Hommage à Schumann-Celan

obbligato string trio and three echo trios
flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, piano and string quintet
Milano Musica
15.10.97, Milan, Milano Musica - Percorsi di Musica d'Oggi, Ensemble Alter Ego, Renato Rivolta (conductor)
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Audio extracts

Atemseile - Trio Recherche, Ensemble Court-Circuit, P-A. Valade, dur. 17:09, unedited live recording


The piece is a double homage to Robert Schumann and Paul Celan. It was originally composed for the Wittener Tage 1995 and commissioned by the Köln WDR. The version that was then performed was for string trio and was entitled Descdesesasf, Trio-rito per violino, viola e violoncello. The subtitle, linking “trio” and “rito” (rite) in an anagram, alludes to the nature of the piece, in which a strong theatrical quality is dominant. The materials are entirely derived from the third piece of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke opus 12, entitled “Warum?”, from which I have taken the question-motive:

D flat – C - D flat - E flat – A flat - F

Schumann repeats this motiv throughout his composition, as if the question couldn’t be answered but with another question. The quest for an ultimate pacification proves endless and exhausts itself into nothingness. Schumann’s theme became for me a “name”, which I read in two different ways:

Des, C, Des, Es, As, F
D, E, S, C, D, E, S, E, S, A, S, F

This allowed me to obtain two cells, on the basis of whose interaction the trio is wholly built.
The three musicians, though, do not limit themselves to a musical performance. They also “enact” Paul Celan’s poem Aschenglorie (taken from Atemwende):

Four different kinds of mutes are continually changed, building an increasing dumping effect. The accompanying manipulation of the instruments acquires the value of a symbolic gesture (the “rite” in the trio), and gradually empties the piece of its musical substance. As it models itself on the transfigured sound of Schumann’s “Warum?”, the interrogative form of Descdesesasf slowly sinks, wrecked by an excess of mutes, drifting towards the silence of sound and the submersion of words – first the words of poetry looking for a possible answer, a way out of the world’s suffering, then the words of the world itself, the meaningless noise of the world.

Through this music Celan accomplishes the gesture that Schumann suspended in the desire to turn music into a vehicle of poetry and sense. Drowning in the Seine, Celan carries out what Schumann began in the Rhine waters more than a century earlier. In 1997 I was commissioned the version for string trio and three echo trios of my homage to Schumann and Celan by the Milano-Musica Festival. For that occasion the piece was renamed Atemseile after a key-word in Celan’s poem. “Ropes of breath”: the breathed sound of the strings of the string trio is the sound model the ensemble instruments try to reproduce in a search for a possible answer in the beginning of the word, in the sense of sound. The breathing, though, winds itself in ropes of breath and the trochaic rhythm that bends it forms coils of breathlessness (Schmerzknoten) with its reversed figure, the iamb, until it reaches the higher than above (höher als oben), nothingness. The breath-ropes weave the web of the maze: each trio reproduces the main trio while transfiguring it, and each instrument of the echo trios forms a new cross-trio with one instrument of the other trios. The urging attempt at answering the ceaseless questioning drowns in the words and in the words’ wreck. The musicians are again all actors, because they have to speak fragments of Celan’s poem and work a series of mechanisms producing noise or parasite sounds.

For the Italian premiere, Celan’s poem was spoken in Italian, in a translation expressly made for the occasion. This was done in order to observe a precise directive about the theme of the entire Milano-Musica concert, which was translation in all its possible meanings: translation from one language into another, but also the transcription of a piece from one instrumentation into another (until it becomes a paraphrase, a metamorphosis, an anamorphosis), and the setting of a text to music. Atemseile was born from the encounter among these possible re-writings: it is the musical transcription of Schumann and of myself, a translation from German into Italian, the musical transfer of a poetic text. It does not eliminate the contradictions of the “translating” process: it emphasizes its unsolved issues. In Atemseile Celan’s text never becomes a song. It never integrates in the music, but rather becomes a strange and estranging presence in a musical context. The musical metamorphosis leads nowhere but to silence, and proves only the impossibility to build anything musical conveying a meaning. Words crumble—are reduced to a hum, a phonemic play, a background noise. They are unable to witness, denounce, become action.

The translated poetic or musical text has an ambiguous status. Poetry cannot be translated without a certain loss of the links between sense and sound which generated it–and of their cross-overtones. But then it cannot even be set to music, nor convey a meaning through a musical construction, as Schumann’s desire was, which drove him to madness. It is also true, though, that a world is created between the domain of words and that of sound, where a sense or many possible meanings can be revealed—exactly as new meanings appear in the space between two languages. Thus, translation is an interpretive tool, a continuing interrogation in order to find further paths for the sense, a way to cause new resonances in sound and thought.

At the Witten performance I could have taken advantage of the coincidence of having a German ensemble (playing the main trio) and a French ensemble (playing the echo-trios). My original idea, in fact, was to prepare a new version of the spoken part, and I was thinking of the possibility to have the text spoken in German by Recherche and in French by Courtcircuit. In this way I would have made explicit Celan’s life and artistic conditions, which were those of someone who–though an exile in France–persisted in trusting his poetic inspiration to German, despite its being also the witness tongue of the Holocaust. This would give his poetic language a breathless pace (the already mentioned Schmerzknoten) that would bring Celan to suffocate himself in the Seine. Eventually, I decided to have both ensembles speak in German, so that I could turn the difficulty for the French to pronounce German into a formal constraint, and at the same time allude to Celan’s unwillingness to use French in his poems.

Stefano Gervasoni, 10.1.1999



deinen erschüttert-verknoteten
Händen am Dreiweg.
Pontisches Einstmals: hier,
ein Tropfen,
dem ertrunkenen Ruderblatt,
im versteinerten Schwur,
rauscht es auf.
(Auf dem senkrechten
Atemseil, damals,
höher als oben,
zwischen zwei Schmerzknoten, während
der blanke
Tatarenmond zu uns heraufklomm,
grub ichmich in dich und in dich.)
glorie hinter
euch Dreiweg-
Das vor euch, vom Osten her, Hin-
gewürfelte, furchtbar.
zeugt für den

Paul Celan, “Atemwende”
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