’s soundscape has lost none of its overwhelming effect, having attained popularity through its use as film music for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Go to work

Manuel de Falla

7 Canciones populares españolas

transcribed for mezzo-soprano and orchestra

Printed in 1914, the Siete canciones populares españolas number among Manuel de Falla’s most famous works, which he composed both for voice and piano and for voice and orchestra. The seven songs were an immediate success. They inspired many composers to make arrangements of them; Luciano Berio’s (for voice and chamber orchestra) are among the most felicitous. His capture of the Spanish atmosphere in the songs is masterly. The arrangement unfolds all its magic in the synthesis of the rhythmic characteristics and the often dance-like layout. Berio’s virtuosity is unmistakable; however, as in his folksongs, it steps into the background in favour of the seductive, Mediterranean melos.

Go to work