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From Guilty Rubble, Redemption

Thirty-three violas and a viola d’amore in a church. Not the beginning of a bad music-joke, but the center of Wilfried Hiller’s “Scenes based on the New Testament” that the Abbé-Vogler Music Foundation commissioned composed for the 65th anniversary of the total destruction of Würzburg. The result is Der Sohn des Zimmermanns – “The Son of the Carpenter” that was premiered in the reconstructed cathedral of the town, on March 16th.

Wilfried Hiller started his career as a ballet répétiteur before he became a percussionist with the Bavarian State Opera. He studied with Carl Orff and works as a music editor at Bavarian Radio all while being one of the most successful contemporary German composers, particularly of music-theater. Now he has added this moving memorial on redemption, hope, and forgiveness to his output.

Seventeen minutes were enough to destroy Würzburg.

The northern Bavarian town, with roots going back to 1000 B.C., held the first recorded German knight’s joust in 1127 and burned its last witch in 1749. With a fully intact medieval downtown of half-timbered houses, it entered Friday, March 16th, 1945 largely unscathed by areal bombings. Militarily unimportant, it was not a likely target. Except that its old, cramped quarters would burn well—and the British were running out of better targets.

Almost 240 bombers—including the best of the best: Bomber Group No.5, who had helped turn Dresden into rubble just a month earlier—got on their way to Würzburg at nineteen hundred hours that day. Würzburg was smaller than Dresden, but the bomber squadrons were even more efficient. Between 9.25 and 9.42pm, 82 percent of Würzburg—21,000 homes and 45 churches—were destroyed and 5000 lives lost. Only seven houses still stood in the obliterated downtown. Four and a half years after the bombing of Coventry, Würzburg reaped its part of the harvest of terror that Germany had sown.

When the town’s remaining important architectural sites threatened to collapse in the following winter months, the Americans—by now occupiers, no longer enemies—saved all there was left to preserve.

That was sixty five years ago—and since then Würzburg remembers the night of its destruction with an annual church service in the re-built cathedral followed by all the towns’ bells ringing for seventeen minutes, starting at 9.25pm.

Bells and Javanese gongs begin the Der Sohn des Zimmermanns, and they end it, too. The last bell to sound is a long, solemnly ringing one in D-sharp. Then the bells of the cathedral take over. The first of them, too, in D-sharp. A fortuitous coincidence; Hiller is greatly delighted.

The work displays seven scenes on the life of Jesus—but the protagonist is missing. Jesus is represented only through the effect he leaves on others. His presence shines through in the glowing sounds of one viola d’amore (amid those 33 violas). Following the work feels like traipsing on Jesus’ trail, but always a few hours behind. His footprints are still in the sand, but he has gone.

Hiller plays with numerology, the SATOR square, and Duerer’s ‘Magic Square’ (from “Melencolia I”): 34 violas, one for each of the years Jesus lived. 34 strings of the descant zither that Hiller effectively uses—along with two dulcimers—to evoke the local colors of the Garden of Gethsemane and the other places Hiller’s traversal covers. 34, of which the digital root is 7 for the seven scenes at the center of which Hiller places “The Prayer”, preceded by “At the river Jordan”, “In the Desert”, “The Wedding” and followed by “After the Last Supper”, “In the Palace”, and “At the open Grave”.

The work is of disarming simplicity, shocking beauty, and never stoops to banality—though a small gospel-like insertion in the Epitaph (“Tempo di Blues”) seems oddly out of place; like a self-conscious nod to multi-culturalism, followed by an Agnus Dei that all three choirs intone hauntingly.

The text, by Winfried Böhm, is a miracle of artlessness. Neither neo-archaic nor of the ostentatious, pandering modern kind. Conversations among the twelve apostles (four tenors, baritones, and basses each) flow as natural as if one partook in the story. The Tempter in the Desert is effectively assigned to a coloratura soprano and sung by the excellent Heidi Elisabeth Meier. We don’t hear Jesus’ answers, but the silence between temptation and the devil’s reaction to Jesus’ steadfastness that is slowly filled with ethereal, swelling orchestral interludes. Maria Magdalene, of who the 33 violas are an extension (Hiller had hoped to assemble all female violists to visualize the point), was sung by mezzo Ann-Katrin Naidu.

The subtle center of the whole affair was Julia Rebekka Adler and her viola d’amore, whose radiant playing so inspired the composer that he hit upon the idea how to center the work around Jesus without having him appear directly. The ‘presence’ of the Jew Jesus performed by a German Jewish artist as part of a Christian service commemorating the destruction of a town that had its own mini-concentration camp—that alone contains symbolism worth a story of its own.

The music of Der Sohn des Zimmermanns is immediately accessible, but never cloying. Hiller cannot deny having been a student of Carl Orff, but then there are other composers who weren’t and who more obviously enjoy the effective language of “Carmina Burana” and “De Temporum Fine Comoedia”. If comparison helps: Several choral sections faintly reminded of the simplistic beauty of Arvo Pärt. Not surprising, perhaps, since Hiller lists Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous All Night Vigil and Rodion Schchedrin’s “The Sealed Angel” among the influences for this work that took him four years to compose and which he dedicated to the memory of Olivier Messiaen.

In the combination of moment, location, and performance, the hope, serenity, and beauty, Hiller’s “Sohn des Zimmermanns” made for a very rare, wholly moving musical—even spiritual—experience.

Picture of the destroyed Würzburg © City Archive Würzburg.
Picture from the rehearsal (the composer is highlighted) © Markus Hauck


Anonymous said...

Interesting-- let us know if a recording becomes available.

vkuo said...

A recording from the 2010-04-05 BR-Klassik Webcast is available here