Fünf Stimmungsbilder Nach Marie-Jo Lafontaine
The visual artist Marie-Jo Lafontaine was commissioned by an art lover to create a cycle of five photo panels as a tribute to his late mother Mrs. Germaine Lijnen. But on the other hand, with this homage she created a metaphor in which the mother figure would be central. The five panels are, as it were, also a metamorphosis of the life cycle in itself. The artist has used personal items of this lady, combined with detailed nature scenes that are in dialogue with certain periods of life. The nature scenes come from a park where the lady spent a lot of time. The items of clothing that Lafontaine selected carefully and respectfully had a special meaning in the mother's life. In the fourth and final panel, this is a combination of an outfit she wore when she attended her very last concert, a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony.
The concept of Mussorgsky's Pictures of an Exhibtion led the commissioner to contact me to reflect on an artistic interaction between the two different arts: to what extent might I be inspired by this work, which Marie-Jo Lafontaine has called 'Sehnsucht'.
After a number of exploratory conversations and meetings both with the commissioner and the artist, I spent a few days in the Lempertz Gallery where these works were exhibited especially for me. There I made my first sketches at the beginning of December 2020.
Considering the theme of the commission, the cello seemed to me to be the instrument par excellence to put as much expressivity as possible in a new work that would be inspired by Sehnsucht. Because of the structures, the composition, and the interplay of the five panels, I was of the opinion that this composition should be a five-movement work, but should be conceived as a cyclical composition in which a monothematic theme should form the leitmotif throughout the five movements, and this in such a way that the work could be performed without interruption.
As with the Promenade theme by Mussorgsky, I found this leitmotif in four notes: E-G-D-A, the notes that occur in the mother's first name: G-E-R(e)-m(l)Aine. A minor third, followed by a perfect fifth, together a minor seventh with a down leap to a perfect fourth. Combined with a chord progression of a minor and major third, this leitmotiv becomes very characteristic. It will occur almost everywhere.
For the musical form of the five panels, I was searching for musical equivalents.
The awakening. In the broadest sense of the word, both in a morning or as the awakening of a new life that is emerging, the beginning of a new life story ready to be filled in.
In this panel, the bright red glow dominates enormously, both on the left and in the middle, passing into a full, tender green nature, spring at its best. The striking folds on the left look almost like sculptures; to me, they overstate the functionality of a garment. Very intriguing to me were the patterns of two and four white squares that reappear very rhythmically and repetitively in this panel. The idea of awakening is symbolized by the opening of the first movement, starting on a chord stack that contains all the notes of the leitmotiv E-G-D-A. On this pedal note, the cello begins its discourse, intended more as an introduction, and then accelerates to the first movement in which the main theme is presented, consisting rhythmically of pulses of two times two notes, followed by a pulse of four consecutive notes. Thus it refers symbolically to the panel.
The general tone is one of enthusiasm, effervescence, optimistic life energy that continues after the exposition with a passionate commentary in which the main theme, the 'mother' theme, is elaborated thoroughly and leads to a first climax. When this episode calms down, the main theme is resumed a second time and closes the first part brilliantly.
The three middle panels represent, according to my interpretation, the evolution in life, in which I especially feel the falling in love, finding the Great Love, the enormous passionate forces that emanate from this, possibly a dramatic turn that leads to a fateful situation. For me, the second movement is therefore an ode to Love, to Life, and its introduction has a double function: on the one hand, it reflects on the first movement, the horn plays as a reminiscence slowly the main theme of Erwachen, and on the other hand, it simultaneously prepares the introduction to the second movement. The first entry of the cello introduces the mother theme in the sonorous low register and immediately propels it impetuously upwards to a first musical outburst that prepares the charisma of the Love theme. This relatively long introduction does full justice to the Love Theme.
It is first recited by the cello in full blaze, then answered by the full orchestra, then taken over by the horns and cellos with violas while the cello plays a dynamic countermelody. The romantic overture of this love song contains the core of the Mother theme. Finally, the cello, the symbol of warmth, melancholy has the last word and concludes this Love Song that abruptly passes into:
I have associated this panel with passion; I find the German word Leidenschaft imaginative for that. Every life has its highs and lows, even in relationships there can be periods of harmony but also of difficulty, the commitments that people take, be it personal or professional but carried out with passion lead to intense experiences. Here, I was captivated by the general tenor and tone of the slightly twisted nature where the full flowering power seems to disappear and the undulating, turbulent structures in the left panel. Musically, I wanted to create a passionate, dynamic, contrasting section that would be diametrically opposed to the intimate warm romantic love scene of the second movement. The opening starts abruptly with the aggressive signal tones in the timpani and shatters the Love dream at once.
It has become a kind of Toccata-like movement in which the short exclamations of the wind instruments are mainly based on the mother theme, they play thirds and fifths in punctuated rime, like the opening of the mother theme that resists a lava-like stream of cello sounds.
In the middle section, this part evolves into a burlesque almost folkloric but sarcastic quasi East European folk dance that culminates in a dramatic climax.
When the lava flow starts up again, the speed seems even more dizzying than at the beginning, musically because the Toccata motif has now been shortened from 4/4 to a 6/8th time signature. The folk dance section returns even more wildly and culminates in an open ending that leads to the dramatic turn.
From the very beginning, I was certain that a quotation from Mahler's Second Symphony, the haunting Urlicht, would have to find some meaningful place in the musical discourse. The fourth panel I associated earlier with Autumn and the approaching Winter in the Life Stages, the mother wore this beautiful garment when attending her very last concert, a performance of Mahler's Auferstehungssymfonie. The opening of this movement is the dramatic climax of the whole discourse and follows the climax at the end of the third movement. Here, the mother theme becomes distinctly desperate, almost hysterical.
It symbolizes the unexpected suffering in life, in this case referring to the sudden death of the mother's beloved husband. The cello takes over this cry of despair and gradually becomes more and more resigned. From there, suddenly the first two opening chords of Urlicht appear on the distant horizontal, but shrouded in an orchestral fog; it is more a metaphorical statement than a musical development in this place. The cello comments on it twice and so seamlessly passes into the death bells of the very last panel.
The very last, haunting panel is overwhelming because of the intensity of the different shades and hues in the crushing black.
Is this what awaits us at the end of our lives, Death and what comes after Death? It is our fate that inevitably awaits us, hence my title Schicksal. That is precisely why I found the end of the fourth movement so meaningful, the distorted quotation of Urlicht from the Auferstehungssymfonie could become a metaphor of Hope. The fifth movement starts with the bells, as if the announcement of the end of a life were echoing along the churches; then the strings start a moving and particularly intense adagio, initially torn by despair and pain and sadness, but at the end it turns into a hopeful question.
The cello then takes over completely, joins in, the violins respond with short sighs and finally, right at the end, there is that important turning point where both the orchestra and the cello with a transformed mother theme (the seventh leap without the third, abstracted in its essence) slowly rise to the height, straight into Heaven.
Sehnsucht has all the elements of a cello concerto. However, the macro design deviates from the traditional three-movement model in which the middle movement is usually a lyrical slow movement. In the macro-discourse, the first movement sounds introductory and full of expectation, with a brilliantly optimistic energy. The second movement strikes an emotional, romantic chord, while the third movement radiates drive and virtuosity. The climax comes in the fourth movement, which in fact must be seen as a whole together with the last fifth movement. It is the unexpected moment of contemplation and catharsis. Not the exuberant concertante finale, but a moment of contemplation and reflection and upliftment. That is why I have additionally opted for the subtitle Fünf Stimmingsbilder, atmospheric reflections, analogous to the eponymous op.9 by Richard Strauss or the op.88 by Heinrich Hofmann, romantic, evocative mood pieces for piano.
Sehnsucht should be listened to as a haunting, passionate life novel in which human emotion is central in all its glory, but also in its despair, sadness, greatness, passion, warmth and love.