Program notes

Mephisto for sextet, opus 41 (1990)

  1. 1. Dead Song
  2. 2. Wave Music and Strange Hymn
  3. 3. Interlude
  4. 4. Night Flight
  5. 5. trans . . .

“Mephisto” was composed in the first half of 1990 in response to a commission from Elision Ensemble in Australia and Gruppo Bruno Maderna in Italy with funding assistance from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. They gave the work its premiere in Melbourne in August 1991 in joint concert. The original brief for the work was to compose a sextet (flute, clarinet, guitar, violin, viola, double bass) calling on the ensemble’s normal membership excluding percussion.

The name “Mephisto” conjures numerous references: the movie of the same name, the many instrumental and operatic versions of the Goethe and Lenau versions of Faust (particularly Liszt’s The Dance in the Village Inn – Mephisto Waltz No 1), Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the wonderfully awful Alan Alda film Mephisto Waltz . . . The various tellings of this seminal story of the diabolical bargain, point to its status as an archetypal and potent myth which is inextricably tied to art and its role in society, or rather, the artist’s Romanticised role as both transcender of the ordinary and threat to society: someone potentially in league with the Devil. What is also striking is that so many of the tellings of the same myth are themselves concerned with other tellings of the story and contemporary preoccupations, thus building up a matrix of layered meanings that is quite tantalising. With these abundant resonances it is not surprising that I chose to put the title “Mephisto” in inverted commas – one cannot come prima facie to a story like Faust but only through the filter of what has been done with the story. The title is a reference to more than just a name.

One of the most common cinematic and literary conventions of recent years has been the parallel narrative. In this, two apparently unrelated stories are told alternately; the separate stories inevitably intersect and shed light on each other at some point. So for example, in the film Mephisto, the desperate political compromises of the actor in his search for power during the rise of Nazism are contrasted with the same actor playing the lead part in a production of Goethe’s Faust. Metaphor and reality unfold simultaneously; in hindsight, we know the two stories are, in fact, the same.

For some time I have been interested in a kind of musical version of the parallel narrative. In the music of Stravinsky (Symphonies of Winds), Messiaen (almost anything), and Sculthorpe (Mangrove) there are certainly formal structures approaching this. In “Mephisto” there is an attempt to follow through the parallel narrative by having three related short movements (1, 3 and 5) containing a single strand of ideas but which variously propose, interrupt and comment on the more programmaticl story of movements II and IV. To achieve this sense of unfolding, means that the traditional desire for rounding-off and closure at the end of movements has to be delayed to the last possible moment; that is, at the end of the work. Likewise, the scope of the segments has to be kept more curt than would be expected in order to propel the listener into the next part. In a sense, therefore, the work can be seen as a single movement.

An important part of maintaining the individuality of the different parallel stories is the manner in which they are told. So, in “Mephisto” the use of instruments reflects this. 1 – ‘Dead Song’ is a kind of seance for flute solo. 2 – ‘Wave Music and Strange Hymn’ expands from a drifting guitar and double bass duet to the full ensemble’s rendition of what may be a revivalist hymn (sung to ward off the unknown) in which the clarinet asserts itself to the point where it heads in its own direction by beginning the next movement. 3 – ‘Interlude’ is a splintered or mosaic version of the opening flute solo scored for clarinet, alto flute, double bass and viola. Deliberately unintegrated, it is a negative point in terms of intensity for the work as a whole. 4 – ‘Night Flight’ is a Danse macabre for an age that does not believe in devils. The idea for its frenetic energy came whilst taking off at night in an airplane and makes reference to the frantic and fantastic horse rides of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz and Schubert’s song, Erlkönig. ‘Night Flight’ is essentially another ensemble movement but begins with the guitar and violin which were excluded from the preceding Interlude. The movement breaks into soloistic sections, particularly for violin and double bass who have especially demonic and virtuosic parts. 5 – trans . . . recalls the flute solo of ‘Dead Song’ which it now shares with the guitar to the dying accompaniment of the balance of the group. The literal meanings of the prefix “trans” are “across, beyond, crossing, on the other side.”

© Andrew Schultz, 1990.

Performance here from YouTube is by Perihelion and guests (Sonia Croucher – flute, Nigel Sabin – clarinet, Karen Schaupp – guitar, Michele Walsh – violin, Patricia Pollett – viola, and Belinda Kendall-Smith – double bass) directed by Gwyn Roberts.