Moses, Luther, Esterházy

08. December 2017

The Reformation Memorial Committee commissioned a ‘Bach cantata’ from Zoltán Jeney on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The new work is performed at the closing concert of the commemorative year, in the Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy on 19 December 2017. Zoltán Jeney spoke to us about the composition.

When today a composer sets off writing a cantata along the lines of Bach, right at the outset the compilation of the libretto raises questions. What sort of libretto can be compiled for a modern ‘Bach cantata’?

Salamon Kamp came to my assistance and gave me the structural description of the evangelical service of worship. I decided to follow this because it provides sufficient room for manoeuvre. I am retaining the trinity – Old Testament readings, Epistles and the Gospel – of Biblical passages known from the Catholic liturgy, but I have given myself some leeway in the selection of the Biblical passages. Luther posted his Ninetyfive Theses to the door of Wittenburg church in 1517. If I think about this time, the closest Hungarian parallel I can come up with is the peasant revolt led by Dózsa, and the Battle of Mohács. The Biblical passages of Bach’s cantatas reflected contemporary realities; Bach also used the poetry of his own age. When talking of Dózsa, what comes to my mind is Ferenc Juhász’s The Prodigal Country – which is by György Spiró’s reckoning one of Hungarian literature’s greatest poems – from which I selected a couple of phrases. From here it wasn’t difficult to link to other texts. When I received the request it was around the time that Péter Esterházy died. Although I had read all his books, still the few sentences that László Dés quoted in his necrology stuck in my mind: “Who are You, My Lord God, and who am I? […] I look at my homeland and a stranger looks back at me.” This could equally have been voiced at the time of György Dózsa as today. One likes to select a text so as not only to have a historical context. In addition, I used two or three sentences from Oratorium Balbulum by Péter Eötvös, those that Eötvös did not set to music.


Zoltán Jeney. Photo: József Huszti


So, not only are liturgical elements and Biblical extracts given a significant role in the libretto, but contemporary Hungarian literature as well, and the chorales represent a further layer.

In my cantata, even the Old Testament and New Testament passages are commentaries on each other. I selected those texts that speak of reception and rejection. The Bible is full of them. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says: “I was a stranger and ye took me not in.” I quote Moses in the preaching: “Moreover, thou shalt not do injury to a stranger, […], for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This links to the Esterházy text as a commentary on the words of Moses. The lines of Moses are sung, but Esterházy’s are in prose, in place of ‘preaching’.

Going through the libretto, it is clear that this work is in several languages, just like Funeral Rite. Was this done for reasons of the music or the intellectual aura given by different tongues?

The language of the Old Testament is Hebrew, while the New Testament is inevitably in Greek and Latin. The Reformation opened up the Bible to mother tongues, in Luther’s case German. However, Luther did not ban the use of Latin or Greek in services; the important thing was for people to understand. Preaching explained everything. The German language is unavoidable because of the chorales. Where the original text is Hungarian, then naturally Hungarian is heard. It may be that this will prove an obstacle to the work’s performance abroad, but even then I refuse to put to music Hungarian text in another language. It has a lengthy Reformation-period verse; in effect, the 16 stanzas run simultaneously in the eight parts. Here, musically speaking, I deliberately want to achieve the effect of tumult. The idea came from the scene in the churchyard from the Hungarian film Szindbád. There it is impossible to understand everything, at best one or two words, but that is sufficient.

What attracts you to the simple, four-part Bach chorales, and how do your works composed in their image compare to the original Bach patterns?

I composed the first such chorale, Ach, Gott und Herr, on the death of Reinhardt Oehlschlägel,  founder and editor-in-chief of the contemporary music periodical MusikTexte. The basic idea was for the chorale soprano part to continuously descend chromatically: every line drops by a semitone, while all the chords still preserve the Bach harmony transposed for soprano. The result is remarkably familiar music that still manages to resemble nothing else. Bach’s declamation is preserved, even on the string quartet. Of all my works this was perhaps the most surprising I have done. The feeling is that one has already heard everything of this music and, still, it is as though one has never heard it before. The next chorale, Was hast du verbrochen, was in memory of Ildikó Vékony, who died in 2009. It was a tragedy I have still not come to terms with. Here, I made up a modern melody in soprano and then transposed the Bach harmonies onto the sounds of this.

How far do the musical structures or style of the new work resemble Funeral Rite?

The scale of the two works is completely dissimilar. Music history, however, was present throughout. In the German edition, the beginning of one of the epigrams ‘Mensch, glaube dies gewiss’ is perhaps the most elementary Silesius sentence: “Without God you are dead, however long you live.” The word ‘Mensch’ invariably brings to my mind the alto solo of Mahler’s third symphony. Whether this makes it a Mahler homage, I don’t know. At the end of the work there is a part from the apostle Paul’s hymn of love, but I still don’t know if this will be the closing movement. After all, until the work is complete, the planned structure itself can always change.

Zoltán Farkas