Fortunat Frölich lives and works in the house of his grandparents in Zurich where classical music has always played an important role. “I would still claim that I have not been specially encouraged or supported”, explains the composer who was born in Chur when being asked why he chose his profession. “At the end of the day, it was my decision.” As a boy, he had already been so touched by a performance of the “St Matthew Passion” in the Martinskirche (Church of St Martin) in Chur that this probably laid the cornerstone for his career path. “But also a path strewn with crises and long detours when I did not want to continue with classical music.” He thus switched to pop music, but then returned to integrating the cello which he had learned to play as a child, since he wanted to do “something else”. Since he had begun to travel the world as a 17-year-old, other music cultures have been influencing him.
“All that resulted in a way of composing which had never belonged to just one direction.” This had been a problem back then because you ended up being neither here nor there, and that affected both the audience as well as the support. “I still considered it to be insincere to practice a uniform style and at the same time listen to Pink Floyd, Bach and romantic compositions, to make jazz and love free improvisation, and of course pop. All of the above had to be somehow be collected when I was creative.”
Fortunat Frölich had already composed three pieces which relate to Beethoven before he accepted the assignment for the “Swiss reflections on Beethoven”. He did, however, not consider himself as a Beethoven specialist or a musicologist. Still, he reckons that Beethoven composed grand works but when it came to the Variations on a Swiss Song, they were more of a “finger exercise”. “I do not understand why he even altered this folk song and no other harmony resulted from that, for example.” Variations could be seen as an exercise of creativity: How much imagination do I have to say the same thing in ten different ways? “That was, for me, a rather boring and much too classical approach.”
This involved being stuffy, Fortunat Frölich continues, deep in thought. “And there is this little folk song and the little story which is totally trivial: Maiden and lad who cannot have each other and he goes to war and such like.” He did not understand what was so interesting when it comes to such bourgeoisie. It is only possible to fully understand the Biedermeier epoch if you grasp “that the spark is actually the interesting part in the big explosion. “Basically, all of this contains this paradox – to be insignificant and magnificent at the same time. Art deals with the depth of things and their significance.” The attention that Beethoven gave to the small melody from Switzerland was significant and thus went in the direction of the deepening of a seemingly unimportant detail. Frölich thinks it is great that Beethoven “spent time on this small song at least a whole morning long and made something out of it.” You realise that he took the song seriously because it was carefully elaborated. “Others also take it seriously, it is played and carried forwards – and that is great.”
Even the little love story was magnificent even though there were innumerable stories just like it. “Because, if it really happens, then what happens is: infinite.” This created a stark contrast to a simple song which is why he simply integrated its simple melody into his composition. “And I wanted to make the entire explosiveness which is in this simple song sound.” What explosiveness? Fortunat Frölich answers with a grave emphasis: “A girl with beautiful plaids. – He fell in love. – The father says: She is still too young. – Rationality which runs in and ruins everything.
Regarding the musical approach, Fortunat Frölich points out that he found it appealing to break up the very structured and intellectualised approach of Beethoven and to put it in relation to the emotional content. Still it was typical that Beethoven was not telling the story in his variations. “He simply uses the melody but he is indifferent when it comes to the content. That is why I tell the story and in such a grave and serious manner that musicians are challenged, not only as instrumentalists but also as performing artists. They had to start with a rap, so to speak: Es-hät-en-Pur-es-Töch-ter-li… I then tell the rest of the story with the music – Dursli and Bäbeli fall in love with each other, Dursli asks for Bäbelis hand in marriage, ‘no!’ says the father and the young people are desperate, the war drums which were already sounding throughout the entire time in the background, get louder and finally swallow everything. Then – as final credits, so to speak – the romanticised nostalgia with all of its despair that love always hurts so much.”
Fortunat Frölich was particularly fascinated by the metrics of the folk song. “Two triple times were followed by a quadruple time, and then, at the end, another triple time”. This rather unusual form for a folk song would only emerge “if you split the melody notated continually in a two-quarter time into its phrases: tagetege ta-te ta, tagetege ta-te ta, tagetege tagetege tagetege ta-te ta. That is why it was clear to me that the piece had to get into this rhythm at the beginning of the piece on the piano, because that is already the war theme and theme of departure.” Then the falling-in-love passage came about with a delicate point of artistic transposition: “A rather hefty duet of flute and cello”. He challenged the musicians with his piece which was partially scenic, nearly an opera. “It stimulates me to scratch the style of classical concerts.”
An excerpt of his composition written in India alludes to the fact that Fortunat Frölich works with a certain contradictoriness. “It goes to chaos but also sounds sweet and well-behaved”, he confirms. “I work with polarities in order to create tension. I am interested in contrasts and the transitions between them. The transitions are possibly the most interesting aspect of my music. In this area where I do not know myself how I get from A to B because the positions are that remote from one another because A might be the rationality of the father and B the despair and anger of the young people – I get excited by this polarity and become creative.” He gets bored quickly when he can predict a musical development. As a consequence, he did not want to tie himself down too much in terms of style. “I always found the claim to write and create in a certain style to be absurd. I love stylistic intertwinings.”
Just like in some of his more recent works, Fortunat Frölich also deploys rhythmic vocal sounds of the musicians. “I do this in order to make the musicians be even more personally linked to the content of my compositions and so that the musicians address the audience even more directly”. He also considered this to be a little provocation to break up the “classical element where everything was so well-ordered, and the content sometimes disappears in the form”. He thus also hopes that the musicians particularly exude the following on stage: “We are enjoying this – and we hope you, too”. Deep in thought, he adds: “That is all. And that is a lot.”
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.