Hyperion Records

Speranza
composer
2012; LSO commission

Recordings
'Turnage: Speranza & From the Wreckage' (LSO0744)
Turnage: Speranza & From the Wreckage
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Details
Movement 1: Amal
Movement 2: Hoffen
Movement 3: Dóchas
Movement 4: Tikvah

Speranza
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Though you wouldn’t guess it from its title, Speranza (or ‘Hope’) was originally conceived as a work about suicide. Commissioned by the LSO to write a substantial new orchestral work as part of his residency with the Orchestra, Turnage was at that time deeply immersed in the poetry of the Jewish-Romanian writer Paul Celan. Celan’s experience in a concentration camp during World War II, and subsequent conviction that German poetry was the only means through which the phenomenon of the Holocaust could properly be understood (‘from the inside’, as it were), has often stimulated the interest of composers because of the poet’s fascination with the notion of things that are ‘unsayable’ in language. Going back to notions central to German Idealism and its construal of absolute music as the art-form which provided the closest approximation of man’s deepest and least determinate desires, Celan’s artistic motivation was that it was only through the music of poetry, so to speak, that German consciousness could reconcile itself with the horrors committed in the name of the Third Reich.

That Turnage ended up departing from his initial subject-matter and using Speranza to explore the concept of hope tells one a great deal about the composer. Superficially, perhaps, it tells us firstly that here is a composer unafraid to change his mind about fundamentals, as well as details (a trait he shares, it might be remembered, with Mahler and many others). But Turnage’s volte-face also reveals the depth of his thinking about his literary and artistic influences. The principle of hope is, as the Frankfurt School thinker Ernst Bloch elaborated in his philosophical triptych on the subject, the one aspect of human consciousness that is inextinguishable even in the face of extreme suffering.

Turnage’s changes of mind also reveal something about his attitudes to the process of composing. A musician who has always drawn on a diverse range of literary, artistic and musical influences, he is as eager in composing to find new inspirations as he is to cover over the tracks leading to them. This is not because he feels that extra-musical content should necessarily be hidden, but rather the reverse. Like an oil painting—perhaps one by Bacon, one of the artists most important to Turnage—in which the artist’s original intentions and lines are revised and reworked during the process of composition, a work’s internal history always reveals itself in its materials.

Hidden, then, or rather half-concealed in Speranza are references not only to Celan, but to Primo Levi, Oscar Wilde (whose mother’s pen-name was ‘Speranza’), and to the Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat. This dark residue, however, is undercut by the upbeat character of much of the work, particularly the scherzo-like third movement. Turnage originally intended the piece to be a continuous single movement, but admits the challenge defeated him and, instead, the music is divided into four movements (it was originally five, but movement four was cut after the first performance), each of them given the name of ‘hope’ in a different language: Amal (Arabic), Hoffen (German), Dóchas (Gaelic), and Tikvah (Hebrew). As the language choices and their deployment suggest, the music describes a kind of broken symmetry—from the current Arab-Israeli conflict back toward World War II and centring on the Irish struggle, a subject of long-standing interest to Turnage.

The movement titles are not skin deep, with some of them drawing their melodic character from folk tunes: a Palestinian anthem in the first movement first articulated in the lower woodwind over a kind of shimmering drone, an Israeli children’s song in the second movement, and a Jewish folk song in the fourth. In each case, the melodies are presented in sharp relief before filling out into a polyphonic texture. The duduk (a traditional Armenian instrument, a distant relative of the oboe but closer in sound to a saxophone) takes the lead in the slow second movement, where it unravels a meandering chromatic melody in two episodes, punctuated by brooding chords in the orchestra, before splinters of the melodic material break off for a more varied treatment. The third movement contains many hallmarks of Turnage’s music at his most spry and rhythmically animated.

Coming at the head of an extensive catalogue of orchestral works, Speranza is in many ways Turnage’s most ambitious and symphonic composition for orchestra to date. It has the variety and spice one expects to hear in all his music, but it also has a cyclical rigour, left over perhaps from his consideration of Celan’s early poem, Todesfugue (or ‘Death Fugue’, itself partly bound up with the expressive aporia supposedly reached in Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue). More importantly, perhaps, in its intertwining of a personal emotional journey and a reflective commentary on the scarred political landscape of the present and previous centuries, it is a work that casts a wide net around its audience, promising to draw us, through its distinctive and seductive soundworld, to its underlying conception of musical listening as a process inescapably bound up with the psychology of hope.

from notes by Guy Dammann © 2012

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