‘I once thought – half seriously – of mass producing a Poignancy Grid which, because of the harmonies chosen to fill it (all would contain a distilled poignant essence), could be read in any direction with any rhythms superimposed and always be poignantly foolproof. They would hit the mark and draw blood, be all things to all situations, work at all speeds and dynamics – cancans and dead marches from the same pool. This idea provided the impetus for Wiener Blut. Much of it includes sounds remembered from the time when I discovered music until now. They act as a diary in which each entry is a jolt to memory.’
So writes Gerald Barry of this new work – ‘a harmonic Baedeker for Viennese travellers’ – which was premiered by BCMG at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 2000, followed by performances at the Gerald Barry Festival in Dublin and at the BBC Proms. There is indeed poignancy in this piece, but its small voice has to be listened hard for.
The piece begins with an obstreperous one-line invention that, on its first appearance, is to be played merely ‘Furiously’. When it recurs a few pages later, it is marked ‘Raging’. As always with Barry, the furious energy is contained within tight rules which are now and then shattered in an unpredictable way. The line might split briefly into two, or you might hear a sudden major chord (marked ‘very intense’, as if the music wasn’t that already). When the last drop has been wrung from that music, Barry abandons it without the slightest twinge of conscience, and moves on to a hilarious high-kicking dance, weirdly reminiscent of the hoe-downs you hear sometimes in Ives. Poignancy of a sort does arrive later, in the form of sighing appoggiatura figures and little scraps of espressivo melody dimly remembered from Chopin or Strauss. But because these are to do with preserving an essence or ‘spot of time’, the phrases can’t be allowed to find their quiescence; they have to circle round and round on themselves until brought to an end by a brusque gesture.
Thus far everything we have heard is in familiar Barry territory; but, about half-way though this 12-minute work, a new tone emerges, This is a thickly scored contrapuntal invention, marked ‘haunting’, whose chromatic entanglements are given a bright sheen by the trumpet and two horns. As if to mock his own romantic pretensions, Barry evokes Schoenberg’s practice of marking one part Hauptstimme(‘principal part’), but misuses it by marking two lines at once. The piece ends with a long dying note, an expressive gesture Barry has avoided until now; so perhaps he really is mellowing.
Gerald Barry is one of that increasingly rare breed of contemporary composers whose music is instantly identifiable. The opening of his Wiener Blut, a ricocheting line bursting with energy, swathed in tremolos and coloured by unpredictable instrumental doubling, couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
First performed by BCMG conducted by Thomas Adès at the Aldeburgh Festival on 17 June 2000.