Peter Sheppard Skærved has been associated with the music of Hans Werner Henze since first collaborating with him in a performance of his Concerto Il Vitalino Raddoppiato as an eighteen-year-old. This first collaboration led to highly regarded CD and television recordings of the opera The English Cat, made in Berlin and Bavaria in 1989 and 1991. Henze composed the Fünf Nachtstücke expressly for the début of Peter Sheppard Skærved and Aaron Shorr as a duo in 1990, when the two gave its world première. Since then, Peter Skærved has given critically acclaimed cyclic performances of all of Henze’s violin music-most notably, all the violin and viola music in one day in the German Pavilion at the Hanover Expo 2000. In 2001 his recording of Henze’s complete unaccompanied violin works was chosen as a BBC Music Magazine Disc of the Month.In 2007, his recording of Henze’s Concerti on Naxos was nominated for a ‘Grammy Award.’ Most recently, the Kreutzer’s revived Henze’s astonishing 4th Quartet at the 2008 Venice Biennale.
Whenever I have found myself being conducted by a composer, be they Ozdil, Clarke, Henze, or Rundchak, I try to remember Louis Krasner’s words, to keep in mind that I am only an aritisan, playing the notes, the very life blood, of the person in front of me. In order for my performance to be remotely successful, it needs all of the help that it can get. Aaron and I still reminisce in wonder about one time that we witnessed the extraordinary ‘lightning-bolt’ that can strike when the composer conducts. It was during the workshops and rehearsals for his Opera, ‘The English Cat’, in Gütersloh, his home town, in Westphalia. The ensemble was working on the passage where the idiotic heroine, Minnette is murdered. As she is a cat, she is tied up in a sack and thrown from a bridge into the Thames.
Henze was sitting at the back of the rehearsal room, and from his darkening demeanour, it was fairly obvious that he was getting more irritated minute by minute at what was being done to his beautiful music. He wanted a different colour, and greater depths of meaning and emotion, but he could not express this point precisely in words, perhaps because he had already expressed it in music. Music is a far more precise instrument of emotion for the musician than words; it certainly should be.
In his remarkable autobiography, ‘Böhmische Quinten’ he wrote:
“The composer who wants to express pain must have to hand the language needed to express its opposition, namely, the absence of pain, or joy-and he must speak that language as fluently as he handles the metaphors meant to describe pain. ”
Finally Henze’s frustration got the better of him and he strode to the podium, where he took the conductor’s baton. At first the ensemble failed to understand his gestures. His conducting has very little to do with rhythm. It has a great deal to do with the moulding of the musical shape, les formes en l’air, the breathing of statues, if you like, so it took a while for us to accustom ourselves to what it was precisely he was indicating. Pierre Boulez conducts like a bandmaster, albeit achieving miraculous results through hyper-explicit physical clarity. Henze conducts, or rather he used to conduct, like a poet, the way that I once experienced the magic of being charmed through ‘Tristan’ by the miraculous ‘non-conducting’ of the late Reginal Goodall. Henze’s gestures reminded me of a potter’s hands in soft clay. After a few moments of confusion, unheard timbres filled the air, and the music floated out into a new and wonderful dimension. There was a strange freedom of tempo, but enormous precision of meaning, colour and emotion. Aaron Shorr said to me afterwards,”Didn’t it make you realize what it might have been like to have seen Richard Wagner conduct ‘Tristan'”. It was incredible, and I was immediately horrified that as an interpreter, I might actually have put a barrier up between the power of such an imagination and the audience, that my artistic vanity should ever obstruct this beauty. Like Krasner under Webern, there was nothing that I could ever add to this, but much that I might take away, from such an exquisite manifestation of delicacy and intimacy.
Henze-Die Kaisers Nachtigall
“ Four men in black strode out onto the stage. Each took up their places by some form of musical instruments, with the eldest, a man of priestly disposition, standing at the center, holding two flutes of different sizes. They were not Spaniards, but Germans. The emperor shifted in his seat, trying to get himself comfortable. They expect me to put up with Germans. Then the youngest of the musicians started to move amidst a forest of drums and other strange looking metal instruments, which shone in the limelight like weapons. The players started to tell a story without words, using the strangest music, from their native land; German music, to tell a story that a Dane told about a Chinese emperor. There was as haze of cymbal-hiss. The curve of a flute filled the air.
‘… the emperor, a jealous man, was determined that , if he could not hear the nightingale, then neither should anyone else. A decree went out, that this was an offence tantamount to treason, to listen to the magical brid, and would be punished by the cruelest, the slowest death, the death of the thousand cuts, or worse still, burnt alive. And the people walked in fear through the cedar woods near the palace, little realizing that the nightingale was long dead, its dun-coloured little body lying in a pile of ginko leaves in a nearby convent garden. But at night, Pan took his flute, and began to play outside the house of a young courtier. A grin flickered around his mouth, as he imitated the song of the nightingale, note for note, silence for silence, the music dripping from his instrument like molten gold. The young man could not sleep, for his mind was tortured by thoughts of the emperor’s daughter, with whom he ws very much in love. So he tossed and turned in his narrow cot, and his waking dreams were made beautiful by the river of music flowing through his bedroom window. When he arrived at court the next morning, his face told everything, and soon the halls were humming with the story that the young man had been serenaded by the nightingale. When the emperor heard of this, he ordered the palace guards to seize the youthful courtier. He posted a notice that he would soon be executed, in the fashion that had been promised. The whole court, from scullery maids to the highest eunuch, was summoned to a central courtyard of the imperial palace, where a stake stood in a pile of faggots and bundles of straw. Weeping, the young man was manacled to the stakema and a flame was set to the pyre. At the very moment that his screams became unbearable, as his flesh began to like Heracles’, tumbling in agony into Mt. Etna, Hephaistos’ kingdom, a small figure clad in purple, darted through the crowd, and leapt like an Ibex into the inferno. There was a gasp of horror from the crowd, for it was the Emperor’s daughter, who was very much loved by the people of all degrees of rank. The flames licked even higher, and the smoke and stench poured out over the palace walls, pavilions, gardens and temples, into the foetid alleys and market places of the city beyond. To the consternation of the already hysterical crowd, who wer ready to riot, to sack their own city in self-abnegation, the two charred bodies were seen to rise out of the conflagration. As the burnt cadavers rose, they changed shape imperceptibly. Their arms shortened and tucked up under their chests into talons, wings sprouted from their legs, mouths stretched out into beaks. And a river of song burst forth from the two birds, for birds they indeed were, a chant of ecstasy and pain poured through their two throats. It was a lay of such beauty and sorrow that it stilled the whole empire. And the two nightingales soared away to the mountains. With a whisper of vengeance, the crowd turned towards to the tented pavilion where the emperor had been sitting on his broad throne. But another change was taking place. The kaiser’s cruel, hard body was shrinking, and red black fur was sprouting all over his once hairless body. Soon there was nothing but a small Bavarian Squirrel, rooting furiously for dropped nuts and dried fruit amongst the silk cushions on the Emperor’s throne”
…with an alarum of drums and bells, the Germans finished their ritual. The Spanish Emperor, struggled to his feet, and left the room, presumably to move his bowels. But all the birds in the Palace Gardens and Aviaries were silent, and the Gemans vanished without trace, leaving unease about the land.”….(Burkhard Jaeckle, Jan Philipp Schulze, Stefan Blum and Jörg Widmann play Henze)
Diary Entry-Madrid 1998.
In the late 1980’s, when I was still an undergraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I suddenly found myself, to my delight, horror and fear, working as musical assistant to Hans Werner Henze. One incident from that time confirmed me in my desire never to become a ‘professional musician’, not in that way, anyway.
I had helped with the editing of the orchestral version of a large Henze work, and we were rehearsing, in a large radio studio in London, with the composer conducting. My job was to sit at the back of the hall and hunt for mistakes in the parts, which were, usually, my fault, and to listen out for balance and instrumentation problems. I was fantastically excited (what 19-year-old wouldn’t be), that Henze was very open to my suggestions, and had cheerfully written some of my orchestration ideas into the text (There are two bars of the horn part of this piece which I actually ‘composed’). This was refreshing compared to the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude which I was encountering amongst some younger composers with whom I had been working. Only recently, a student composer, whom I was coaching in a workshop, told me that I had no right to ask questions about ‘compositional issues’. These were off limits to me. I was only the executant.
Henze became very unhappy with the sound of the harp part that he had written, and could not get the player to make it work as he had intended. Rather than embarrass the harpist in front of the orchestra, and risk a scene, he called me over and asked me to take a list of queries and emendations to the player at the end of the day.
Now, I am sure that I irritated everyone. I have always come across as a rude, jumped-up, over-enthusiastic ‘big head’, caudex, as the Romans would say. And, of course, I looked very young. But this still did not prepare me for the tirade that I received from the harpist as I approached. “Oh, for God’s sake, be quiet. Just write it all in the part and then bugger off…etc”. At the time, it did occur to me that perhaps it would have all gone better had Henze actually had the stand-up fight with the player. I would be disabused of this in later years.