Program Notes: Madness and Betrayal

Heather Betts, Intimate Decisions 1996, 210 x 160 cm, oil, charcoal, pigment and shellac on canvas.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 3, Scene 2.

Program Notes

Brett Dean (b. 1961)
Intimate Decisions for solo viola (1996)

This piece for solo viola was commissioned by the German violist (and my Berlin Philharmonic colleague) Walter Küssner as part of a CD project of works for solo viola with a Canadian recording company.

As the title implies, this is music of a private nature, and I must say I found the task of writing a work for a single string instrument strangely akin to writing a personal letter or having an intense discussion with a close friend. The name Intimate Decisions comes from a painting by my wife, the Australian painter Heather Betts.

—Brett Dean

Brett Dean
Text by Matthew Jocelyn
“And once I played Ophelia” for string quartet and piano (2013)

Matthew Jocelyn’s text utilizes not only Ophelia’s own words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also words directed towards, or said about her, from the confronting invective of Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” or his exalted love poem, “Doubt thou the stars are fire” through to the condescending life directives handed out by her father, Polonius (“Best safety lies in fear”; “Do not believe his vows”) and Gertrude’s lyrical description of her suicide. (“There is a willow…”)

Through a suite of five short movements performed without a break, a concise portrait of Shakespeare’s troubled and elusive young character emerges. As we discussed the shape of the work, Matthew and I saw it increasingly as an examination of what remains in our memory and understanding of this secondary, yet utterly pivotal role “after all the Ophelias have played Ophelia.”

Though traditionally portrayed as a meek, even weak character, often dressed in flowing white robes and unable to defend herself before the pressures of Elsinore cause her to snap, I’ve often felt that much of what she says betrays a feistier personality than the one we often are presented. (“And I that sucked from his musicked vows…”)

And perhaps, just perhaps, Ophelia drowns not from a romantically-fed whim or madness, but simply because of the pure weight of the words others say about her caught irrevocably in her pockets.

Hence I sensed the drama of a string quartet complemented by a high soprano voice, at times in combat with the forces around her, at times lulled, accompanied, even defeated by them, formed a suitable musical metaphor for this “ministering angel” and the strange, beguiling spell she casts over us.

—Brett Dean

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
String Quartet No. 2, for soprano and string quartet in F-Sharp Minor, Op.10 (1907-1908)

Schoenberg’s manuscript of his Second String Quartet’s third movement is dated during the days of his wife Mathilde's affair with Richard Gerstl, a painter and neighbor.

"With my energy gone and my vitality at an end, it is very likely that I shall soon follow the path, find the resolution, that at long last might be the highest culmination of all human actions."

 "I have cried, behaved like someone in despair...had thoughts of suicide and almost carried them out, have plunged from one madness to a word, I am totally broken."

—Arnold Schoenberg, from the draft of a will written during the time of Mathilde’s affair quoted in Joseph Auner’s A Schoenberg Reader, Yale University Press

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