In 2009, during a new production of his opera CELAN, Peter Ruzicka noticed that several crucial moments in the large orchestral score could be “mapped” in new aesthetic guise onto a linear piano texture. The opera shed fresh light on and defamiliarised many traumatic experiences in the life of the eponymous poet and Holocaust survivor.
The first piece opens with one of the opera’s central motifs, with a constant alternation between extraversion and introversion. The following piece puts two peals of chordal bells into a dialogue seemingly sustained by the ineffable rhythm of a gentle breeze. Finally they burst asunder into five separate bells until they ultimately unite in a single bell and descend in regularly spaced bell strokes, self-absorbed as if in prayer. The third piece is governed musically by an obsessive focus on the pitch A and percussive effects produced with the knuckles of the fingers. Ruzicka wrote of the cycle that it “partly verges on the unplayable”. In the case of this piece, his remark refers to the leaps it calls for while observing the highly subtle dynamic shading. The fourth piece opens with a delicately melodious four-part texture, a passage the composer borrowed from his cantata Esta Noche, written forty years earlier. The piano writing rises to extremes of expression in order to render Celan’s psyche, struggling with itself to the brink of schizophrenia. The final piece sublimates the obsessive hammerblows of the third scene by using a special timbral ploy: the repeated chords are pedalled ten times in such a subtle way that the tied final chord appears as its own phantom in pianissimo – a musical pause for thought intended to goad listeners to their own “self-reflection”.
This six-piece cycle originated in 2006/2007 in parallel with Ruzicka’s second opera, HÖLDERLIN. Here the events are communicated through music alone rather than stage action. The opening piece appears in several scenes of the opera in rich string sonorities. Once it has faded away, this same phenomenon is clearly audible in the next piece, which represents a distillate of two scenes: “Expulsion from Paradise” and “Fear, nothing but fear, the trembling collective”. Indeed, the music, marked schattenhaft (shadowy), constantly projects flight and deathly fear. The consequence is shown in the third piece, which, in the opera, bears the title “Humanity does not draw onward (…)” and the scene description “Everyone falls upon everyone else in wild insurrection (…)”. This is represented on the piano by a “cannibalism of voices” in a dual sense of the term: a pure lust for destruction, and an urge to survive. The next piece, in quadruple sforzato, depicts the collapse of heaven, repeated three times and forming the climax of intoxicated violence in the PARERGON cycle. The contemplative fifth piece opens with four contrapuntal voices floating in space and time and congealing at the end into a chorale setting central to the opera. Here the music plunges into the asphyxiating stillness of a repetitive spiral in which time seems endlessly to expand and even to dissolve (there is no escape from the pull of Eternity). The final piece contains archaic sacred imagery from Japanese gagaku music that even seems to make use of gagaku instruments, as in the mouth organ sho appearing in the right-hand chords. Open fifths occasionally crop up as unexpected “highlights”. The tranquillity, carried to extremes of compression, gradually yields to an inner sense of musical urgency. The climax is followed by a process of reconciliation, and the music finally makes peace in the same sense as Hölderlin’s dictum, “Man’s eternal longing for unity with himself and with nature”.
Composed in 1987, this six-piece cycle can be viewed as the piano piece in which Ruzicka identifies most closely with the idiomatic properties of the instrument. Here the piano can function as a “percussion instrument” in the best sonic sense of the term. Formally, the work is cast as a series of structurally similar shapes in interlocking pairs. Préludes 1 and 4 recall such idiophones as the marimba and xylophone. Both open with a pulse emerging from a leggierezza cascade resembling a string of pearls, comparable in its dynamics to a set of chimes made to dance by a whimsical and mysterious gust of wind. Prélude 4, marked con delicatezza, is dominated by a central sigh motif (G#-D-C#) appearing five times as a counterpoint to glockenspiel-like garlands of sound. In this prélude the final note, C#, forms an imaginary nucleus. Both préludes end with insistent meditative chords sounding like bells from a distant cathedral. The same gesture marks the end of Prélude 2, but this time obsessively, as if the listener were standing in the cathedral’s tower. This concluding signature is indicative of the character of this prélude, which riotously declaims the noise and rapture of a colloquy of percussion. Prélude 5, a virtuosic humoresque on a related series of pitches, is similarly dominated by ascending and descending chromatic demisemiquavers. In Prélude 3, marked Religioso, floating chords in the middle voices form a sea of tranquillity while sharply etched, increasingly expressive voices luxuriate the descant and bass. They reach a climax in the outermost registers of the instrument only to end in increasingly profound resignation during an expansive coda. Every beat, following crescendo upon its predecessor, sounds like the peal of a Chinese gong: the ambitus becomes wider and wider, the harmonic density increasingly demonic. Prélude 6, Tombeau, is dominated by eight-part chordal writing in the manner of Prélude 3, recalling the last of Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. This “death-knell motif” is dominated by tritones in both the melody and the accompaniment – the nightmarish timbre of death.
AUSGEWEIDET DIE ZEIT…
This set of three nocturnes composed in 1969, is among the works in which Ruzicka found his own distinctive idiom. As he writes in the preface, “The three nocturnes took shape during my encounter with the poetry of Nelly Sachs’ cycle Glühende Rätsel (Glowing riddles). They are reflections of internalised motions and draw their force by communicating with central layers in these poems.” Like the words themselves, the music that mirrors them appeals to the listener’s sense of synaesthesia, as if creating a painting with brushstrokes of sound. Nocturne 1 presents a Jeux d’eau in all its iridescent colours – playful and dancing, elated and introvert. We also encounter the element of water in Nocturne 2, a natural disaster cloaked in a dance. In the central section we hear what might be called an aimlessly groping elegy, bringing to mind that the cycle might well be subtitled “songs without words”. The third nocturne, Elegiaco, is noteworthy for the composer’s “fields of memory”, which preserve essential moments of stillness from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 110 and the last of Schönberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19. Finally, after emerging from silence, the cycle plunges into nothingness “to the point of complete extinction”.
This roughly two-minute serial study, dating “1966–2009”, owes its existence to a strange twist of fate. The manuscript vanished after the premiere in 1970. In 2009 Benjamin Fenker reconstructed the musical text from a live recording made of the premiere. This text was in turn rearranged by the composer with regard to tempo, dynamics, phrasing and rhythm. In this way the piece underwent what might be called a journey through time, being at once Ruzicka’s covert opus 1 and his most recent work for the piano.
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson