Cristóbal Halffter: Schachnovelle

Cristóbal Halffter Schachnovelle

Cristóbal Halffter: Schachnovelle

Year of composition:
opera in one act
Scored for:
Cristóbal Halffter
Wolfgang Haendeler (23.01.2010)
Writer of pre-existing text:
Stefan Zweig (1941)
Dr. Leo Berger, baritone the Gestapo officer, counter-tenor Mirko Czentovic, bass nurse, soprano first lady / chessman, soprano second lady / chessman, soprano third lady / chessman, alto Koller, agent / chessman, tenor first Gestapo man / Mario Lotto, te
Schachgeister (Opernchor), SATB
4 3 4 3 - 4 4 4 1 - perc(4), alto sax(Eb), t.sax(Bb), e.pno - vln. I (12-16), vln. II (12-14), vla. (10-12), vc. (8-10), cb. (6-8)
Instrumentation details:
1st flute
2nd flute
3rd flute (+picc)
4th flute (+picc)
1st oboe
2nd oboe
3rd oboe
1st clarinet in Bb
2nd clarinet in Bb
3rd clarinet in Bb
4th clarinet in Bb (+bass cl(Bb))
alto saxophone in Eb
tenor saxophone in Bb
1st bassoon
2nd bassoon
3rd bassoon (+cbsn)
1st horn in F
2nd horn in F
3rd horn in F
4th horn in F
1st trumpet in C
2nd trumpet in C
3rd trumpet in C
4th trumpet in C
1st trombone
2nd trombone
3rd trombone
4th trombone
bass tuba
1st percussion
2nd percussion
3rd percussion
4th percussion
electric piano
violin I (12-16)
violin II (12-14)
viola (10-12)
violoncello (8-10)
contrabass (6-8)
Auftragswerk des Theater Kiel und des Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung
Ana und Pedro gewidmet
More Less

Work introduction

Schachnovelle summarises the last phase of Stefan Zweig’s life: his loathing of the Austro-Fascist and the Nazis’ takeover of control, as well as the confrontation with state power. That social upheaval concerned large parts of the Vienna intelligentsia, as well as Zweig himself.

His novella recounts a happily successful escape and a journey into a new world (the librettist enclosed a return ticket). On the way to an interrogation, the persecuted and imprisoned attorney Dr. B is able to purloin a small book wrapped in paper from the jacket pocket of one of the guards, hoping to gain food for thought from it; but to his immeasurable disappointment, it is a documentation of legendary chess games.

To avoid utter despair, the prisoner passes the shapeless time in total isolation by replaying the masters’ duels on the checkerboard pattern of his bedspread, with pieces taken from a tin of rock candy. But during the journey to South America, Zweig’s protagonist Dr. B. happens to meet Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. His professionalism was challenged by the purely theoretical game intelligence hitherto of the attorney departing into exile, just as did the memory of the time of torture reawakened it.

Czentovic and Dr. B are chess players who could not be more different from each other. One of them can only play when he has the chessboard and the pieces concretely in front of him; the game rescues the other one from persecution at the hands of National Socialism – even if the game only takes place in his head, against himself and drives him to the brink of madness. The decisive struggle ensues: materialism versus idealism. A formal error ends the game in a draw, but Dr. Berger wins something else.

Cristóbal Halffter’s tonal language took shape in the 1960s, honed in opposition to the Franco regime, which suppressed constructive modern music, just like the other totalitarian systems of the middle of the last century. Although it has developed in some ways, the Madrid composer’s style has remained principally the same during the past six decades. “The flux velocity and fine shadings in the composition – which, first and foremost, follows its own laws and rules – of course correspond to the text source and, in particular, its psychological configurations,” notes Frieder Reininghaus.

Most audibly, Halffter links up to Alban Berg’s operas – all the way to a symphonic movement which separates the Old and New Worlds and the parodying way he integrates something resembling an East European national anthem into the music the ship’s band plays to welcome Czentovic, the world champion of chess. Furthermore, Halffter’s music largely avoids bold and simple effects, no matter how significantly he anchors the singing roles so prototypically. However, the Gestapo officer who heads the interrogations, soliloquizing and threatening, has the effect of “a shrivelled Aryan à la Dr. Goebbels” – a garish, grotesque countertenor.

In the final scene, Dr. B. calls for dignity and liberty in life – also meaning his own inner freedom.

Translation: Grant Chorley

Special prints


Cristóbal Halffter: Schachnovelle

study score
opera , 115’
Instr.: 4 3 4 3 - 4 4 4 1 - perc(4), alto sax(Eb), t.sax(Bb), e.pno - vln. I (12-16), vln. II (12-14), vla. (10-12), vc. (8-10), cb. (6-8)


Cristóbal Halffter: Schachnovelle

piano reduction
opera , 115’
Instr.: 4 3 4 3 - 4 4 4 1 - perc(4), alto sax(Eb), t.sax(Bb), e.pno - vln. I (12-16), vln. II (12-14), vla. (10-12), vc. (8-10), cb. (6-8)

World première

Opernhaus, Kiel (DE)
Philharmonisches Orchester Kiel
Georg Fritzsch


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