The cantata An der Schwelle [On the Threshold] for baritone, women’s choir, organ, flute, oboe, trumpet, trombone, and percussion is based on two sonnets by Albrecht Haushofer and verses from the Old Testament (Isaiah 41) and New Testament (Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians). On account of his connections to men involved in the events of July 20,1944, Haushofer, who had been Professor of Political Geography and Geopolitics at the University of Berlin since 1940 as well as an employee of the Foreign Ministry until 1941, was arrested on December 7 and shot by the Nazis during the night of April 23-24, 1945. On April 24 the Red Army marched through Berlin-Zehlendorf, Berlin-Steglitz, and Berlin-Schöneberg toward the center of the city. The sonnets committed to paper by Haushofer in the prison in Berlin-Moabit were published during the same year by a private press financed by officers of the United States Army and then a year later by the publisher Lothar Blanvalet in Berlin.
In An der Schwelle Isang Yun also deals with his own experience of injustice and violence, prison and torture. The first part of the cantata involves occupation with death. On the threshold of death the conflict between readiness to surrender and to depart from life and responsibility for this life is thematized. In Haushofer’s second sonnet, entitled "Entfesselung" [Unchaining], the liberation from outward chains then becomes an occasion for reflection on inward chains — on freedom from desires and wishes.
The struggle for freedom and liberation — inwardly and outwardly — is an archetype in Yun’s composing and is depicted by him in the ever-new upward developments of his music. In his setting of the Haushofer sonnets the text occupies the foreground; this position is presented by the baritone, which at the same time functions as the protagonist. The commenting Bible texts, in contrast, are intoned by the women’s choir, consolingly and mostly in a high register. The gradations between speaking (rhythmically spoken; spoken on pitches; half-spoken — half-sung) and singing customary since Schönberg hold for the vocal part.
The music develops a relatively close word-tone relationship. A seamless but precisely organized sound continuum results, with the musical time of the subjective interpretation serving the individual experience of the text. In the polarity of its motifs, the structure of this text corresponds to Yun’s thought and compositional style: yin and yang, God and devil, despair and hope are mutually implicated and in Yun’s musical language soon are intensified and hypertensified in the high and highest registers, blend together, and are reconciled to a higher unity in keeping with the Tao.
The formal symmetry in the ordering to the texts suggests a tripartite structure. The two sonnets "An der Schwelle" and "Entfesselung" are each combined with the consoling verses from Isaiah, "Do not fear I am with you; [...] I uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness." A passage from the New Testament, from the apostle Paul’s "Praise of Folly", stands at the center of the composition. Exposed on the outside to enmity from the Corinthians and to inner doubts, he intends to boast not of the revelations of the Lord but only of his own weakness. The price for what has been revealed to him is "a thorn in the flesh, namely Satan’s angel, who is to beat me with his fists, so that I do not become presumptuous." Paul has prayed to God three times to free him from this thorn. God’s answer is precisely the demonstration of grace: "Let my grace suffice for you, for my power is mighty in the weak."
Polar oppositions become apparent already in the instrumental beginning of the cantata: the introductory, darkly eruptive ascent of the trumpet and trombone is answered by the bright, light, and pure sound of the flute and oboe. Yun initially sets Haushofer’s language in a reporting-reflective manner; the first movement is to be presented half-sung, half-spoken: "The means leading out of this life, / I’ve tested them with eye and hand." The accompaniment of the soloist by rattling noises quietly produced on a tom-tom has been borrowed from the performance of a Korean shaman. The idea of suicide, the "abrupt blow", appears twice and is also anticipated both times in the music.
The tendency toward intensification is shown not least in the elaboration of longer vocalic semantic units. The form of the sonnet consists of two quatrains (stanzas of four verses) and two tercets (stanzas of three verses). In his setting of the quatrains Yun initially underscores the reflective element through the regular alternation of instrumental and vocal passages. He then replaces these structural shifts with the contrasting, intensifying sequence of choir and soloist (baritone) in the sequence Isaiah 41, 10a — tercet 1 — Isaiah 41, 10b — tercet 2.
The consoling "Do not fear" of the choir enters in the high register and in the dotted rhythm — an ancient sacred-musical topos for the presence of God. In contrast, the baritone laments the meaninglessness of human existence — an alternating element recurring amid intensifying variation.
The grace passage from the Pauline epistle now appears as a great contrast to the conclusion of the sonnet "An der Schwelle" with its conflict between suicide on the one hand and the responsibility toward life on the other hand. Yun does not at all set this passage with pathos but instead, almost inconspicuously, as a recitando on a mere single tone. It is only gradually that he intensifies the statement to an urgent declamation on a few tones in a high register ("good heart") and to the point of vehemently accusatory excitement (after: "mistreatments", "persecutions"). The concluding point, "For when I am weak, then I am strong", is followed by a dramatically excited instrumental interlude.
The setting of the second sonnet, "Entfesselung", at first only hints at a further intensification in the somewhat more ariose leading of the vocal part and in the renunciation of longer instrumental inserts. The second quatrain then already makes a dramatic impression, and Yun finally unfolds great pathos by layering the consoling Isaiah texts and the accusatory first tercet ("The great enchainers that harden the heart"), one on top of the other. The fourth-fifth idiom is a reminiscence of the tattoo ("bedtime signal") that Yun heard being blown in the evening while in prison in Seoul.
This work commissioned by St. Martin’s Choral Society in Kassel was dedicated by Isang Yun dedicated to Paul Frank, who concluded the case involving his return to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1968/69, operating on behalf of the Foreign Ministry.
Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer (2005)