Songs of War & Peace


Recorder (soprano & tenor) & string quartet

ca. 32'

A suite in 5 movements for recorder and string quartet based on Bohemian, German, and Dutch folksongs from the Thirty Year's War.

Written for Peter Holtslag and the Bennewitz Quartet

I. Battaglia
II. Fantasia super 'Dunkle Wolke'
III. Scherzo: Grimmig Tod & Heilig Kind
IV. Pastorale: Schnitter Tod
V. Elegia

Première: Peter Holtslag with the Ruysdael Kwartet, 17-18 Octobre 2020 Noorderkerk Concerten Amsterdam, Dorpskerk Wilp and Slotconcerten Slot Zeist. With special thanks to Richard van Remmen


[The German version of these notes is here.]

Première recording by Dutch Classical Radio (NTR):

1 – Battaglia  (8:09)

2 – Fantasia super ‘Dunkle Wolke’    (8:05)

3 –  Scherzo: grimmig Tod & heilig Kind  (3:23)

4 – Pastorale: Schnitter Tod  (6:33)

5- Elegia (5:18)

With the Songs of War & Peace a wish that I cherished for a long time comes true – to combine my composing for recorder with my composing for ‘romantic’ line-ups with strings.

The piece is a musical retrospective of the Thirty Years’ War. In the early 17th century this ravaged almost the whole of Europe and worked its way through 19th century nationalism into our time. I therefore wanted to use the music of the tormented citizens, farmers and soldiers of that time – think of ‘Merck toch hoe sterck’, ‘Nu drijven wy de Paus heraus’ from the Netherlands, and ‘Der grimmig Tod’ or ‘O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf’ from Germany. In such a musical retrospective the string quartet, flourishing in the Romantic and nationalistic 19th century, seemed to me to offer a beautifully apt setting for the recorder, the instrument from the time of that war itself.

My plan resonated with my old recorder buddy Peter Holtslag (he asked me earlier to write Voci, voci), who, like me, but as a performing musician, had long had the desire to link the recorder to the Romantic string quartet – a rare but stylistically and sonorically challenging combination.

Two souls, one thought – which culminated in Peter commissioning me to write a piece for that line-up.

The project became even clearer when the Bennewitz Quartet pointed out to me a Bohemian musical heritage that is still cherished by Czechs of all faiths: Advent songs in the vernacular, often dating back to the early 15th century, the period in which Jan Hus was active, the father of Czech (then Bohemian) Protestantism. These are songs full of hope for redemption and better times, sometimes adaptations of Gregorian chant, and always full of typically Bohemian musical twists.

The Thirty Years’ War started with the uprising of the Bohemian Protestants in 1618 – and tragically ended in Bohemia two years later, when, at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the armies of the Protestant Hussites were defeated and Bohemia would remain in the Habsburg Empire until the 20th century. While in the rest of Europe the religious struggle continued, the Bohemians were left with only their Advent songs as a musical heritage in the vernacular, where German had to be the official language.

I. Battaglia

The first part is a ‘bataille’, a kind of musical battle story, modelled slightly on the Biber bataille. The first episode refers to ‘Merck toch hoe Sterck’ (with the harmony of the ‘Folia d’Espagne’) and uses the song ‘Es geht wohl zu der Sommerzeit’ as the main theme:

Es geht wohl zu der Sommerzeit, der Winter fährt dahin. Manch kühner Held zu Felde leit, wie ich berichtet bin. Zu Fuß und auch zu Pferd, wie man ihr nur begehrt, ganz munter besunder die beste Reiterei, ein ganze werte Ritterschaft, Fußvolk ist auch dabei.

In the second episode the melodies of the Introïtus of the Bohemian Advent Liturgy (related to the Gregorian Rorate Coeli) and of the Hussite battle song ‘You who are God’s warriors’ appear.

II. Fantasia super ‘Dunkle Wolke’

The music has as a ritornel (or ‘chorus’) that is modelled on the opening of Schütz’ ‘O hilf, Christe Gottes Sohn, durch dein bitter Leiden…‘, with free variations on the melody of ‘Dunkle Wolke’in between. These can sound in the bass, middle voices, or in canon.
Es geht ein’ dunkle Wolk’ herein, mich dünkt, es wird ein Regen sein, ein Regen aus den Wolken wohl in das grüne Gras.
At times the instruments quote several melodies from the Bohemian Advent rite.

III. Scherzo – Grimmig Tod & Heilig Kind

The model here is a favourite of Peter Holtslag – Mendelssohn’s  e minor violin concerto, of which I chose the scherzo. Two themes, one based on the famous Czech Christmas song ‘Narodil se Kristus Pan‘:

Narodil se Kristus Pán,
veselme se,
z růže kvítek vykvet nám,
radujme se,
z života čistého,
z rodu královského,
nám, nám, narodil se.

Geboren ist Christus, der Herr,
freuen wir uns!
Aus einer Rose erblüht uns eine Blüte,
jubeln wir!
Aus reinem Leib,
aus königlichem Geschlecht,uns, uns ist er geboren.

the other (for the increasingly dominant ritornello) the German song ‘Der grimmig Tod‘:

Der grimmig Tod mit seinen Pfeil tut nach dem Leben zielen. Sein Bogen schießt er ab mit Eil und läßt mit sich nicht spielen. Das Leben schwindt wie Rauch im Wind, kein Fleisch mag ihm entrinnen, kein Gut noch Schatz find bei ihm Platz: du mußt mit ihm vin hinnen!

IV. Pastorale: Schnitter Tod

This is perhaps the most ‘polemical’ piece. On the one hand there is a beautiful ominous melody from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Es ist ein Schnitter der heist Tod’:

Es ist ein Schnitter, der heist Tod, hat G’walt vom großen Gott; heut wetzt er das Messer, es geht schon viel besser, balt wird er dreinschneiden, wir müssen’s nur leiden. Hüt’ dich, schön’s Blümelein!

This melody occurs in all kinds of variations and combinations, in which the Romantic tone of the quartet takes on an increasingly warning character.

On the other hand, the small but very loud soprano recorder always breaks in with the song ‘So treiben wir den Winter uit’ (first printed in Andreas Kellner’s “Psalme, geistlike Lieder und Gesenge”, Stettin 1576). I knew that song myself with a Dutch text that was, in turn, a translation of Luther’s antipapist version of this old song from 1545:

Nu dryven wy den Paus heraus / Wt Christus kerck en Godes huys / Daer in hy moordelick heeft gheregeert / en ontallick veel sielen vervoert.

I use my own version, but the (an?) original sounds here in the version of Camerata Trajectina:

…very appropriately on a CD commemorating the Peace of Munster, which ended the Thirty Years’ War.

V. Elegia 

Here, a retrospective melancholy dominates. It is driven by a 19th-century feeling that is expressed in an ostinato chord reminiscent of Dvorak’s Dumka from his last string quartet. As seen through the dust of time, fragments of the desperate ‘O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf…’ emerge.

herab, herab vom Himmel lauf. / Reiß ab vom Himmel Tor und Tür, reiß ab, wo Schloß und Riegel für….

The harmony of the song – such as Brahms gave it in his 19th century version – survives in a desperate kind of chorale. In these tones, in a version of what we call ‘minor’, this despair from a later age meets the early sense of hope of the Hussite era in the chorus of their battle song from part I, and it also meets the even older, Gregorian expression of hope which sounds in the tenor recorder when it softly sings the ‘Rorate coeli’.