Johannes von Märland—my alter ego—has consistently provided me with sparks that ignite the musical muse. His adventures are documented in his personal diaries. Below are some of my favorite entries and narratives.
(Click on underlined names to hear the inspired work. )
From the diary of eminent musicologist Johannes von Märland (b. 1890 [sic]):
Oberniederheim, October 13, 2006:
“A very strange night: I had been up late in the University archives studying scores of Strauss and Schoenberg. Having lost track of time, I missed the last bus to the outskirts and had to find my way home on foot. The night was cold, foggy; I took the shortcut over the wet dirt road that leads along the old church cemetery. As I walked by, I could just make out the crooked silhouettes of crumbling gravestones through the thick mist. And then something else: figures, loosely covered by thin gray shrouds, rising from the stones. At first it seemed they were simply stumbling, groping, aimlessly staggering about. But soon their movements took on a more deliberate tone, as if they were trying to form lines or circles, trying to bring order to their movements. Alas, the task escaped them, and they instead began to flail, working themselves into a frantic, almost violent swirl of frenzy. But just when it seemed that they would consume one another in the fray, the fog suddenly cleared. The light of the full moon burst down upon them, and, like the whip of a lion tamer, subdued them into stillness before they slipped back under the soggy ground.
But two of the figures remained, hobbling, reaching out into the silvery night; and then they found each other. Tentatively at first, they began to step, to hop, to twirl, finally to dance, and with the most ungainly loveliness. The strange beauty of their awkward gliding mesmerized me, and I watched as they held fast to one another, turning, whirling, leaping unsteadily; until they, too, finally spun themselves back into the wet earth. I stood a bit longer, gazing out onto the field of stones; only the moon and a few wisps of mist remained.”
May 2, 2014:
I was hiking alone in the woods east of Oberniederhiem. At the forest’s edge was a Heather, a vibrantly colorful field of flowers and insects, all of which were dancing a jig in and out of and around each other; a bright, pulsating tumble of a dance that I watched with a smile of fascination.
As I wandered into the forest itself, I heard a gentle wind rustling the leaves, with sounds and bits of song fluttering about; and echoing from the trees, a soft and oldish melody, an aire in the Air, strummed, sung, hummed. The tune became more solid, more defined, adding layers, crystallizing into a hymn of richly dense sonic stone. In the end, though, the layers dissipated, stone evaporated, and the song was sent back into the breeze.
I climbed higher into the foothills. At some point, I found a dense, colorful rock on the ground. Suspecting that there might be something of value in the rock, I started chipping away at it with my pickaxe. Indeed, it split open, revealing a lovely Gem: a perfectly tuned major third.
Once I reached the high, cold mountains, I came upon a small ice-cave. As I inhaled the thin air, I looked around the cave. Embedded in one of the walls was a waltz, a Relic from an earlier time. It was a bit distorted in places, somewhat twisted from years of being frozen in slowly moving ice; but it was still recognizable. I tried to free it but could only get part of it out; I listened and danced a bit as it swirled away into the purple sky.
As eminent musicologist Johannes von Märland was exploring dusty corners of the catacombed archives at Kloster Oberniederheim in early 2009, he stumbled upon this oddity—a traditional dance pairing that seemed a bit confused. An excerpt from his lecture given to students at the Mittelhochschule Oberniederheim the following week reveals more:
“The Saltarello, a fast-paced dance often in six-eight meter, has been in existence since at least the 1300s. Its early form was that of an Estampie (Ax Ay Bx By…). In later centuries, when the practice of pairing dances became widespread, the Saltarello was often preceded by a Passamezzo, a slower, more elegant dance in four-four meter. Here, however, both the pairing and the Estampie form itself have been somewhat distorted, while the character of each dance type is, to a degree, still maintained: the Passamezzo appears in the middle of the Saltarello, while the strict Ax Ay, etc-form of the latter dance gradually gets truncated, is mixed up with the Passamezzo near the end, and finally collapses altogether.”
When eminent musicologist Johannes von Märland discovered this work in 2006 in the catacombed archives of the cloister at Oberniederheim, he was intrigued. Such anachronism!: an Alba, that loveliest of troubadour song forms that invokes the dawn, birds, distant bells, and the pain of lovers departing. Only here, there were no words; instead, it was to be performed on an instrument that did not even exist in the Middle Ages, and accompanied by an ensemble the likes of which de Bornelh could ever have conceived. And what a strange thing to attempt: a lyrical, impassioned song for the contrabass, known neither for its lyricism nor its passion. Yet von Märland wondered how fascinating this oddity might sound in the hands of a fine soloist and orchestra . . .
Other Program Notes
Summer in Minnesota. The sun is setting, the broad sky is clear, and the cool light of dusk promises a welcome respite from the day’s heat and humidity. You step out into the stillness and stand, gazing at the orange-red horizon, thankful for the dimming light and approaching night. And then they come. Those insidious little creatures, those vile insects that define and destroy the season: the mosquitoes. Only some at first, few enough to make you think that if you swat them away, you can still enjoy the evening air. But then more come, and more, and even more. They whine, you moan, they sting, you slap, they swarm, you flail. Soon, your body a mass of swelling welts, you realize that the twilight peace you had hoped for when you left your house is a sham, an impossible illusion shattered by the piercing terror of those infernal exsanguinators. Angry and itching, you run back inside and slam the door shut.
High in the Glarner Alps, in Switzerland’s northeastern canton Glarus, lies the village of Braunwald. Home to farmers and cowherds, the craggy peaks, dense forests, and open fields surrounding this mountain town are also home to a population of kindly but rather shy dwarves. The most well-known among them is Baartli, a modest, friendly, and reluctantly adventurous creature whose greatest love is the beautiful Swiss countryside.
This solo piano work, a “tonlegendchen” with a bit of dwarfish swing, follows Baartli on one of his adventures as told by the native Glarner dwarf-chronicler Lorly Jenny. Spring has come, the snow is melting, and Baartli is wandering among the fields and trees. He meets a fellow dwarf who tells him that at the third hoot of the nightowl, all dwarves are invited to the dwarf-king’s castle for a ball. When he hears the hoots, Baartli scrambles to get ready and makes his way to the high plateau on which the castle lies, joining a long procession of solemn and ceremoniously dressed dwarves entering the king’s stony home. Once inside, the ceremony gives way to dancing, accompanied by a band of amateur musicians (most dwarves are herders by trade) who seems to have a very hard time staying together. Joy is had by all; but Baartli and his companions know that, before the moon sets behind the peaks, they must all be home and in bed or suffer the worst of all consequences for any dwarf: the loss of his beard.. The moon sets, Baartli races home, and with a sigh of relief at having made it on time, bids us all good night: “guet Nacht mitenand.”