Ludwig van Beethoven and his “Variations on a Swiss song” have a special meaning for Katharina Weber. “These variations are among the first pieces of a great composer that I was allowed to play as a child.” The pianist and composer from Berne explains in a conversation held at the beginning of February 2020 also that music has always been important in the life of the family since the grandmother was a violinist and the grandfather nearly had become a pianist.
Katharina Weber still considers Beethoven’s variations to be very intriguing since each of them was very characteristic. “And I asked myself whether Beethoven had also referenced the lyrics for example with the partly march-like, then again, the very soft, lyrical parts.” The story of the original song therefore stood at the start of her deliberations how she could implement the composition assignment. The lyrics are about Dursli who wants to marry Babeli but is rejected by her parents because Babeli was still too young and Dursli therefore goes to Flanders to serve in a foreign war.
This story touched Katharina Weber immediately which is why the idea to take it as a basis was obvious. “It is a tragic love story if you consider that even today many people have to leave their homes.” She also personally views the story as a metaphor for love as an ideal: “He promises that he is going to hold on to it all of his life”. It was ultimately about the polarity between realistic constraints and idealistic desires.
During the Christmas holidays in 2019, Katharina Weber developed not only the basic concept of the piece and started to write down notes in an improvising manner. “I decided then to use the clarinet as an individual vis-à-vis the strings which act, in a way, as the family of Babeli, or society itself. The piano part was going to relate to the variations by Beethoven but not to the harmony; instead, to the rhythmical variants so that it is possible to recognise Beethoven.” “A completely different world of sound” should, however, prevail, and that is how we get to John Cage.
Katharina Weber tells me how the composer Urs Schneider once talked a lot about Cage in his lessons. “He told me that Cage did not like Beethoven and his strife for higher things and the search for faraway loved ones that Mozart was much grounded in life. He created a polarity between Beethoven and Mozart which occupied me a lot back then.” The first modern pieces which Katharina Weber played at the age of about 13 years with the piano teacher Janka Wyttenbach, the wife of the composer Jürg Wyttenbach, were works by Cage. “We played the piano pieces by Cage which I had first practised on the normal pianoforte at home, and then on a specially prepared pianoforte in the Conservatory – it sounded so different that really was a special experience.”
Now, Katharina Weber refers to John Cage in her composition by alienating the piano sound with magnets on the piano strings just like Cage had developed in “Sonatas and Interludes”. Cage was important to her “because he taught us to accept happenstance.” She did not want to play off the monument of modern times against the two of the past, Beethoven and Mozart. She was rather trying to bring these three together.
A good month after the Christmas period, Katharina Weber established quite a few things. The sound of the strings which represent the family, should result in harmonious structures. The clarinet as a solo instrument should, however, appear in a melodic manner and add movement – “as an individual which is fighting and searching the way”. She was, however, also using the double bass as a counterpart to the “family” of violin, viola and cello, to represent the captain who was signing on Dursli as a mercenary. The fact that the father does not want to release his daughter under any circumstances and Dursli still does not give up his set goal is something the composer wants to hint at throughout the entire piece by the flageolet sounds of the violin which appear very distant, an enormous vastness like the sky”.
Katharina Weber now tries to imagine how the individual instruments should sound and then checks them at the piano; including the notes that she had already written down. She continues to do so until the used notes and rhythms “hold” as she explains with a laugh. “The tonal space of the ‘family’, for example, is first rather tight and then expands by way of the double bass which reaches low.” Of the last verse which was breaking the boundaries of a folk song so that Katharina Weber simply goes ahead and auditions them, she wants to use the whole text, spoken or sung or even as a recitative:’ U wenn der Himmel papierge wär/u jede Stern ä Schriber wär/u jede Schriber hätt siebe, siebe Händ,/si schribe doch all meiner Liebi kes End’. [And if the sky was paper and each star was a writer and each writer had seven, seven hands, they would still not be able to write an end to my love] “Of the other ten verses, I only want to use a few words so that you can just about guess the story.”
At the time of the conversation, much is still only a draft, so it is possible that a lot can still change. Katharina Weber expects nevertheless that something was going to influence her piece in a way which is typical for compositions by her: “The harmonious space which I intend to create with the strings is similar to the space in another one of my pieces where the flute plays a soloist role.” Katharina Weber is also sure that this is going to be a composition laid down into the last detail even though she has made herself known with improvised music, too. “It would be difficult to leave space for improvisation; also because it is a relatively large ensemble and there is only little time (for practice).” She had a clear idea how her composition should sound. “And yet, I am pleased every time when I hear the actual sounds of the instruments and their sensuality.”
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, was Kaspar Zehnder who had 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 have been available for listening at radio SRF 2 Kultur in the programme “Neue Musik im Konzert” and are released on the platform Neo.mx3. The project is also documented online via the SUISAblog and the social media channels of SUISA.