David Philip Hefti [1975 *]

Melencolia I

for flute, percussion and piano


'Melencolia I' was written in 2004 and is dedicated to Martin Huber, flutist.

My composition 'Melencolia I' refers to the famous copper engraving of the same title by Albrecht Dürer. Dürer (1471-1528) was 43 years old when he engraved 'Melencolia I' in copper in 1514. In both form and meaning, this work is enigmatic. Research into 'Melencolia' has resulted in an inexhaustible amount of material on the history of iconology. But even the partial deciphering of individual motives in this engraving has not to this date produced a convincing interpretation of the whole. It is for this reason that Heinrich Wölfflin wrote in his book 'The Art of Albrecht Dürer' that 'Melencolia' will always remain a 'hotbed of interpretational possibilities' and essentially resists all closure in the interpretative process. The mystery of this engraving does not just reside in the objects that it depicts, but rather in the relationships between them.

Dürer uses the word 'melancholy' in his writings just once: he writes of the education of young painters, and postulates a case in which the learner overexerts himself, that he 'practises too much'. Then, 'melancholy would get the upper hand', and one would have to employ entertaining string music in an attempt to 'bring delight to the spirit'. Furthermore, melancholy has two meanings. On the one hand, it is an illness of the spirit that paralyzes man and places obstacles around him on all sides. On the other hand, however, it is the name of one of the four temperaments, and in this sense, the melancholic person need not be sick. He is, according to Aristotle, a serious-minded person whose nature moves him to follow intellectual pursuits. This positive aspect of melancholy was rediscovered in the 16 th century. From a temperament with purely negative characteristics, 'genius' suddenly blazed forth. Of course, Dürer was categorized as this kind of 'melancholic'.

Since Dürer's engraving is full of iconographical elements, it is impossible for us to discuss every one of them individually here. But for my composition, the square table of numbers, pictured in the upper right-hand corner, is of significance. I shall therefore explain it further here. This element (also called the 'magic square' or 'Jupiter Table', 'tabula iovis') belongs firmly to the world of the Middle Ages. The numbers serve an intellectual game, they are a symbolic depiction, they are magical. Their peculiarity resides in the fact that all the vertical and horizontal rows, and both diagonal rows, have the same sum, in this case 34. Dürer built autobiographical references into this: the number '34' back-to-front is '43', his age in 1514. The year itself appears in the middle of the bottom line. It is also the year in which his mother died, in May - in the fifth month, to which the number '5' refers, given upside-down in the second line from the left. But the square has a further, quite different relationship to the topic of the engraving: each of the four temperaments was allotted a star, and thus a god; melancholy stood under the unhappy influence of Saturn. According to Graeco-Roman mythology, Saturn was overpowered by Jupiter. Thus, with the table named after him, Jupiter is also present in a protective capacity.

There follow some explanations of the two movements of the work:

1. Affrettato
This nervous, virtuosic, restless, harassed movement depicts the overexertion before the onset of melancholy. Continuous semiquaver figures whip the music on towards the somewhat more peaceful middle section of this tripartite movement; this section already foreshadows the melancholy of the second movement. After a few bars of recovery, the music resumes its rushing tempo, on into its exhausting close.

2. Malinconico
This movement, in two sections with a coda, depicts melancholy. The principal section of the first, very calm part comprises a four-part fugue that in its severity refers back to the first movement. The virtuosic character of the second section is also reminiscent of the overexertion of the first movement, and is followed by an absurd scherzando that turns increasingly noisy, and dissolves in the coda.

D. P. H.


The highlight for me here is Melencolia I for flute, percussion and piano, especially its second movement with its striking tone colours, and the manner in which it conveys emotions at once intense and yet somehow held in balance. Perhaps typically, this is a four-part fugue - just one example of several on this CD where the composer's penchant for constructivism serves a purely aesthetic purpose, allowing one to forget about the construction, and hear only the music. Hefti's works are receiving ever more performances across Europe, Asia and the Americas, though this is the first CD devoted to him. On the strength of this one, it should be followed by many others.

Cambridge University Press, Tempo, Chris Walton