Gervasoni: An (1989) Quasi una serenata, con la complicità di Schubert

Program Note

Stefano Gervasoni wrote An during his final year in Milan, right before he left for the International Bartók Seminar of July, 1990 to study with Gyorgy Ligeti, an acclaimed master of timbral manipulation. He was 26 at the time, and had already won several illustrious prizes for composition, but had not yet begun to receive substantial commissions. The piece explores what Gervasoni would come to call in a 1998 article the “anomalous detail.” The composer defines this concept in the following way:

“A well-defined situation is established, or a situation has been defining itself gradually, up to the point where it seems not to allow for any contradiction in its development. This situation is nonetheless subtly transformed, without, though, showing any sign of its internal corrosion. In this way, the moment the smallest deviation from the rule takes place, the listener’s attention is immediately captured and his curiosity revived.

The resulting sense of a change is heightened by the surprise-effect produced by the rule exception. On one hand, in fact, our perceptions are reset after having been ‘hypnotized’ by the musical context in which they had been immersed until that moment. It is a sort of a call to the acoustic dimension coming from the musical one, and which finally takes us to a further musical reality. On the other hand, the rule exception forces us to rearrange our perceptions, our memory, and the associations we had been building until that moment.”

Although An is largely atonal, its form delineated by texture rather than by harmony, one strong moment of cadential consonance eventually emerges from the timbral figurations, breaking the established – or hypnotic – context.  Towards the end of the piece, a fragmented Schubert quote in A major pokes its head out between statements of the primary three-note motif of the piece, with the flute simulating the soprano’s melody and the viola arpeggiating the chordal accompaniment. An derives its title and its subtitle from the source of this quotation, Schubert’s first of two song treatments of Friedrich Schiller’s poem Die Entzückung an Laura [The Delight of Laura], D. 390 (1816). The three-note motif which constitutes the rest of the work is taken from Schubert’s second setting of that same poem, Die Entzückung an Laura, D. 577 (1817). 

The subtitle of the work, “quasi una serenata,” carries its own historical weight. Beethoven subtitled his “Moonlight” Sonata (1801) “quasi una fantasia,” intending to clarify that, despite the free-flowing, modernistic feeling of the piece, it did in fact follow sonata form. György Kurtág, writing in an era when strict adherence to forms was no longer the norm, called his Op. 27/1 piece for orchestral groups …quasi una fantasia… which has an agenda similar to Beethoven’s, but updated. Kurtág uses contemporary musical language to put his work in dialogue with earlier musical eras, and Gervasoni heard …quasi una fantasia... for the first time as a student at the International Bartók Seminar of 1988. The composer emulates these approaches with his “quasi una serenata,” Although the textures he presents might be difficult to relate back to the forms of the 18th and 19th centuries, they work to emulate the lovestruck longing of a more traditional serenade, of which Schubert wrote several.

—Josh Davidoff