Mediaeval poets and Fernando Pessoa (Pt)
Each epoch that a later period chooses to reflect on becomes a ‘distant mirror’ (Tuchman), as it is impossible to view history without intent or emotional involvement. And reflection often provides the seed for new invention. Indeed the interest in polyphonic music of the late Middle Ages which largely began only around 1900 gave considerable impulse to the music of the 20th century – at first as a reaction against the excessive opulence of the late and neo-romantic period as well as a reaction to the ‘vagaries’ of impressionism: Stravinsky was fascinated by the modal rhythms and melodic structure of Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame. The so-called Second Viennese School made reference to the contrapuntal craftsmanship of the Franco-Flemish school; Ligeti enthusiastically embraced the rhythmic achievements of the Ars Subtilor, Birtwistle composed as a kind of homage his Machaut à ma manière, Hoquetus David and Hoquetus Petrus – and there are endless additional examples one could cite. Indeed the preoccupation of the avant-garde with the music of the Middle Ages runs like a thread through the music of the 20th century – not often commented on, but nevertheless significant.
Unsuk Chin’s Miroirs des temps forms part of this tradition. The work is conceived as a cycle of seven movements, with recurring references to love and death. Two are careful re-workings of a Cypriot virelai and a ballata by Johannes Ciconia – both from the early 15th century, the golden era of the late Gothic period in European music. The first and last movements could be described as homages to Perotin and the third movement as a homage to Machaut.
The ideas of the mirror and complementary reflection dominate the ideas behind, and musical content of, Chin’s entire cycle. The stimulus was Machaut’s famous rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement et mon commencement ma fin, of which, however, only the text is quoted in the third movement. This particular rondeau is the earliest example of a musical palindrome – in other words a work in which the component parts sound the same if played forwards or backwards. The composer has used the same structural idea, but has expanded the three parts in the Machaut work up to as many as eighteen! A specific example from the third movement’s second section, scored for recorder quartet, wind quartet, vocal quartet and string sextet, reveals the following: soprano recorder and piccolo play a crab canon and at the same time are rhythmically complementary to one another (using hocket technique); tenor recorder and counter-tenor also play a crab canon as well as bassoon and second tenor. All other parts reverse themselves from the middle of the section – a technique also used in the first section of the third movement and in the fourth movement. This delicately flowing second section uses all voices throughout, whereas the first section becomes more dense towards the middle and gradually thins out at the end. In the third section the strict linear concept becomes more relaxed, the palindrome principle is only occasionally used in individual parts and, instead, the orchestral colours become more important again. Intervals of a third dominate the movement as a whole, both harmonically and melodically.
The idea of the palindrome is significant for the entire cycle. Movements I and VII become mirror images reflected at the imaginary centre of the work; in other words, the seventh movement is the inversion of the first movement, with the reverse ordering extending even to the text. In contrast with the highly elaborate polyphony of movements III and V, the surrounding movements refer to the simpler homophonic model of organum. The orchestra accompanies with a pulsating, sparkling fabric of sound – a 20th century ‘refelection’ on the musical beginnings of this ending millennium.
Around the centre of the work – in which beginning and end run together – the individual movements are organised to complement one another: the fatal suffering of the lover in Ciconia’s ballata Merçé, o morte is contrasted with the almost paradisiac fulfillment of love in the anonymous Cypriot love poem. The Latin sentences of the first movement (a compilation from different liturgical texts), in which the omnipotence of death over life is expressed, are contradicted in Fernando Pessoa’s poem A morte é a curra da estrada. The palindrome evokes the musical equivalent of suspension of time, the victory over temporality, thereby symbolising the triumph over death: Morrer é só não ser visto (Death removes one only from sight).
© Frank Harders-Wuthenow, 1999
This program note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to Frank Harders-Wuthenow