A new world of sound


Music for and with Campanula


With his Campanula the instrument maker Helmut Bleffert has made an interesting and important contribution to the family of stringed instruments. This new instrument, available since 1985, is the product of years of development involving physical and acoustic research. It revives the principle of sympathetic strings as found, for example, in the Viola d´Amore and Baryton, while progressing in a new direction. The four bowed strings, tuned in fifths, together with the dimension of the instrument, make the Campanula a close relative of the Cello. The design of the sympathetic strings differs from that of the Baryton, amplifying the sound and enriching it with overtones more strongly. There are sixteen diatonically tuned sympathetic strings (from F to g´) which run parallel to the fingerboard on each side; they can be given different tunings as the music requires. The outline of the body of the instrument is comparable to the cross section of a bell-flower. This, together with richness of overtones, reminiscent of the sound of a bell, gave rise to the name Campanula. The reinforcement of the sound by the sympathetic strings gives the instrument a sustained, warm soft tone, rich in overtones.

The composer and cellist Michael Denhoff has been working with the instrument since 1985; he was the first musician to do so. He emphasises that the tone quality of the Campanula should not be compared to that of the Violoncello, it being an instrument in its own right. Nevertheless the sustained and rich sound quality of the Campanula make it excellently suited to the performance of music of the baroque era (with or without accompanying cembalo) as an alternative to the Viola da Gamba or Violoncello.

And indeed this first ever recording of the Campanula opens, for two reasons, with the Prelude in d minor from the Suite No.2, BWV 1008 by Johann Sebastian Bach. Firstly, the solo suites of Bach are for cellists the foundation of the wide range of literature for the instrument; from these the music spans the cello sonatas of Beethoven (the second staple of cellists) to the works for cello by Bernd Alois Zimmermann which experiment in new technical dimensions of performance. Secondly, the structural originality of Bachs music, especially as here in the compositions for an unaccompanied solo instrument, seems particularly well suited to performance on the Campanula. What Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about the fleeting duration of the sound of the cembalo can equally be applied to the solo works of his father: "There are always elements in music which one has to imagine, without actually hearing them...experienced listeners compensate for the loss with the power of their imagination". The latent polyphonic content of the harmonic progression of the musical phrase is only suggested. The Campanula does not completely obviate the necessity for the listener to innerly prolong the sound, however the duration of the single notes is prolonged beyond the limitations of the monotonic phrase by the resonating sympathetic strings. Hardly any other movement from the six solo suites for violoncello demonstrates so forcefully and concisely Bachs unique ability to combine prolonged  horizontal melody with vertical harmonic accords as the does the Sarabande in c minor from the fifth Suite BWV 1011. Karl Friedrich Zelter once wrote to Goethe: "Bachs intrinsic quality is loneliness...he has to be attentively listened to." The twenty bars of the Sarabande in c minor fit this description: they are the music of stillness.

A comparable atmosphere of stillness and loneliness is embodied in the two short pieces by György Kurtág and Volker Blumenthaler. The striking nearness of Kurtágs "Cello interpretation" of the poem Gerard de Nerval by Pilinszky to Bachs Sarabande in c minor is emphasised here by following it immediately in the program. This "song without words" presents the great hungarian composer and musician Kurtág as a genial master of the musical miniature. The economy of the composition reminds one of Anton Webern. Kurtág likewise succeeds in communicating a maximum of expression in a concise, compressed form; "a novel in a single gesture, happiness in a single breath" (Schönberg writing about Webern). Incidentally, György Kurtág expressly recommended an arrangement for Campanula after becoming acquainted with the instrument through Michael Denhoff.

Another authorised arrangement of an original work for cello is the Canto by Volker Blumenthaler, composed in 1984. Blumenthaler is today professor of composition and music theory at the Meistersinger Conservatory in Nürnberg. "The piece was originally intended as the finale of a longer work for cello solo. The self-sufficiency of the five-minute long lyric suggested the idea of making it an independant composition. The Canto is characterised by long, extended melody which brings the sympathetic strings of the Campanula to resonate, creating a sonority and spaciality hardly achievable on the cello; this is ideal for the Campanula." (Blumenthaler)

The Vier kurze Studien (Four Short Etudes) by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, composed in 1970 shortly before his suicide, originated from a suggestion of Siegfried Palm for a collection Studien zum Spielen Neuer Musik (Studies in the performance of new music); but they are far more than studies to master specific technical difficulties, such as to be found in the Solosonate or in the two concerti (differing time progressions through contrasting sound qualities, differentiated staccato including harmonics, cantabile in extremely high positions). They can be seen as a compressed retrospective of some two decades of compositional research into the expressional possibilities of the instrument which Zimmermann preferred, it being the closest to the "Vox humana", the human voice and "suited to sing".

Zimmermanns intellectual attitude has influenced many other younger composers in their compositional development, not least Michael Denhoff. Incidentally, Denhoff was as cellist a pupil of Siegfried Palm and in 1986 he won the Bernd-Alois-Zimmermann competition for composition in Cologne with his work Y sobre los instantes for three Campanulas (it was the first work ever originally written for Campanula). Fascinated by the "rich diversity of harmonics...and many other factors" (Zimmermann) produced by the resonating sympathetic strings, Denhoff wrote further works for the Campanula and stimulated other composers to become inspired by the new acoustic possibilities of the instrument. His exact knowledge of the technical possibilities of performance on the instrument and his continuous use of it are evident in the two compositions included here. At the same time one senses the intellectual proximity to Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

Wenn aber... (in memoriam C.S.) from the year 1987 is part II of his evening-long cycle Monologe I-V for five soloists; it itself consists of five sections, echoing the complete work. A peculiarity is the scordatura (the g-string is tuned down to e flat). This changes the range of overtones and permits new sound effects with natural harmonics. Additionally, in parts 4 and 5 the sympathetic strings are to be plucked, producing a lute-like sound. Wenn aber... is, writes the composer, "a requiem for an earlier student and friend, who chose suicide in 1987. The five sections of the music are like memories of past events, like sudden confrontation with the unknown and like the fragility of idyls." Circula el tiempo (1994) also conjures up a similar vision, seemingly drawn out in time and space, music which in its way "illuminates the experience of time, the manifold dimensions of sound and colour, the concept of sensitive listening to sounds and its opposite, silence." (Denhoff). The work is prefaced by a verse of Jorge Guillén:


    The moment,

pulsating, resounding on

    so many strings,

dies to a whisper.


Circula el tiempo can as desired be played by one, two, three or four performers and belongs to the compositional sketches by Denhoff in which different pieces with subtile structural strategies seem to be layered together, whereby they may also be played alone as independent pieces. This composition is a canon with from one to four voices, interspersed with rests and pauses, in a cyclic form with a final coda: each of the four performers starts the piece at a different place in the score; the entry of each player is exactly defined; thereafter each person plays in free time "listening and reacting to the beauty of the music". The players sit as far apart as possible, forming a square around the audience. In this way the quiet and finely differentiated play of sound wanders round the concert hall, growing gradually to the full four voices and then progressively dying away. At the centre of the piece voices 1 and 3 and then 2 and 4 approach each other diagonally across the hall, forming a closely floating "echo". Time passes while seeming at the same time to rotate and stand still.


© 1995 Robert Schön (Translation: Martin Packham)