String quartet: two violins, viola, cello
Written for the Škampa Quartet
- I.Battaglia: largo non troppo, recitando
- II.Zarabanda: allegro assai
- III.Mesticcio: allegro
When the Czech Škampa Quartet asked me to write a piece for their concerts in the Netherlands I chose a ‘Moravian theme’ – though not in the sense of Moravian folk music. The quartet has already devoted numerous wonderful projects to the Moravian folk tradition, with Iva Bittova, with Janacek’s Moravian music and with the ‘Moravian quartets’ of Pavel Fischer. My tie with their Moravian roots is a different one: the heritage of the Moravian Church – known in the Netherlands as ‘Hernhutters’ (from the East German village that they hailed from and that they founded in the late 17th century). This Protestant denomination has an important seat in my home village, Zeist, and both my parents used to be members of this ‘Brotherhood’.
Music was of great importance for these Bohemian en Moravian Brethren. Their first collections of hymns date from the early 16th century. In spite of their being ‘Protestants’ long before Luther, theological polemics and systematization played a far less significant role than did music. The founder of the important Zeist settlement, Ludwig Graf Von Zinzendorf, felt that this religion of the heart expressed itself best in music and song. It is in his spirit that we find a phenomenon typical of the Moravian Church: the Singstunde, a kind of‘sermon in songs’.
The Moravian Church’s early history is a blood stained one – starting with the burning at the stake of John Hus in 1415 and followed by the severe persecution of the Unitas Fratrum that was founded in 1457 and was eventually decimated during the Thirty Years’ War. This led to their emigration to Saxony, where in the 16th century the ‘Hernhutt’ community was founded.
In spite of all this, the music of the Brethren was never gloomy or melancholic, let alone sectarian. These ‘little folk’ loved work of craftmanship and beauty, whatever its provenance. In there eclectic choice of musics they celebrated the simplicity, the trust and the peaceful, non-violent example of their signature: the Lamb.
Singstunde for string quartet
My composition for the Škampa Kwartet, ‘Moravian Souls’, is permeated with motives derived from hymns from the earliest history of the Moravian and Hernhutt Brethren. But behind these (instrumentally rendered) melodies loom the texts and their meanings. In that way, my first string quartet has become an instrumental ‘Singstunde’ in chamber music, tracing the history of the Brethren. One Hussite hymn in particular is very important (Dutch Hymnal, Song 474), one that was later given a text by John Comenius, the philosopher and pedagogue who would stay in the Netherlands for a long while.
I.Battaglia: largo non troppe, recitando
The first movement is framed by a version of the chorale ‘Freuen wir uns all in ein’, reputedly the first hymn of the Bohemian Brethren, composed by Gabriel Komarovsky in 1457 (the year of the foundation of the Unitas Fratrum). The title ‘Battaglia’ does not so much refer to the fierce wars of religion that mark the early history of the Brethren, but rather to the subject of Michael Tham’s hymn (Melody 130, Moravian Brethren 1566) that repeatedly surfaces here as a musical motive: the battle between mind and body.
II.Zarabanda: allegro assai
The second movement is a ‘Zarabanda’, a dance movement, comparable to the minuet (with ‘trio’) in the classical style. The sarabande is mainly known as a slow and stately dance but the original zarabandes were wild and orgiastic. Here, she starts as a good-natured and cheerful folk dance, based on a melody ascribed to John Hus (who in 2015 died at the stake 600 years ago). The melody is given a hint of gospel influences. Like the historical sarabande, its tempo slows down and the opening melody’s ‘sancta simplicitas’ is gradually replaced by a more melancholy, romantic mood, were harmonic light and darkness alternate.
In the third movement the hymns’ rhythms change under non-European influences. The Hussite hymn begets African traits; an early eighteenth-century Herhutt melody (on a text by Von Zinzendorf) transforms in a Caribbean dance. The Moravians went out into the world and their spreading out over the North- and South Americas and Africa resulted in a change of the music of the originally ‘Moravian Soul’.
Audio clips courtesy of Omroep MAX/ Recording by Maarten Elzinga en Bert van Dijk