Sofia Gubaidulina: Galgenlieder à 3

Program Note

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina was born in Chistopol during Stalin’s reign and graduated from the Kazan Conservatory in 1954, one year after Khrushchev assumed power. In 1959, partway through her continued studies of composition and piano at the Moscow Conservatory, she met Dmitri Shostakovich and played for him the symphony she had recently written as her final examination. Empathizing with the challenges posed by subverting the strict parameters of the Soviet-approved realism style, Shostakovich praised the young composer’s work and told her to “continue along your mistaken path.” Following his advice expectedly worsened the shadow of the Soviet authorities, which escalated dramatically after the end of Khrushchev’s Thaw in 1964. In 1979, the Union of Soviet Composers blacklisted her as one of the Khrennikov Seven for writing “noisy mud instead of musical innovation, unconnected with real life.” However, Gubaidulina took the denunciation in stride, enduring the poverty that arose from the subsequent lack of paying commissions in order to take advantage of the creative liberty it afforded her.

Gubaidulina’s Russian Orthodox faith pervades her work, but she qualifies her intentions: “I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this." The motif of simultaneous, bidirectional glissandi in two instruments often appears in her work, forming a sonic symbol of the cross with their opposing trajectories.  the composer often employs unconventional techniques alongside these spiritual themes to bolster the restoration of connections she seeks. Many of these tendencies were inspired by experimentation in the mid-1970s with Astreia, her improvisatory folk ensemble.

Despite the best efforts of the Soviets, Gubaidulina has enjoyed a prominent and celebrated career. She garnered international attention through her violin concerto, Offertorium (1980) which was championed by Gidon Kremer. Her work Light of the End (2003) was given the honored program slot before Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the BBC Proms. Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded her second violin concerto In Tempus Praesens (2007) under Valery Gergiev. Her 80th birthday in 2011 was commemorated by many organizations worldwide, including a series of three weeklong Gubaidulina Festivals in Kasan, Hanover, and Moscow. During the festivities, the composer premiered her Percussion Concerto; her revised Bayan Concerto; A Pilgrimage of Four for violin, piano, bass, and percussion; and a work for twelve solo celli, Labyrinth. Gubaidulina has lived in Hamburg since 1992, the year after the fall of the Soviet Union.

—Josh Davidoff

Introducing Christian Morgenstern

When the Galgenlieder were first published in Germany in March, 1905, many readers and critics were puzzled, and the publisher received unflattering mail. But others chuckled, and critic Julius Bab wrote in the first review on May 20 of that year: “I am sorry for those who do not sense the magnificent subtle humor of the heart behind these crazy verse fancies.” Between these two groups there has been little middle ground.

Morgenstern scribbled the first of his capricious, whimsical “gallows songs” in his twenties, when, as he tells the story, on the occasion of a carefree outing to Werder near Potsdam with some of his friends, they passed a height locally known as Gallows Hill. In a mood of horseplay, they founded a “Club of the Gallows Gang,” and Morgenstern wrote some grotesque verses, never meant for publication, that afterward were set to music by one of the group. They later continued their skylarking and met in a room equipped with the abstruse paraphernalia of a fraternity devoted to the cult of the gallows—a dark light from which dangled a crimson “life thread” (A noose?), a table covered with a black cloth, an hour glass, a rusty “blood-spattered” sword, a burning candle, phosphorescent symbols.                 

The members bestowed upon themselves gruesome-grotesque names and peopled the gallows’ world of Morgenstern’s verses with weird humans and fabulous animals. The confines of this world were soon extended beyond the narrow limits of the Gallows Hill to include the vast landscape of Morgenstern’s romantic world. Within a short time the Galgenlieder caught the popular fancy, found their way onto the stage of Ernst von Wolzogen’s literary cabaret, and were eventually published by reckless Bruno Cassirer in Berlin, after three other publishers—Bondi, Schuster un Löffler, Albert Langen—had rejected them: his poems did not fit the traditional blasé cynical or satirical-ironical-tired humor pattern of the Fliegende Blätter or Simplizissimus.

Above all, however, the Galgenlieder are preoccupied with words, with sounds, and with the foibles of the German language. Most of the “word” poems are pure mirthful impertinence, reflections of the good-natured sophistication of high-school students, and focus on the traps, pitfalls, and curiosities of the language. Morgenstern was fascinated by phonetics language. Morgenstern was fascinated by phonetics and linguistics: He remembered the playful word formations of his childhood, investigated the artificial international language of Volapük, studied Horace and Homer in the original, and translated Ibsen, Strindberg, and Björnson. As a high-school student he “invented” a language. In this language—his own Volapük—the “Great Lalulā” is written, which, he once explained, is “not an expression of nonsense,” but a “phonetic rhapsody,” the mirror of “a highly personal, youthful Uebermut, which enjoys combinations that are very common among children, but are regarded as bizarre when encountered among among adults.” Morgenstern plays with words as a child plays with blocks, piling them up, rearranging them, knocking them down. All his life he preserved the child’s vision: to see words (and things) as though he had never seen them before; and he played with them as imaginatively as a child. Paraphrasing Nietzsche’s “In any true man hides a child who wants to play,” Morgenstern dedicated the Galgenlieder to “the child in man.”

During Morgenstern’s time and later, the Galgenlieder were often classified as nonsense poetry. To this, Morgenstern, who was a mild-mannered, almost timid person, says, please don’t, in a disarming plea to his critics: “One thing I beg of you. Should the terms ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’ be included in the review—no matter how flattering the qualifying adjectives might be—kindly reconsider them in favor of something like ‘folly’ or ‘craziness.’ Surely you would not want to tag with these two evil German Philistine and tavern terms of thoughtlessness the very humor that aims at a certain kind of spirituality. ‘Higher nonsense’ ‘fit to be classified as literature’ is the cheapest and unwisest that can be said” about the Galgenlieder—a slogan used without doing justice to the evidence.                

Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern was born May 6, 1871, the son of a North-German Protestant father and a South-German Catholic mother. He attended the “humanistische Gymnasium” in Breslau and studied law and economics at the university there, but practiced neither; he devoted his life, until his early death in Meran on March 9, 1914, to literature. The Galgenlieder are merely offshoots (“bloss Beiwerkschen, Nebensachen” as he wrote) of his spiritual and mystic poems, which were influenced by the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. His serious poems are often bracketed with those of Rilke, Dehmel, and Hofmannsthal. Yet it was the Galgenlieder that made Morgenstern famous.

—Max Knight