Program Notes: Michael Hersch

Michael Hersch (b.1971)
Of Sorrow Born - Seven Elegies
for unaccompanied violin (2014)

Of Sorrow Born is a series of seven pieces for unaccompanied violin. Each movement was written in memory of a dear friend lost over the past fifteen years. Movement titles are simply single initials. Though the initials do not necessarily correspond to the first or last name of the individual, they represent something unique of each person’s personality or to a particular memory I have of each. During the writing of this work I often thought of varying fragments of poetry, a particular poetic fragment for each of the seven movements which I’ve included below. The final movement of the set is a setting of Orlando Gibbons’ choral work O Lord, I Lift my Heart to Thee (ca.1614), which I have loosely recast here for solo violin, making changes to the voicing, meter, pacing, articulation and harmony. — Michael Hersch

1. Dear Ghost ...
                                  -- Thomas Hardy

 2. Not a sign of battle was here.
The trees were neither splintered nor scarred ...
                                    -- Ambrose Bierce

 3. Because all the air trembled and the shadows trembled as with a collapse ...
The buried dust, unlids itself ... Against the fury of the whirlwind.
                                    -- Ezra Pound 

 4. It was in hospitals that I learned humility ...
                                   -- Czeslaw Milosz

 5. "Waiting out the rain, but what are you waiting for?
The storm can only stop to get breath to begin again ..."
                                   -- Robert Lowell

6. I already fear the night
that is outside the villages
and behind the house
that moans in the cows
and dances with the stars ...
... and before the sorrow
that smashed me in the mouth.
                                    -- Thomas Bernhard (trans. James Reidel)

 7. Where you will be next there's no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere ...
                                    --  Thomas Hardy

 Michael Hersch
After Hölderlins Hälfte des Lebens
for viola and cello (2001)

The duo After Hölderlins Hälfte des Lebens (Half of Life) began as a work for clarinet and cello and was first performed at a September 11th memorial concert at the Pantheon in Rome in December 2001. Hersch was thrilled by the sonic effect the cavernous old stone building had on his music, and decided to attempt a revision of the piece for orchestra, Fracta, that recaptured the way it sounded in the Pantheon while retaining the spirit of the German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), who set down some of Germany’s most powerfully wistful verse before going insane in his mid-thirties. Later, when Hersch reworked the piece yet again for cello and viola - the version heard here - it seemed to come closest to the essence of one of Hölderlin’s archetypically crushing poems, a description of a lovely summertime lakeside scene that without warning is intruded upon by the poet’s tormented thoughts of walls that “stand speechless and cold/ in the wind/ the flagpoles jangle.” (Die mauern stehn/Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde/ Klirren die Fahnen). That literary juxtaposition of pastoral serenity and impending doom is an apt comparison to the music, because Hersch has created a piece that does not so much portend as it is about portent. The strings are ominous, disturbing, and there is never any sense of narrative resolution. You are fully in a place of tension and there you remain. The effect is a lot like reading the writer Jim Thompson, whose spare, troubling works of fiction always begin with the premise that no good will ever come of any of it. In the piece the sounds, ruminating low with their thick timbre of menace, are threatening enough that five minutes in I was thinking that you are better off listening to Lonely Street than going out there by yourself. Hersch is investigating the degrees of a state of mind, and that state is uncertainty. This is music that is all transition without conclusion. But rather than leaving you in despair, by the time you reach the end all this feels more exciting than grim. An adjustment has been made and somehow it is enthralling to root around in these places of yearning, decay and oppression. Once the eyes are accustomed to the dark, there is a lot to see there. — Nicholas Dawidoff

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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