• Justin Connolly
  • Scardanelli Dreams, Op. 37 (1997)
    (Cantata on texts of Friedrich Hölderlin)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Sue Anderson

  • Mz + pf
  • Mezzo-soprano
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Hölderlin, Blake-like in his trenchant aphorisms, Wordsworthian in his nature-worship, is a visionary of the fragment, a seer of incompletion. His drastic personal experiences led him to the abrogation of his previous existence, a repudiation resulting in the confinement, and even torture, which were the common lot of mental patients in his day. Making some sort of recovery, he passed more than half his life in the care of a carpenter in Tübingen, writing occasional poems in a style quite different from that of the great odes and hymns of his early maturity. Such poems, written for the visitors who came to gape at the tamed ‘madman’, were composed in exchange for small gifts; money or tobacco was the bait used to extract these later works, which were often meditations on the seasons, doubtless a subject favoured by these patrons. However, he was accustomed to signing them with strange pseudonyms: Scaliger Rosa, Buonarroti, Scardanelli: expressions of the distance he kept from the poet he had formerly been.

I chose five texts which illustrate the range of this great poet, as well as the obsessive nature of his themes. First comes the opening of his ode ‘Patmos’, in which, like St. John himself, he senses the divine nature of his vocation. There follows a total contrast; a ruefully humorous yet touchingly erotic daydream, composed of a montage of apparently unrelated images. This poem is almost complete, but its central verse has come down to us only in the shape of a single word: fleissig, ‘busy’. The third text, though written before his breakdown, is prophetic of his ultimate fate: in it, he contemplates the indifference he will be capable of feeling towards those images which once excited him so unbearably. The fourth setting is of a not-quite-conventional poem about spring; like all his later work, it is in rhyme, a technique which never appears in his earlier poems. Finally, there is a powerful declamation taken from his play about the Greek philosopher Empedocles who, despairing of human existence, seeks transcendence by hurling himself into the crater of Etna.

My music attempts some reconciliation of these contrasted yet related themes of dissociation and contradiction, by making voice and piano largely independent of one another in both rhythm and gesture. The piano does not accompany the voice so much as provide a continuous commentary on all the texts; its ten sections change pace and direction without reference to the vocal settings. The title ‘cantata’ further underscores the nature of the piano part as an integral but separate obbligato, as in the solo contributions of instruments in the cantatas of Bach.

Scardanelli Dreams was commissioned by Sue Anderson, who gave its first performance (with Nicolas Hodges) on 29 January 1998, at St. Giles Cripplegate, London.

– Justin Connolly