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Georg Friedrich Haas was born in 1953 in Graz, a city in the east of Austria. His childhood was spent in the mountainous province of Vorarlberg, on the Swiss border. The landscape and the atmosphere of the place have left a lasting impression on his personality.
The atmosphere was marked not so much by natural beauty in the accepted sense of the word. Rather, Haas experienced the mountains as a menace; he felt closed in by the narrow valley where the sun rarely penetrated. Nature for him represented a dark force.
The composer adds: “Just as important for me was the experience of being an outsider: unlike my younger siblings, I never learned to speak the local Alemannic dialect. Also, I was a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic society.”
To study music, Haas returned to his native city where his professors were Gösta Neuwirth and Ivan Eröd. Later, he continued his studies in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha.
Haas: “For all our apparent differences (and probably mutual personal disappointments) I learned from Eröd – apart from many things about the craft of composition – one principle above all else: that the measure of everything is Man, that is, the possibilities inherent in human perception”.
Haas holds Friedrich Cerha in high esteem, something that the older composer (born in 1926) returns in full measure. When the occasion arises, they demonstrate their mutual appreciation
unstintingly. In 2007, it was Cerha, the doyen of Austrian composers, who proposed his former pupil for the Great Austrian State Prize which Haas duly received that year.
Until then, however, Haas had had a thorny path to traverse. He speaks openly of the years of “total failure” in trying to make his mark as a composer – another experience to leave its imprint on his development, aggravating his pessimistic leanings. Success, when it did gradually emerge, only mitigated his pessimism but could never wholly eliminate it.
It is no wonder, then, that night, darkness, the loss of illusions should have played such an important role in Haas’ oeuvre (such as in his Hölderlin-opera Nacht, 1995/1998). It was not until quite recently that his music has been illuminated by light.
Light effects, as integral components of a range of his compositions, have featured prominently for quite some time now, designed by artists specially for the music. (in vain, 2000, and particularly Hyperion, a Concerto for Light and Orchestra, 2000). However, light as opposed to darkness first emerged as late as 2006 in Sayaka for percussion and accordion as well as in the piano trio Ins Licht (2007) written for Bálint András Varga.
Georg Friedrich Haas is known and respected internationally as a highly sensitive and imaginative researcher into the inner world of sound. Most of his works (with the notable exception of the Violin Concerto, 1998) make use of microtonality which the composer has subjected to thorough examination in the wake of Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Alois Hába. He has taught courses and lectured on the subject in several countries; in 1999 he was invited by the Salzburg Festival to give a talk under the title “Beyond The Twelve Semitones”, with the subtitle “Attempt at a Synopsis of Microtonal Composition Techniques”. In the last paragraph, he writes:
“Micro counts as ‘tonality’ only in contrast with ‘normal tonality’ in its role as a system of reference. Where this system of reference has become obsolete, the notion of ‘microtonality’ has been replaced by the free decision of the individual composer in his use of pitch as his material.”
Haas: “I am not really comfortable with being pigeonholed as a ‘microtonal composer’. Primarily, I am a composer, free to use the means needed for my music. There is no ideology regarding ‘pure’ intonation, either as Pythagorean number mysticism or as a notion of ‘Nature’ determined by trivial physics. I am a composer, not a microtonalist.”
In each new work, Haas enters uncharted territory, but his music is firmly rooted in tradition. His profound admiration for Schubert has found moving expression in his Torso of 1999/2001, an orchestration of the incomplete piano sonata in C major, D 840, an image of the tragic figure of Franz Schubert. Haas paid respect to Mozart not only in his "… sodaß ich’s hernach mit einem Blick gleichsam wie ein schönes Bild…im Geist übersehe," composed for string orchestra in 1990/1991, but also in 7 Klangräume, 2005, meant to be interspersed with movements of Mozart’s Requiem fragment (that is, divested of the supplements provided by his pupils). In Blumenstück, 2000, for chorus, bass tuba and string quintet, one hears echoes of Beethoven (perhaps never intended by the composer). In the Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, 2003/2004, the solo instrument quotes a motif from Franz Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang (‘O Vater, dein trauriges Erbe’). Commissioned by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Haas’ Traum in des Sommers Nacht (2009) is a tribute to Mendelssohn, drawing on motifs from works of that composer, masterfully woven into Haas’ own music.
The Cello Concerto, just as Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich ..., 1999, for percussion and ensemble, reflects Haas’s political commitment and his bitter realisation of his helplessness as a composer: there is no way his music could serve to better the world. The percussion concerto was written at the time of the Balkan war; when Haas heard aeroplanes flying overhead carrying their deadly burden, he asked himself whether anyone could hear him, if he were to cry out in protest against the war. The Cello Concerto begins with a scream in unbearable pain, followed by a section where the drumbeat conjures up the march rhythm of the Prussian army: a plea against fascism.
A daringly innovative composer of rich imaginative power, a homo politicus aware of his responsibilities as a citizen, Georg Friedrich Haas is one of the leading artists in Europe today. Among the prizes he has won are the SWR Symphony Orchestra Composition Prize 2010, the Music Award of the City of Vienna 2012 and the Music Award Salzburg 2013.
1953 – Born on 16 August in Graz
1972–79 – Studies: composition (with Gösta Neuwirth, Ivan Eröd and others), piano (with Doris Wolf) and music pedagogy at the Musikhochschule in Graz
since 1978 – Teaching at the Musikhochschule in Graz (counterpoint, contemporary composition techniques, analysis, introduction to microtonal music)
1981–83 – Postgraduate study with Friedrich Cerha at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna
1980/88/90 – Attends the Darmstadt Summer Courses
1991 – Participation in the “Stage d’Informatique Musicale pour Compositeurs” at IRCAM, Paris
1992/93 – Fellowship for the Salzburg Festival
1992 – Sandoz Prize
1995 – Young Composers' Grant of the Federal Ministry for Science, Research and Culture
07 Aug 1996 – world première of the chamber opera Nacht (Night) at the Bregenz Festival
07 Aug 1998 – Stage Première of Nacht at the Bregenz Festival
18 Nov 1996 – Ernst Krenek Prize of the City of Vienna for the chamber opera Nacht
1999 – Selected composer in the Next Generation series at the Salzburg Festival
1999/2000 – German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) fellowship
2000 – International Rostrum of Composers Prize for Violin Concerto
14 Aug 2003 – world première of Die schöne Wunde, commissioned by Bregenz Festival and NetzZeit Wien in Bregenz
19 Oct 2003 – world première of Natures mortes for large orchestra, commissioned by Donaueschinger Musiktage
March 2004 – Festival composer at “ars musica” in Brussels
16 June 2004 – City of Vienna Prize for Music
9 July 2004 – world première of Concerto for violoncello and orchestra commissioned by Musica Viva Munich
August 2004 – Lecturer at the Darmstadt Summer Courses
25 April 2005 – Andrzej Dobrowolski Composition Award, presented by the Province of Styria/Austria in Graz
3 July 2005 – world première of Ritual for 12 big drums and 3 wind orchestras, commissioned by Klangspuren Schwaz in cooperation with Tiroler Landesausstellung and Alpinarium Galtür
2005 – 2013 – professor at the Music Academy of the City of Basel, Switzerland
Autumn 2005 – Featured Composer at Klangspuren Festival Schwaz / Austria
4 Dec 2005 – World Premiere of 7 Klangräume for soloists, chorus and orchestra commissioned by Stiftung Mozarteum
March 2006 – Festival Composer at Borealis Festival in Bergen / Norway
23 Mar 2006 – world première of Poème for large orchestra, commissioned by Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst
22 Oct 2006 – world première of Hyperion for Lighting and Orchestra, Donaueschinger Musiktage
13 May 2007 – world première of Bruchstück for large orchestra, commissioned by Munich Philharmonic
07 Nov 2007 – world première of Concerto for piano and orchestra at Wien Modern in Vienna
12 Nov 2007 – world première of REMIX for ensemble, Wien Modern in Vienna
28 Nov 2007 – Award of the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis of the Republic of Austria
03 May 2008 – Première of Concerto for Baritone Saxophone and Orchestra
09 June 2008 – Première of Melancholia (Opera) at the Opéra National de Paris
28 Aug 2009 – world première of Traum in des Sommers Nacht in Leipzig
15 Jan 2010 – world première of ATTHIS
04 Feb 2010 – world première of La profondeur, Amsterdam
17 Oct 2010 – world première of limited approximations for 6 micro-tonally tuned pianos and orchestra, Donaueschinger Musiktage
SWR Symphony Orchestra Composition Prize 2010 for limited approximations at Donaueschingen
22 Oct 2010 – world première of Arthur F. Becker (od. Buhr?), Heidelberg
26 Nov 2010 – world première of „... damit ... die Geister der Menschen erhellt und ihr Verstand erleuchtet werden ...“ for ensemble. Basel
März 2011 – member of the österreichischer Kunstsenat (Austrian Artistic Senate)
04 Jun 2011 – world première of chants oubliés for chamber orchestra. Munich
10 Sep 2011 – world première of String Quartet No. 7, Luzern
18 Dec 2011 – world première of Mlake / Laaken in Munich
Summer 2011 – Composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival
2012 – member of the Academy of Arts, Berlin
17 Mar 2012 – world première of Duchcov in Munich
15 Jun 2012 – world première of „Ich suchte, aber ich fand ihn nicht“ at the musica viva festival in Munich
25 Aug 2012 – world première of „…e finisci già“ at the Salzburger Festspielen
13 Sep 2012 – world première of Tetraedrite at the Klangspuren opening concert in Schwaz
03 Mar 2013 – Music Award Salzburg 2013
20 Feb 2014 – world première of dark dreams, Berlin (Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle)
28 Mar 2014 – world première of the concerto grosso No. 1 in Munich
10 May 2014 – world première of the concerto grosso No. 2 at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow
2015 – member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts
26 April 2015 – world première of the Saxophone Quartet in Cologne
21 Oct 2015 – world première of the String Quartet No. 8 in Basel
13 Nov 2015 – world première of the opera Morgen und Abend (libretto: Jon Fosse) at the Royal Opera House
Publications: papers on the works of Luigi Nono, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Alois Hába and Pierre Boulez, on microtonality, and on the foundation of a new music theory
Since 16 August 2013 he is MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia University.
Harmony of Futility
The latest music of Georg Friedrich Haas
If there is anything that can be viewed as the essence of his music, then it is experimentation with sound: Georg Friedrich Haas, who was born in 1953 in Graz and has quietly risen to become one of the most important Austrian composers internationally, always felt severely limited by the sonic and harmonic possibilities of the established system of equal temperament. Notes shaded by startling microtonal deviations, such as in his ensemble piece Nacht-Schatten (1991) or in his Hölderlin-based chamber opera Nacht (1995-96), have therefore been determining factors in his compositions since the beginning of his career. Intensive experimentation with floating constellations of overtones has lent a new quality of radicalism to Haas’ sound since his First String Quartet (1997): by way of intricate, filigree sonic structures, his music sheds light into the darker reaches of a society which shows an increasing tendency to shut out that which is foreign or strange.
Works like the First String Quartet make particularly high demands on their performers’ sense of ensemble. Rooted in an utterly eccentric tuning of the four stringed instruments which is derived from four independent four-note chords, the piece drifts off in natural harmonics, bowed only on the open strings, despite which a number of different frequencies can be produced by virtue of the microtonal tuning system. A work of gliding transitions and of slowly developing and abruptly ending processes, the First String Quartet functions thanks only to a high level of precision in tuning and coordination on the part of the performers.
This dialectic between individual parts and the resulting overall sound had already been illuminated by Haas in two earlier works: in the 1994 piece with the unpronounceable title ”.…“, the individual parts of the accordion and the viola only gradually merge with the ensemble sound, which they then influence and from which they, in turn, draw their own inspiration. The process was then made even more radical in …Einklang freier Wesen (1994/96), which refers directly to the Hölderlinian Utopia of the title, artfully weaving together stand-alone parts for between two and ten soloists.
Haas continued his overtone experiments in the sextet Nach-Ruf…ent-gleitend (1999); its intervals, which are based on the semitone row, are not produced by way of scordatura tuning, but are entrusted completely to the control of the six performers – in contrast to the First String Quartet. These tantalizing oscillations are again and again infiltrated by strangely familiar-sounding melodic impostors. These vague reminiscence, however, are set in half and quarter-tone scales, in order that their inherently romantic impressions drift off into the realm of alienation. A memorial to music history and, at the same time, a premonition of a fascination with decidedly futuristic sounds.
Haas’ most radical statement in overtone sonority is embodied by the structurally daring ensemble piece in vain (2000): in this 75-minute work, harmonic forms derived from the overtone rows collide with tritones or fourths and fifths, much like in his Violin Concerto (1998). This action produces coarse microtonal surfaces that Haas repeatedly allows to give way to circling, spiraling forms: looped sonic wisps that seem to be cautiously searching, groping and feeling, but never leading anywhere in particular, like the endless staircases in the drawings of Maurits Cornelius Escher. A touch of futility hangs over this music, quietly bemoaning the impossibility of ever achieving perfect harmony, let alone the harmonic co-existence of human beings. Without a doubt, through its integration of the overtone spectrum, Haas’ music, which has always involved sound experimentation, has now taken on totally new, even more independent qualities.