Listening –

This undertaking –



Zwölf Quartette für zwölf Musiker


(Mallarmé Cycle op.75, Twelve quartets for twelve musicians)



”I would prefer one not to read this preliminary remark or, at least, to forget it after skimming over it; it does not mean much to an experienced reader apart from what he already understands: but it can put off the uninitiated reader, who must cast his eyes over the first words of the poem so that the following words, just as they are, accompany him to the last, …”. Stéphane Mallarmé begins his preface to his late poem UN COUP DE DES, written on 11 double pages, with this remark. His preface is not intended to explain the poem, for the understanding of the text cannot be forced in this way, but can at best only stimulate the readiness to analyse. Allowing oneself to be enmeshed by the words can only happen within the poem itself. Even at the age of 20, to Mallarmé poetry was something not explainable, a secret; in his article ”Hérésies artistiques. L’art pour tous”, he likens it to the religious ‘mystery’. This demonstrative protest is about no other text so apt as about his poem UN COUP DE DES, which throws the reader into a text labyrinth of confusing darkness. Composed like a virtual score with vexing elements, this poem is not simply to be understood in the usual way but challenges the reader who understands reading in its emphatic sense as a process of deciphering, which is more than only analytical understanding and penetration. It challenges the reader who does not ask about the concrete sense of the words in the first place, but searches for that which is suggested in them, which could be open to various possibilities, tentative and pausing. The ways the words sound, their very individual rhythm, owing to the free way in which the text is positioned on the pages, the poetic voice which is thus surrounded by silence and void, all demand of the reader an attitude through which understanding gains a creative dimension! The author retreats into the background and throws the reader back onto his own devices: only the words of the poem show him the way. Here, due to the virtually contrapuntal interlocking of the text of UN COUP DE DES, clear due to the use of various forms of eye-catching type, this way can be neither a linear one nor one which is unequivocally fixed. It is a way which will only be determined by the singular individuality of the reader.


Reading –

This undertaking –


writes Mallarmé in ”Le Mystčre dans les Lettres”…


My Mallarmé cycle is the musical form of this undertaking, reading: it is the attempt to creatively explore UN COUP DE DES with the means available to me, in the knowledge that this attempt cannot be the final one for me, but must remain only the intermediate stage of a personal approach. Just as Mallarmé’s poem may be read as an apologia of failure – as a hypothetical experiment in thought – which, as it is available as a printed text, seems at the same time to reverse this failure. So my music, responding to Mallarmé, in its sound texture and written fixing, also remains open in both directions with the proviso of a perhaps.

I am still considering putting at least parts of Mallarmé’s text to music for an ensemble of 12 (3 sopranos, 3 flutes, 3 clarinets and 3 cellos) – that was the original plan. However, at the time when I began to occupy myself more intensely with UN COUP DE DES, it was clear to me that there had to be a complementary cycle of purely instrumental, if you like commentary, pieces, which would lay the foundations for this setting to music and which would accompany this ‘Undertaking’.

The 12 quartets for varying instruments are like 12 musical steps towards Mallarmé’s poem. Thus chosen parts of the word score UN COUP DE DES become the starting point for musical reflections which will not only point back towards their literary origin but also, at the same time, gain their formal independence by being transposed into another artistic medium: a subjective act. My Mallarmé cycle is not just intended to be an acoustic illustration of the text, but picks out single configurations and, by means of this analytical approach, tries to create a picture of the whole through allusions, circumscriptions and suggested specific moods. This may be one of the many conceivable ways of appropriating this poem. UN COUP DE DES is not the kind of poem which one can just compose from line to line, nor can one set it to music in the traditional sense.

Each of the quartets stands alone in its specific distinctiveness of sound but, at the same time, is connected to the others by subterranean connecting lines. The musical text is exactly fixed. However, when moving through the complete score, the listener has some limited freedom of listening choice as six possible arrangements of the quartets are provided for. Before the performance the throw of a dice decides the arrangement. In the numerical sequence there is a progressively gradual, a circularly ordered, change of tone colour in each quartet due to the fact that each time one musician leaves, another one comes: thus, each musician plays four of the total of twelve quartets.

To attempt to try to describe the vocabulary and the syntactical reality of the music in an explanatory way, to attempt to try to uncover the similarities to Mallarmé’s poem, would miss the real purpose of the music. Its message cannot be, and is not intended to be, straightforward. It is not laid down in a one-dimensional way, but in what it is able to move in the listener, open and hovering. It wants to reveal its secret, but not completely; it wants to be understood, but not just in the purely cognitive sense. I cannot do this for the listener by speaking about the music, for – let me change Mallarmé’s words a little: that would only say little over and above what the experienced listener already knows, but would distract the uninitiated who must concentrate on the first sound shapes of the music so that those which follow, just as they come, will accompany him to the last.


Listening –

this Undertaking –


… it can succeed if we consider sounds to be what they really are: acoustic events which surprise us in their unique form as moulded time, events which at the same time keep this time in the inescapability of its actual passing, and which, thus, allow us to forget for a moment our own transience because those senses which touch on the most hidden, and at the same time the most personal, layers of the inner soul are activated.



Mallarmé wrote UN COUP DE DES in 1895 and published it for the first time in Cosmopolis magazine in 1897. Only when I had been working for a long time on the score and when, in the meantime, the date for the first performance of the complete cycle had been set, did I realise that the beginning of my musical analysis of this poem and also the first public performance of my Mallarmé cycle on 24 April, 1997, in Hamburg were, by a memorable but unintended coincidence, exactly 100 years after the composition and publication of the Mallarmé poem: 1995–1997.



The live recording on this CD of the complete performance in Duisburg is that of the numerical sequence of the quartets I-XII. This is equivalent to throwing a 1 on a ‘symbolic dice’.

If you can program your CD player accordingly, you can also listen to the other 5 possibilities of sequence of the quartets.

Dice face 2 gives rise to the quartet sequence: I – V – IX – II – VI – X – III – VII – XI – IV – VIII – XII

dice face 3: I – VI – XI – V – X – IV – IX – III – VIII – II – VII – XII;

dice face 4: XII – VII – II – VIII – III – IX – IV – X – V – XI – VI – I;

dice face 5: XII – VIII – IV – XI – VII – III – X – VI – II – IX – V – I;

dice face 6: XII – XI – X – IX – VIII – VII – VI – V – IV – III – II – I.


Michael Denhoff

(Translation: Catriona Kopschina)


© 2000 by Cybele