Duration: ca. 145'
Program Note by Andrew Farach-Colton
Like many composers before him, Michael Hersch finds inspiration in poetry. With few exceptions, though, his musical responses tend to be expressed not in song but in purely instrumental terms. Thus, after reading Christopher Middleton’s poetry and feeling an immediate artistic and spiritual kinship with the British writer’s work, the idea for a massive solo-piano cycle began to take shape. This was in the fall of 2001 at the American Academy in Berlin, where Hersch and Middleton were fellows; within a year he had settled upon the various lines of poetry that would serve as inspiration and signposts for The Vanishing Pavilions.
Hersch has called his Czeslaw Milosz-inspired set of pieces for violin and piano, the wreckage of flowers (2003), “a shattered song cycle without words” and that vivid description also fits The Vanishing Pavilions. Yet with a score of some three hundred pages and a performance time of well over two hours, the latter work is on a far larger scale. The Vanishing Pavilions is divided into two books that encompass some fifty movements. Each book has its own discernible dramatic logic and shape, yet the two are indivisible. Approximately half of the movements were composed as companions to Middleton's poetic images; these are separated by a comparable number of intermezzi unrelated to any particular text. A dense web of motivic, harmonic and atmospheric relationships binds the whole together. And the density does not merely extend horizontally, from movement to movement, but is often expressed vertically, too, in elaborate layers of distinctly articulated musical ideas and characters. It is yet another technical challenge in a work that already requires extreme digital dexterity and strength.
The Vanishing Pavilions was premiered by the composer on October 14, 2006 at Saint Mark’s Church in Philadelphia. Hersch performed the vast, intricately detailed score entirely from memory. David Patrick Stearns of The Philadelphia Inquirer described the event as one that “felt downright historic.” He added, “The long-term trajectory of The Vanishing Pavilions is from music of polarized extremes to something more integrated, but harshly mirroring how elements of daily life that were unacceptable before Sept. 11  are confronted daily. Overtly or covertly, The Vanishing Pavilions is about the destruction of shelter (both in fact and in concept) and life amid the absence any certainty. And though the music is as deeply troubled as can be, its restless directness also commands listeners not to be paralyzed by existential futility.” Stearns also praised Hersch's playing, writing that the composer "conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity."
Hersch has said that when he reads text that resonates within him, he may feel a visceral reaction, or the very words themselves may appear “like fire on the page.” If one were to generalize about the writers whose work Hersch is drawn to, including Mandelstam, Hölderlin and Milosz, in addition to Middleton, it might be fair to say that they share an unflinching, uncompromising vision; they are willing to acknowledge and grapple with the dark side of humanity.
Gentle Reader (from Middleton's 2001 collection The Word Pavilion) is not one of the texts selected by Hersch, but nevertheless illuminates how this poet and this composer are connected. In this poem, Middleton describes a serene piece of music that "brings to life a landscape: / Of poplars by a silver river, slender trees / Shimmering ..."
Oboe, flute, and strings deliver from the air
Just such a picture, like a Claude Lorraine.
Another fifty years – with different trees The picture will be mistier, Corot.
The poet suggests that we, the gentle readers of the poem's title, are "greedy" for aural and visual images. And then, later in the poem, in an abrupt shift, there are the images and sounds we turn away from. Middleton wants us to see these, too, and to hear:
... the shouts of thugs
Clubbing to death with crowbars people
Rather shocked to find that this was happening
A few doors only from home, for no good reason ...
Hersch’s music can be similarly unsettling, raw, or even violent, yet the composer not only wants us to hear, he wants us to listen. This is what gives his music much of its power, and what makes it so challenging to come to terms with. There is much that is beautiful in Hersch's music, certainly, though sometimes it can be a terrible beauty. There are no shimmering reflections, no Corot-like landscapes in The Vanishing Pavilions. Yet, in a sense, the music’s emotional clout is a direct product of the composer’s dogged truthfulness.
There are pieces of comparable size in the keyboard literature—Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (1944) and Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories (1981) are notable examples. Though, really, in terms of dramatic range and emotional force, The Vanishing Pavilions is sui generis. Hersch's aforementioned description, "a shattered song cycle without words," is likely the most accurate and useful. Indeed, Hersch's cycle feels closer in spirit to, say, Schubert's Die Winterreise than to either Vingt Regards (an act of intense, ecstatic spiritual contemplation) or Triadic Memories (an aural organism whose movements are mesmeric, sublime). It's "shattered" in the sense that the unfolding narrative concerns the exploration and development of a state of mind rather than story-telling in any traditional sense. Along this epic journey, the composer serves not as a detached guide but as an active participant. And perhaps this is the ultimate source of the music's power. Exhilaration, terror, awe, despair, rapture—Hersch doesn't just confront us with these sensations, he experiences them with us.
Shooting scales and exploding clusters of notes (both created from the same pattern of pitches) flash by at a frantic tempo. Note how the vivid freshness of Middleton's image, "the snows ignite," is matched by the dazzling originality of the piano writing: the scales and clusters dance off each other like a blinding shower of sparks.
Curt, powerful chords sputter—a jagged, daunting pile of sounds. There's no discernible design at first, though the repetition of a jerky five-note (3+2) figure suggests a pattern. Hersch marks the movement fff sempre (always very, very loud) until the final bar, where that five-note figure is heard again, hanging in the air for a mere moment as a kind of echo.
Torrents of arpeggios, chiming chords, tiny melodic shards, and breathless pauses give voice to Middleton's imagery. The piano writing might be described as Lisztian virtuosity deconstructed.
A key movement, as it will reappear later in Book I and again in Book II. Four essential ideas are presented. Three long-held notes heard at the opening, are a variant of the portentous three-note motive from Intermezzo A. Punctuating this are blasts of tone clusters, and a repeated note figure whose iterations accelerate then decelerate. A series of four exploding clusters momentarily recall the frenzy of the "the snows ignite" (No. 2), and then seven "ghostly" (the composer's description) cluster chords converge towards the keyboard's center. These four elements are varied, developed and remixed. As in Intermezzo B, note how layers of contrasting articulation create textural richness even though the actual consistency is relatively spare.
Widely spaced pitches establish an irregular, constantly shifting pattern. Nothing in this movement is predictable. Rapid, explosive clusters from "the snows ignite" help bolster the movement's dramatic arc—a trajectory that at first seems random but gradually creates an anxious inevitability.
Of all Middleton's images, few are as immediate and vivid as this one. Hersch's response is similarly direct: a stabbing chord and a plunging gesture. (This gesture, like many passages in The Vanishing Pavilions, may sound like a glissando—a scale played in a grand sweep with one finger—but actually requires note-by-note fingering.) The plunging thrust is repeated four more times, the third one cutting through a quiet, rhythmically confident tonal cadence. Following the final slice, the cadence is repeated, though now its character is almost defiant. No matter, for the knife has done its job and the movement ends with notes falling away in shards. The movement is then repeated in its entirety.
This is among the longest and most elaborate movements in Book I. The opening is marked Funèbre, and with its regular, quarter-note pulse and chordal texture, it seems connected to the threnody from Intermezzo D. Note, however, how the harmonies here are even more mournfully expressive and exploratory than in their previous incarnations (the sudden drooping of the bass to a low E-flat, for instance). The texture abruptly thins out as the pace quickens and a four-note canon in B minor is introduced. Rapidly proliferating polyphony quickly weighs the music down. The canon begins again. This time, however, the music's density and momentum are maintained, leading to an intricate, intensely expressive development of the movement's opening phrases. Yet again, the texture thins and the canon theme returns, accompanied now by a somewhat breathless, rapping figure. These two elements (canon tune and rapping accompaniment) are separated and, finally, disintegrated. From the remains come slow chimes, ascending into the chilly air.
Chords tremble and shake in frightful crescendos, leaving behind ghostly apparitions.
A progression may be discerned in the previous two poetic signposts ("On the far side of town a hospital" and "...and the dead are unappeased") from illness to death. Here, the composer continues the sequence, and the music evokes the phantom quest suggested by Middleton's text. In the opening passage, a short melodic tendril drifts in a circular current as the music leans towards B minor, providing a tonal link of sorts to No. 14. The threnody returns, accompanied by a new effect: whiplash figures snapping four octaves up to shatter in the treble. In the movement's center, the pursuit briefly quickens, though this strikingly rhythmic music is just as obsessive—and ultimately fruitless—as at the opening.
There's something of an idée fixe here, too, as much of this movement unfolds in triplets; yet there's none of the starkness that marked the previous Intermezzo. "Hazy throughout" is the composer's direction, and in spite of an onslaught of forceful accents, the music proceeds quietly and in a tentative, exploratory way.
Here begins a recapitulation or (to be less structurally allusive, perhaps) revisiting of earlier movements. The contexts and relationships are considerably altered, however, and though the music is notated identically to its twin (No. 2), it now sounds even more frenzied, desperate.
As before, No. 8.
This expansive movement is the heart of Book I, which should not be surprising as the poetic fragment that inspired it also contains the work's title. There are three main sections, beginning with a quiet introduction of improvisatory character. Two features stand out in this introduction: the opening, where a single note gradually expands to become a cluster of tones, and a plaintive passage in B minor whose undulating quarter notes recall "and the dead are unappeased" (No. 18).
The second section starts abruptly with a frantic presto. Before long the bass pounds out (ffff in octaves) the stark three-note motive first heard in Intermezzo A. Soon octaves are flying in every direction until the bass suddenly latches onto a low C and the rhythm gets similarly jammed into a tight, syncopated groove. In the midst of this maelstrom, an elemental theme emerges in the piano's tenor register. Several rounds of violent, rising chord clusters try to dislodge the bass C from its spot. They eventually succeed, and for a few moments the music seems to deflate. Then it implodes.
After a brief silence, the bass slips down to B, anchoring a new passage whose effortful, rising melodic steps establish a familiarly funereal character (see No. 21), and include yet another reappearance of the threnody. In the movement's final bars, B minor and B Major sonorities are intermingled—an ambiguity that appears to reflect the poem's last lines.
Book I began with a Prelude and ended with an Intermezzo; Book II begins and ends with movements directly inspired by Middleton's poetry. There is little or nothing introductory about this movement. It's relatively extensive, as befits the text, and in a sense picks up where Book I left off. Indeed, most of the musical material in this movement has been presented previously. The converging chord clusters are adapted from "Here the huge root spread," and woven into these is a variant of the threnody. The chiming chord that both opened and closed Book I sounds yet again, heralding the return of other elements from Intermezzo J layered in dense counterpoint. At the movement's end, twelve chord clusters are furiously pounded out; the music is, literally, clobbered into silence.
In the first section: bounding upward leaps and stabbing chord clusters, then the sighing figure from the preceding Intermezzo is recalled. A faster middle section with breathless, syncopated chords suggests hounding nightmares. Note the mini- clusters that swoop up and down the keyboard (another variant of "the snows ignite," perhaps?). The tempo slows again for a brief coda that refers back to the threnody and puts the sighing figure in a new context.
As in Book I, No. 6.
As in Book I, No. 12. Here, however, the composer has appended a new coda. The cadential phrase heard previously is no longer slashed and severed; shards fall, but the tonal fragment survives and quietly reasserts itself. After a brief silence, the entire movement is repeated. And another addendum: the oddly immobile figure that concluded Intermezzo C has been lifted from the depths and now serves as an eerie benediction. The composer marks these bars, "hollow, icy.”
Gusts of notes swirl around restless silences. The movement is played twice, and the second time the composer asks that the music's character be "slightly more unsettled and agitated."
As before, in Nos. 8 and 24 of Book I.
As before, in Nos. 2 and 22 of Book I.
The first page of the score of this movement offers a glimpse of the emotional extremes the composer aims to convey. Chord clusters in the treble are marked pianissimo; the pianist is instructed to use the una corda pedal, which gives the sound a covered, fragile quality. By contrast, a subsequent flash of 20 notes—to "be played as fast as possible"—is marked ffff (i.e., maximum volume).
This movement can be divided into four main sections. In the opening, chord clusters and glissando-like whiplashes are joined by a continuing development of the threnody and sighing, lyrical phrase (from Intermezzo K). In the second, slightly faster section, an undulating sequence of steady quarter notes suggests a drugged dreaminess. Hersch piles on layers of material (contrapuntal lines, chords, clusters), building and sustaining an immense climax. And even after it peaks, a tide of throbbing chords keeps the music churning. Next, the portentous three-note motive (originally from Intermezzo A) becomes the head of a long melody pounded out in octaves, starting in the bass then leaping passionately into the treble. When the wave finally subsides, the opening cluster chords and whiplash scales return. The movement ends with the lyrical, sighing phrase—a concise, consolatory gesture.
As in Intermezzo O, the writing here is rhythmically regular—an unbroken chain of quarter notes runs throughout—and the textural simplicity initially suggests that harmony has the upper hand. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that melody and harmony have equal prominence; in fact, they are inextricably entwined, just as in the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Offbeat bass chimes can't quite manage to drive the music's trajectory off-course, though they do cause the tonal harmonies to contract into tight-fisted clusters. The movement is repeated in its entirety.
A virtuosic optional movement built from the triplet figures of the previous Intermezzo.
Big, aching chords trace a broad, lamenting melody. Grand gestures and the music's textural fullness suggest a long-anticipated, epic summation. The tone shifts slightly with the introduction of a measured, hesitant, somewhat awkward march whose melodic outline recalls the central section of "And in The Inferno" (No. 41). An extensive development of the march leads to an overwhelming climax, marked fffff—the loudest point in the score. From the remains of this devastating explosion we hear a familiar strain: the rising, B minor figure from the conclusion of "Let them be the vanishing pavilions" (No. 26). But soon this procession, too, is obliterated. Cluster chords (from "Here the huge root spread") now diverge, leaving behind a gray haze of destruction. And with a single, violent crack, like the shot of a rifle—silence.
As before, though in its extended version (No. 34), and with an acrid tone-cluster added to the "hol-low, icy" codetta.
The final movement is also the most straightforward—thirty-six explosive chords slowly ascend to the upper end of the keyboard—yet it's the most difficult to describe. Is it a leave-taking? A transformation? An epiphany? An act of purification? There is but one certainty: For The Vanishing Pavilions, this is the only—the inevitable—conclusion.
Andrew Farach-Colton is a regular contributer to Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News, and The Strad. His essays and analytical notes have appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic, BBC Proms, and the San Francisco Opera, as well as in CD booklets of Decca and Harmonia Mundi recordings.