“Now is the winter of our discontent” the interpretation of Henze’s Royal Winter Music performed by Marco Minà on #neuguitars #blog #Henze #MarcoMinà
Let’s take a step back. Why did I mention Shakespeare’s Richard III? What does the old bard have to do with a blog that deals with contemporary and experimental guitar music? The answer is: Richard of Gloucester’s monologue (“Now is the winter of our discontent”), which opens Richard III, gives its name to the entire Royal Winter Music, a monumental work by Hans Werner Henze dedicated to Julian Bream, articulated in two Sonatas whose movements recall a succession of characters taken from William Shakespeare’s major plays. A bit of history for the laymen. We are in 1976, and Henze takes seriously the invitation of the English guitarist to compose for guitar, one instrument on which he has not yet created large-scale works, a Sonata of the proportions of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier . Thus the First Sonata on Shakespearean Characters was born (1975-76), it includes six movements, each of which inspired by some characters of the English playwright (Romeo and Juliet, Ariel, Ophelia, etc.). It will be followed by the Second Sonata on Shakespearean Characters (1978-79) which concludes with an extraordinarily steep Mad Lady Macbeth, which, it seems, created some difficulties for Bream himself: nine minutes of musical complexity represented by twelve tempo changes, among which the affected and surreal dance movements stand out. Hence the birth of the myth of its infeasibility, a theme that was the preserve of many of those modernist musics of the 60s and 70s, with extremes well represented in certain visions of Ferneyhough, which, beyond some controversy, undoubtedly served to move the limits of the instrument and the virtuosity of its most skilled performers. Mad Lady Macbeth just seems to go that route and in, you get a sense of how complex a musical thought can become. This is how Henze himself talks about it in his autobiography:
“Julian Bream arrived at Marino and rehearsed the first number of my Royal Winter Music. I told him that I was not going to ask for a fee but that, in return, he must agree to give a course in guitar playing — for Italians only and without remuneration — at the first Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, as the festival at Montepulciano was to be called: a construction site for the arts, a shipyard and a workshop. The fees paid by the participants on the course were all to go to the commune’s department of culture. Julian also had to give a solo recital, which he did indeed do on i August 1976 in the packed Tempio de San Biagio, in the presence of Sir William and Lady Walton, who were officially greeted by the cultural bol-shevist of a mayor and regaled by a performance of Walton’s own Bagatelles, a piece for solo guitar dedicated to the performer. Julian had agreed to my conditions, albeit with a bad grace, so eager was he to have my Royal Winter Music. Our aim of making an additional and substantial contribution to the guitar repertory played a part in his decision. Julian said ‘What the Hammerklavier Sonata is to pianists and the keyboard repertory, the Royla Winter Music must be to the guitar.’ He wanted to explore the innermost essence of the instrument with me and see it become the most colourful and fascinating of our time.”1
Thus an extraordinary creative adventure originated, a journey into the depths and unexplored spaces of the instrument, whose very limits somehow evolve into unprecedented means of expression. “The ‘dramatis personae’ of this work pass through the sound of the guitar as if they were a veil” wrote Henze himself in the preface to the edition of the first Sonata, identifying with a few effective words the difficult task of the interpreter: to give substance to concrete and dreamlike elements, describing the characters in their theatrical and subliminal characteristics. Royal Winter Music is a journey into the world of the musical subconscious unleashed by the ghosts of Shakespeare, evoked by Henze. The instrument’s ability to “color” the execution timbrelly is not enough for the interpreter: the ability to place an experience of the mind in space and time is necessary, a “psycho-analytical” interpretation of the secret motivations that give universal voice to these tormented characters.
Bream himself speaks thus:
“`Above all, Hans is immensely professional, and knows precisely what he’s doing and what the world is doing in relationship to him. He certainly has his finger on the pulse. After the Kammermusik performance he and I got on pretty well, and I was always hankering after another piece from him until eventually, and many years later, it arrived. It was enormous! A sonata in six movements, which lasted nearly half an hour, called Royal Winter Music. I still can’t remember whether I commissioned him and didn’t pay him, or whether I just asked him or what. I think originally I asked him; I remember saying that I wanted an important piece, something of the profound quality of Beethoven’s Hammer- Klavier Sonata. It was half a joke really; I didn’t expect him to take it seriously. Can you imagine? Six highly complicated movements, each based on a character from Shakespeare—Gloucester from Richard III; Romeo and Juliet; Ariel; Ophelia; Audry, William and Touchstone from As You Like It; and finally Oberon. I was flabbergasted. But I’ve since performed it in New York, Ottawa, London, Berlin, Paris, Bath, Dartington, Budapest, Zagreb, Tokyo and Sydney though it’s a pretty tough nut to crack for both performer and listener alike. `From the start, I was a little terrified of it. To hold an audience for 28 minutes in a piece of such complex modern music is not my idea of a night out, but the challenge is so stimulating and the music so fascinating, that it does give me immense pleasure to play it, particularly when I manage to bring it off well, which is not always. Recently, he has written another Sonata as a companion piece to the first, which is what I wanted to discuss with him when I was on the road. It’s much shorter, and two of the three movements are really lovely, although the last movement seems to me more or less unplayable. It was very difficult musically to see what he wanted, so I wrote and suggested he might re-write this movement. He said he’d show it to another guitarist in Cologne, and I said I’d be very pleased to find out what the other guitarist thought, because composers can sometimes overstretch an instrument and an instrumentalist’s technique for scant purely musical reason. Now I don’t consider myself to be the final arbiter in all matters concerning contemporary music. It can often be most stimulating when a composer demands a little more from your technique than you can muster, provided of course it is for musical reasons. In fact, Hans writes well for the instrument, at times marvellously well. He gets a little expansive occasionally; his gestures can be a bit large for the guitar. But when he’s really concentrating on the instrument, he writes fabulously well for it. It’s when his enormous imagination comes to the fore, that he sometimes writes impossibly hard music for the instrument to play. `On the other hand, I would much rather he did so, because at the end of the day he’s got such incredible facility that he can re-write a passage on the spot if it doesn’t work. He doesn’t just tinker with the music and change the odd note, but he re-writes the whole passage completely. If I’m with him and I’ve got the guitar on my lap, and he’s hearing the sound, I can show him what is possible and why a certain passage doesn’t work. He understands; he can see the technical problem in a flash, and he’s so quick that he can adjust the music without losing any of the original shape or inspiration. God, that’s very unusual. A lot of composers rush to the piano and try out two or three versions of the same idea. Hans doesn’t. He knows straight away when he sees what the technical problem is, and he adjusts the music accordingly. After I’d received the Royal Winter Music, for instance, I suggested that Hans come to stay for the weekend. We played table-tennis and badminton and croquet and God knows what, and I lent him my studio to work in. Not only had he re-written everything I needed for my piece, but in between the badminton, table-tennis and so on he knocked off a complete movement for a string quartet. That’s absolutely incredible.”2
This new interpretation by the excellent Italian classical guitarist Marco Minà sheds new light, not only on this very complex work, but on a new possible theory of interpretation in the musical field. Benedetto Croce assimilated musical performance to the recollection that the poet makes of his own poetry; therefore not a translation into a new work, but a re-creation of the original work, where he admitted the permanence of the work in the execution, however denying any personal contribution from the performer. With Croce, the musical performance appeared to be a re-enactment conducted along the lines of a philological research aimed at restoring the only possible face of the work. Furthermore, in Croce’s perspective the coincidence between the unity of the work and the multiplicity of its performances was not possible: the performance was either made faithful to the work or an expression of the performer’s personality.
`When I approach a new contemporary piece, I do so not just by simplifying it so that it is playable, but by providing accurate and sometimes alternative fingering; that is, specifying which fingers should play which notes. Because on the guitar, the fingering that you use can radically change the texture of the sound, far more so than on almost any other instrument. If you know a composer’s work intimately, and you’ve worked with him on a particular piece so that you know his musical language, how he wants it to sound, the fingering is vitally important in order to reveal the character and colour of that sound. In the classical works of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the fingering is not so important, although it is still vital for phrasing and articulation. But in many modern works—which rely not only on the notes but also on the texture of the sound for their musical effect—the fingering has to be the ultimate key.’”3
Marco Minà’s CD tells us about a work, the Royal Winter Music, as an object of narration, where composer and performer declare themselves as a style, a way of forming; the work tells us, it expresses the personality of its creator in the texture of its being, the interpreter lives in the work as its concrete and personal form of action. With Minà, Royal Winter Music is reborn as the free resolution of both a very accurate philological work and a complex of suggestions, which the cultural tradition has proposed to the artist in the initial form of resistance and codified passivity. Marco Minà’s vision implies a rather striking equation: both the ‘common’ contemplation of the work of art and the specialized critical-interpretative discourse on it are not kinds of activities indistinct by intention or method, but different aspects of the same interpretative method. By giving life to a form, the composer delivers it accessible to infinite possible interpretations. Possible, because the work lives only in its interpretations, and infinite, because each of the interpreting personalities presents its own way of seeing, of thinking, of being. Quoting Umberto Eco, I think I can define Marco Minà’s interpretation as an exercise in ‘congeniality’. ‘Congeniality’ supposes an act of fidelity to what the work is and of openness to the personality of the composer, but fidelity and openness are also the exercise of the interpreter, with his sensibilities, his culture, his visions . In the end, the work is the interpretative reactions that it arouses and which are implemented as a retracing of its internal genetic process.
1H.W. Henze Bohemian Fifths An Autobiography pag. 343-344
2Julian Bream A Life On the Road pag. 82-83 -84
3Julian Bream A Life On the Road pag. 82-83 -84