A few more moments with Georg Friedrich Haas

In January 2019 we will be giving the first performances of Solstices – a new work for ensemble by one of the world’s leading composers, Georg Friedrich Haas. The world premiere will be at Dark Music Days on 26th January, and we’ll follow up with the UK premiere at the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre on the 29th. As part of the build up Tim Rutherford-Johnson has been conducting several exclusive interviews with Haas about his music and inspirations.

Among the latter – if not for this piece, for his music in general – is the music of the past. For this second interview, Tim focused on this side of Haas’s music, and in particular Haas’s love of Schubert. (To read more about another of Haas’s inspirations, darkness, please see our first interview.)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Several of your works make explicit references to the music of earlier composers. Could you please explain the importance of musical history to you and why you have been drawn to represent it or address in your own music?

Georg Friedrich Haas: The music of earlier composers is an integral part of the present. Today many more people can hear Mozart or Beethoven or Johann Sebastian Bach than was possible in their lifetimes. We enjoy the surface of this music, which is beautiful and we take pleasure in it. But looking deeper, listening deeper makes it clear: these are incredible masterpieces. And they are full of deep human experiences, longings, abysses, hope and desperation. I feel the burden of this heritage when I compose my music.

TR-J: Works like these seem to have occurred more often relatively early in your career. Are the references no longer there, or have they become more hidden?

GFH: The last piece, which is composed in a direct relationship to old music is Tombeau from 2013. This is not too far. I plan to write a piece in relation to Ivan Wyschnegradsky to be performed on his quartertone piano. And I have a great project coming within the next few years, about which I cannot speak at the moment.

TR-J: Are there particular composers you are drawn to in this way? And what has attracted you to work with their music?

GFH: Several important composers who have inspired me include Mozart (3 pieces: ‘sodass ich’s hernach…’, 7 Klangräume with the unfinished drafts of the Requiem, Tombeau), Josquin Desprez (Tria ex uno), Schubert (Torso), Mendelssohn (Traum in des Sommers Nacht), Scriabin (opus 68), Ives (4 songs); Ligeti, Hauer, and Reich (3 hommages for one performer on two pianos tuned a quartertone apart.) They are very different; each of them attracts me in different ways. For example: I understand Mendelssohn as an avant-garde composer – his technique of orchestration is highly innovative, he is the first composer (I know of) to have composed ‘Klangfarbenmelodien’, that is melodies of sound colours.

TR-J: I believe Schubert is particularly significant to you. What do you find special about his music, and what do you think it has to say to listeners in the twenty-first century? Is it a fascination with his biography, or are there specific musical features that appeal to you as well?

GFH: Schubert was an adult during the decade after the Congress of Vienna. The ideals of the French revolution – ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ – were replaced by control and submission under a feudal dictatorship. Sadly enough, Austria was ‘great’ again. The lack of utopia, the lack of hope created a general feeling of sadness. In Schubert’s music beauty always changes to pain and vice versa. His answer to the political suppression was: ‘My emotions matter’. Maybe this is very relevant now, in the shadow of new fascism everywhere.

TR-J: In Torso you draw on Schubert’s C-major Piano Sonata (D840), a work that he left unfinished. It seems to me that your music often touches on moments of beginning or ending. This is certainly the case in Morgen und Abend, for example, and perhaps Solstices too. In Torso were you seeking to provide an ‘ending’ to the Schubert sonata, or to offer it a new life, a new ‘beginning’?

GFH: I did not want to provide an ‘ending’ to this sonata. I tried to describe why this sonata must remain unfinished. Schubert made a lot of ‘experiments’ in this work. In the first movement he explained how music would work when the dominant seventh chord is handled like a consonance. And he tried to write a mono-thematic sonata based on two intervals (E–G and G–A). He succeeded. In the third movement he ‘experimented’ with the form. The traditional menuet takes the form of: A-B-A’ (with repetitions)–trio (C-D)–A-B-A’ (without repetitions). In part A he replaced the repeat signs with a variation – transposed a semitone higher (!!!). When it was time to come back to A’, he did not know which of these two tonalities he should chose. And he had to stop.

For today’s listener, a repetition a semitone higher is a cheesy technique found in bad popular music. We cannot perceive Schubert’s problem, because for us it is no problem at all. I tried in Torso to make these gaps audible for a contemporary audience, by composing sounds. Torso is a ‘Klangkomposition’ based on Schubert’s score.

TR-J: You also make reference to Schubert in your song cycle ATTHIS, which you have described as a sort of Winterreise ‘with a happy ending’. Are there any other Schubert works that particularly inspire you to write a response of your own, perhaps one that you haven’t yet composed?

GFH: Oh yes: I would be happy if I could write music as brutally naked as Der Leiermann, music as inhumanly cruel as the beginning of the ‘Sanctus’ in the E-flat major mass, music as empty and vulnerable as the beginning of the second movement of the C-major string quintet, music as passionately sexual as ‘Gretchen am Spinnrad’ …

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