New pieces for violoncello (campanula) and piano by Michael Denhoff



When a composer writes for „his“ instrument one generally expects the technical possibilities of that instrument to be explored to a high level of virtuosity, with maximum impact upon the audience. So at least is the overall experience we have from the past. It does seem that a composer who plays the instrument himself and has a deep understanding of its acoustic attributes can compose for it better than one who has just a basic knowledge of the instrument. Take the piano works of Franz Liszt or the violin pieces of Paganini as examples: it seems that here the composer was inspired by his own dexterity and transferred his fingerwork to paper. This effect is certainly true for the nineteenth century, with its great love of virtuosity; but we find it also in the twentieth century, for example with Olivier Messiaen, a composer who experimented on his instrument – the organ – with a whole new universe of hitherto unknown, excitingly new and subtle sound effects.


To approach the works for cello by the composer and cellist Michael Denhoff in this light might initially lead to disappointment. The listener will not find the flamboyant virtuosity to which he is perhaps accustomed, when a composer also plays the instrument involved or indeed is a public performer on it.


The pieces for violoncello (or campanula) and piano collected on this Super Audio CD appear as an antithesis to extrovertive virtuosity. Fragile sound-figures, shadowy intimations, introverted reflection and a disconcerting transparency of sound are rather the characteristics of the pieces. They seem to demand precise attention and listening from the audience. And yet – if one really listens intensely – they are in their own special way „virtuoso“, in the way in which the sound qualities and nuances of the instrument are explored. Music with such fine colours and nuances can only originate from the hand of a composer who has intimate and indeed practical knowledge of the instrument.

But none of this is of prime importance, it is always secondary to the idea and form of the musical language.


A review of the previous Oeuvre of Michael Denhoff yields the impression that his own instrument, the violoncello, does not have the importance for him for compositional creativity which one might expect. It seems that by far the piano is his secret love, for his catalogue of works for this instrument is impressively extensive. Be that as it may, in recent times a noticeable number of works for duet with violoncello (or campanula) have appeared. Following a long break after writing his Goya impressions El sueño de la razon produce monstruos op. 32 (Cybele CD 660.301) in 1982, a series of duos … as when no words op. 77 for violoncello and piano have appeared in relatively close succession starting in the summer of 1996, recently culminating with Sobre tantas cuerdas op. 72a, a completely independent alternative version of Circula el tiempo op. 72 (for 4 – 1 Campanulas).

Superficially these pieces are all very different in character, but nevertheless they are all connected through a strong inner intimacy. Furthermore, the musical nature of all the pieces is influenced by non-musical aspects.


With … as when no words op. 77 it is a text by Samuel Beckett, which has inspired Denhoff to a number of works. The composer writes: …as when no words – which originated in the august of 1996 in just five days – is provisionally the last piece in an extensive collection of works which attempt to interpret the later prose text „Worstword Ho“ by Samuel Beckett in a musical way. There is hardly another book which has so obsessed me in the last years! The bewildering beauty and musicality of the words which, as is often the case with Beckett, thematise failure, have influenced and altered my work in an undefinable way.

…as when no words has a variable configuration: it can be played as a piano solo or with an additional cello part; in the latter case the cellist is placed in a nearby room or behind the audience at the maximum possible distance from the pianist. Both musicians may (but are not necessarily compelled to) recite fragments of text from „Worstward Ho“ at certain points in rhythm to the music. The spoken words should match or underline the music as a musical timbre.

The music consists of thirty episodes, some of extremely short duration. It is multiply interweaving, intimating, commenting, varying, unfolding and self-subvertive.

Of all my pieces which derive from Becketts literature this is the most enigmatic as well as the most personal. Here the notes and sounds express feelings which cannot be expressed by other means...“


With his first Beckett-piece, the string sextet Two once so one op. 66 (1992, Cybele CD 660.301), which also can be played separately in other versions, either as his fifth string quartet Since atwain I or as a duet for viola and violoncello Since atwain II, Denhoff first found a special form of open composition. Similarly, as when no words is a composition embodying sophisticated structural strategies, permitting multiple alternative possibilities of performance.

A further variant of a variable constellation of a compositional idea is to be found in his hitherto most important chamber music work, the nearly three-hour long piano quintet Hauptweg und Nebenwege – Aufzeichnungen (highway and byways – observations) op. 83. This work was composed in 1998 as a kind of diary. The title refers specifically to a famous painting by Paul Klee. It consists of 365 miniature cells which are interconnected, linking and developing together, and became in 1999 a sort of composers depository for six „byways“ in different instrumentations. Michael Denhoff writes: „In the process the complete work developed into separate sections in which the complete piano quintet instrumentation is never used, rather the string quartet without piano, the piano trio formation, various duet-combinations with piano  and the piano as solo instrument; the sections are reassembled, interlinked and partly rebuilt, giving respectively a completely new and independent musical phrase. The chronological order of the compositions is suspended. And yet, despite the contrasts between all six „byways“ the basic emotional temperature remains close to that of the complete work: for me it is music of a devotive nature, a highly personal resumée.“


In Unreceding on op. 83e, the byway number V for violoncello and piano, a number of literary quotations are to be found within the musical text – as also in the original version of the complete work – „which are only to be read by the performing musicians and are written next to the notes which they are to influence“ (Denhoff).

These are texts by Hölderlin, Celan, Kafka, Ungaretti, Heine and others, and again Beckett, and they modify the music, colouring the poetical mood of the piece; the music itself becomes musical poetry. The words are fragile and mysterious and time appears to freeze as the music sounds, focussing on the moment, or, as in the first Beckett quotation within the musical text, time proceeds „with equal plod still unreceding on“.


In 1999, commissioned by the Goethe-Institute of Luxemburg, Michael Denhoff wrote Trace d’Etoile op. 87 for campanula and piano. Here it is a sculpture (Etoile d’or) by the established luxemburgian sculptor Lucien Wercollier which inspired the music. It was a purely spontaneous idea which originated when seeing the works of Wercollier during a visit to Luxemburg. For the program notes of the first performance of the work on the 27th. of February 2000 in the Cercle Municipal in Luxemburg, played by the composer and Birgitta Wollenweber (piano), Michael Denhoff wrote a short text, which reveals some basic information about his compositorial approach to works of art: „A sculpture accentuates the surrounding space similarly to the way that notes and sounds set the air in vibration. And whilst music extends in its acoustic form over time, a sculpture intervenes with its physical form in the space which it occupies and in which it is placed.

Sounds may halt the time over which they extend, depending of how they give the moment its form, nevertheless the listener can never experience a musical work as one complete entity in one moment of time. Only memory helps him to comprehend what he has heard as a whole in retrospect. Similarly a sculpture is never visible to the observer in its spatial entirety due to its three-dimensional form. It becomes an entirety only in the mind after having been viewed from all sides.

Here we have an inner natural relationship between music and sculpture: both can stand time and space on their heads but are tied to time and space in their essential nature.

But what happens when, as in the case of Trace d’Etoile, the music takes on a relationship to a sculpture, when the notes and sounds are evocated by the shape and form of a sculpture?

A parallel spontaneously comes to my mind which Paul Klee once used on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition in 1924. It is the parallel of the tree, which I would like to slightly modify here.

„No one would get the idea”, says Paul Klee, „to expect of a tree that its crown should be formed like its roots. Everyone can see that no exact mirror image between top and bottom is possible here. It is clear that the different functions in different elementary locations must demonstrate significant differences.”

However, the roots and the crown are connected by the tree-trunk. I see myself as this trunk of a tree which feeds the sap from the roots to the crown. I do nothing else but collect that which comes from the depths – in this particular case it is what I have seen in and „extracted“ from Lucien Wercolliers sculpture -  and present it in another form, it having passed through my inner ear. It is, as Klee says, „neither to serve nor to master, only to mediate.”

The notes and sounds of the music are thus related to the sculpture, but are not just an acoustic illustration. Far from being a simple analogy the music fills the space with minute vibrations which are related but not identical to the vibrations emitted by the sculpture. It is not music and sculpture assuming a resemblance, each joins the other on a new plane: they become pure gestures of their respective originals.“

Trace d'Etoile is written for the campanula, a stringed instrument recently developed by the instrument maker Helmut Bleffert, resembling the cello but with 16 sympathetic strings. Here Denhoff specifically employs the accompanying vibrations of the sympathetic strings and also prescribes scordatura whereby the bowed strings are tuned from the normal C – G – D – A to B flat – E – D – A sharp. The execution is limited to open strings played pizzicato and their natural harmonics played arco, creating an integrated harmony. Like a conversing echo the piano is also limited to this range of notes. The metrical, highly complex resonance of both instruments together is extremely exciting and creates a breathtaking synthesis of the tonal colours of the campanula and piano.


The Seven Bagatelles op. 92 were composed between the 8th and 13th of march in the year 2001 and are again a work of Denhoffs most personal style and expression. Each note, each sound, each gesture has an expressive urgency such as is seldom found in todays music. The Bagatelles seem to be affiliated to the music of György Kurtág, not in the resulting sound but in the aesthetic premise. Thus it is not surprising that Denhoff declares that the decisive impulse for composition came from a concert visit during which he first heard new solo pieces by Kurtág played by the hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi „whose vainless playing, utterly concentrating on the music, most impressed“ him.

The third Bagatelle is dedicated to Miklós Perényi. Its rapidly descending passages in the cello, ethereal and transitory, remind – almost as a reference of homage – of similar rapid runs in the solo piece „Shade“ from the work „Signs, Games and Messages“ by György Kurtág. Also the use of a so-called „hotel mute“ which gives the cello sound a pale distant timbre seems to be borrowed from Kurtág.

The remaining Bagatelles are also dedicated by Denhoff to cellists, the teachers Siegfried Palm and Erling Blöndal-Bengtsson or, as in the case of Perényi, to cellists which he specially admires or with which he is befriended. As if tiny greeting cards the Bagatelles remind us of the many „Messages“ of Kurtág and are indeed an extension of his own „Klangbriefe“ („Sound-letters“) to composers of the past, to be found in his evening-filling piano cycle Hebdomadaire op. 62.

A single Bagatelle ends the cycle, remote and simple with an almost distracted beauty, entitled „in memoriam Pablo Casals“: in rising perfect fifths, alternating between plucked piano notes and cello-flageolets, delicate lines weave in and gradually die away into nothing.


A similar and yet quite different atmosphere is to be found in Sobre tantas cuerdas op. 72a. Here for long stretches the music lacks any tangible pulse. Sustained single notes and sounds repeatedly interrupted by transitory figures let the music appear as if improvised upon the moment. And yet a secret order is to be felt, which holds all together, conjuring a world of sound spread over space and time.

It is music which in its way illuminates the consciousness of time and the multiple dimensions of sound and colour and the act of sensitive listening to sounds and their opposite, silence.

The work is preceded by a verse of a poem by Jorge Guillén:


                        El instante,                                                      The moment,

                 Pulsado, sonado sobre                                     pulsating, sounds on

                        Tantas cuerdas,                                               so many strings,

                 En susurro se recoge.                                       and dies away to a whisper.


With Sobre tantas cuerdas the campanula part is practically identical to the „Kanon-Stimme“ (canon part) of Circula el tiempo op. 72 (Cybele CD 200.201), however due to the addition of the piano in this version the development receives a completely new aspect.


Alone the ecstatic speed with which nearly all the new pieces collected here were written indicates that the composer had a very personal inner feeling for his work; we can feel that ones own voice best articulates on the instrument which is a natural part of ones musical existence.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann once said: the cello is the instrument which is closest to the „Vox humana“.



© 2003 Robert Schön

(Translation: Martin Packham)