• cl.3tbn.perc.egtr.bgtr.vn.va.vc
  • SATB
  • S,Bar,B
  • 1 hr 25 min

Programme Note

Biblical language – everyday language

I started out at the Danish Royal Theatre in 1958. As a cue-caller! A job that can only be done by someone with a knowledge of musical scores, since the Royal Theatre is, of course, also home to the national opera and ballet companies. After five years in this nerve-wracking line of work, with all its attendant responsibility for the health and safety of the performers – in my first staging of The Magic Flute I had to call over 250 cues (for the working of floor hatches, deafening thunderclaps, drifting clouds complete with prima donnas in full song) – I resigned this post, promising on my life never to write an opera! I now knew how many different people were involved, and how much technology. How many things had to come together for a performance to be a success. Not only that, but it seemed to me that, as a genre, opera had become rather too entrenched in its own conventions; rules which would be of no use to me – which is not to say that they aren’t perfectly natural and valid where operas by Mozart, Verdi, Alban Berg or Stravinsky are concerned.

At this same time in my life, when I was in my twenties, my mother gave me a copy of the Old Testament, an incredibly beautiful edition from 1757: strangely different, thick paper, Gothic lettering and this wonderful archaic language. I promptly opened it – at a random page – to read. And what I opened it at was the Book of Ecclesiastes!

What a shock! To find, in Holy Scripture, such a bleak, pitch-black text, one that leaves no room for hope. Other than the optimistic prospect contained within the words “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down”. Those words got under my skin and I had the idea that at some point I would use them in my music. And then of course I discovered that right after Ecclesiastes comes the Song of Solomon. An opera began to take shape! Solomon as a young man, lusty and vigorous, and as an old and utterly disillusioned hero. On stage together. An archetypal existential situation.

The gap between hope and the absence of hope has not lost any of its relevance.

I was drawn to the idea of capturing this situation in one scene, about one and a half hours long. No one leaves their post, there is no change in attitude or perception. The characters endlessly repeat their own standpoints. And the sun rises and the sun goes down. But this Oriental attitude bothered me. And I began to see a way of introducing an element of change into this scene.

Mankind is surely the only living species to enjoy the singular privilege of believing that it can change the world. And that to protest against the way of the world can have an effect. Has anyone ever seen a dog shake an accusing fist at the heavens!

We fill our lives with so much unnecessary stuff, I feel, and here I saw an opportunity to create a beatific, soul-purging dramatic sequence – a narrative of sorts – by totally clearing an initially jam-packed stage over the 1½ hours of the performance. This task could be performed by four stagehands. And why shouldn’t they talk while they were at it? In an everyday, colloquial language which would contrast sharply with the formal Biblical language of the sung text. Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen undertook to write this alternative script. The stagehands and the other characters on the stage all inhabit their own separate worlds, their own circles. Like planets they orbit one another, each preserving their own identity. Occasionally this results in chaotic collisions, a mishmash of sounds, in which not everyone can expect to be heard!

Sometimes the music is very spare, solitary; at others it is very plump, dense.

This work in progress was finally completed (around 2008), in the form of a non-opera – as I also call this experiment with the possibilities offered by musical drama. And with this I have, in a way, kept the promise I made over 50 years ago, not to write an opera. Not a “proper” opera.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
Translated from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland



Score preview