Georg Friedrich Haas: Melancholia

Georg Friedrich Haas Melancholia

Georg Friedrich Haas: Melancholia

Year of composition:
Opera in 3 parts
Georg Friedrich Haas
Original language:
Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel
Jon Fosse
Helene, soprano Lars, bass-baritone 5 smaller parts (singers from the chamber choir): Frau Winckelmann, soprano Kellnerin, dramatic soprano Alfred, countertenor Bodom, tenor Herr Winckelmann, bass
6-stimmiger Kammerchor (S MezzoS A T Bar B)
10 soloists
1 1 1 1 - 2 1 1 0 - perc(2), acc, pno, sax, vln(4), vla(2), vc(3), cb(2)
Instrumentation details:
flute (+picc, alto fl)
oboe (+c.a)
clarinet in Bb
bass clarinet in Bb
soprano saxophone in Bb (+alto sax(Eb), t.sax(Bb), bar.sax(Eb))
bassoon (+cbsn)
1st horn in F
2nd horn in F
trumpet in C
1st percussion
2nd percussion
1st violin
2nd violin
3rd violin
4th violin
1st viola
2nd viola
1st violoncello
2nd violoncello
3rd violoncello
1st contrabass
2nd contrabass
Auftragswerk der Opéra National de Paris unter dem Intendanten Gerard Mortier, uraufgeführt am 9.6.2008 im Palais Garnier, Paris, in Zusammenarbeit mit Den Nye Opera, Bergen
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Work introduction

Melancholia as the topic of an opera? – a gloomy protagonist who puts himself to bed or stares at the floor when he is affronted? This opera, the fourth by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas (libretto by Norwegian author Jon Fosse) is entirely contradictory to the logic of contemporary advertising which the world apparently heeds. Yet Melancholia steers much closer to life than the colourful, swirling world of advertising, where women are always smiling, men are never losers and where nothing ever gets broken.

Everything breaks down for the main character in Melancholia, Lars Hertervig, on a day in late autumn 1853. He is a Norwegian student attending the Düsseldorf Academy of Art; he is 23, a talented painter – and he has fallen undyingly in love with his landlord’s 15-year-old niece, Helene Winckelmann. Her uncle throws him out of the house at once, whereupon he lands in the local pub, where his beery fellow students literally drive Lars, the quiet outsider, to madness with their taunts. – and when he finally returns to Helene again, full of hope, Herr Winckelmann calls the police to take him away without further ado. Thus from one day to the next, Lars loses his flat, his place at the academy, his great love, his self-confidence as an artist and, in a way, his mind.

Jon Fosse reworked his own, sensational novel Melancholia (1995-1996) into a subtle opera libretto especially for Haas. It is based on the biography of painter Lars Hertervig, who was born 1830 on the Norwegian island of Borgøy and moved to Düsseldorf in 1852. The story’s moving profundity is due both to Fosse’s extraordinary language and to what he sets in motion on that one day he recounts; Hertervig returns to Sweden, paints irreal-yet-naturalistic landscapes, and spends some time in the Gaustad insane asylum in Christiana. Destitute, he uses newspaper, tobacco packets and bits of wallpaper for his canvas during the last decades of his life before his death in Stavanger in 1902. From today’s perspective, his pictures number among the most visionary masterpieces of 19th-century landscape painting.

Apart from Fosse’s highly musical linguistic art (the Frankfiurter Allgemeine Zeitung compared him to J. S. Bach, Die Zeit to Beethoven and minimalist music), the background of Melancholia therefore also includes Hertervig’s meticulous, fantastical paintings. Haas draws the comparison of Fosse’s musical affinity, juxtaposing Hertervig with Caspar David Friedrich and Schubert with Beethoven: “He shows Nature as she is, simultaneously opening a gate to spirituality.”

For Haas (born 1953 in Graz), the painter’s story is anything but extraordinary, despite its initial impression: “I can identify with Hertervig in many detailed ways,” says Haas, noting many of them, including a special response to the Northern Lights [aurora borealis] – “Hertervig grew up on the north side of a Norwegian island, and I was raised on a northern slope of the Montefon [mountainous area in Vorarlberg, Austria]. He was a Quaker in Protestant surroundings, I was a Protestant among Catholics – and I am also very, very familiar with the situation of being completely misunderstood by fellow students.”

Haas occasionally uses terse narrative devices in the music of Melancholia, especially during the breathtaking changes of mood in Part 1 and for Hertervig’s visions and attacks of déja-vu in Part 3, including the pure overtone chord which, like a Leitmotiv, is linked to Winckelmann, stubborn semiquaver repetitions to accompany almost apoplectic fits of jealousy, downward runs reaching into bottomless depths (evoking Hertervig’s rambling visions of the fjords of his youth in his homeland). But the fundamental motifs are the protagonist’s incongruence in his milieu and the traces the latter leave in the ever-changing music.

In order to make just these invisible elements of the plot, the main character’s inner development, perceptible on the opera stage, Haas applies subtle differentiations of mood (tempered, strongly abrasive dissonances in overtone-chord upper partials, softer beats between crotchet and semiquaver pitches), types of articulation, volume, rhythms, motion tendencies, etc.

The music of Act 2 is entirely otherwise; it is virtually devoid of microtonality, its progress smoothly pulsing; it is difficult to reconcile with the readings of the “timely arts” of literature and music. The sounds here are closer to those of painting, light and Lars Hertervig’s inner world than to the events happening all around him, as they increasingly become outrages impossible to fend off.

Then, in Part 3, it is transcendence, the transition from one world to the next, into which Haas delves, using music’s most intimate means, driven to their microscopic innermost.

Awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize in 2007, Haas is doubtless one of the most inventive composers today. He began investigating microtonal composing techniques and tuning systems beyond the piano’s 12 tempered semitones (commonplace efforts at the time) at an early age. Now, it is not least due to his works, which peculiarly combine radical experimentation with astonishing beauty, that sonic events using overtone spectra, quarter-tones and 16th-tones have long since become eagerly anticipated hallmarks of his music.

His works have been premiered by many of the world’s foremost ensembles, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, the Basle Sinfonietta, Vienna’s Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Klangforum Wien, the Donaueschingen Musiktage, Wien Modern, and many other groups (in 2006/2007 alone); the climax that far was surely the world premiere of Melancholia on 9 June 2008 at the Opéra National de Paris; it was first performed in German-speaking lands on 24/25 October 2008 at Graz Opera as part of the Styrian Autumn Festival that year.

Bernhard Günther

Special prints


Georg Friedrich Haas: Melancholia

study score
, 90’
Instr.: 1 1 1 1 - 2 1 1 0 - perc(2), acc, pno, sax, vln(4), vla(2), vc(3), cb(2)


Georg Friedrich Haas: Melancholia

study score
, 90’
Instr.: 1 1 1 1 - 2 1 1 0 - perc(2), acc, pno, sax, vln(4), vla(2), vc(3), cb(2)

World première

Palais Garnier, Paris (FR)
Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomàrico
Main soloists:
Otto Katzameier - Lars; Melanie Walz - Helene; Johannes Schmidt - Herr Winckelmann; Ruth Weber - Frau Winckelmann; Daniel Gloger - Alfred; Annette Elster - Kellnerin; Martyn Hill - Bodom

Press reviews

Haas has composed a highly emotional and harrowing score. Hertervig finds no comfort in the world, whilst Haas’ music pulls the floor out from underneath the audience: in an undulating, swashing river of sound – which appears almost static for minutes on end – everything wavers, dragging itself with fierce brush-strokes out of the grave, but then hurrying through the emptiness towards it at high speed. Haas gives the singers a lot of room, and doesn't let go of the audience for a second: in the tight, inescapable web of sound there is no fixed point to orientate oneself by. (Karl Harb, Salzburger Nachrichten)

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