Fantasies and Dreams about thirst, bodies of water, and the addictions to drink and pleasure
(A parody of elements from the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss Jr.)

Commissioned by the EXPO Office Austria in March 2008.

For piano, violin, viola, cello, and bass
Premiere: Juli 19, 2008 during a gala dinner (on occasion of the Österreichtag) at the World's Fair, in the city hall of Zaragoza (Spain), with a quintet of the Vienna Philharmonic
Duration: ca. 11 minutes
Score: ECA Nr. 1658 Score (Extract, Pdf)
Available through:
Edition Contemp Art (Verlagsgruppe Hermann)
Goldschmiedgasse 10, A-1010 Wien
E-mail: sales{at}hermann.eu | tel: +43 / 1 / 534 62 40 | Fax: +43 / 1 / 534 62 67

 

René Staar: Introduction

As I was asked in February 2008 by the cellist and writer Rupert Schöttle to compose some kind of paraphrase of the Blue Danube Waltz for a performance at the Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, it was at first inconceivable for me to write a new piece based on one of the most popular pieces of the 19th century, Austria’s »secret national anthem«. For one thing because water, the guiding theme of the Expo, essential for all of humanity, seemed—and seems—to me too serious to be dealt with through some kind of paraphrase in the style of numerous 19th century fantasies on opera themes.

After several conversations with representatives of the Austrian office at the Expo and with Rupert Schöttle I realized that one could deal with this task only by removing the project thematically as well as formally from the musical context of the waltz and placing it in a completely different context, in a manner characteristic of works with extramusical or parodistic connections.

I then recollected one of my earliest compositions, April (for violin and piano), written in the 1970’s: a so to speak last remnant of the otherwise destroyed works that I wrote to obtain my composition degree, a work that I had in a definitive—revised and remodeled—version finally premiered on 1. April 1978 in Weiz (Styria), together with the Austrian pianist Klaus Christian Schuster.

This piece openly satirizes Richard Strauss’ self-promotion in some of his works (Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio, Ein Heldenleben) through the introduction of an antithetic antihero, whose clumsiness is theatrically presented through ironic play with quotations from the most diverse masterworks (Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Schubert’s Fantasy, Chopin’s Polonaises) and through the incorporation of avant-garde elements.

In allusion to this early work the idea arose of envisioning for the Expo commission an individual—perhaps a tourist—in a desert (or another arid region), suffering from thirst and hallucinations (he is perhaps Viennese, at any rate someone imprinted by the waltz cliché) as carrier for this new piece, parallel to the antihero of April.

Dream and reality are blended into a kind of mirage. Out of a section bearing the title »Luftspiegel« (Mirrors in the air), the intervals of the best-known themes of the Blue Danube Waltz take form and appear. A waltz dream develops, in which the various strophes from Johann Strauss’ famous work are heard in reverse, harmonically distorted and presented in diverse registers and velocities that sometimes fundamentally contrast one another. It’s a worn and wrinkled Blue Danube Waltz, hanging like a door on one hinge in the wind of a ghost town. The imagined individual dying from thirst finally wakes out of the waltz dream and believes himself to be in a rough bawling crowd in a rock concert on the Donauinsel, only to recognize that it’s uncertain whether this is again just a dream or perhaps the reality of his life.

Through the condensation of many and various sections, and indeed the tendency to reduce entire compositions to easily recognizable motives connected by stereotyped transitions, this type of work seems to resemble the operetta potpourris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, later known in the genres of American jazz and musicals as medleys. In my apparently quite similarly constructed works, there are however unmistakable distinctive features that remove from my pieces the savor of the out-of-fashion and out-of-date. Firstly, there is a harmonic development out of which highly differentiated shapes and thoughts morphologically evolve. A common root yields differing forms and appearances. These forms are, in contrast to variations, not based upon a theme but rather upon principles of harmonic development. Apart from this, the purposeful subordination of the recurring motives to an elucidating harmony helps the transitions to become not just predictable interpolations from a bag of tricks, but rather, within the framework of the entire piece, musical experiences in their own right.

The irony of fate plays a significant role in this work, even though irony in general sometimes unexpectedly breaks out in many of my works, such as in the topsy-turvy eine Fata Morgana, in whose title an ironic tone already resonates, since the article of the noun is written in German not in the normal definite manner as Eine, but rather but rather purposefully shrunk down to eine.

Both April and Fata Morgana belong to a type of work that plays an important role in my oeuvre. These are works in which an individual confronts a group, whereby the difference between that individual’s dynamic and that of the group takes on a central significance.

We are all biased and have our individual conceptions and fantasies. We are also capable of inverting our concepts—of seeing them reversed or upside-down. The composer’s idea of identifying himself with a man dying of thirst is just as much a mirage (Fata Morgana) as that of the imagined character who in this existentially threatening situation surrenders to the illusion of hearing the endlessly upended, broken, and distorted Blue Danube Waltz—a piece identified more than any other with the splendid past of a central European city, and a piece that seems to have to do not so much with water as the elixir of life than with a very particular structured society.

But in the last part of the composition the composer turns this idea as well upside down, at first by catapulting the »historical« dream of a conservative traditionalist society into an era of mass consumption and of the apparent self-determination of people who are cleverly oriented and manipulated, an era in which politics, industry, and the media present to uncritical masses purely material things as determining qualities. The expansion of the exploitation of nature and the resulting destruction of the sustainability of the space humanity needs to live is continued, without considering that the last resources are being wasted and that a large segment of humanity stands before existential ruin.

At the very end the piece is once again turned upside down, through the abstraction of isolated harmonies from the Blue Danube Waltz, which is—like the fantasy of the rock concert—revealed as being just the sardonic dream of an existentially threatened individual, as the mirage of a man dying of thirst. In response to this the piano can, as a gesture of irony in the last measures, come up only with empty virtuosic flourishes in the style of the 19th century, as if everything, humanity and all its culture, were just a trivial matter. {René Staar, Vienna, June 22, 2008; Translation: Jorge E. López}