Friedrich Cerha: Hymnus

Friedrich Cerha Hymnus

Friedrich Cerha: Hymnus

Year of composition:
Scored for:
for orchestra
Friedrich Cerha
4 4 5 4 - 6 4 4 1 - timp, perc(3), str
Instrumentation details:
1st flute (+picc)
2nd flute (+picc)
3rd flute (+picc)
4th flute (+picc)
1st oboe
2nd oboe
3rd oboe
4th oboe
1st clarinet in A
2nd clarinet in A
3rd clarinet in A
4th clarinet in A
5th clarinet in A (+bass cl(Bb))
1st bassoon
2nd bassoon
3rd bassoon
4th bassoon
1st horn in F
2nd horn in F
3rd horn in F
4th horn in F
5th horn in F
6th 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
contrabass tuba
violin I(16)
violin II(14)
im Auftrag von KonzertHaus Berlin
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Work introduction

The piece takes its cue from Gregorian chant, in terms of a certain peaceful, flowing character – which also, however, contains amassments of sound that correspond with our present-day idea of the 'hymnic'. The reinforcement of overtones via instrumentation, as well as echoing sounds and echo effects, play a significant role here. As in the hymns of the 15th and 16th centuries, a cantus firmus runs throughout the entire piece like a backbone. In the present work it is a 13-tone row, which in its basic form or in – often inaudible – derivations is imbedded in the middle of the writing.  Rudimentary elements of this row can be found in all the instruments, particularly in the first section. The basis of all the musical events is, in fact, simple three-part – in the middle of the piece, four-part – writing. In the first large section, the overtones of every single note are written out gradually, added one at a time, on up to the eleventh. Overtones seven and eleven, which are particularly foreign to our system of tempered tuning, are notated via “semiflat” symbols like those used in quartertone notation, in order to bring them closer to the realm of physical practicability. Through rapidly varying instrumentation of the overtone spectrum, one region of overtones at a time is highlighted, while another is suppressed. At the climax of the first section, this results in three times eleven: in other words, 33-note chords.

Another phenomenon responsible for the sonority of the piece is the composed echo. A sound does not disappear with the entrance of another one in the part of another instrument, but hangs in the air and fades out slowly via a diminuendo. This decay takes longest at the beginning, and grows increasingly shorter with the entrance of the other instruments and the overtones. It finally disappears altogether around the entrance of the seventh overtone. The objective is to approximate the acoustic world of a gigantic gothic hall church. At the aforementioned climax of the first section, the sound dramatically breaks apart; the overtones from all parts of the structure plunge downward in rapid figures and end up at the fundamental tone of F. Overhead, in saltando note-doublings behind and on top of one another, the violins flutter up through the overtones in six different meters, all the way to the eleventh. Trombones – and then horns – in crab motion and initially beneath the saltando of the violins, clearly announce the beginning of a new section with the cantus firmus. In this section the overtone structure, once again with echoes at first, gradually crystallizes anew above the four-part writing. The fortissimo of the 44-note movement (four times eleven) is again and again cut up by sustained echo-chords in pianissimo, with the excerpts from the overtone spectrum shifting their focus back and forth between the odd and the even notes.

In the final section, the several-part fortissimo movement experiences a slow denouement; for a moment, the spectrum is reduced to the incisive, reedy sound of the odd-numbered notes of the overtone spectrum before gradually changing over to the softer sonority of the even overtones. With the reduction to the first six – in other instruments, still seven – overtones, an artificial echo begins to build once again, as in the first section, and the decay grows ever longer as the overtones are further reduced. At the work’s conclusion these notes disappear as well, and the music comes to rest in a monodic pianissimo, with the echo simultaneously reaching its greatest extension. As has been noted, the peaceful and flowing character predominates, as is also the case with Gregorian chant. The nervous frenzy of much contemporary music is entirely absent, and the percussion section is hardly to be heard.

Hymn: praise of the overtones – the basis of all our music-making?

Friedrich Cerha

Special prints


Friedrich Cerha: Hymnus

study score
for orchestra , 24’
Instr.: 4 4 5 4 - 6 4 4 1 - timp, perc(3), str

World première

Konzerthaus, Berlin (DE)
Berliner SO
Eliahu Inbal

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