• Tilo Medek
  • Die Betrunkene Sonne [The Drunken Sun] (1968)

  • Edition Wilhelm Hansen Frankfurt (World)
  • 1(pic)12(bcl)1/1110/timp.perc/str
  • Narrator
  • 20 min
  • Sarah Kirsch
  • German

Programme Note

Tilo Medek’s melodrama for children. In a German town innocently preparing for the annual May Day celebrations, a traffic accident involving young Paul and the brewery cart of Mr Silverfroth leads to an extraordinary series of events that only eventually, and happily, resolve to everyone’s satisfaction.

Introduction to the Drunken Sun

I sometimes bridle when people suggest that The Drunken Sun recalls Peter and the Wolf, particularly if they have looked at the score. It has just happened again with one of the latest recordings on CD; there, you can read in the booklet:

"It’s a vivid narrative ‘Music for Children’ in the style of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which has become really popular in children’s concerts.

When Sergey Prokofiev composed his Peter and the Wolf for the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre in 1936, he associated his characters in his own tale with instruments. He disliked the text presented to him by a writer and cautioned the theatre’s director, Natalia Saz, "I’ll have a go myself, but if nothing comes of it….”. But as she later recalled, "he succeeded in everything!”

Prokofiev was so successful in linking characters with instruments in the story that, ever since, it has been hard to dissociate, say, an instrument like the bassoon with the image of a grandfather or the horns with a wolf. I want the flute to be a flute again, the oboe an oboe again, the clarinet a clarinet again and above all, the bassoonist to be rescued from grandfather’s armchair and be a bassoon once more!

I wasn’t trying to be cleverer than Prokofiev in my work but, a good three decades after his Peter, simply to combine story and music quite differently. In 1968, I was 28 years old and old enough to fulfil this intention. No longer living in my home town of Jena, I had moved to Berlin. One day there, I bumped into a young conductor friend, recently appointed director of the orchestra in Brandenburg. He offered me a commission for an orchestral work. I said spontaneously, "For you, I’ll write a piece for children!” I thought to myself: Brandenburg has a small orchestra, and I can only write a "small” piece for it. Little did I imagine that one day The Drunken Sun would one day become my most-performed orchestral work (you can never predict these things!). The conductor, whose name was Rolf Rohde; died unfortunately young soon after and with no idea that the piece he commissioned would become so established.

He welcomed the idea of a melodrama for children, leaving me to find a suitable story.

At that time my musicological work was an investigation into music for radio drama, and I had myself already written music for a few radio plays. That’s how I got to know The Drunken Sun: as a radio drama with an accompaniment of simple music. The original score had been written by the staff music editor for children’s radio plays at the DDR radio station; he had nothing against me creating my own piece from the story. I knew its author, Sarah Kirsch, and had already set one of her poems, "Ich bin sehr sanft” [I am very gentle] to music, so she had nothing against a melodrama for children being created from her radio play. She likewise received a commission to draw up the text version. But in the end, I didn’t get anything from her, and had to make a start on the composing. I therefore wrote the words myself, together with Sonja Kehler, an actress who sang and showed a great deal of sensitivity for the text. It was essentially written during an overnight train journey from Stralsund to Berlin. It only remained for Sarah Kirsch to authorise the thing and she had few objections to our version. She and I worked together in a comradely way and derived a great deal of pleasure from the project.

After the success of Peter and the Wolf, the composer jokingly described his piece as "a present not only for all Moscow children, but also for my own”.

I dedicated the melodrama to my daughter Saskia, then 18 months old.

Before I stop mentioning Prokofiev, by way of one more small reference to Natalia Saz, the instigator of his work, I telephoned her in Moscow about a Soviet premiere of The Drunken Sun. She was prepared to perform it but died before the intention could be fulfilled.

So what did I want to do differently, and, how would I explain it as an introduction to my piece, without giving away the plot, lest that might take away excitement from the performance?

Incidentally, in my first performance, as in Peter and the Wolf, the role of the narrator was taken by a woman. But male voices are more easily heard over the sound of a full orchestra. In any case, I have never heard the piece performed with a woman’s voice since then.

Naturally each orchestra has the same raw sound materials available as Peter and the Wolf. If a string quartet symbolises the character of little Peter there, in my work the string orchestra gets by without any interpretation of characters and portrays the most varied sequences of events – for example, fairly soon after the beginning, a "perfectly ordinary day”. Note at bars 13 – 25 that the 1st Violins are answered canonically by the Cellos and continued by the 2nd Violins as a third canonic voice (always without the narrator’s part) ca. 0’15.

Woodwind opens the piece, but only flute, clarinet and bassoon, without oboe at the stage, as with the string example just heard, where viola and double bass are absent, bars 1-12 ca. 0’27.

Have you noticed that just before bar 8, the side drum plays four short strokes? This is the point, where the narrator speaks for the first time; you might think that I wanted to show him his first entry, but the conductor is responsible for that.

Very soon after that we hear the whole orchestra: that is, wind and brass with the strings and the timpani and percussion playing together and with this radiates the typical, full orchestral sound: bars 26-32 ca. 0’12.

Only now does the plot begin. Without revealing it, I am trying to explain the style of the piece. Yet I have to mention the beer cart as it dominates the work. After all, I gave the melodrama the title The Drunken Sun, and without alcohol, no sun can get drunk. Now taking Prokofiev’s approach, one could introduce a motif which characterises the travelling beer cart, so that everyone would recognise Mr Silverfroth, the coachman, driving his drayhorses through the streets, his cart fully-laden with beer barrels. But why must it be like that, I ask myself? Each time, the cart should be accompanied by different music, for musically; it might trigger in the listener a completely different image of movement. So here is my first beer cart trip: bars 60-79 ca 0’20, followed immediately by the next trip, connected with the action, for the cart stops and then travels further again – (something easily heard in the music, while in the performance, the narrator just tells us why the cart is stopping). And in order to make the clip clop of the horses’ hoves clear, you need two coconut shells opened and closed on a marble slab in a notated rhythm, convincingly reproducing the sound of the horses’ clatter on the road surface. bars 84-124 ca 1’15

The third trip is dominated by a solo violin and accompanied by woodwind: bars 274-293 ca. 0’24

And the cart drives on yet further, slowing up because in the meantime, there are sad developments in the world: bars 306-318 ca. 0’17

The fifth and last cart trip recovers speed, a piccolo sparkles brilliantly above it: bars 335-354 ca. 0’21.

With these five trips, I wanted to demonstrate, however, that music is not clear-cut that its temperament circumscribes the situation: that is, a travelling beer cart requires music for movement, even if this turns out differently each time.

But there are examples where two different situations could call for the same music, because their particular situation is comparable, e.g. little Paul starts his fanfare and causes the horses to take fright: bars 125-151 ca. 0’42.

Incidentally, I only included the big cymbal crash in the score after the first performance. We recorded the first piano production in July 1969 in Leipzig and, on listening to it, I said to the conductor Günther Herbig, "I’ll add another cymbal crash there to represent the splash of beer tipping into the water!” As the percussionist was already busy, I wanted to play the cymbal myself, but the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra first wanted to hear a "trial clash” by me, because they were sceptical about whether a composer could play in the orchestra. Mr Herbig admittedly said that he had known my father and that I could play percussion, but the short trial nevertheless took place. As a schoolboy in Jena, I had been allowed to help out with percussion in the orchestra – a happy memory. On the Bertelsmann CD you can hear my cymbal clash of 1969!

When traffic chaos threatens – the sun finally returns to the sky in a drunken state and creates an uproar – we hear the same music as when the horses take fright, though considerably reinforced with an additional series of rapid figures in the 1st Violins – evidence that dramatic situations can capture similar musical excitements: bars 356 – 377 ca. 0’36.

There are also solo passages when, for example an owl cries, about what, we only discover later on in the piece – but we can already hear the sadness of the flute and then the clarinet: bars 294 – 304 ca. 0’33.

Music can also "seduce”. When the professor at the weather station fails to persuade the sun to set again, little Paul speaks to it from a fire brigade ladder in a quite simple and moving way, so that the sun shamefacedly promises that it will. Two clarinets interweave, indeed embrace each other, something which makes music special time after time. I don’t know why that is, but the embracing of the musicians comes from the composer’s hand, which is probably why composers are also called "Tonkünstler” – artists in sound – because they fashion out of notes what a sculptor fashions from clay: bars 512 – 523 ca. 0’40.

Then there are also quite pictorial interpretations, which are in turn so caricature-like and simple that they don’t portray anything in the real world, but are rather intended as entertainment, one purpose of music after all. The sun slides down a fire brigade ladder in order to set; meanwhile the firemen spray the ladder with water so that it doesn’t burst into flames from the heat. Vivid percussion sounds accompany simple downward passages on flute, then on oboe and finally on the clarinet are supported by a sound as if of rushing water depicted in the percussion: bars 545 – 552 ca. 0’20.

In the end, the water gushes from the river and the sun finally sets. But this modern tale hasn’t yet reached its end.

For little Paul had to play his solo on the eve of May Day at the festival ground. The coachman Mr Silverforth is also supposed to bring his beer there. Everything ends peacefully only after such an odyssey, as heard here with a gentle waltz and the solo trumpet: bars 583 – 632 ca 0’45.

At this happy ending, little Paul has the brilliant idea of guaranteeing the time of sunrise with the help of an alarm clock, as the sun at last sleeps off its hangover. In the text it says "Oh yes! As the town-hall clock struck ten, little Paul cound be seen walking on up to the bridge. He took a big alarm clock out of his pocket and carefully wound it up, setting it to ring at 4:31am and threw it into the river.”

After I had played my work to the conductor he said, "It won’t work without the sound of a town-hall clock – all the children will miss it!” I replied, "Yes, then should I write in the ten chimes for tubular bells?” He said "But which note will you chose?” Me: "an F sharp, of course; that always works!” He laughed and realized that I didn’t know the old musicians’ saying, but I’d just used it: "Take of the octave starting out from C: up or down a tritone, you always get F Sharp, in brief the "new middle”: bars 634 – 643 ca. 0’18.

But now it is time to hear the melodrama from start to finish.

Remagen (Rheinhöhe), 26 June 2004