|I. Fiercely and Bitterly Staggering||04:24|
|III. Lontano doloroso||03:34|
In 1991 Joelle Wallach was approached by one of the New York Philharmonic’s bassoonists—who had performed some of her music previously—about a commission for a new chamber work for the tenth anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Ensembles, of which he was also a member. He envisioned a septet, an octet, or a nonet. And he was particularly interested in a piece that would treat each of the instruments (including his) as a distinct musical personality, with none relegated to a subsidiary role.
“At first,” Wallach later recalled, the proposition “sounded kind of chaotic and odd to me, unless one were to write a very strictly canonic piece.” And such a work held little interest for her at that time. She accepted the commission, but allowed herself to think for a long while about how she might approach it. While still contemplating the project, she happened to be in Poland for a recording session of an unrelated orchestral work of hers. On that trip she visited Auschwitz and then proceeded to the remains of the nearby German death camp, Birkenau. In January 1945, as the Red Army was advancing westward and the liberation of the concentration and death camps in Poland seemed imminent, the Germans—apparently in an effort to destroy what evidence they could of their mass slaughter of Jews in those camps—dynamited the Birkenau gas chambers and burned the barracks. Only the chimneys remained, along with a watchtower that can now be climbed by anyone who visits the site. From the top of that tower Wallach perceived those remains as “a forest of chimneys.” Looking down upon the surrounding marsh grasses where doomed Jews had once picked blades of grass to eat, she imagined the inner songs—the internal music—of each one of those distinct people who might have foraged for a bit of grass to survive yet a while longer, but whose “music of life” was cut short. She imagined those individual and unique but soon-to-be extinguished lives as once “swirling around each other briefly.” It occurred to her that those lives—and the uniqueness of each one’s lost internal music—might be commemorated in a chamber work of the type the New York Philharmonic Ensembles had requested. And she began to envision a piece in which individual personalities would be represented by distinct musical ideas: “Some wry, some sad, some despairing, but also some that are almost folkloric,” she has explained, “different types of personalities that sort of swirl, interact, and vanish, only to return later in the piece in different guises.”
She modeled the instrumentation on the Hindemith Octet, which, in the work that became From the Forest of Chimneys, also recalls Schubert’s Octet—except for her substituting a second viola for the second violin of the latter piece in order to darken the timbre of the whole. Thus its instrumentation is clarinet in A, horn, bassoon, violin, two violas, cello, and bass.
On the day Wallach visited Birkenau, a swirling mist hovered over the landscape. “Not only were the marsh grasses twirling around each other, as far as the eye could see, but also the swirls and spirals of mist were twirling and curling around one another,” she recalled. That image suggested to her the momentary intertwining of Birkenau’s victims’ lives and their individual “inner musics,” followed by their vaporization—leaving only the memory of their cruelly truncated life song. “These curling helices of song and mist,” she continued, “are the central image of From the Forest of Chimneys.
Indeed, the melodies, musical incidents, and melodic material with which the work is infused are augmented and developed as they alternate among instruments or instrumental groupings. The moderately slow first movement exposes two basic musical ideas, introduced by the horn and clarinet. The second movement offers a dancelike contrast, with a ritardando toward its conclusion that leads to the third movement. It, too, has lively moments until, at the end, an earlier elegiac character returns—as if to pose, in the composer’s own interpretation, an unanswered (or unanswerable?) question. Constructed of several linked but distinct musical moments and gestures, with a special poignancy expressed in the bassoon’s high register, the finale brings the piece full circle to the contemplative mood of the first movement—achieving a feeling of resolute finality.
From the Forest of Chimneys received its world premiere in September 1992 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, performed by the New York Philharmonic Ensembles.
Performers: David Brickman, Violin; Kenneth Grant, Clarinet; John Hunt, Bassoon; Peter Kurau, Horn; Brad Lubman, Conductor; Melissa Micciche, Viola; Stefan Reuss, Cello; George Taylor, Viola; James Vandermark, Contrabass
Publisher: Joelle Wallach