Sakuntala is a drama by the Indian poet Kalidasa (ca. 390–460). It was already known in Germany during the Classical period via an English translation. Herder and Goethe regarded it highly and praised it, and Franz Schubert had it adapted as a libretto for an opera (Sakontala, opera in two acts, D. 701), which however remained unfinished. Karl Aage Rasmussen completed the fragment, and there is now a recording available.
Since my younger days, the Romantic period’s connection to India has been an important theme for me. The Romantic poets occupied themselves with India: Rückert was an Orientalist and translated from Sanskrit; Friedrich Schlegel was an aficionado of Indian philosophy; Schopenhauer an aficionado of Buddhism; and Joseph Görres wrote: “To the Orient, to the banks of the Ganges and the Indus, our soul feels itself drawn by a secret pull.” I gave up the plan to make an opera out of Sakuntala over thirty years ago, but now it returns in the form of a purely instrumental project for violin and orchestra.
Several of my solo concertos are an imaginary theater in which the solo instrument lends its voice to a person, in this case the solo violin depicts Sakuntala, a young Indian princess growing up in a hermitage. The young King meets her while passing through on a hunt. They fall in love, but inadvertently insult a venerable ascetic, who curses them, so that at their next encounter the King does not recognize her. Sakuntala falls into deep despair, but is then carried away to the pond of the nymphs, a place of forgetfulness.
All the fairy tale-like entanglements, which ultimately lead to the King recognizing Sakuntala after all, and the two becoming a couple, naturally do not play a role in the heavily abstracted story line on which the instrumental work is based. Instead, a musical-psychological dramaturgy comes to the fore.
Sakuntala uses a musical language that I would like to designate as imaginary Indian music. I am not concerned with music-ethnological correctness, but with a metamorphosis made possible by an encounter with European music. The solo violin mostly plays raga-like structures, albeit with eight-tone scales that do not exist in this form in Indian music. Nevertheless, the manner in which the basic melodic modules are used – which, in addition to the tones of the scale, defines a raga – allows the ornamentation and the drones to seem very “Indian.”
There are three exposition phases: 1) a “raga,” which corresponds to the natural state, showing Sakuntala as an inexperienced child of nature (ascending: d–e–g-sharp–f-sharp–b–c–a–c-sharp–d; descending: d–c-sharp–b–c–g-sharp–f-sharp–a–e–d); 2) a “raga” that can express the yearning, love, and inner turmoil (ascending: f–e–f-sharp–g–a-sharp–c–b–d-sharp–e; descending: e–d-sharp–c–a-sharp–b–g–f–f-sharp–e); and 3) a “raga” that expresses despair and anger (this raga lacks the perfect fifth; it seems “bottomless” because it essentially consists of two four-tone groups a tritone apart; ascending: c–f-sharp–d-sharp–e–d–g-sharp–a–b-flat–c; descending: c–f-sharp–a–g-sharp–b-flat–e–e-flat–d–c).
The King is likewise represented by raga-like structures, but his diction differs from that of Sakuntala (here the basic melodic modules are not fixed to the same degree as in Sakuntala’s ragas; for this reason, only the scale is given here: d–e-flat–f-sharp–g–g-sharp–a–b-flat–c-sharp–d. In its intervalic structure, this raga corresponds to Sakuntala’s second raga, but differently centered). Then the Demon awakened by Sakuntala’s carelessness also receives its theme, although in a non-modal, chromatic linear construction.
The musical texture is in no way monophonic, but rather polyphony is frequently created through heterophony, through lines that branch out, or through harmonies resulting from the tone material of the respective raga, that is to say, thematic chords or harmonic progressions.
At the moment of Sakuntala’s rapture, an entirely new musical world appears: a number from Schubert’s opera (originally a chorus), which exactly characterizes this moment (“Voices from Heaven” from the end of the first act), as a new theme that becomes the point of departure of an elaboration-like development. The rapture initially stands for a “not wanting to know anything more,” for the escape from grief and despair; upon awakening, Sakuntala thus initially finds herself in a strange, lifeless landscape. The memories and feelings gradually return. In the process of remembrance, Sakuntala experiences a whole spectrum of feelings, from deepest despair to the memories of the meeting with the King. Thus the development embraces step-by-step the entire thematic material. At the climax, Sakuntala has to fight with the Demon. She has meanwhile discovered entirely new sides of herself, and gone through a development from an inexperienced young child of nature to a young woman who has suffered a great deal. In this elaboration process of the development, Indian and European-Romantic mentalities have musically met and permeated each other.