Defy the Old Dragon

Review of Absage by Heinrich Böcker in Viola da gamba, newsletter of the Viola da Gamba Gesellschaft, no. 118, April 2021 (transl. Edith Kimbell):

Since autumn there was no end to the continuous lockdown. Birds were singing again and lawn mowers rumbled in gardens – but everyone stayed at home. Visiting was only possible with members of two other households. Playing in consorts was out. Absage – cancelled.

Only our small viol trio in Lübeck was permitted to meet under these restrictions, but even it had not met in months. When there were signs this spring that we would soon be permitted to play together again, our telephone lines hummed with planning for our next meeting. We quickly agreed that this was less the time for Gibbons, Morley, Hely or Nicolai, instead it was time for the [two] “Absage” compositions that were created last year in response to the challenge by the Viola da Gamba Gesellschaft. [The challenge was to write a fugue or fantasia on the following theme:]

[ABSAGE means “cancellation”, the sad fate of so many concerts.]

During the summer of 2020 we had already played Ratzkowski’s Corona-Ouverture und wanted to put it back on our stands.

But there was also this piece for three viols by Michael A. Kimbell on the VdGG music exchange site. The title is “Absage” with the subtitle “Ach lang, wie lange ist dem Herzen bange” (Oh how long, how long is my heart filled with anxiety). The themes used are clearly stated and can readily be seen even on a first glance at the music. But one also sees a pile of chromatic notes and unfamiliar intervals. This raises doubts whether the piece can be played at sight by amateurs. But spring left more time than one might like for thorough practicing…

As one ponders the best fingerings and bowings for one’s part, one notices more and more clearly how skillfully the composition is constructed. The melody of the line “Ach wie lang…” from “Jesu meine Freude” (Johann Crüger, 1653) is easily recognizable and remains unmistakeable throughout diminutions and sequences. Mentally one follows the text through to the lines “Defy the old dragon, defy the jaws of death, defy the fear.” It would hardly have been possible to find a more fitting motto for the raging pan-demic and I cannot resist the thought that Kimbell was intent on evoking this unspoken subtext.

How Kimbell manipulates the Absage theme would be red meat for a music analysis lecture. He presents the theme first in bars 1 and 2 in the tenor. It is mirrored in bars 5 and 6 of the bass. Transposed by a major sixth it appears in bars 9 and 10 of the alto. In bar 12 it appears in diminution in the bass. A fragment of the first three notes of the mirror theme appears in the tenor and alto in bars 14 and 15. In bars 15 and 16 the tenor presents the mirror theme which is varied in the second half. And so it continues. The Absage theme is transposed, shredded, varied, sequenced and remains totally present till the very end in bar 65.

Such an intellectual conception of the Absage fantasia shows clearly that here was no casual amateur at work and made one curious about the composer. He is quickly found over the internet. Kimbell was born in 1946 and lives today in Pacifica, not far from San Francisco. He was Principal Clarinet with the Golden Gate Symphony, obviously plays other instruments including the viol. Since 1978 Kimbell is also a piano technician and tuner. On top of that he is a free-lance composer and member of NACUSA. He has received awards for several compositions. A performance of his charming “Poème for Harp and Violin” can readily be heard on YouTube. Other performances can be heard on [the Videos and Recordings page of] his website.

After a long absence our Lübeck Trio met with three bass viols and well-prepared parts of Kimbell’s “Absage”. The technical demands, after working out fingerings, were manageable. There are no complicated rhythmic constructions. Speed is not necessary. The smallest note value is an eighth note. The moderate tempo is dictated by the quoted chorale. Even the top part does not have to reach for the stratosphere. But the frequent chromaticism in the individual parts did not augur conventional harmony. What would happen when the parts were combined? The first bars are ambiguous, but then it is unmistakable: the fantasia declines tonality. One waits in vain for rescue from a harmonic triad till the end. Again and again two voices combine into sweet consonance, but the third voice (not necessarily the lowest) does not join in. There is no release. In bar 38 there is a momentary hint one can relax, but where one expects to hear a G-minor triad there is only a triple G, specifically G, g and g’. Complete emptiness. All the more effective is the final chord: a radiant, hopeful D-major on the open D string of the bass. The complete impression of the piece remains soft, unagitated, almost resigned. The dissonances are never aggressive attacks, the lines flow, there is no rushing. In this way Kimbell’s fantasia stays true to the idiom of the viol. Harshness and force are foreign to the instrument, yet the viol can express atonality charmingly, as the British ensemble Fretwork proved in its CD “The Silken Tent”.

We can heartily recommend Kimbell’s trio to all viol players who are not totally opposed to atonality! It is novel, moving and can be played without serious technical problems. Since Mr Kimbell also reads the VdGG newsletter in California, I want to congratulate him on his Absage fantasia! If you have more works for viols, Mr Kimbell, pull them out of dusty drawers and publish them! The (admittedly small number) of viol players will be grateful. If these compositions don’t exist yet – perhaps you can be persuaded to write more for viol consorts.

Footnote: There is at least one further (tonal) composition for viol consort (TrTBB) by Kimbell, available over the internet. It is the Chaconne on a Theme from Henry Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth”. It is available for free download on Kimbell’s website. [See the Chaconne page.]