On a late summer day in 2001, Cristóbal Halffter began to write a work for the Vienna Philharmonic, a commission from the Salzburg Festival. The events of that day changed his plan for the work in far-reaching ways. It was September 11, when devastating terrorist attacks were carried out in the United States. “My state of mind could not avoid the events, whose witnesses and victims run into the millions,” the composer writes in his preface to the score. Only traces of the original intention to produce a symphonic rondo remain, and they are drowned out by the solemnity of an adagio. The result is the Adagio en forma de rondó, which the composer completed in Villafranca on November 20, 2002.
In a gesture that is symptomatic of Cristóbal Halffter’s entire approach to composing, the theme of the rondo appears as sound, not as a concrete, tangible motif or determinate melody. This quality lends it the character of a memory from the moment of its very first statement (after 43 measures). A measure of short note values for the entire orchestra is followed by quiet, shimmering surfaces of sound, which begin in the lower strings, the mallet instruments, and the harp; gradually expand to the entire orchestra; and then move on through short, succinct time values to points of sound and later to trills. The Adagio is always present and embraces the sound of the rondo.
The sad date 11.9.01 entered the composition as the numerical sequence 11–9–(0)1. Halffter follows eleven measures that introduce the work with nine containing a new motif in the strings and then a single measure in 3/8 time, which marks a clear division. Then come 11 more measures in the mood of the introduction, followed by nine additional and very striking measures that gradually accelerate in tempo, and a measure that concludes the phrase. After a pause the rondo sound makes its first appearance. The numerical sequence pervades the work in various forms. Its presence is most easily recognizable in the coda. Oboes, clarinets, piano, vibraphone, and bells alternate between D and E-flat from the beginning of the closing section to the end of the work. The D sounds nine times, the E-flat—which raises the D by a dissonant semitone—eleven. In the final measures, this E-flat opens out to an E in the high strings, a resolution with which the work softly dies away. This E is like a spark of hope for humaneness and positive forces, which include artistic creativity.
Halffter dedicates his Adagio en forma de rondó “to the Vienna Philharmonic, the embodiment of a living tradition of high quality, and to my son Pedro and his wife Ana, as a wedding present, for they know how to live their youth with the seriousness, the joy, and the engagement that the circumstances of our lives demand. The union of these two attitudes gives us grounds for hope” (preface to the score).
With the very large orchestra—containing a fourfold contingent of woodwinds, 13 brass instruments, extensive percussion, piano, harp, and 50 strings—Cristóbal Halffter exploits the full potential of his sophisticated tonal language. Several times the entire orchestra is driven to violent movement from a primordial ground that is almost one of noise. This occurs as a continuous stream of sound; the composer explicitly indicates that the score is to be realized as a sonic continuum of interwoven lines and a pointillistic pattern, so that the listener does not detect the pulse of the traditional meters. The proverbial excellence of the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic led Halffter to distribute the violins, violas, cello, and double basses in an extremely nuanced manner. In a central passage of the work, when the rondo sound returns, he fans the strings out into 30 parts. In the coda, the violins and violas play a two-part melody at an interval of three octaves, while the cello and double basses execute an imitation of the motivic texture of the beginning of the work. Two antithetical worlds thus collide within the strings. The imitation descends to greater and greater depths until only shadowy figures survive, while the violins end in the hopeful closing E. Halffter built oppositions like this into the whole of the piece. The contrast becomes especially clear between synchronous order and passages in which the ensemble play seems disorganized. This contrast forms a counterweight to the actual sonic continuum of the work.
The penetration of the tonal language is a striking feature of Cristóbal Halffter’s compositional style. In a further elaboration of 12-tone technique, he imposed a strict organization not only on the pitches of his music, but on its dynamic elements as well, adding rows of durations and timbres to the traditional row of pitches. For Halffter, who grew up in Franco’s fascist Spain, it was no simple matter to familiarize himself with the innovations of European music. It was not until the 1960s, as the head of a group of engaged Spanish composers, that he was able to gain access to the modern currents emanating from the Darmstadt School. On the one hand, the Spanish regime viewed enlightened artistic thinking and creation as unwelcome. On the other hand, the fame that artists like Halffter gained with their works abroad could only benefit the country’s international standing.
In this paradoxical situation, Halffter dared to compose a cantata entitled Yes, speak out, yes in 1968, for the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. Even before the fall of the Falangist regime, Halffter expanded the consciousness of 'political composition' with works such as Planto por las víctimas de la violencia, Requiem por la libertad imaginada and Elegías a la muerte de tres poetas españoles. The title of the latter work referred to three victims of Franco’s dictatorship: Antonio Machado, who died in exile; Miguel Hernández, who died in a Spanish prison; and Federico García Lorca, who was shot to death by the Falangists. For Halffter the work was associated with vague memories of his own childhood. He grew up in Madrid in an art-loving family in which García Lorca, the composer Manuel de Falla, the painter Salvador Dalí, the director Luis Buñuel, and many other artists—including Halffter’s uncles Rodolfo and Ernesto, who were respected composers in Spain—were frequent guests.
When the Civil War broke out, Cristóbal Halffter and his family moved to Germany, his grandfather’s native country, where he went to school in Velbert. In 1939 the family returned to Spain. For 36 years, Halffter, who was liberal in his outlook and opposed to the Franco regime from his schooldays on, lived under great pressure and time and again confronted problems as a composer, pedagogue, and conductor because of his love of freedom, justice, and enlightened thinking. For Halffter, however, politically motivated composition was never agitation. What was at stake for him was “not in truth political problems, but human ones.” He was not concerned “to tie art to a political attitude.” On the contrary, “to be a composer” means “not only to write music, but more than that, and above all, to be a human being. Not the one without the other, but both together.”
Humanism and Ethics
This humanism and thematization of social and ethical questions permeates Halffter’s nearly one hundred works, up to and including the new Adagio en forma de rondó. At the same time, however, his cosmopolitan tonal language does not dispense with the Spanish idiom and the consciousness of tradition. Just a few months ago, the Preludio para Madrid 2002 for orchestra, which is based on Antonio Soler’s famous Fandango from the Baroque period, was performed in Stuttgart. In the Siete cantos de España, which was assembled from a number of other vocal compositions in 1992, Halffter blended three cultures of the Iberian Peninsula by alternating settings of Arabic, Sephardic, and Spanish texts. In 2000 Halffter’s first opera had its world premiere in the Teatro Real in Madrid: Don Quijote. Not only does the Knight of the Sad Countenance appear in it, but so does the author of the Spanish national epic, Cervantes. At the end the knight asks the poet, “Why did you create a hero who always loses?” Cervantes answers, “You are not a hero, you are a myth.”
(Translated by James Gussen)