Ţintea Muzicală  - impressions of a contributing composer

 

Drew Wilson

 

Ţintea Muzicală, now in its fourth year, is an intimate musical gathering organised by sisters Dana Probst and Adina Dumitrescu in their native village of Ţintea, Prahova. This year, the festival began with a concert of contemporary music for two accordions by Adina Dumitrescu herself, her son Sebastian, fellow Romanians Sorin Lorescu, George Balint, and the Italian Stefano Bonilauri. This opening event concluded with a piece by British composer Drew Wilson called ‘Nacht und Nebel’.

 

            Tintea Muzicala may not match the festivals of Luzern and Verbier for glamour and razzmatazz, but fleeing as I was from the capital of a country high on Olympic hype and Prom fever, it was just the summer music festival I needed. Personal, intimate, a meeting of friends and those who would soon be friends, a family gathering with guests, an exchange of musical thoughts with sympathetic fellow composers, I had a good feeling from the moment I stepped off the plane – a warm feeling: here in Romania was a real summer, in comparison to the apology for one (the wettest in a century) with which we were afflicted in England.  

            I also warmed quickly to Terhi Sjöblom and Marija Kandić, the accordion duo, who were to appear in the first concert, and who I met immediately at the airport. Hailing respectively from Finland and Serbia, they – together with Stefano from Italy, and myself representing Great Britain – were to give the festival the international dimension essential to any self-respecting festival on the circuit – although, since Adina Dumitrescu and Dana Probst, the sisters who organise this event, now live in Finland and Vienna respectively, a certain breadth of culture could not help but attach to it. Not to mention that a cosmopolitan flavour was to be bestowed on the festival in general by Dana and Adina’s choice of the wider theme – French culture and French music, a theme I sought to reflect in my own piece, albeit hiding coyly behind a Wagnerian title.

            And like that other summer festival in Bayreuth, Ţintea Muzicală takes place on the slopes of a hill which commands a view of the surrounding country, though the heights of this little Parnassus are not adorned with ski-lifts – as the modern Parnassus is, or a purpose-built Festspielhaus – which would be nice, but then part of Ţintea Muzicală’s appeal is that it all takes place in the inimitable ambience of Adina and Dana’s family home – but by a scattering of oil derricks which, when you are standing amongst them on a still evening produce a subtle chorus of gurgles and squeaks like an open-air installation of musique-concrète. From the crown of this hill, you see the city of Băicoi glimmering in the distance in front of you, with the foothills of the Carpathians gathering at your back. The village of Ţintea lies at you feet – although on the evening I made my ascent, part of it was veiled in a black pall of smoke which smelt as if an unneighbourly resident had set fire to a pile of tyres in his yard.

            If this smoke had invaded the Dumitrescu house whilst my piece was being performed, it might have seemed uncannily appropriate, invoked, as it were, by the Nacht und Nebel motif (but since it would have set everyone coughing, on the whole I’m relieved that it didn’t. Still, the idea suggests an amusing stage effect; might I add a direction to the score for more enterprising performers? Could the bellows of the accordions be somehow primed with smoke – preferably not from burning rubber, in consideration for the performers’ and audience’s respiratory comfort – or dry ice, so that when the ‘Night and mist’ motif is heard, it would seep out of the instruments, rather like smoke from the nostrils of Fafner – disguised, thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm – as the dragon..?)

            Given the French theme, it behoves me without further delay to explain what my game was in supplying my piece with that German title:

            Nacht und Nebel, as I’m sure I have no need to remind any reader of this magazine, is a quotation from Das Rheingold, and relates to the spell cast by the magic Tarnhelm,  a helmet forged by the dwarf Alberich in Nibelheim, which renders the wearer invisible. The motif –

 

 – is quoted extensively in the slow epilogue of my piece. The relevance of this to the French theme of this year’s Ţintea Muzicală is that the phrase Nacht und Nebel was commandeered by Hitler as the title of his counter-resistance offensive in occupied territories in the Second World War. Many in the French Resistance movement were rounded up, interrogated, imprisoned or executed, as a consequence of this Nacht und Nebel campaign. It was this explanation which I made the starting point of the short address with which I prefaced the first performance at Ţintea.

            I don’t know if other composers who have introduced their pieces in similar fashion have had comparable experiences – I should be interested to hear if they have; but the difference my spoken introduction made to the performance and perception of the piece was noticeable in a way which touches, I think, on the whole business of music being thought of in either ‘absolute’ or ‘programmatic’ terms, and how seriously we take any pictorial or anecdotal association to a piece of purely instrumental music.

            ‘How seriously’, I say: Well, the Nacht und Nebel story obviously isn’t to be taken lightly, but to be quite frank, I had not thought of the programmatic element in any but the most tentative way until I was halfway through composing the piece. My intention in starting had merely been to explore all the effects, colours and sonorities offered by the two instruments. As a composer, I begin with notes, harmonies, textures which will exploit the available forces  then seek to develop them to create a compelling argument in an appropriate form. (Both Terhi and Marija play concert accordions with an impressive range not far short of a grand piano’s; but unlike the piano, the accordion has, of course, an organ-like ability to sustain chords – even if, unlike the ‘monster which never breathes’, the accordion does ‘breathe’, opening and closing like a great lung which almost makes it seem alive). Only then, typically away from the desk, do I start to agonise about titles. Sometimes I hunger for something neutral, but abstract titles can often sound  bland (‘symphony’, ‘study’, ‘Konzertstück’) or worse, academic (‘Discourse’, ‘Dialectic’, ‘Aphorism III’). Better something which enriches the concept, which sounds neither sterile nor hermetic. But the language of music is essentially abstract, and if one chooses a title which is not merely descriptive of the form, the processes or the forces employed, there is an arbitrary element to whatever one eventually selects – especially if a title is suggested by a book or a film that you happen to have recently read or seen.

            In this case, Wagner had lately been much on my mind (because of the part he plays in a novel that I have been writing, but let’s not get into that). When I tried to think of material which I could use to exploit the darker, deeper part of the concert accordion’s range near the end of the piece, I thought of the Tarnhelm motif, and as soon as I had done so, I noticed how naturally it would follow from a series of slow harmonies, and a two chord ostinato figure which the piece already contained. Then, when I happened to read something about Jean Moulin, the hero of the French Resistance, and how he was eventually trapped by the Nazis, something clicked – specifically the way I would be able to return to the sforzando chord at the start of the piece to suggest the snapping shut of a trap.

            And yet even after I had settled on this, the programme still seemed to me to be a bit adventitious, I put the idea to one side and in completing the piece continued in all other respects merely to follow the compositional logic. It’s true that, having a literary bias, I tend to like music which has a narrative arc, but still this idea of narrative is analogical rather than literal, and in reading my piece through, I myself never heard it as a literal narrative, let alone of Jean Moulin’s life, until after I gave that introductory talk.

            However, when I sat down to listen to that first performance with the rest of the audience crowded into the largest room (and adjoining hallway and porch – as a big event in the little village of Ţintea, it was a sell-out) of Adina and Dana’s childhood home, what did I hear? – A piece which may not have given a blow by blow account of a Resistance hero’s wartime exploits, his betrayal and capture, but which was indeed for all that, pretty explicitly descriptive of the desperation, the dangers and tragedies consequent to pursuit by tyrannical forces, in just the way my spoken introduction had outlined – so cautiously, as I thought. Even in rehearsal with Terhi and Marija, the piece had been, to me – and to them, since they afterwards confessed to have somewhat overlooked the prefatory comment on the title page of the score – a purely musical proposition, even with some scherzo-like touches, which, however, in this performance, sounded like very black humour, if they were humorous at all. It seemed that the Nacht und Nebel story had caused them to change the way they performed it, and that this had surprised them as much as me. 

            Next time, I’m tempted to experiment by changing the title to – I don’t know – Musique d’été –as Sebastian Dumitrescu’s dreamily evocative composition was called (what if it’s title had been changed to Musique d’hiver, would it then have suggested the fall of snowflakes on a calm winter’s day instead of the saturated heat of a Romanian summer?) and see how that influences the performance and perception of the work. But meanwhile, judged on this hearing at least, it seemed that I had written an ominous, dark piece indeed.

            But it was an early afternoon concert, and however haunting Wagner’s motif (for which I take no credit) the shadow that it had cast was soon shaken off as we adjourned to the garden to talk, drink, and when one wandered a little way off from the post-concert party to pick Mirabelle cherries and plums from the trees behind the house, to enjoy the chirping of crickets and sparrows and the song of a solitary warbler (I think it was a warbler, I don’t know of what kind) and all the music of the glorious Romanian summer that was continuing dreamily, if intensely, outside.


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