»To Gabrielle von Liechtenstein-Kesselstatt«

Text by Alan Levy

This work received the Ernst Krenek Price of the City of Vienna in 1986

For soprano, narrator, jazz combo* and large orchestra**
ca. 25 minutes
1986 in New Orleans, played by the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Philippe Entremont
Austrian premiere:
1987 in Vienna, played by the Niederösterreichisches Tonkünstler-Orchester, conducted by Manfred Honeck
Czech premiere:
1998, Prague, played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Freeman

Score: ECA Nr. 11003/P. 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

* jazz combo: 1 Clarinet in Bb (1st Player of Clarinet Group); Saxophone Alto in Eb; Cornet in C; Percussion (1 Player): Timpani, glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Marimbaphone, Suspended Cymbal, Side-drum, Bass-drum, Chimes, Sirene; Piano (also Celesta); Double-Bass Solo (1st Player of the Double-bass group)

** large orchestra: 3 Flutes (2nd alternating with Piccolo, 3rd alternating with Alto-Flute); 2 Oboes; 1 Cor Anglais; 2 Clarinets (1st see Combo); Bass-Clarinet; 2 Bassoons; Double-Bassoon; 4 Horns; 3 Trumpets in C; 3 Trombones (2 Tenor, 3rd Tenor-Bass); Tuba; Percussion (2 Players): I Timpani, Tam-Tam, 3 Side Drums of different Size, Tambour à grelots, Maracas, Suspended Cymbal, Cow-Bells; II Gunfire-Machine, Triangle, Suspended Cymbal, Bass-Drum, Clashed Cymbals, Castanets, Woodblock, Claves, Metal-whip, Big Wood Rattle, Thunder-sheet; Harp; strings (14/12/10/8/7)


Audio sample:

René Staar - Just an accident?- op.9

Marisol Montalvo, soprano
Dale Duesing, narrator
Vienna Philharmonic
Daniel Harding, conductor
(recorded November 16th, 2008 Musikverein (Großer Saal) in Vienna)


About the piece:

Just an Accident? was composed in the mid-1980s to a text by the American writer and journalist the late Alan Levy.
Commissioned for Philippe Entremont and the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, this composition for large orchestra was developed from an earlier version for chamber orchestra. The text is a sequel of episodes recalling the fates of artists whose lives ended prematurely in an absurd manner. For example Anton Webern, who was shot by accident, the Spanish composer Enrique Granados, who became an innocent victim of the war, and Czech comedian and painter Jiři Šlitr, who was killed by his teenaged lover. Their fates illuminate the work and reveal facets of its actual theme: the relationship between what is free and what is measured, what is volatile and what is constant. The short accounts are rendered in documentary-style by a narrator, interrupted several times by the soprano and by orchestra interludes.

In spite of the poignant nature of each detail of the composition, because of its different perspectives of the ironical, touching, sceptical and desperate counterplay of accident and fate, the piece has a tendency towards fragmentation. The individual episodes are characterized by a variety of expressive postures and mimetic effects, such as a gunfire machine and sirens, the imitation of Webern’s dodecaphonic idiom (without mathematical strictness, however), the mood of a mourning march by Mahler or the use of the »combo« and its folkloristic features (e. g., the castanets in the »fandango«), a »cancion« as well as elements from cha-cha, foxtrot and blues. While in the first episode dedicated to Webern, the »immortality« of art is commemorated, later, in the chapter about the satirist Šlitr, the solemnity of eternal art is given an ironic slant when the singer snaps her fingers in parody. Near the ending, in desperation the narrator almost screams out his invitation to pay homage to those victims of the absurd whose works will outlive their own death. The individual stories, in the coincidence and destiny of unrelated episodes, as well as the implicit rationality of the undisturbed course of events are emphasized and have lost the linear continuity of one single story. The whole work is a montage which links various times, styles, and musical conventions, which often seem alienated, in dreamlike, calculated obscurity.

The form of the composition demonstrates that coincidence is not an isolated variable representing the irrationality. It is true that coincidence cannot be calculated or explained, because it occurs without regularity. But coinci-dence only happens where purposefulness is expected. The planned improvisation of the sequence, the diversity of statements, the view from different angles is an attempt to describe the multiple, mutually mirroring facets of the absurd, in the awareness that no system, much less reasoning, can be imposed on them. Toward the end there is a great density of description, enumerating other victims of the absurd, from Jean Baptiste Lully to John Lennon. The rhythmical sequence that follows, a stomping ostinato, has a rigorous, yet continually chang-ing effect with great internal varieties; it is abruptly cut off in tumultuous motion.

The continuous, seemingly aimless change which characterizes the progress of this piece is an interpretation of human life, in which there is no escape from the routes that are taken. As a paradox, each of the inserts is followed by a concentrated espressivo section in the idiom of Webern, which, as the only recurring part allows for formal coherence. The soprano voice comments on these episodes with soothing, eternal verities (»ars longa, vita brevis«). This apparently constant material concludes with a relaxed meditative melody, but only in the orches-tra. The soprano voice is silent, and the pattern of the sentences separates the prose style of the narrator from the cantabile style of the orchestra. The text of the frozen morendo recalls Webern’s murderer as the last victim of the absurd, drinking himself to death, unaware of what he has done, and unknown to posterity. The knowledge of being ignorant as the only sure statement about the absurd in this case is limited to the return of a speech-like, naturaly flowing expression. Whereas the soprano voice commented and reflected on the narrator’s text, the orchestra counterbalances the words that were spoken and sung, by the eloquent muteness of its music. Not only is the impossibility of communication embodied, but the very speechlessness when facing the absurd, which unites narration and reflection. An eloquent speechlessness is present in each line of the composition, whose real theme is the question mark behind its title. {Matthias Schmidt, Translation: Michael Ingham}