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Last Autumn for horn and cello (2008)


Program Note by Aaron Grad

Michael Hersch attracted a bright spotlight early in his career. At 25, he won First Prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards, leading to a premiere in New York City’s Alice Tully Hall conducted by Marin Alsop. That same year he became one of the youngest composers ever awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music. Still before his 30th birthday he became a Rome Prize recipient, and the following year was awarded the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. Major orchestras began to regularly commission and perform his music, and Hersch’s large-ensemble catalog grew to include symphonies, concertos, and a range of other works. 

During his thirties, however, Hersch largely shifted away from orchestral music and began to explore increasingly expansive forms, trading ensemble heft for the freedom and focus of limited instrumentation. In 2001, he began what would become a pair of two vast pieces, completing the first of these, The Vanishing Pavilions, in 2005. The 2.5 hour work for solo piano in two books is built upon fragments of poetry by the British poet Christopher Middleton. Hersch premiered the 300+ page score himself—from memory. Writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, music critic David Patrick Stearns noted, “The evening felt downright historic. [Hersch] conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity. Everything unfolds in open-ended, haiku-like eruptions, though built on ideas that recur throughout the 50 movements ... Overtly or covertly, The Vanishing Pavilions is about the destruction of shelter - both in fact and concept - and life amid the absence of any certainty.”

Immediately after completing The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch turned to a sibling work, Last Autumn for horn and cello. He completed Last Autumn in 2008, and the piece was premiered the following year. For the performance of these works, and newer large-scale pieces such as his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter (2012), Hersch relies on a select cadre of singers and instrumentalists.

Cellist Daniel Gaisford is known especially for his highly regarded performances of Hersch’s two early Sonatas for Unaccompanied Cello, which Hersch completed in 1994 and 2000, respectively. Hornist Jamie Hersch has been performing his brother’s music for over twenty years. It was these two musicians and their particular skills and sensibilities that the composer had in mind when writing Last Autumn. There is one other key voice in this work, that of the late German novelist and poet W. G. Sebald (1944-2001). As in The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch has excerpted fragments of poetry, ranging from a few words to a dozen or so lines. The text fragments are placed in the score, each relating to a specific movement, though the correspondences between text and music are not necessarily literal ones. The texts are not intended to be sung or spoken, but the presence of Sebald’s rich imagery reinforces the work’s tone.

BOOK I

“The air stirs the light …” provides a violent point of entry to the sound world of Last Autumn. Both musicians are instructed to play “with great ferocity throughout.” As with other key movements, this music returns verbatim later in the piece, an approach Hersch also used in The Vanishing Pavilions. The sonic illusion is that identical passages—in this case, the first and 33rd movements—take on new meaning based on their placement in a larger context, while still echoing as familiar reference points.

After the biting prelude, the next sequence trends toward small forms and unified gestures, a trajectory matched by the poetry’s focus on singular objects: “a fig tree … a crow … a dress.” The earliest solo movements, beginning with the cello in No. 4 and continuing with the horn in No. 6, have a quality of inner dialogue, as heard in the cello’s simultaneous arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) playing, and in the horn's quick leaps between extreme ranges. Much of the music in the early stages of the work is veiled and mysterious. It is also the region of the piece with the highest concentration of movements divorced from text fragments, labeled instead with the musical headings of Scherzo, Intermezzo, Lullaby, March and Psalm.

There is an order and stability to these miniature sound worlds, and they start to reveal certain connective threads. The ferocity of the first movement has ties to Nos. 5, 8, 10 and 15—linked most clearly through rapid-fire repeated notes. Nos. 2 and 13 share a sense of distance and hollowness, with long-tones circling each other but kept apart by the harmonic friction of tight intervals. The mournful melodic strains of the fourth movement return with a new counter-line in No. 14, and also belong to the same family as the haunting Lullabies, Nos. 7 and 11. These discreet moods and sounds form the essential vocabulary of Last Autumn, and they play important and transformative roles as the piece continues to unfold. The 12th movement, Psalm, again features the cello alone in a form that traverses practically the entire range of pitches, dynamics and intensity available to the instrument.

Breaking away from unity, the poetic scale widens in the latter half of Book I, encompassing “the stars … the planets … the desert … the great city,” and concurrently the music begins to expand. Instead of singular cells, the movements become complex organisms that combine material heard earlier in the piece into evolving forms. These much larger statements establish the scope of Last Autumn as something well beyond a collection of miniatures. It will become apparent in Book II, as the piece burrows inward toward its emotional core, that the major movements late in Book I established the external boundaries and polarities of the music. One of these outer limits comes in No. 20, for solo cello, the longest and broadest movement of the entire work.

First No. 16, a daunting and extended Intermezzo for solo horn, initiates this expansion. Then the process continues in No. 17, which is linked to a text that begins with “the breaking of time.”  Up until this point forces have remained in a tenuous balance—sound and silence, singularity and multiplicity, stasis and evolution. However, movements 17, 19, and 22 especially, indicate a shift of direction, in which initially stable sounds seem compelled to mutate and veer toward a brewing cataclysm. No. 17 starts with contracting cello intervals, and the horn joins in for a line that first descends slowly but then climbs over the cello’s droning low C, building speed and intensity throughout. The process breaks off, tests other variants, and stages another long tandem climb, this time over the cello’s open G-string. When the rise falters again, the connection is lost, and the instruments work in opposition: The cello reaches high above the horn, and muscles through a solo passage; the horn traces the cello’s line a semitone off, and withdraws to taunting repetitions of a single pitch. The cello returns to the contracting intervals, getting quieter, and finally releases a frustrated bounce of the bow’s wood across all four strings.

“Darkness comes” in the last movement of Book I, No. 22. Like No. 17, it begins with the instruments joined together, this time for a somber chorale. And once more, a climbing motive reaches into unexpected ranges. The cello takes over the horn's highest pitch, and the voices battle in a counterpoint of syncopated repetitions and wild leaps. At the frantic height of the movement there is a sudden descent into the coda that soon breaks abruptly into the silence of intermission.

BOOK II

Book II begins by reaching back to the more secure and condensed mood of Book I; the first Lullaby returns, followed by three brief vignettes (the last of which distills the horn’s contribution to a single held pitch). Then the shape-shifting dissolution that marked the end of Book I re-emerges in No. 27, matched in the poem by “the cotton clouds, those white ones / into which without a word the breath / of legions of human beings had been absorbed.” No. 29 continues the disappearance: “a landscape reaches so far into the depth / that our eyes cannot see its limits,” and the music strains in the darkness, the cello executing low, rumbling double-stops, seemingly seeking release as it navigates a massive fugue. The next movements bounce through ideas—a halting and conflicted new Lullaby, three short movements recapped from Book I—as if grasping for something solid and tenable. But No. 34 washes over like another wave of disorienting fog, in which “the forest recedes, truly, / so far that one cannot tell / where it once lay.” The music is ominous and covered (an extension of the “distant” strain begun in No. 2), and full of stark pitches that stick and shudder (echoing the ferocity of No. 1). The cello’s perfect intervals (linked to the hallowed simplicity of the Lullabies) seem an almost monastic plea for relief. The deep, chattering incantations of the horn provide a new and unsettling response.

In No. 36 the wide, global imagery of the poetry zooms in to a frighteningly personal level: “I know that the old coat is tearing / and I am afraid / of the ending of time.” As with “the breaking of time” in No. 17, the music responds with increasing urgency—as if the breaking or ending of time is both the greatest fear and the inescapable fate of Last Autumn. After beginning together in a darkly harmonious chorale (recalling the texture of No. 22), the voices split apart and conclude, as Hersch instructs, with “greatest possible intensity.”

Once more, the music steps back from the void by seeking the familiar: a repeat of a simple cello solo from Book I, and a return to the searing third movement. Between those re-examinations comes a foreboding new movement, No. 38, joined to the text “… already the storm was hanging …” It also reworks material established earlier in the piece, but this time starts at maximum discord and dissolves into stasis. Where No. 36 ended with the horn rooted on the single pitch E, No. 38 finds the cello held in the gravity of a low E and G double-stop. Quavering bursts rear up again, but fail to dislodge the cello. The horn tugs with a succession of themes, but neither gentle lulls nor impassioned outbursts break the spell. The cello tries stepping out of the fixed intervals on its own; then the horn acts the major-key optimist with a G-sharp, still not breaking the E-minor harmony of the held E and G-natural. The cello is alone from this point, and ends with a glassy echo of the fixed interval.

Approaching its conclusion, Last Autumn does not deliver its listeners into comforting resolution or tidy catharsis. The penultimate movement brings “the eclipse of the sun” and “the secret sickening away of the world,” and then only emptiness is left, reflected in the closing text: “so soundlessly I glided, / scarcely moving a wing, / high above the earth.” Hersch does not mimic the external silence, or trace the poetic lift with a literal rise to the upper range. Instead, he ends with an inner world, stripped to its elemental core: The cello sustains long drones, and the horn blasts a series of low tropes, like an ancient priest executing an atavistic ritual. Even in this arcane void, the music grasps for order—momentarily coalescing around a stable triad, gathering isolated gestures into hushed melodies—and, ultimately, silence.

Aaron Grad has been the program annotator for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra since 2005. He also contributes program notes to the Cleveland Orchestra, New World Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Mariinsky Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, and the Celebrity Series of Boston.