Shortly after the end of World War II, when Heinz Holliger was still a boy, he heard an oboe on the radio and knew that this was exactly the instrument he wanted to play. However, he had never seen an oboe; and so his older sister took him from his native town of Langenthal to the Municipal Theatre in Bern, to show him one. During the intermission, he was allowed to look into the orchestra pit and marvel at the black tubes which the musicians had left on their chairs. A harpist, busy tuning her instrument, explained to him that these oboes were missing their mouthpieces. Heinz Holliger, who did not know what she meant, dreamed of oboes with mouth- pieces looking like Bunsen burners the following night. The child’s disappointment when he discovered real oboe mouth- pieces must have been immense!
It was a key experience! Heinz Holliger went on to become the greatest master of his instrument, a world star who performs the entire oboe literature and has expanded this literature by hundreds of works, which he has commissioned from almost all the prominent composers of our times. What Paganini was for the violin in the 19th century, Liszt or Chopin for the piano, that is what Holliger is for the oboe in the 20thcentury. And yet he never quite lost the dream of the Bunsen burner.
For the beautiful sound he has perfected as a virtuoso performer does not interest him as a composer. He much prefers to act as a virtual instrument-maker, breaking the brilliant surface of the instruments and coaxing hidden sounds from them, even inverting the regular sound of an instrument. The Double Concerto for Violin and Viola which the Salzburg Festival commissioned from Heinz Holliger is one of the works in which he plays with such sound transformations. Most double concertos celebrate the meeting and merging of the two solo instruments, and the writing is often conceived for one single “super-instrument”. Holliger tries to achieve the exact opposite. His Double Concerto seems like the inversion of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante:violin and viola are torn apart, both in space and sound. The solo instruments are surrounded by a small ensemble each, amplifying and also embedding them into an oscillating netting of sound: the violin is meant to become high, shrill and harsh – the viola dark, deep and soft. A small orchestra in the middle mediates between these two positions. He will integrate many elements of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, but Holliger already knows that nobody will hear these references, because he makes Mozart’s music flash by like a sprite where nobody expects it, for example in the percussion or in wheezing sounds made by the winds.
Holliger’s works are shot through with such ghost-like webs of reference, which contain his life’s experiences, dreams, but also music he has conducted and performed. That is why as an interpreter, he loves those composers who write porous music, music that remains fragile and fleeting. The two composers whose works are performed atSalzburg contemporary next to Holliger fit this description: the Pole Witold Lutosławski and the German Bernd Alois Zimmermann. They suffered under fascism and communism, and only escaped death narrowly during their youth. They wrote music that questioned itself, confessed its own insecurity, but also bore the inscription of rebellion, even crying out at times. The most extreme work is presumably Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, and it is a significant event that one of the most important operas since Mozart will now finally be produced in Salzburg.
Die Soldaten contains the full breadth of musical history, from the Middle Ages until today, from the most complex art music to folk music and jazz, a polyphonic web of references, stories, dreams and catastrophes, fed by a life experience that, in Zimmermann’s case, became so unbearable that he committed suicide. What is still relatively contained within the workings of the opera in Die Soldatenfinally breaks out openly in the Ekklesiastische Aktion: the tension of his times, the armament race, the bankrupting of all values, and Zimmermann’s own hopelessness are combined into one monumental gesture of desperation.
Alongside these works, Holliger’s Scardanelli-Zyklus seems like an ecclesiastical exercise. In 1806, Hölderlin, 36 years old at the time, sought refuge in the Tower in Tübingen, where he was to live for 37 years as a so-called madman, a recluse from the world, and only wrote occasionally in exchange for pipe tobacco, poems that are bright and cheerful and betray nothing of his former pains. He often signed them “Scardanelli”. Heinz Holliger was 36 when he began to study these late Hölderlin poems in 1975, and over the course of 15 years, he turned them into an ever-growing Scardanelli Cycle. This Scardanelli Cycle is another web into which Hölderlin’s life, his work, the flute music he played are woven.
Heinz Holliger’s second commission from the Salzburg Festival is a work for the winds and brass of the Vienna Philharmonic. During a serious illness, as he experienced breathlessness and a shortness of air – especially frightening to an oboist – Holliger conceived this music. We will hear sounds that might revive the Bunsen burner dream of Heinz Holliger’s boyhood.
Translated by Alexa Nieschlag