• Find us on Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter
  • Follow us on Instagram
  • View Our YouTube Channel
  • Listen on Spotify
  • View our scores on nkoda
Music Text

Nelly Sachs (G)



Abbreviations (PDF)



This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Philharmonie, Berlin
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone / Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester / Hans Zender
Programme Note

Isang Yun, the Korean composer from Berlin, worked systematically, a fact reflected also in all his orchestral works. In the series of »tone color compositions« from his orchestral piece Bara (1960) to the Overture for full orchestra (1973/74), Yun blended the organization of sound planes as it had emerged from serial composition in Western Europe with the ancient tradition of Chinese-Korean court music. Linearity is a basic principle of this latter music: the long-drawn-out tone extended out to a »brush stroke« or the colored sound surface in which ornament is musical substance. Yun then began a series of instrumental concertos with his one-movement Cello Concerto (1975/76). The three-movement Violin Concerto No.1 (1981) marked the climax of the process of his appropriation of this genre. Yun then proceeded to the composition of five major symphonies of cyclical interrelation (1982/83–87). In his symphonies he varied the composition of the orchestra in formal structure as well as in musical content. The four-movement Symphony I (1982/83) concerns admonition and appeal, and the three-movement Symphony II (1984) deals with impressions, an answer to the question of how the composer perceives the world. The one-movement Symphony III (1985) develops the basic idea that hardness is to be tamed by softness. The two-movement Symphony IV (1986) bears the subtitle »Im Dunkeln singen« [»Singing in the Dark«] and refers to the exploitation of Asian women, especially of Korean women, during Pacific War in Japan.

In his Symphony V Yun employs poems by Nelly Sachs (1891–1970) in order to make an even more unambiguous statement of his intentions. Peace is the theme of this work, and peace can be realized only by coping with the past and by involvement in the mourning process. Prior to his composition of this symphony, Yun had set texts by Nelly Sachs on various other occasions beginning with the solo cantata Teile Dich Nacht [Divide Night] for soprano and chamber ensemble (1980). In O Licht..., [O Light...], a choral cantata with solo violin and percussion, poems from Nelly Sachs’s cycles »Fahrt ins Staublose« and »Noch feiert der Tod das Leben« are juxtaposed to the Buddhist prayer which furnished the title. Der Herr ist mein Hirte for choir and trombone solo (1981) combines the »Chor der Tröster« from her cycle »In den Wohnungen des Todes« with Psalm 23. Yun composed his Symphony V as a commissioned work for the 37th Berlin Festival and »in memory of Nelly Sachs«; one of the festival’s themes was the fate of German artists forced into exile during the Nazi dictatorship. It was premiered on the composer’s seventieth birthday.

The text of Symphony V brings together a total of eleven poems from different creative phases in Nelly Sachs’s life, the clearest verses of the otherwise often esoterically recondite poetry of this German Jewish poet, who was forced into Swedish exile from Berlin in 1940. The five-movement symphony is of symmetrical shape with the third movement, an Appeal for reconciliation (»Peoples of the Earth, ... / Do not cut and stab, with the knives of hate, / The sound born at the same hour as breath«) occupying its center and focus. The cantata-like even-numbered second and fourth movements supplement the symphonic structure of the odd-numbered first (Memory), third (Appeal), and fifth (Peace) movements, where the texts tower up like jagged cliffs from pounding surf. Excerpts from the extensive poems »We the Saved« and »You who Watch« from the Holocaust cycle »In den Wohnungen des Todes« (written during 1944–45, first published by the East Berlin Aufbau-Verlag in 1947) have been selected in order to form a montage of complementary contrasts. The full orchestra contains what for Yun is an unusually large number of percussion instruments as well as two harps. In the printed score the title of the third movement was later changed to »Sehnsucht, Durst« [Longing, Thirst].

The first movement begins in forte and in 6/4 time as well as with a beat of the bass drum, the chord G c e f b-flat in the four horns, and in the tuba a fourth chord with an E insert: C E F G B-flat, an approximately symmetrical arrangement around F. The chord contains half and whole tones, major and minor thirds, and the tritone, and its inversions place, in principle, all the intervals at the composer’s disposal. The initial sound and an inversion are assigned to the horns and the tuba as well as to two trumpets, three trombones, and the low strings, with the tam-tam, gongs, snare drum, and tom-tom supplying an echo effect. The bass part alternates between G, F and G in the first measure, and the sixth b flat – g1 – b flat is heard in the upper voice. The same course of musical events returns amid minor rhythmic variations in the second measure, and a different chord occurs in the third. Yun’s echo repetition of a single chord within a small space in the two brass groups and with the low strings creates the impression of oscillation or swaying to and fro. This impression prevails in the first eight measures, and the supple rhythmic structure renders the massivity of the brass instruments, with its connotations of appeal and memory, into a »boat of memory« (Nelly Sachs).

The high strings, along with the woodwinds, harps, and vibraphone, formulate a brighter world (4/4 time). The brass instruments unfold opposing forces, and the whole is repeated with variation. Yun translates the »winding paths have to be taken« into musical contrasts. Tutti beats of the strings and woodwinds as well as piercing brass inserts occur at the beginning of the last third (5/4 time): musical renderings of the »heart strides« and the upbeat to the baritone solo. Then the conflict of the strings and woodwinds versus the brass instruments is heightened in a large-scale intensification. The last eight measures (6/4 time) resume the beginning in the manner of a recapitulation and with the brass introductory chord. The chord is abbreviated in the concluding measures, where it does without its dissonant F center. The dominant seventh chord C E G B-flat is heard in the bass part. The instrumentation skillfully conceals the »tonic« C: in the E (low strings) – e1 (first trumpet) framework the diminished chord e g b-flat continues to echo in the tremolo of the clarinets.

The slow second movement (6/4 time) begins with impulses from the tam-tams, gongs, double basses, and harps. The gradations in use since Schönberg are in effect in the vocal part: spoken (with and without fixed pitches), half sung, and sung. The instrumental part is strict in its adherence to the word: the mixed sound of oboes and clarinets is heard as a bright colour value after the text »We the Saved«, with the timpani as its dark counterpart. The horn supplies the »human« lament of a quarter-tone glissando.

The dramaturgy of the third movement (5/4 time) proceeds from an appeal for reconciliation to a relative splintering. The beginning vaguely recalls the first movement, but the brass instruments are muted, in piano, and appear in three groups instead of two: trombones / tuba, trumpets, and horns. The strings initially react with fleeing movements. As the text suggests, the music here involves the union of rival sound worlds. Processes of intensification issue in the Appeal, again of cantata-like design. Abrupt contrasts allow for soloistic question inserts such as »What is that other / on which you throw stones?« in the symphonic third part. The turbulent conclusion aims at offering complaints (brass) and accusations (vibrating sound band of oboes / clarinets, rattle, gourd [guiro], wood and temple blocks).

The fourth movement, You who Watch [2], begins with the musical gesturing of the solo viola and the harps, framed by the violoncellos and the alto flute. With the plea »Let us learn, quietly, to live again«, the 6/4 meter shifts to an unwieldier 5/4 time. This movement stands out for its numerous glissando prescriptions for the vocal part, and they are of two types: glissandos with and without vibrato. Here Yun expands on Schönbergian vocal techniques by drawing on his East Asian idiom.

Yun opens the fifth movement with a string surface of heterophonic divergence and proceeds from the unity and calm of a grand unison on c sharp already present in the third movement. A c sharp minor chord appears as a »musical colon« in the tutti (here the percussion is reduced to the timpani): the soloist enters. At his first singing of the word »Peace«, the degree of dissonance intensifies, and the difficulties involved in the establishment of peace are reflected in the music. In a second colon, C sharp is heard in unison, with the trumpets and trombones intoning a dissenting F sharp. Yun’s Nelly Sachs symphony concludes with the fifth F sharp / c sharp4 – a symbol of the primal distance, the remoteness of the harmony of the spheres.
Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer (1987, translated by Susan Marie Praeder)

Recommended Recording

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone / Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester / Hans Zender
Internationale Isang Yun Gesellschaft IYG 005


Stay updated on the latest composer news and publications