Melodram, nach Beethoven (2003)

This is an electronic work based on Beethoven’s Melodram for Glass Harmonica and Reciter. The piece uses a wide variety of electronic music techniques to create an unusual musical narrative.

The piece was realized in Berkeley, using MAX/MSP, Audio Sculpt, Open Music and ProTools.

Beethoven’s Melodram, for glass harmonica with recitation, was composed in 1814 as incidental music for Friedrich Duncker’s drama entitled Leonore Prohaska. My Melodrama, for electronic medium, was composed in 2003 as a long coda, attached to the end of Beethoven’s trifle.

Duncker was a civil servant and secretary to King Friedrich Wilhelm III, and Beethoven’s involvement with the play may have had to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy to secure commissions. The play told the story of a heroic Prussian girl who, disguised as a male, enlists in the army to fight in the Wars of Liberation. Naturally, she dies from the wounds received in battle. The play was never produced.

Duncker’s poem:

Du dem sie gewunden
Es waren dein zwei Blumen für Liebe und Treue.
Jetzt kann ich nur totenblumen dir weih’n,
Doch wachsen an meinem Leichenstein
Die lilie und rosa auf’s neue.

My free translation:

Entwined were these flowers two,
The blooms of love and fealty true.
Now, consecrate I the flowers of death alone,
and yet, upon my gravestone
the lily and rose grow anew.

Beethoven probably wrote his “Melodram” for the variety of glass harmonica known designed by Ben Franklin (1761) and manufactured in London. Franklin’s “armonica” is designed with glass bowls fitted concentrically on a horizontal rod and actuated by a crank attached to a pedal.

According to the Grove, there is ample testimony that players of the “armonica” were apt to become deranged. This is attributed to “the irritating permanence of extremely high partials and the continuous contact of the sensitive fingers with the vibrating bowls.” In some German towns the armonica was banned, but despite its illegality it remained one of the most popular instruments of its time, reaching its heyday in the years up until 1830. Goethe once wrote that in the sustained chords of the armonica he could detect “Die Herzblut der Welt”.

Initially, I was drawn to the glass harmonica’s “vibrant, piercing sweetness”. Due to the unique way in which it is played, the glass harmonica possesses both a pure sine-wave aspect, and a noisy, slip-stick aspect. It a sound that is alienated from itself, divided in half, contradictory, dialectical. It has strange connotations: once revered by figures as grand as Goethe it has become relegated, for us, to a kitsch instrument, lacking the seriousness of other members of the present day instrumentarium. In Einstein’s book on Mozart it is relegated to the chapter on mechanical instruments. Yet, as kitsch it possesses the meanigfulness of a collective wish-image while evacuating its meaning by simulatenously presenting this image’s premature foreclosure.

Schopenhauer wrote that Beethoven’s music “presents us with the greatest confusion which yet has the most perfect order as its foundation; with the most vehement conflict which is transformed the next moment into the most beautiful harmony. It is rerum concordia discors – the discordant concord of things.” One cannot miss the dialectic in this last description.

Rather than musically “deconstruct” the sound of the glass harmonica — showing how it is comprised, revealing the mechanics of the sounds, reducing the figuration of our imaginatve associations to their formalization – I sought to work against the grain, by unfolding the possibilities suggested by the text and the sound. While working, I began to associate the “sine wave” aspect with a heavenly, otherworldly dimension; a world abstracted from the discordant friction and noise of this world’s flux or even Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis. In conjunction, I associated the noise aspect with the hellish, the demonic, the worldly, rubbing, irritation, continual striving. I read Schopenhauer’s understanding of Beethoven back into the sound of the armonica.

The text suggested a trajectory. It too has a dialectical quality. The lily and rose, symbols of “liebe” and “treue”, discarded in this World grow anew as “totenblumen” on “meinem leichenstein”. This image led me to the idea that a narrative of death, purgatory, hell and heaven – a divine comedy – might be an appropriate setting in which to unfold the relationship of the dialectial musical aspects.

I also maintained the traditional formal plan of the melodrama, constantly alternating between spoken text and instrumental music. On the local level I composed the alternation of “text” with music throughout the piece, as well as insuring that each textual section relates to the last as in conventional melodrama, where it continues the narrative. The music interjects, commments, colors, contradicts the text. Of course the text isn’t always literally text, rather it suggests the movement of textual meaning always heading dramaturgically in some specific direction. However, this process becomes more generalized as the piece goes on. In fact, the entire piece could be described a journey from the concrete to the abstract.

As a guide to the narrative, the piece can be parsed into three sections: 1) “Melodram” and the dying scene; 2) The divine comedy; 3) A conclusion, which looks back in reflection and dramatizes a moment of Schopenhauerian resignation. If captions are what one needs, they would be inscribed as follows: I. Melodram und der absolute Meister; II. Aus der Hölle zu Gott/Aus dem Himmel zum Teufel; III. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

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