Mahler Chamber Orchestra
George Benjamin III
A love poem by Richard Dehmel inspired Arnold Schönberg to write his String Sextet op. 4. A couple are walking by night: she is pregnant from a (brief) earlier liaison and he adopts the unborn child she is expecting. However, the poem’s decisive ingredient is not its raw content but its psychological-philosophical aura of transformation: Dehmel called this mythical power (of love) transfiguration. In his structure and expression, Schönberg remained faithful to the situations in the poem. However, the music is able to suggest the actual, psychological and quasi spiritual process far more effectively than the lyrics, which recede into the background once they are known. Even the poet himself experienced this the first time he heard Schönberg’s Sextet.
The circumstances of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill are rather different. The British composer waited a long time before daring to compose a piece of music theatre – and when he did, he chose to approach it via forms of chamber music. All the roles in the piece – that is based on the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – are sung by two singers. This “acknowledges at all times the artificial nature of sung drama, while still permitting dialogue and characterization,” says the composer. “Martin Crimp’s text remains faithful to the traditional myth but it evokes disturbing contemporary resonances too. It also reflects upon the power of music as well as its exploitation in today’s world. […] The orchestration employs some highly unusual timbres – ranging from bass flute and cimbalom to banjo and basset horns. The resultant sonority is often discreet and transparent so that the vocal lines can occupy the foreground. Above all I wanted to embed these lines into the harmonic environment that surrounds them. In this fusion, I believe, lies a crucial expressive resource on the lyric stage.”