David Philip Hefti [1975 *]


string quartet no. 1

The string quartet Ph(r)asen was composed in 2007 to a commission from the Merel Quartet. It is dedicated to Princess Melinda Esterházy de Galántha and to the musicians Mary Ellen Woodside, Meesun Hong, Alexander Besa and Rafael Rosenfeld, who gave its first performance on 13/14 November 2007 at the EuroArt Festival in Prague. Ph(r)asen was awarded 2nd prize at the International Witold Lutoslawski Composition Competition in 2007.

In the string quartet Ph(r)asen, I engage with different meanings of 'phase' and 'phrase'. The common or garden meaning of 'phase' is simply a finite space of time, whereas in physics it signifies one stage of a steadily flowing development or of a process in time. The theory of oscillations utilizes the concept for the momentary state of an oscillatory system, while astronomy employs it for the changing amount of light reflected from a heavenly object that itself emits no light, those changes occurring on account of its varying positions with regard to the earth and the sun (as in the phases of the moon). In my composition, phase shifts and the superimposition of different layers are of particular interest. This results in the musicians having to abandon the coordination of left and right hand that they have trained for so long, in order to allow them autonomy instead (this is especially the case in the third movement). A 'phrase' in music is a unit of meaning comprising several individual notes or motives. In linguistics, it is a part of a sentence, being made up of words that together form a unit. In my three-movement string quartet (1: 'In a dream'; 2: 'Restless'; 3: 'Silhouette'), I endeavour to do justice to this multiplicity of meanings.

Furthermore, I have in this quartet taken my cue from the masterpieces of the genre by Robert Schumann (op. 41, No. 1 in a minor) and Leos Janácek (No. 2, Intimate Letters). I chose 25 contrasting phrases from the correspondence between Robert and Clara Schumann, between Janácek and his later wife Zdenka Schulz and between Janácek and his lover Kamila Stösslová, and set these to music here. The texts notated in the score are not recited by the interpreters, but merely serve as inspiration. Since Janácek in his Intimate Letters set his own correspondence with Stösslová to music, my quartet can in a certain tongue-in-cheek way be described as a quartet 'about a quartet'. My work ends with a setting of the very last words that Janácek wrote in his album, two days before his death (12 August 1928). Here are these 25 inventive, intimate, yearning, humorous, melancholy, forthright phrases in the order of their 'appearance':

1. Im Traume
* Quartetten willst Du schreiben? Eine Frage, aber lache mich nicht aus: kennst Du denn die Instrumente genau? 1)
* If only I were allowed to kiss you! 3)
* Ich denke an Dich, an die Sonne im Rosengarten und unser kleines Zimmer. 1)
* Ich will schon ein guter Musiker sein und kein vagabundierender Künstler. 5)
* Meine Heimat ist bei Dir. 1)
* I want peace and I'll find it only in your presence. 4)
* Oh, your eyes, in which I wanted to gaze... 3)
* Clärchen, dass ich Dich gefangen habe, ist doch meine beste Heldentat. 2)
* Ich denke oft an Sie, etwa wie ein Pilgrim an das ferne Altarbild. 2)
* Komm mir wieder im Traume, dann bin ich wirklich wie zu Hause. 5)

2. Ruhelos
* I've nothing more than memories. 3)
* I want to have such wild dreams as last night. 3)
* Er hat eine neue Art zu vernichten, er stösst einem das Messer mit dem Griff in das Herz. 2)
* In the thought that I have you and that you are mine, lies all my joy of life. 3)

3. Silhouette
* Nun gute Nacht, der Tee ist eiskalt, das Zimmer wird immer kälter, ich aber immer heisser. 1)
* Dich habe ich und damit hat jedes weitere Herumflattern für immer bei mir aufgehört. 5)
* Ich möchte so gern etwas von Dir haben öffentlich zu spielen, was für das Publikum ist. Für ein Genie ist das freilich erniedrigend, doch die Politik verlangt es einmal. 1)
* Zehn Jahre hab ich in der Wildnis gelebt, ich werde im Ehekäfig manchmal auf und abspringen wie ein Panthertier. 2)
* Du schreibst, dass man ja eigentlich für die Kenner komponiere - ei, Clara, das sind gerade die dümmsten! 2)
* Es waren zarte Blumen, die Du mir gestreut. 1)
* Nun setze Dich zu mir und schlinge Deinen Arm um mich, lass uns noch einmal in die Augen sehn - still - selig - 2)
* Innigsten Kuss - den innigsten, den ich Dir noch je gegeben! 1)
* So würde ich Sie vor Freude, ich weiss nicht was - doch weiss ich's - verzeihen Sie, abküssen und umarmen. 5)
* And even if I didn't want to I'd have to think of you all the time. 4)
* And I kissed you. And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace. In such a way do the days pass for the angels. 3) (in seinem Album)

1) Clara Schumann to Robert Schumann
2) Robert Schumann to Clara Schumann
3) Leos Janácek to Kamila Stösslová
4) Kamila Stösslová to Leos Janácek
5) Leos Janácek to Zdenka Schulz

D. P. H.

Surrounded by Secrets: Compositions and Correspondence

Who speaks to me when I listen to music - is it the composer? And whom does the composer speak to when he writes music - is it to me? Dialogue and correspondence, speech and contradiction have always been prominent in the inner workings of the string quartet, in the scholarly world of the Quartetti fugati as in the classical composition principle of durchbrochene Arbeit, or "pierced work". In his First String Quartet, David Philip Hefti expands the form to a conversation between absentees. He quotes from letters that Clara and Robert Schumann wrote to each other, as well as from letters written by Leos Janácek to his wife, Zdenka Schulz, and from letters to (and by) his imaginary love, Kamila Stösslová. Hefti writes these phrases into the score, even setting them to music word for word and syllable for syllable. However, they are neither sung nor recited, but played in the silent language of the four instruments, a kind of foreign tongue for the listener who cannot see the musical notes and has to follow the quartet as he would follow a play whose plot and characters were unknown to him. Who speaks to me when I listen to music?

"So you want to write string quartets? Please do not laugh at me, but are you totally familiar with the instruments?" It is surely no coincidence that this quote can be found at the beginning of the quartet, almost as a motto. The Swiss composer David Philip Hefti wrote the quartet, a commission from the Merel Quartet, in 2007. When he was first confronted with the task of writing a string quartet, he was certainly aware of the burden of tradition and the high standard set by past masters, particularly in view of the dramaturgical idea that the new work correspond with the other pieces by Schumann and Janácek. However, David Philip Hefti felt inspired rather than persecuted by the ghosts of the forebears. And he does indeed know the instruments very well, his imagination and experimental zest know no limits when it comes to asking the four string players to perform extreme and baffling styles on their instruments: rainbow pizzicati and shooting-star glissandi, toneless bow strokes on the bridge, rattling sounds created by excessive bow pressure, beating and knocking on various instrument parts (fingerboard, body, rib) and, towards the end, even simultaneous humming. For a few bars, the string quartet becomes a vocal quartet. In the course of the third movement, Hefti doubles the number of staves, giving each instrument two independent parts that are to be played simultaneously, albeit autonomously. In other words, the right hand is not supposed to know what the left hand is doing. "Silhouette" is the name of this third and final movement, and the composer understands it to be the "shell of a note", the music's shadow or slumber. This might explain why the final movement does not end loudly or definitively, but instead takes leave of its listener, as though it were headed for another world. Once again, Janácek is quoted (in the viola part); it is one of his last entries in an album for Kamila Stösslová, written by a feverish man whose death was imminent: "And I kissed you. And you were beside me, and I was happy and at peace. In such a way do the days pass for the angels." In the last bars, only two more words, from a Schumann letter, are cited: "quiet - beatific". They are quietly tapped on the cello as though someone were softly knocking on a door.

David Philip Hefti gave his First String Quartet the deliberately ambiguous title "Ph(r)asen" - "Ph(r)ases". The term gives rise to a whole gamut of associations. The word phase interests the composer primarily as a concept rooted in a number of scientific disciplines: it can mean a dislocation or shift, an overlap, simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. The musical and linguistic double meaning of the word phrase, on the other hand, hints at that familiar and unanswered question of who speaks to me when I listen to music. In simultaneously setting these quotations, or "ph(r)ases", to music and encoding them, Hefti asks this question anew. He also does this by way of role-play with historical figures and the frequently-broken and rearranged subjectivity of his music. "Life is surrounded by secrets that are beyond the comprehension of our limited spirit", Thornton Wilder once wrote. "We transmit (we hope) fairer things than we can fully grasp."

Wolfgang Stähr (translated by Brian Cooper)