The Intimacy of Distance
In Robert Groslot’s vocal music the soprano occupies a special place. In one of his earliest works, I Giardini della Villa d’Este (1980), he pairs a soprano alongside an orchestra of 25 clarinets. With L’Odissea d’Orfeo (2002) and Si le Monde … (2006) Groslot wrote two extensive compositions for soprano, choir and orchestra. In 2008 and 2009, Groslot composed several shorter works for soprano and chamber ensemble, of which HCE also exists in an orchestral version. In 2015 he composed Le bel aujourd’hui,a cycle for soprano and string quartet. With The Intimacy of Distance,Groslot has created his most ambitious composition for solo voice and orchestra to date. The five-part cycle was composed in 2019 for soprano Charlotte Wajnberg and is dedicated to her and her husband, the pianist Aaron Wajnberg. In a sense, the piece is a sequel in a long series of the composer’s concertante works. Groslot has made extensive use of the solo concerto during his previous ten years of composing dedicated works for the vast majority of instrumentalists. The Intimacy of Distance continues his exploration of the form with the composer intending this work to be a concerto for soprano and orchestra. Berlin poet Elisa Nathalie Heine has proven to be a like-minded partner for Groslot. Her writing is stylistically comparable to the composer’s own uniquely personal art of composition. Her poems deal with distance in a variety of ways and explore the question of how life is intensified by longing, imagination and projections that can only be realised through the experience of distance. Ms. Heine describes language as ‘a very physical medium, one that, before it appeals to the intellect, should first resonate in the body, a deeply sensual weave that contains musicality and rhythm, which vibrate out from the text and become visceral.’
The tensions between the contrasting (partly fabricated, partly surreal) but always interrelated linguistic images find their echo in Groslot’s free dissonance, the surprising changes of the tonal centre, and last but not least in the manifold transformations of his motifs. Of Elisa Heine’s five poems, the middle one is written in German, the four others are in English, whereby the first poem bears a German title – thus building a linguistic bridge to the middle of the cycle – which Groslot has set to music as a prelude to the entire work (Molto adagio). The first song (Andante), which has a clear concertante character, deals with a poem that presents pictures of roaring city life, but remains grammatically static. Groslot takes this into account not only through sharp dynamic contrasts, but also in the shaping of harmonic tensions. Only in the calmer middle section do we find some temporary relaxation. The second movement (Lento) begins with free, two-part imitations. The soprano initially sings a duet with the violins, but soon breaks away and assumes the lead role. At the words ‘the bend itself must be bent’ the original theme returns and the previous music is repeated in another key. The third chant is unique among the poems, not only due to the German language, but also because the poetic ego, unlike in the other parts of the cycle, does not stand aside contemplatively, but reveals herself. A woman allows readers and listeners to participate directly in the flow of her feelings and thoughts, and ultimately in her self-discovery. The piece begins with an excited orchestral prelude (Inquieto). Shortly after the soprano enters, a lento section follows, in which the words ‘Mutter brannte lichterloh in meiner Iris’ (‘Mother burned brightly in my iris’) are illustrated with percussion tremolo and string flageolet. Again, we hear the restless music from the opening. The complete text is sung twice, the second time for long stretches in staccato style, before the poetic ego reaffirms its return to herself with a passionate cry. ‘Kulning’ is the name given to the art of singing with which Swedish cowherdesses lure their animals. Using this as inspiration, the text of the fourth song (Lento) reflects the human grasp of the world. Just as the cows in the text do not come any closer to the lyrical speaker, the main tonality, which is always encircled, is never fixed in the traditional way. At the end, the soloist imitates a Kulning call, using a theme from the middle of the third movement. Signal-like sounds of the percussion instruments characterise the almost entirely quiet finale (Inquieto). The imagery conjured up by the text – a view of horses standing in the snow – could hardly be more different from that at the beginning of the work, and the character of the music is also transformed. However, an important motif from the first movement returns here both referential and distant at the same time.
The atmosphere of the forest has served as inspiration for a number of composers – one needs only to think of names such as Raff, Dvořák, Glazunov, Sibelius, Roussel and Čiurlionis. Groslot joins this illustrious society with his tone poem, My Green Shade Forest, written in 2015 for Cofena, the concert association of Antwerp. The forest – which is actually situated 500 meters from the composer’s home – welcomes the listener with calm sounds of nature. Over a pulsating pedal point in the bass, the bassoon plays a simple diatonic motif that is taken up and embellished by other instruments (Andante). As the sonic colours blossom, longer melodic lines are developed. Chromatic steps and dissonant chords join the music, which gets dominated by cascades of quavers played staccato. The more we enter the forest, the more it shows the richness of the aural phenomena that it contains. After a general pause, the winds play chord progressions modulating by semitones, after which the action becomes more and more agitated. The music from the beginning reappears now in lively tempo (Più vivace), rapidly changing its tonal centres, while the motifs morph into the sounds of hunting signals. The following section contrasts with restrained dynamics. After the staccatoquavers have appeared once again, the strings begin to unfold a barrage of fast fluctuating semiquavers, over which a grand, stormy climax is built up. The culmination is reached when nearly all instruments play together – there is not one tutti bar throughout the entire piece – then the semiquaver movement vanishes, and after a pause the recapitulation is heard. The first part of the piece reappears in condensed form. A reminiscence of the middle section follows, but what formerly had sounded like a storm has now calmed down into a soft breeze. With a D minor tremolo in the high strings the music disappears into the shades of the forest.
Trittico incantevole was completed in 2017 as a commission from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. Henk Swinnen, the orchestra’s artistic director, had suggested a piece in honour of Peter Paul Rubens. Enthusiastic about this idea, Groslot immediately studied the paintings of the Antwerp master, especially his typical techniques of colouring and composition. ‘Without doubt,’ Groslot writes, ‘we can call Rubens self-confident, even directly Romantic: there is a striking relationship between his landscapes and these of the 19th-century Romantics. Furthermore we can note that his work is complex, his tableaus full of movement and “arabesques”, and yet all remains everywhere crystal-clear!’ Soon, the first musical thoughts appeared and began to coalesce, the form of which was characterised by the composer as a ‘through-composed triptych’. On two separate occasions, inspiration overcame Groslot while looking directly at a picture. Gazing upon The Garden of Love resulted in the oscillation between major and minor harmonies thus forming the beginning of the piece (Andante). The whirring figures in the strings at first sound like trills, but soon begin to move up and down in a sinusoidal way over a wide spectrum of tones, forming a pulsating foundation. Signal motifs from the woodwinds follow. The composer first imagined this dotted-rhythm motif while contemplating Rubens’ The Château de Steen with Hunter, its diatonic melody strongly contrasting with the harsh, dissonant chords which surround it. The music remains for some time orbiting the opening tonality of D, only beginning to move towards other tonal regions after the opening recurs. A fortissimo climax in C is followed by quiet dodecaphonic figures in the violins, piano, marimba and vibraphone, which prepare the motifs of the following passacaglia. A rise in tension leads to the middle section (Più vivo), which develops the motifs from the first part in a scherzo-like way. A calmer episode leads to a shortened recapitulation of the first section, where it becomes clear that in this composition Groslot reverses the tonal procedures of a classical sonata movement. Although D major/minor, the tonality of the beginning, is established again, the music moves towards F. The varied return of the passacaglia concludes the piece ‘in a kind of silent ecstasy’ (Groslot) in F minor.
Norbert Florian Schuck