Let’s get ready
Just like most musicians I suppose, when I started to work on the score of Holofernes by Emil Nikolaus von
REZNICEK, to be totally honest, I knew very little about his music other than his opera Donna Diana.
What I discover was an incredibly talented and imaginative composer who seems at home using so many different languages, styles and composition techniques. With such a wide pallet of expressions, he uses and mixes all these elements in a very personal way, with a clear intention to adapt each musical moment to the needs of the drama on stage, regardless of the contrast of the different esthetics involved. Because of Reznicek’s great sense for theater, he didn’t seem to fear at all to go back and forth (sometimes with absolutely no transition or “warning”) between stylistically extremely contrasting elements that could be as far apart as the twelve-tone scale and the pure tonic/dominant relationship of a simple major key. A very good demonstration of that is found in the introduction to Judith’s first aria where her inner troubles are expressed by a very unstable “almost perfect” twelve-tone series that could have been written by Schoenberg, but only to lend in the most surprising way on a pure D major chord on the word “Gott”. This already gives us a hint on Reznicek choices throughout the piece.
Tonal music in this work, generally in a major key refers to the idea of the divine and also to the concept of redemption through God. The hymn at the end of Act 1 is a good example as well as the music following Judith’s suicide at the very end of the opera, which could seem at first surprisingly peaceful for such a dramatic situation. It is true that Reznicek doesn’t waste any time in telling us this story (she’s dead, rest in peace… all of that in less than 12 bars!!!). In both cased, the sudden appearance of a perfectly tonal musical moment gives an impression of purity and total release of any sort of harmonic tensions that have been build up to this point. This is the main idea/principle inspiring Reznicek both musically and dramatically for his entire opera.
On the other end of the spectrum, the hard and merciless personality of Holofernes is described by the use of a scale where there is no tonal pole or harmonic attraction and where all relationships between each note of the scale are equal: the whole-tone scale. There is no negotiation possible here!!! This leads, among other things, to one of the most original “drinking song” ever written in the middle of the second act.
One of the main themes of the opera is the seduction and the feminine beauty, which is better expressed by a more chromatic context that will not only be used for Judith’s music but also in Holofernes aria at the beginning of Act 2 where he speaks about his own “not so beloved” mother.
Reznicek was not only a master of so many different musical languages but also had an admirable understanding of the orchestra. There are so many passages in his opera where he manages to create some incredible and beautiful atmospheres with his personal choices of instrumental combinations. One of the best example of that is found in the middle of the Act 2 “Tanz nummer” where the role described in the score as “a female voice” sings an arietta accompanied in Bb minor by the harp, cymbals and some melodic comments from woodwinds and, in a totally different key, some punctuated chords from the strings playing harmonics doubled by the celesta. This creates an amazing mysterious effect using bitonality.
When listening to this opera for the first time, one can have an impression of listening to a work written in many different languages, each one being linked to a specific character, an idea, an emotion or a situation. In that sense, Reznicek’s music makes me think a little bit of the music of Janacek. In both cases, very often the structure of a piece seems to be made of blocks, which at first sight don’t seem to belong together. But the very juxtaposition of these different blocks is totally part of the expression of these two composers.
In Holofernes, Reznicek tells the story based on Hebbel in a very effective and “forward” way. Where Wagner would have taken thirty minutes to express and describe a situation, Reznicek takes thirty seconds. This amplifies the surprises created at first by so many contrasting elements throughout this work and gives us a 85 minute opera that takes you through an incredibly concise, rich and varied musical and theatrical experience.
I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we enjoyed working on it!!!
Who is Reznecek?
His brother Ferdinand drew some really funny pictures:
How does Emils music sound? Well, here’s one example: The Ouverture to his opera “Donna Diana”, also used as theme song for the TV show “Sergeant Preston.” Wonderful stuff. Enjoy!
Osias, Oberpriester von Bethulien – Daniel Pannermayr
Judith – Johanni van Oostrum
Abra, ihre Magd – Ceri Williams
Holofernes – Mark Morouse
Achior, Hauptmann des Holofernes – Johannes Mertes
1. Hauptmann – Jonghoon You
2. Hauptmann – Nicholas Probst
3. Hauptmann – Sven Bakin
Assad, ein Bürger – Eduard Katz
Daniel, sein Bruder – Josef Michael Linnek
Gesandter von Mesopotamien – Martin Tzonev
Ein Trabant – Egbert Herold
Eine weibliche Stimme – Nina Unden
Tänzerin – Karioca
The production will take place at the Opera Bonn. The opening night will be on Sunday the 29th of may 6pm.
The story of the opera revolves around Judith, a beautiful jewish woman with a very special relationship to GOD. Her town is besieged by troops of King Nebuchadnezza under the of command General Holofernes. Judith goes with her loyal maid Abra to the camp of the enemy general, and seduces him. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him and the Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved.