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Helmut Lachenmann + Bach

A Note from Helmut Lachenmann

When the 18 year old J.S. Bach had to play the organ in Arnstadt the congregation wanted to fire him because of the insupportable harmonies he used when accompanying the chorals. Today when hearing those chorals, people get a cold shrill along their back…
I do not know what Bach’s music might “mean” for me. I even do not know what the sun might mean to me: I cannot live without it, but it is totally far away. The magic power of Bach’s music is more radical and actual to me as most all of our contemporary gymnastics. However, most people just love Bach as a baroque idyll - which is misusable like a drug. We should not just enjoy it like a gastronomic pleasure - we should feel the creative energy of this music as a provocation and as a challenge: as an invitation to go on searching our own way in our time.
The time I spent together with the marvelous musicians of Ensemble Signal during our performances and recording of my „…Zwei Gefuhle…” in 2010 was one of the most precious experiences for me. Those musicians can show and teach us that performing and listening to music - be it old or be it new - should become an existential adventure which might open our aesthetic and human horizon. I love them.


Program Notes

by Paul Griffiths

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Allemande and Sarabande from Suite No. 5 in C Minor for solo cello, BWV 1011

           Bach almost certainly had occasion to write his six cello suites during his time at the court of the young Prince Leopold of Cöthen, when he was in his mid-thirties. The prince, a Calvinist, had no need of church music, but evidently looked forward to instrumental works by his composer – and evidently had skilled musicians to play them. Nothing quite like these cello suites had existed before, and nothing quite like them—searchings of the cello, by itself, and searchings of the spirit, one might say, through the cello—appeared again until the twentieth century.

           A particular feature of this Fifth Suite is the tuning of the top string down from A to G, which Bach introduced perhaps to facilitate some sonorous and often dark chords (though the piece can be played with normal tuning). This is a grave work, especially in its two big slow dances, the allemande and sarabande. The sarabande is one of the few movements in the suites to be entirely in one part, and is unusual, too, in being almost entirely in one rhythmic value, the slow flow of quavers pausing only occasionally. It is primal melody.


Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935)
Third Part for J. S. Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, BWV 775 (1980)

           In placing solo string pieces by Bach alongside solo string pieces by Lachenmann, this program emphasizes at once affiliation and difference. The difference is inevitable, between two composers born a century and a half apart; the affiliation may be felt in a sensitivity to the particular sound and technique of the instrument, in a strength of line, and in a shadow of dance.   

           Here, though, the connection is different, as Lachenmann writes music that Bach could have written but did not, adding to a two-part invention a third part that is new, written in 1980, and at the same time old, realizing something implicit in the original. Another sympathetic twist is in the scoring. Bach intended his inventions for keyboard players; Lachenmann, for once writing music where pitch, not timbre, is paramount, leaves the instrumentation free.

Toccatina (1986)

           The diminutive title suits the scale of this piece, which plays for under five minutes, and also its sound, which is generally at a low level, drawing us into its fineness. A toccata is, etymologically, music of touch, and Lachenmann, ever the traditionalist, alludes to the term appropriately, while redefining how this touch takes place. Most of the sounds, high and featherlight, are produced by tapping on the strings with the screw at one end of the bow. To begin with, the left hand stays in one position, holding a chord whose notes subtly resonate after each tap; there are also occasional pizzicatos. Then the extremely delicate background harmony starts to change. Later still, the musician moves on to explore other parts of the instrument: the strings at the bridge and beyond, one of the tuning pegs, and the scroll. The end, however, makes a gentle return.

           Composed in 1986, Toccatina comes from a time when Lachenmann had moved on from the revolution of temA and Pression to retrieve aspects of older music, within the perspective he had gained, while the cherishing of small sounds, highly defined, can be found in his work from any period.

Pression (1969-70)

           This work of 1969-70 was among Lachenmann’s early explorations of a new music of sounds produced by irregular techniques. At the start, for example, the composer’s directions indicate how the bow is to be held in the right fist while the left hand’s fingers produce whispering glissandos of quasi-harmonics; the effect is of quiet respiration or the gentlest breeze, in a pianissimo to which the piece often returns.

           Though the music is produced under pressure (in French, pression)-—literally, in that it is the pressure of bow and fingers that produces the sound, and figuratively, in the tension any performance is likely to generate—it is predominantly delicate. A venerable instrument is found to have quite unexpected resources. Things that would be slips under other circumstances are now striven for, and rendered as objects of beauty. Lachenmann’s reference to such pieces as “instrumental musique concrète” evokes how this is a music of sounds, not notes. But he has also remarked that the listening experience becomes concrete because “one hears under what conditions, with what materials, with what energies, and against what (mechanical) resistances each sound or noise is produced.”

           As to form, Pression reproduces the process of discovery by which it was made: a performance possibility is explored, as at the opening, until it leads into, is invaded by, or summons another possibility, all showing an invigorating sonic imagination and sense of drama. Any sound, in Lachenmann’s view, comes with formal properties, arising partly from the tradition in which it is being composed, performed, and experienced, and partly from its physical nature. Among the types Lachenmann distinguishes is the “cadence sound”: a loud pizzicato from which an upward rustle escapes. An example duly appears at the end of this ten-minute piece.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004

           Bach may still have been fresh from school, and in his first job, as a violinist at the ducal court in Weimar, when he set about writing a set of six solo pieces for violin, three each of sonatas and partitas, possibly for himself to perform. (We have the word of his son Carl Phillip Emanuel – though much later, of course – that he played the instrument “cleanly and penetratingly.”) He was at Weimar for only a few months, during which he turned eighteen, before he was off to a better position, but the stay was long enough for him to learn from a senior musician, Johann Paul von Westhoff, who had published a dozen partitas for solo violin twenty years before.

           No doubt Bach fiddled over the years with what he had written, before making a fair copy in 1720, when he was at Cöthen. This manuscript survives, complete with its title page, on which we can read his inscription: “Sei Solo,” then “Violino senza Basso accompagnato,” then, with the tantalizing suggestion that there could have been more, “Libro Primo,” followed by a signature and date.

            The great finale to the fourth piece in the set opens in the rhythm of a sarabande: slow, heavy, triple. But this is a dance also of another kind, on a repeating four-bar theme that descends from D to A, ready to make a rising cadence back to D: the inexorably circling, purposefully driving bass of the chaconne. Sixty-four times it comes, on through a middle section in the major (variations 34-52), all the time supporting counterpoint that implies up to seven simultaneous lines, until finally the voices spiral into the keynote. Brahms (one of several composers to adapt the work, in his case for piano left hand) had this to say: “If I were to imagine that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” Playing for around a quarter of an hour, the movement can ably stand by itself.


Helmut Lachenmann
temA (1968)

           This was Lachenmann’s 1968 moment. Here, in this trio, he ventured for the first time fully into an art of sounds – an art, too, of the high-pressure actions by which sounds are to be made and the high-pressure gestures they will correspondingly evoke. The title is the Italian word for “theme,” but Lachenmann’s orthography creates a pun with the German “Atem,” or “breath.” This is music of breath, for the cello as much as the voice and flute. It is also instrumental music, for the voice as much as the flute and cello, as Lachenmann indicates by giving the voice no pre-eminence but listing it with the others in descending order of register: “temA, for flute, voice, and cello.” The incongruities in the trio, the roughnesses, help give the piece its life: these are three individuals who, though thoroughly disparate, find ways to make contact, to communicate with each other and with we who listen.

           Non-standard means of sound production predominate, sounds that are frayed or strained, scorched or blistered by their own heat, and yet all the time fiercely expressive, while also displaying the extreme virtuosity the piece demands, in terms of precise control and, indeed, beauty. There are urgent solos, as well as places where it is possible for everyone to participate, until about two-thirds of the way through the fifteen-minute composition things come to a head. What happens thereafter is partly expected, partly not, for the message of the coda is the message that is being delivered all through: out of inarticulacy, articulacy is born.