by Anders Flodin
A Jewish prayer occupies a central position and wrapped into the composition Zvlnĕné hranice pro violoncello a symfonický orchestr (2018) by Daniel Chudovský. This article sets out to describe the composition from different angles; the historical and aesthetic background as well as a few remarks. In this essay, descriptive sections alternate with more detailed presentations.
The Jewish vocal tradition has a cultural heritage which goes back to the time when musical source material begins to exist. Compositions are also being written or composed in other forms today based on religious texts which do not fit in with the ritual but, musically, are closely allied to the great tradition and singing. Several composers such as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alfred Schnittke were influenced in their compositions by aspect of Jewish influences which they were able to incorporate into their own specific styles. Whereas Mahler was more fascinated by introducing the sound of f.ex. Klezmer music in his First Symphony, third movement, or Schoenberg’s topic and theme for his unfinished opera Moses and Aron, Schnittke showed his devout spirit in his use of poly-stylistic spiritual statement animating the end of his Fourth Symphony, as well as his love for the diffuse harmonies often attributed to the modernists. I argue that the basic material of Schnittke’s Fourth Symphony consists of a modernist-cliché of dubious quality but it is not the sound itself that Schnittke is interested in. Schnittke’s composition is continually struggling towards the text and ends up with different layers i.e. elements of Znamenny chant, Gregorian chant, Lutheran choral singing and Synagogue cantillation, making a new context that ultimately unite – right in front of our ears. Chudovský´s composition is a gorgeous evocation in a similar direction as Schnittke which consists of kernel of melodic/harmonic material which is surrounded by more amorphous instrumentation. This encircles the prayer in the end of the work perfectly. The instrumentation consists of delicately blended instrumental colours, and the resulting sound erases all feeling for individual instruments even though it contains sections for solo instruments.
The composition takes its starting point in a theme consisting of a few notes in high register presenting the primal line interrupted by a rhythm in the percussion group that comes back in the final part of the work. The few notes in the higher register will later generate the first generation of chords with the same notes or notes marked as quarter-tones in the string section.
The violoncello solo – the violoncello part should be perceived as a prolonged part of the orchestra – plays a free role based on the same material throughout the composition. In order to create a contrast to the accumulating situation with the expanding role of the violoncello, Chudovský introduces an abrupt shift in nearly every parameter in creating an instrumental development. Here the established roles between the soloist and the orchestra are reversed in that the impulse now come from the ensemble. Whereas all the soloist’s role have an active, nervous and forward tendency. This feature increases the dramatic impetus of the composition. The composed and sometimes improvised textures intensifies and cumulate into a cadenza with flexatones and a siren. After the cadenza the composition decline into a group of instruments; organ, violoncello, shofar and voice. Amidst the orchestral sonorities, the function of the human voice is positively symbolic. The wide range of expression places high demands on the dramatic and lyrical singing of the solo soprano and the percussion group allude to the first rhythm established in the beginning of the piece. Noteworthy is the untraditional last section of the composition, which comprises a dialogue between shofar and voice, in which the shofar shows an expressive and repeated tone pattern, whereas the vocal part becomes increasingly tranquil till it subsides to the end, providing a kind of anti-culmination to the whole composition.
Quarter-tone as timbre or microtonality? The answer is: Genesis.
In non-European music and in European folk music there are a number of examples of microinterval elements in music. The relationship between classical music and folk music is complicated; to record in writing what has been perceived in folk music has not always been desirable of different reasons. It is only during the 20th century that efforts have been made to try to illustrate the notation in detail. Two examples of ethnomusicological studies in this field are f.ex. Béla Bartók and Sune Smedeby who have made attempts to create microinterval signs in music notation. If I regard the musical material of Bartók and Smedeby as linear it is interesting to remember Chudovský’s statement:
“In my own work I originally came to microinterval issues from a completely different perspective, focusing primarily on the perception of linear relationships“
Quarter-tone as timbre or microtonality? The answer is: Beyond the Gutenberg galaxy.
Musicologists are very fond of underlining the connections between Hába’s quarter-tone experiments and relate these to the development of the harmonic language with quarter-tone music. While these connections obviously exist, it is meaningless to ignore the common root of this new language which is obviously to be found in the ideas by Antonín Reicha but developed by other composers such as Michail Matiusjin, Charles Ives and Ivan Wyschnegradsky among other composers in classical music. In the text of his thesis, Chudovský tries to distinguish the different concepts beyond the established tone system that has been the norm for such a long period, which I welcome. In Antonín Rejcha’s Traité de haute composition musicale, chapter 5, Rejcha notes that the smallest interval in the musical system of Europe of the day was the semitone; the human ear could discern a narrower interval but there was no means of naming it:
“L’intervalle le plus petit dans notre système musical est le 1/2 ton. Ce n’est pas que l’oreille ne soit en état d’en distinguer un plus petit; mais c’est qu’on n’a pas trouvé de le noter dans la pratique. Une oreille un peu exercée est trés bien en état de distinguer un 1/4 de ton, pourvu que ce soit entre les deux suivans: [picture of staff indicating C-c3] hors de limites les 1/4 de ton deviennent difficiles à apprécier. […] Au reste, cette experience est facile à faire an moyen de deux clavecin accordés d’après deux diapasons qui desservent EXACTEMENT d’un 1/4 de ton.”
This idea, derived by Rejcha from old books and theoretical considerations, was later put into practice by a composer from his native country, Alois Hába.
Chudovský’s theme in the composition Zvlnĕné hranice for violoncello and orchestra is remarkably characterized by the renunciation of material possession, almost ascetic, and the melodic contour keeps open up itself which increases its effectiveness as a suitable subject for variational treatment of quarter-tones. The chords colour the melody and by implication serve to imitate tones that are just intonation. The first melodic contour end the phrase with introducing elements of quarter-tone treatment. The figure itself becomes an integral element generating objects and audible structures. Chudovský instrumentates this idea with extreme delicacy introducing a waft of string sound to accentuate the dissolve. The harmonic ambiguity is extreme, and the beautiful free passage toward the end fairly lets the listener float into a world inhabited by the likes of Schnittke.
The text in the composition is based on the story of Noah’s Ark. After the great flood subsided, God promised Noah and his descendants and all living creatures that God would never again bring a flood to destroy the earth. To seal the promise and mark his covenant, God placed a rainbow in the sky. When we see a rainbow, we remember God’s covenant and recite the following blessing:
“I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.“
“Barauch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, zocher habrit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro.“
Unfortunately, it does not appear in the score which language Chudovský uses, but I assume it is Aramaic. The writing of the Israelites of an earlier age used to be a variant of the West Asian consonant writing, a form more resembling the Phoenician. This older Hebrew script is usually referred to as Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it was used sporadically until just before the start of our time. The scripture we today think of as “Hebrew” borrowed by the Jews from Aramaic during the exile of Babylon during the 5th century BC.
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