Shoreless River (Fluss ohne Ufer), is an 18 minute excerpt from a new opera Detlev Glanert is working on, Das Holzschiff, The Wooden Ship. It's the first part of an opera based on the 1937 book by Baltic poet Hans Henny Jahnn, part of a trilogy. Glanert's music is inherently dramatic, and he's written lots of opera, so this Jahnn saga, the first part to be premiered in Munich in 2010, should be definitely be something to look forward to.
Listen to this wonderful piece on the BBC Listen again broadcast. It starts with near silence, long enough that tension builds. Just as at sea, if you're alert you can hear sounds over huge distances. A rolling pulse emerges, like the movement of waves, interspersed with bells, the means by which wooden ships communicated time. The ebb and flow continues with surging, swelling passages that build up and then retreat into quieter moments where tiny woodwind and string cells flicker. In these details, you can imagine seagulls, sea spray, gusts of wind. Imagination is what dramatic music is.
Read the excellent programme notes by Guy Rickards. "The shimmering textures, alternating solo and tutti sections, harp arabesques and wind lines intermingle with variants and extensions of the horn triplet motif. The orchestration thickens out gradually until the bells, supported by trumpets and timpani, ring out the opening figure for the third time. A solo viola leads off a sinuous variation on the main theme....." Towards the end the music builds up again in a swift fff passage for trumpets and percussion. "This acts as a catharsis, unleashing a cadenza-like passage in a broader tempo led by the percussion, at length transferring to the harps, supported by horns." If this is a prelude, the whole opera should be wonderful, whatever the libretto and development.
What might Glanert's The Wooden Ship saga be like? For clues, I looked up more on Hans Henny Jahnn and the book which inspired Glanert in the first place. There was an English translation, no longer in stock, and apparently there are some in French, but the work is readily available in German. Jahn seems like quite a character. He wrote novels, essays, poems, about philosophy, spirituality etc. and lived an unconventional life. Apart from all else he built organs with carved heads as keys.
Access the Jahnn site HERE for many photos and details of his work and places. Access a blog about his books HERE. which includes a quote about the style of writing he used in Das Holzschiff. Apparently he breaks down and rearranges the German language like James Joyce recreates English. The two companion volumes in the saga are huge, sprawling and inventive: no wonder no English translations of these exist. Glanert's music is sensitive to prose and speech patterns, so what he'll make of such dialogue in his opera should be interesting. A quote from the novel:
"A healthy body is run over by a truck, crushed. Blood, once secreted, once feeling its way blindly through the body, pulsating in a meshwork of thin streams, spreading the chemically charged hormones and their mysterious functions like a red tree inside man–this blood now runs out shapelesssly in great puddles. And still no one grasps that, in a network of veins, it has form. But even more horrible–the death struggle itself, in which the innumerable organs, which we believe we feel, take part. Terror is stronger in us than delight” Yow! Drama even in the syntax.
Read here what I wrote about Theatrum bestiarum and HERE what I've written about Glanert's Caligula, which I saw in Frankfurt this year. Although it was the third revival in three years, the house was packed, even on a week night. Admittedly this was Frankfurt's smaller house, not the Alte Oper, but still, it was interesting to watch the audience, some of whom were hearing it again.