Many years ago I got lost in a patch of fog. I had gone for a Sunday morning walk along the Mulde river in Eastern Germany. I was familiar with the place, but over time what had started as a haze became a dense, opaque fog. Gradually all the landmarks I needed for my orientation vanished, and at some point I reckoned that I was walking in circles. I couldn’t see the sun, I saw no trees, just green fields, the grey fog and occasionally the river or one of its dead branches. I heard no sound. Panic struck me, my heart was beating fast, and I imagined all kind of horrific and absurd scenarios, one of them being killed and dragged into the river.
Do you know Capitaine Fracasse? Imagine France in the 17th century under the reign of Louis XIII. A wet and windy night in the Gascogne, a derelict mansion, cut off from the rest of world. In the kitchen, the only heated room, the fire is dying down. The Baron de Sigognac, a solitary and impoverished young nobleman, muses about his sad fate, when a bunch of comedians knocks at his door and seeks shelter. During the night, he feels he has to make a decision. He can continue to mourn the past glory of his family, stay in the old mansion with his faithful servant Pierre and die from poverty. Or he can give his life a meaning he never anticipated and join the comedians assuming a new name: Capitaine Fracasse.
Mysticism. If you are tempted by mystic experiences, Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (BB 114/SZ 106) should enchant you. It certainly did enchant me and the audience in the 1930s. In a time of disenchantment, when frivolity and hate rule, Bartok’s music hints at man’s desire to retrieve a state of internal purity, that does not change over time and that alone allows creativity, the French writer Pierre Jean Jouve once opined. Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a landmark in the history of 20th-century classical music and one of Bartok’s best known works.
These opening bars! The massive brass fanfare. The short, sharp string accents. The gently swaying, lyrical bars that follow and seem to paraphrase a the section “From Bohemian Woods and Fields” of Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” (My Fatherland). The opening of a first movement that I will never forget. That you will never forget. The agitated drama of the first movement prompted me to pick that picture as an illustration. The ever-changing sky at sunset keeps fascinating me, especially when it takes that dark pink color, clouds glowing like a stream of magma.