My Approach to Musical Language in “Helena Citrónová”

in #classical-music3 years ago

This opera began years ago with an overture: a clanging, elemental, shrieking, painful overture that’s not so much like “music” as like the actual sound of a nightmare train.

At that point, I had written a libretto for Helena, and I had left it untouched for a year. Helena’s story had spoken to me during the course of the BBC interview she gave for their landmark Auschwitz documentary. It wouldn’t leave my mind, even though nothing could be farther from my personal experiences as the horror that gripped Central Europe in the 1940s.

I think that when critics describe my operas, they tend to say they’re tuneful, filled with exotic coloration and “oriental fragrances.” Helena is not very much like these descriptions. It is dark. It is terse. And it is full of things left unsaid, emotions too powerful for words, so that the orchestra must be the one to articulate these feelings.

In searching for the musical language to tell this story, I started with a proposition: What does Europe in the 1940s sound like? and immediately came up with a basic dualism. In previous eras of western musical history, there is a language continuum between the popular and “high art”. Works like The Magic Flute show clearly that “pop” music could also be imbued with the intellectual appurtenances of “serious” music. In the nineteenth century, stevedores hummed Verdi tunes. Even at the beginning of the twentieth, Mahler can still interweave a snatch of klezmer into a symphonic argument. Then — unique in the history of western music — there is a fracture. This could be about the collapse of tonality, the collapse of multi-ethnic empire states, or some kind of general Zeitgeist — but by the middle of the century, we’re looking at two musical states that seem worlds apart. On the one hand the world of coffee house music, swing, Latin and other genres, on the other increasingly esoteric worlds of serialism, extreme virtuosity of rhythmic and harmonic language, new systems of musical thought.

The music of Helena is grounded in this duality, starting with the “Helena tone row” that is played when Helena is first seen coming off the Slovakia transport, and which ends up worming its way into every texture of the opera’s musical dialectic. When Helena utters her name, Oscar tells her she has no name, only a number.

I use serial technique in a way as a stand-in for the Nazi world-view — the idea of reducing people to numbers, to a mechanistic vision of people predestined to inferiority by an accident of DNA. Yet every time the row appears, and it does so in a multitude of forms, all the retrogrades and inversions one used to have to learn about in composition lessons in the 1970s, and often multiple forms woven on top of one another — it’s accompanied by sustained and aggressively tonal triads, indeed you could call them “pop chords” — which negate the very idea of serialism — which is to escape tonality.

What this tells us is that no matter how much we try to twist Helena into a set of numbers, she won’t be so constrained. No matter how many mathematical games you try to play, her humanity surges underneath. In a nutshell, this dichotomy is the heart of the opera.

The “Helena tone row” takes over more and more of the fabric of the opera, and the more it permutates using the traditional serial tropes of inversion and retrograde, the more insistently “pop” the underlying triads become.
At the other pole, a simple triad-based figure is used to represent the relentless turning of the wheels of the Slovakia transport, a nightmare train ride. It’s first presented with the entire string section and timpani in startling unison from which they do not diverge for page after page of nightmarish, driving music. This theme, too, weaves itself into every aspect of the score.

Viewed as whole, then, the musical language of Helena can be seen as a tug of war between extremes of constraint: the permutations of a tone row and the limitations of an unchanging triad.

But this is not the only musical polarity Helena toys with. Perhaps one of the more “shocking” uses of musical allusion occurred because I noticed that the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Song, could be made to fit on top of Schubert’s celebrated song about the nature of music, An die Musik. This prompted me to make one of the only significant changes in the story as it unfolded in my researches.

What actually happened, according to sources, was that Helena was made to sing Happy Birthday for Franz Wunsch … and somehow, in that moment, he fell in love with her. I’ve embroidered the incident a little bit. Although she has been brought to the party to sing a birthday song, one of the guards begins playing the opening to An die Musik on the battered piano on stage. Helena realizes that she knows this song and, tentatively at first, she begins to sing it. Franz is riveted. While An die Musik is initiated on the out-of-tune onstage piano, it slowly seeps into the orchestral piano amid a dreamlike cloud of dissonant chords.

When Franz later sings of his love, the melodies of An die Musik and the Nazi anthem become hopelessly entwined and my message is that the fabric that created the highest cultural aspirations of German culture is also the raw material of its darkest hour.

Numerous other polarities, large and small create the boundaries of the opera’s sound-world. From the conflict of major piled on minor (the opera ends in both A flat major and G sharp minor, neither willing to resolve into the other) to the popular musics — tango, klezmer, waltz — that are interwoven with violent atonalities, this opera’s world exists at the confluence of clashing extremes.

Having created a libretto which rarely deviates from fragments of the story as gleaned from the interviews and a few articles, I had to create a love story in which the lovers can never be alone together and in which they can’t really have a conventional love duet. Yet there are three passages which from an operatic standpoint would seem to be “love duets.” The first takes place in a crowd scene of mayhem when Franz has just managed to rescue Helena’s bewildered sister from the gas chamber. Publicly he must appear to despise her even as he’s trying to tell her he loves her, and she is trying to tell him she can never say that she loves him. Unpacking the syntax of the libretto, you can see that they are not confessing their love to each other, but music tells us they are. The second duet takes place when they are not even in the same room – it is two simultaneous soliloquies where the words, close in form but opposite in intent, coalesce to make a love duet that the lovers are unaware they are singing. The final scene of the opera, an extended epilogue, is one that never happened but can be seen almost as a fantasy sequence; it shows Helena approaching Franz’s home in Vienna as though to rekindle the relationship, then realizing that it cannot be, turning around and walking away. Here, she stands outside and does not see him; he looks out of the window and sees her, but she never knows — or never acknowledges that she knows. And from this non-meeting comes the third love duet, one in which the possibility of “normal” intimacy is finally within reach, yet is forever beyond reach. An emotionally charged “love theme” first heard at the beginning of the second act dissipates into a trite waltz played by a coffee-house band, ironically the same musicians who comprised the prison orchestra in the concentration camp scenes, playing polkas and tangos while their fellow inmates were being murdered.
I wanted to ask difficult questions in this opera. I want to tell neither the story of a heroic love set against an unspeakable evil, nor the story of people using each other as love-fantasy-surrogates as a way to survive the unsurvivable. Surely those are both stories that someone else could tell. I do want to consider the question of what love really is, and what redemption really means. I want to consider how someone can hold on to their humanity when someone else tries to strip away everything that makes them human. It was the need to answer these questions that dictated the language of musical polarities in which the opera is composed.

For these polarities reflect the way people would like to see these events — in absolute terms such as good versus evil, madness versus sanity. But reality always contradicts our desire to reduce the narrative to black and white. At the opera’s most extreme moments, words invariably fail and the orchestra alone speaks. Unfiltered by the innate deceptiveness of human language, it is the music that delivers the ambiguous truth.


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This post is exquisite. I liked the music. I would love to see this opera. Thanks for all the explanation. It has really been a pleasure to have read while listening to Helena Citronová. A big hello @somtow

thanks so much for your kind words.

Hello Hello!

The best that I have read and heard, my best and sincere congratulations

Greetings from Venezuela

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