The Kennedy Center

Hérodiade - Fragmente

About the Work

Matthias Pintscher Composer: Matthias Pintscher
© Paul J. Horsley

Most music lovers know Herodias as the decadent Judean princess in Strauss' setting of Oscar Wilde's Salome, wife of Herod (who is also her uncle) and mother of the notorious title character. In the Gospels she plays a key role in the execution of John the Baptist, which became a point of departure for Wilde. Centuries later she became the focus of several literary treatments, including one by Flaubert that inspired an 1881 opera by Massenet (Hérodiade). The most psychologically dense of these, though, is a set of fragments that the poet Stéphane Mallarmé intended to make into full-scale drama in verse; he completed only three segments, in which Herodias is presented as a tortured, self-absorbed woman of considerable complexity. For his monodrama Hérodiade-Fragmente composer Matthias Pintscher drew bits from Mallarmé's monologues in which the heroine gazes into a mirror and reflects on the joys and horrors of her life. Instead of Wilde's bloodthirsty harpy, we see a woman who reminds us more of a distraught 18th-century operatic heroine, as Paul Griffiths has noted, but one whose expressive language "is that of a later and more complex time."

Hérodiade-Fragmente became a significant early milestone for Pintscher at its acclaimed 1999 premiere in Berlin, with Claudio Abbado leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Born in Marl in North Rhine-Westphalia, Pintscher studied violin and conducting and attended the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold. At age 19 he met Hans Werner Henze, who invited him to take part in the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte festival in Montepulciano in 1991. In addition to Henze, his teachers and mentors have also included Pierre Boulez, Giselher Klebe, Manfred Trojahn, Peter Eötvös and Helmut Lachenmann. He has won a D.A.A.D. grant for study in Britain, the Prix Prince Pierre de Monaco, the Hindemith-Preis, the composition prize of the Salzburger Osterfestspiele and the Hans-Werner-Henze-Preis.

Pintscher has served as composer in residence for the Cleveland Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival, the RSO Saarbrücken, the Kölner Philharmonie, the RSO Stuttgart and, starting this year, the BBC Scottish Symphony. From 2007 to 2009 he was professor at the Hochschule in Munich, and this year he joined the faculty of New York University. His works continue to be championed by top musicians and organizations: Paris Opera, Christoph Eschenbach with the NDR Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra; conductor Simon Rattle; violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann; cellist Truls Mørk and flutist Emmanuel Pahud.
Authors and poets, particularly the French, have long fascinated Pintscher: In addition to the Hérodiade-Fragmente, his L'espace dernier is based on the life and work of Arthur Rimbaud. Thomas Chatterton depicts another literary hero of his and the songs and snow pictures are settings of poetry of e.e. cummings. Pintscher says he wants to "fascinate people so that they should listen more closely" and bring their own experiences into the listening process.
Nevertheless his scores are as complex as any being composed today. Hérodiade-Fragmente is scored for a large orchestra with an enormous percussion section, with divisi strings more the rule than the exception (into as many as 30 different parts at the conclusion). It is divided into discrete sections divided by long silences, with a more decisive delineation after Je meurs!
The solo part ranges widely but employs an unusually high overall tessitura; like Schoenberg's Erwartung, to which the piece is perhaps distantly related, it calls for fantastic flexibility, delicacy, defiance, and endurance. Among the subtle text depictions are the crystalline winds at eau froid, the coloration at profond (with bass clarinet and trombones joining the fray), the brass outbursts at horreur, the harsh dissonances of déserté and the delicate colorings of jardins d'améthyste. The final words of the first large section (Je meurs!) usher in the closest thing to lyricism in the piece, as if offering solace. The second large section begins with obscure, long-sustained notes punctuated pointillistically, but the soprano is newly resolute at J'aime l'horreur d'etre vierge. She fades back to uncertainty in the final bars, though, as her dreams of childhood fade into a flurry of shimmering filigree.


Translations courtesy of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Copyright 2004. English translation by Darrin T. Britting.


Hérodiade Fragments (Stéphane Mallarmé)



Assez! Tiens devant moi ce miroir. O miroir!

Enough! Hold before me this mirror. O mirror!

Eau froide par l'ennui dans ton cadre gelée

Cold water by weariness frozen in your frame,

Que de fois et pendant des heures, désolée

How many times and during many hours, desolate

Des songes et cherchant mes souvenirs qui sont

By dreams and seeking my memories which are

Comme des feuilles sous ta glace au trou profond,

Like leaves beneath the deep hollow of your ice,

Je m'apparus en toi comme une ombre lointaine,
Mais, horreur! des soirs, dans ta sévère fontaine,

I saw myself in you like a distant shadow,
But, horror! Some evenings, in your harsh pool,

J'ai de mon rêve épars connu la nudité!

From my scattered dreams I have known nakedness!



Oui, c'est pour moi, pour moi, que je fleuris, déserte!

Yes, it's for me, for me that I flourish, deserted!

Vous le savez, jardins d'améthyste, enfouis

You know this, gardens of amethyst, kept secret

Sans fin dans de savants abîmes éblouis,

Endlessly in some knowing abysses bedazzled,

Ors ignorés, gardant votre antique lumière Sous le somber sommeil d'une terre première,

Gold concealed, keeping your ancient light
Beneath the somber sleep of a primeval night,

Vous, pierres où mes yeux comme de purs bijoux

You, stones in which my eyes like purest jewels

Empruntent leur clarté mélodieuse, et vous
Métaux qui donnez à ma jeune chevelure
Une splendeur fatale et sa massive allure!
Quant à toi, femme née en des siècles malins
Pour la méchanceté des antres sibyllins,
Qui parles d'un mortel! selon qui, des calices

Borrow their melodious brightness, and you,
Metals that give to my youthful hair
A fatal splendor and its massive appearance!
As for you, woman born in an evil age
To do the wickedness of sibylline caverns,
Who speaks of a mortal! Who knew that, from the folds

De mes robes, arôme aux farouches délices,

Of my robes, scent of fierce delights,

Sortirait le frisson blanc de ma nudité,

Would come from the pale shiver of my nakedness,

Prophétises que si le tiède azur d'été,

Foretold that if the calm azure of summer,

Vers lui nativement la femme se dévoile,

Before which woman by nature is revealed,

Me voit dans ma pudeur grelottante d'étoile,

Looks upon my modesty trembling like a star,

Je meurs!

I die!



J'aime l'horreur d'etre vierge et je veux

I love the horror of being virginal and I want

Vivre parmi l'effroi que me font mes cheveux

To live in the terror my hair makes me feel,

Pour, le soir, retirée en ma couche, reptile

At night, lying in my bed, serpentine,

Inviolé sentir en la chair inutile

Unviolated, feeling in my useless flesh

Le froid scintillement de ta pâle clarté,

The cold sparkling of your pallid lightness,

Toi qui te meurs, toi qui brûles de chasteté,

You who die, you who burn with chastity,

Nuit blanche de glaçons et de neige cruelle!

Pale night of icicles and cruel snow!



Et ta soeur solitaire, ô ma soeur éternelle

And your lonely sister, o my eternal sister,

Mon rêve montera vers toi: telle déjà,

My dream will rise toward you: as it has already,

Rare limpidité d'un coeur qui le songea,

Rare lightness of a heart that dreamed it once,

Je me crois seule en ma monotone patrie

I feel alone in my dreary country

Et tout, autour de moi, vit dans l'idolâtrie

And everything around me lives in the idolatry

D'un miroir qui reflète en son calme dormant

Of a mirror reflecting in its sleeping stillness

Hérodiade au clair regard de diamant...

Herodias, whose bright gaze is a diamond...

O charme dernier, oui! Je le sens, je suis seule.

O final enchantment, yes! I feel it, I am alone.



J'attends und chose inconnue

I wait for something unknown

Ou peut-être, ignorant le mystère et vos cris,

Or perhaps, knowing not the mystery of your cries,

Jetez-vous les sanglots suprêmes et meurtris

You utter the final and wounded sobs

D'une enfance sentant parmi les reveries

Of a childhood that feels, among its dreams,

Se séparer enfin ses froides pierreries.

Its frigid gems drop away at last.