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On the evening of Oct. 28, cultural historian and classical music critic Jeremy A. Eichler delivered a lecture on the life of Richard Strauss and his composition “Metamorphosen,” a piece written for 23 solo strings that was reduced to six people for this performance. The Borromeo String Quartet and friends at the Goethe Institute performed this piece. The event was a part of “Time’s Echo Live,” a two-day festival, celebrating the connection of music and prose to the past through four programs featuring four composers: Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich.
The event revolved around the theme of Eichler’s new book “Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance,” which explores how music serves as a cultural memory, bearing witness to and preserving the history of a past marked by war.
In the lecture, Eichler read Goethe’s poem “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No One Will Ever Know Himself) as the inspiration for Strauss’s composition of “Metamorphosen.”
Paul A. Buttonwieser ’60, a member of the audience and a friend of Eichler, said that the idea of this event came after the publication of the book, in which Eichler discussed with him the idea to memorialize World War II and the Holocaust through a lecture and live music performance. For the convenience of the performance, Strauss’s typical 23-string piece was performed by a sextet.
“It was particularly exciting to hear the actual work he described, albeit in an arrangement of six instruments instead of 23,” said Buttenwieser.
The incorporation of the live music performance emphasized a key theme of the book — the importance of listening.
“Because it was a book about listening I thought it would be particularly meaningful to try to have some events where I got to share some of the book’s ideas about reimagining what could be possible,” introduced Eichler.
Eichler believed that the form of music itself enabled Strauss to share emotions while keeping certain ideas untranslatable, referring to Thomas Mann’s paradoxical phrase “the spoken unspokeness.”
Nicholas J. Kitchen, one of the music directors of Time’s Echo Live and the violinist of Borromeo String Quartet, arranged the music. Kitchen aspired to incorporate the fluidity and crossing between string lines into his reduction.
“What I ended up doing would have some of the same features, of moving around in a kind of conversation that wouldn’t be directed by how many people were playing together but rather what the individuals did in carrying those lines in conversation with each other,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen acknowledged that the reduction took away the complexity and subtlety and the bird-like chaotic quality of the original 23-instrument piece. However, Kitchen thought that the reduction was still meaningful because it allowed the audience to hear this piece of music with the convenience of six instruments.
“That [playing in a sextet] is different from orchestra thinking, but I think it also makes the idea that much more powerful in the way they come across to an audience,” said Kitchen.
Kitchen believed that the piece “Metamorphosen” expressed a critical particular moment in Strauss’s life and praised Eichler’s role as the cultural historian, who was able to both identify the multi-layered history and emphasize the musical success of the piece as a response to the composer’s difficult life.
Buttenwieser, however, offered a more critical comment on the reduction arguing that the massive tone of the 23 instruments conveys the elegiac quality of “Metamorphosen.”
“When it’s transcribed to six instruments it sounds a little bit more immediate and doesn’t have that kind of special sound that Strauss created. It’s very, very unusual, Buttenwieser expressed.
Eichler’s lecture on Strauss’s life and compositional inspiration from Goethe’s poem shed light on the profound impact of the performance. Furthermore, the power of confession and lament poured over the audience as the mysterious, intangible language of music unfolded. The strings crossed paths, weaving into a web of chaos and creating an intense, emotional experience for the audience. Overall, these elements combined to create an atmosphere that paid homage to the shadowed history of World War II.
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