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Armonica

About the Work

Jörg Widmann
Quick Look Composer: Jörg Widmann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Widmann, Mozart & Schubert Jan. 26 - 29, 2012
© Thomas May

As the Kennedy Center looks ahead to its upcoming festival focusing on the music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, which begins next month with Mozart's Così fan tutte, the present program offers a foretaste of music associated with the epicenter of the once-mighty Habsburg Empire. It was in homage to the legacy of Mozart that Jörg Widmann composed his poetically refined and acoustically inventive orchestral piece Armonica. Indeed, Widmann's own dual career as a composer and clarinet soloist is a reminder of the merged roles of composer and performer that were central to Mozart's own life as a freelance artist-writing music and performing as a keyboard virtuoso-during his final decade, when he had relocated from Salzburg to Vienna.

A native of Munich (b. 1973),Widmann ranks among the most intriguing European composers under the age of forty. And, since he began composing when only eleven, he's already built up an impressively varied catalogue, including a much-admired series of string quartets, orchestral works, and an opera, Das Gesicht im Spiegel ("The Face in the Mirror"), that Opernwelt magazine deemed the most-important world premiere in 2003. Such recognition earned Widmann a commission from the International Mozarteum Foundation in 2006 for Salzburg's Mozart Festival in winter. (The premiere took place on Mozart's birthday, January 27, 2007.)

Although a specialist in one of Mozart's favorite instruments, the clarinet, Widmann decided to explore another instrument for which, he says, the composer also wrote in an inspired manner: the glass harmonica. He made a special trip to Vienna in order to hear a special performance of Mozart's Adagio in C minor (K. 617). Written for a quintet comprising glass harmonica, flute, oboe, viola, and cello, this (and a paired Rondo in C major) represents Mozart's last piece of chamber music. "I was deeply moved and knew immediately how I had to shape my piece," recalls Widmann.

There is a fascinating undercurrent of music-making involving the use of pitched glasses or bowls that runs through centuries of Western music (at least since the Renaissance), as well as in Islamic cultures. But the idea of the glass harmonica gained renewed prominence in 1761 when Benjamin Franklin (then stationed in London) invented a mechanized system that made it possible to play tuned glasses with greater flexibility (including chords and faster passages). Calling his invention "armonica" (a play on the Italian word for harmony, armonia), Franklin devised an instrument with pitched glasses organized to rotate by means of a pedal, while the performer uses moistened fingers to generate tones by rubbing against the rims of the glasses; a surviving original from the 18th century can still be seen on occasion at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Franklin's rational ordering of the idea into a readily playable system (later modified by European instrument makers) must have appealed to Mozart, a fellow Freemason. Yet in its heyday-in the late 18th and early 19th centuries-the glass (h)armonica also carried associations with troubled and even demonic mental states, as if the ethereal, otherworldly sounds it produced could unleash dangerous emotions. A certain physician named Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, who was chased out of Vienna, found its sonority quite useful to provide the desired ambience for his controversial demonstrations of hypnotic states using magnets (i.e., "mesmerism"). Mozart may actually have met Mesmer on several occasions in his youth and pointedly satirized him in Così fan tutte. Donizetti would later draw on the instrument's disturbing connotations when he incorporated it into the score of his opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Practical considerations forced him to replace the glass harmonica with the flute for Lucia's mad scene. But anyone who attended Washington National Opera's production last fall had the fortune of experiencing the unforgettable, sweetly disorienting effect Donizetti's original idea contributes to the scene-so utterly different from what is usually heard.

Other tuned percussion-particularly the celesta-eventually eclipsed the glass harmonica as composers sought ways to evoke a similar otherworldly or magical aura (Tchaikovsky for the Sugar Plum Fairy, for example). But it resurfaces from time to time across a wide spectrum, from avant-garde composers to pop artists like Linda Ronstadt. For Armonica, Widmann didn't want to imitate Mozart's language but was instead attracted to the unusual experiment with timbres-blending the glass harmonica with more familiar instruments-which Mozart undertook. He became especially interested in the acoustical phenomenon of the delicate sonorities produced by this instrument, which frame the quarter-hour-long piece. His orchestration, which features similar timbres produced by accordion and such tuned percussion as water gongs, is intensely coloristic. Rather than introduce and develop thematic material and clearly delineated harmonic progressions, Armonica is a piece whose musical content and drama are constituted out of the phenomenon of resonance illustrated by the glass harmonica itself.

"The basic idea is to translate this gentle swelling out of nothingness, which characterizes the glass harmonica's sound, into orchestral terms," Widmann explained in an interview about the work with Sabine Näher. "All of the structural patterns of this piece emerge out of nothing, crescendo, and return to nothing. From the listener's point of view, it represents a continuous acoustical illusion: Everything you hear has already long since begun resonating by the time you hear it. Similarly, the overall form of the piece follows this pattern of rising to a decisive climax and then receding. The aim is to create a sound world that is as light as possible, that seems to be weightless."