Goya – Beckett – Denhoff




In his Notes about Composing Michael Denhoff wrote, ”Sounds are only a picture of that which lies behind them.” In this aesthetic reflection, written in 1990, the composer reveals a basic aspect of his poetics: music means much more than the mere organisation of sounds in time, music is the ”abstract” translation of that which man is continually seeking: self-awareness, insight and the truth about himself and the world, in short: music is philosophy in sounds.

It is unusual in the frame of contemporary music to devote oneself, today, to such a noble demand for truth; on the one hand, this may be due to the fact that, as elsewhere in our society, the thirst for knowledge has to yield to the desire for sheer adventure, or, on the other hand, this may be due to the fact that the sounding philosophical theorems miss the point in our lebensraum and that their complexities evoke neither amazement nor insight.

Many of Denhoff’s sound pictures often reflect ”pictures” which have their roots – metaphorically – either in literature (but not vocal music) or in the history of music, or – concretely – in the fine arts. Particularly the etchings by Goya (1746–1828) play a central rôle in some compositions. However, the prints were not set to music in such a programmatic way that the visual was just transformed into the audible only to become visual again; they rather inspired the composer, in just such a way as many poets or painters were inspired by music without turning this into the spoken word or giving it form. And yet, the sources are not so unimportant that Denhoff wishes to conceal them to hide his source of inspiration. On the contrary, the spiritual background is so vital to him that he adopted the titles of the Goya etchings for his pieces. In 1982 he wrote his first ”Goya” composition El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason brings forth Ogres) for violoncello and piano. The etching of the same name is from 1797. In 1799 it was published by Goya in his collection of 80 aquatint prints, the Caprichos, which, as their central theme, picked out the most important problems of the Enlightenment such as morality, social injustice, education, marriage, prostitution and that which directly affected Catholic Spain, the Inquisition and divorce. The prints of the Caprichos soon reached a wide audience but were quickly suppressed by the ruling powers because of their explosive subject matter. The print The Sleep of Reason brings forth Ogres, one of the most famous of Goya’s etchings, was originally intended to be on the title page of the collection, but, in the end, was placed in 43rd position. The print shows an artist asleep at his desk, surrounded by creatures of the night which, in 18th century Spain, symbolised ignorance and spiritual derangement. In 1988 Denhoff composed Los Disparates (Foolishness) for viola, violoncello and double-bass. This followed his orchestral piece Desastres de la guerra (The Horrors of War), composed in 1983. Foolishness, consisting of 18 prints, was first published in 1850, 22 years after Goya’s death. Seven etchings drawn between 1815 and 1824 formed the basis of Denhoff’s seven movement composition, which, played by the ”trio basso”, had its first night at the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik (Witten Contemporary Chamber Music Festival) in 1989. The piece refers to the prints in various concrete and concentrated forms: for example, the ”Sardana”, a Spanish round dance, is incorporated in movement IV and echoed by the cello playing in the highest register. The double-bass and the viola accompany the solo noisily and uncomprehendingly as though they did not understand the social reality. The titles of the movements are the same as the titles of the prints: I. Disparate de miedo (The Foolishness of Fear), II. Disparate ridiculo (Risible Foolishness), III. Disparate desordenado (Disorderly Foolishness), IV. Disparate alegre (Cheerful Foolishness), V. Disparate claro (Clear Foolishness), VI. Disparate desenfrenado (Unbridled Foolishness) and VII. Disparate fúnebre (Eerie Foolishness). As we also see in his other etchings, Goya reflects, and comments on, the political events and developments in an extremely dark picture language, which understands reality to be ”the rejection of happiness” (Jutta Held).

Denhoff also retains the sombre background of Goya’s etchings in his Piano Trio No 3 ‘Black Ballet’ (1995), commissioned by the University of Virginia. The piece is defined by a small number of musical elements: three related chords in a low piano register, based on the central C sharp, and one bar twice halving itself as a rhythmical nucleus (3/4 + 3/8+ 3/16). All further developments are derived from this: the strings gradually unfold the chords into a melody filled structure and, in a fixed meter, which also recognises rests and caesuras as clearly defined units, a counterpoint unfolds which increasingly opens up the higher and highest registers. The contrasting elements are articulated and single particles of sound joined like ritual gestures. For this reason the composer does not preclude the possibility of his piece being choreographed; however, if the work is performed with no stage action, through listening alone the audience can actually form mind pictures. Because of the musical independence of an outline of a piece composed for the Piano Trio No 3, Denhoff developed the Nachtstück (Nocturne) (1994/95) for violin, violoncello and piano after the piano trio had gone in a different direction. The musical texture of the Nachtstück is also very reduced and shows an even more ephemeral character than the main work.

Denhoff also employs the method of concentrated musical reduction and fragmentation in his Beckett-Momente (Beckett Moments) Two once so one for string quartet, viola and violoncello, composed in 1992. The composition consists of the convolution of the two pieces Since atwain (I) – String Quartet No 5 and Since atwain (II) for viola and violoncello, which can also be performed separately. When the two pieces are played together, the quartet is placed in front of, and the duo behind, the audience. Both groups play the seven times seven different sound structures completely independently of each other, only the respective entries are noted exactly. Thus that which is not simultaneous takes place in the simultaneous. Denhoff was inspired to compose this by reading Samuel Beckett’s (1906–1989) narrative Worstward Ho, which – written in 1980, published in German in 1989 – was one of Beckett’s last major prose texts and for which Beckett went over to English again. A passage from Worstward Ho, translated into German by Erika Tophoven-Schöningh, is printed as a motto on the score: Back try worsen twain preying since last worse. Since atwain. Two once so one. From now rift a vast. Vast of void atween. With equal plod still unreceding on. That little better worse. Till words for worser still. Worse words for worser still.


Stefan Fricke

(Translation: Catriona Kopschina)


© 1997 by Cybele