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“As a composer, you’re always a beginner”
Photo: Manu Leuenberger
Text by guest author Markus Ganz
In his composition for the project “Swiss Beethoven reflections”, Christian Henking uses the melody of the Swiss song used by Beethoven as a basis. In his six variations, he utilises different principles.

Christian Henking respects Ludwig van Beethoven, “this monument, this granite rock in music history”. “He is a master teacher to me again and again, independent of the aesthetics; fantastic what he has formally achieved.” As a consequence, Beethoven’s “Variationen über ein Schweizerlied” (Variations on a Swiss song) irritated him even more, as he explains in a conversation at the end of January 2020. “I really don’t understand them, thought, it wasn’t possible that they were by Beethoven.”

Since the composer from Biel and Berne could not relate to these variations, he dealt with the original song, “Es hätt e Bur es Töchterli” (A farmer had a daughter once) in more detail. But that was also rather awkward, he thought the melody was strange for a folk song, and he was also missing the elegance of the “Guggisberglied” (Guggisberg song). “At the same time, though, it holds the incredible tension of the huge tonal range. Its straightforward, pulse-like nature is also rather interesting; there isn’t really a rhythm, just those quarter notes that ‘hang about’. The song therefore has a certain emptiness and thus also offers openness.” Christian Henking thus decided to base his composition on the melody of the folk song. Then he also wrote six variations, “just like Beethoven, but rather accidentally”.

Christian Henking explains that he first analysed the melody and then cut it into individual segments. “In my first four variations I regard individual segments of the song, so to speak. The last two relate to the entire song.” He therefore stayed altogether or not altogether with the material: “In the second variation, I avoid, especially when searching for this variation, all notes that occur in the original piece.”

The basic approach was to apply different work modes, respectively different principles for each variation. The concept crystallised while composing and developed further. “I knew that I wanted to compose miniatures, short variation movements. I first wrote the 5th variation. Then I realised that I did not want to begin in such a machine-like manner, and therefore did something rather unrestricted as a contrast. One consequently affected the other. And from such relativities, many interrelations arose.”

Christian Henking very often works at the desk, and composes in his head. In order to stimulate his imagination, he often plays piano or cello. “While improvising, I often get ideas, very simple. That is my old-fashioned vein; I am really rather far away from the computer when I compose, I actually write the notes by hand onto the score sheet.” This also includes that he plays all instruments of his scores himself one time. “I like to have the instrument in my fingers. Not in order to hear its sound – I am a pianist, not a string player – but to play the fingerings, sounds and bow positions myself. Strangely, it helps me compose when I apply the haptics in this context even if it was not necessary; it provides me with a kind of grounding.”

Christian Henking selected the combination of strings trio with flute on the one hand because he wanted a small instrumentation so that no conductor was needed. He does, on the other hand, mainly find this instrumentation fascinating. “I have a close relationship with string trios per se. And then the flute joins in, as a kind of outsider, and melts with the sound of the trio.”

You must not expect a “typical Henking composition”. He rather sees “the task of a composer to look at each piece as if it was new, since as a composer, you are always a beginner”. Christian Henking has even started from scratch for each of his variations within the piece and consciously worked with different approaches and techniques: “This is what makes up the art of composing”. To start from scratch also signified to have a heap of possibilities ahead of oneself. Facing so many freedoms, one would have to reflect. He then also sees the risk to select and use a means or a method too quickly because it has worked in one place and has already been tried and tested before. “Routine is a risk and I fight against this with each note.”

During the conversation at the end of January 2020, the composition process had already been mostly concluded. “Everything is here now”, explains Christian Henking and points to numerous score sheets. “I will rethink everything again so that it is possible I apply corrections and other alterations.” Then, however, the composition will be finished into the last detail. Compared to other works, Christian Henking does not grant the performers any freedoms here.

Christian Henking was born in Basel in 1961. He studied music theory at the Conservatory Berne under Theo Hirsbrunner; Ewald Körner trained him to be a chapel master. After that, he studied composition with Cristobal Halffter and Edison Denisov, in master courses with Wolfgang Rihm and Heinz Holliger. He received various awards, among them the Culture Award of the Bürgi-Willert-Stiftung (2000), Acknowledgment Award of the Canton Berne (2002) and the Music Award of the Canton Berne (2016). He is a lecturer at the University of the Arts, Bern, for composition, theoretical subjects and chamber music.
Swiss Beethoven reflections: A project by Murten Classics and SUISA on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven had not much to do with Switzerland. He did, however, write “Six variations on a Swiss song” (Sechs Variationen über ein Schweizerlied), namely the folk song “Es hätt e Bur es Töchterli” (A farmer had a daughter once). This is the starting point for the composition assignments which the summer festival Murten Classics and SUISA allocated to eight Swiss composers of different generations, aesthetics and origin.

Oscar Bianchi, Xavier Dayer, Fortunat Frölich, Aglaja Graf, Christian Henking, Alfred Schweizer, Marina Sobyanina and Katharina Weber had a choice of basing their work on the variations, the folk song used by Beethoven or Beethoven in general. The compositions were written for the ensemble Paul Klee which allows for the following maximum instrumentation: Flute (also piccolo, G- or bass flute), clarinet (in B or A), violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

The initiator of this project, launched in 2019, is Kaspar Zehnder who has been Artistic Director of Murten Classics for 22 years. Due to the corona crisis and the measures ordered by the authorities, it was not possible to hold the 32nd instalment of the festival in August 2020 or the scheduled replacement festival in the winter months that followed. The “SUISA day” with eight compositions of this project was performed and recorded nevertheless, without an audience, on 28 January 2021 in the KiB Murten. The recordings are available for listening at radio SRF 2 Kultur in the programme “Neue Musik im Konzert” (5 May 2021, 9pm) and will be released on the platform Neo.mx3. The project will also be documented online via the SUISAblog and the social media channels of SUISA.

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