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The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra presents the world premiere on 8 December of Detlev Glanert’s new lyric symphony, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The Prague Symphony, setting texts by Franz Kafka, is introduced by the composer in interview.

It’s 30 years since your last song-symphony. What brought you back to this hybrid form?

The decision this would be my fourth symphony came quite late in the process. The work evolved as a sequence of songs with orchestra, but as the connections and leitmotivs took over it was clear it was going to be an interwoven large-scale symphonic score in the tradition of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde or Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. Like my second symphony, setting three songs by Wolf Wondratschek, this work’s genesis was very much driven by the texts, in contrast to my third symphony which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a more general sense without recourse to the voice.

What made you decide to set texts by Franz Kafka?

It started with Semyon Bychkov asking for a work to be premiered by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. I had all options open but it soon became clear that the project should centre on Franz Kafka, who is so important culturally for Prague and was unique in combining Czech, German and Jewish traditions. He is an absolute master of German literary style – perhaps this is under-appreciated in countries where his works are largely known in translation – and everything is wrought with precision and craftsmanship. So the work had to be sung in German, with any attempts at translation appearing only in the programme or on surtitles.

How did you select the fragments from Kafka’s output for the 12 songs?

To start with, I read everything he wrote, creating a collection of possible texts to draw upon. Most people are aware of his books and stories such as The Trial or Metamorphosis, but there is another Kafka world found in his writings, letters and diaries. I discovered there are prose texts and lots of poems, often embedded within letters to friends and I began to see connections between material written perhaps 10 or 15 years apart. From the large collection some of the poems spoke to me immediately and I knew I wanted to set them. A structure for the complete work became clearer as I realised the poems could tell a story about two people, using two singers and allocating the texts as Mahler had done.

There has long been a lively debate about Kafka’s musicality. What is your view?

This debate is quite amusing because we have quite a lot of evidence about how unmusical Kafka was or how he lacked a genuine interest. We know he hated his words being set to music, even when his friend and editor Max Brod set a number of his poems. But for me this is not important because my work is not about Kafka the person but about what is revealed about the human condition through his texts. There are many famous writers who aren’t musical at all but composers are always very happy to set their poetry.

Are there particular challenges in setting the ‘lyrical’ side of Kafka?

I was determined to dismiss the idea that Kafka is always dark, dealing only with alienation and claustrophobia. This may come over in his best-known books but there is definitely a lyrical side revealed in his poetry. And there are accounts that he was an elegant and light-hearted man, often bursting into laughter. Of course he was aware of the social and political problems of his time but he portrays the world in such a deeply human way that it connects with us today. For instance the first poem I’ve selected explains the way we feel when we suffer, and this is just as relevant now as when it was written in 1903. His poetry resonates through his words, pictures and rhythms so that it is highly suggestive for a composer, making it attractive rather than challenging.

How has your operatic experience shaped your approach to this work?

Kafka works a lot with fantasy pictures and situations which grab the opera composer in me. I can immediately sense and smell how they can be turned into music. This composition is more focused on the song side than pure opera but my experience in the theatre helped me enormously. I’m able to capture moods and personal situations and also tackle a large architectural span of music without interruption. So it could be viewed almost as a one-act opera while it remains a song cycle.

What is the relationship between the three protagonists: mezzo, bass and orchestra?

The mezzo and the bass voices are two sides of a personality, as if expressing an interior dialogue between opposing halves of a single character. There are separate songs for each singer, but they can also make connections and sing duets. They start in isolation but progressively grow together through the cycle so in the last song they sing exactly the same music. The orchestra is the fluid medium between the two parts and in one sense, inevitably, the orchestra is me, the composer, so you could say there is an active triangular relationship in operation. This is my personal connection with Kafka.

Interview with David Allenby (2021)

Detlev Glanert
Prager Sinfonie (Prague Symphony) (2019-20)
Lyrical Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No.4)

8-10 December 2022 (world premiere)
Rudolfinum, Dvorak Hall, Prague
Performance on 9 December broadcast by Czech Radio on EBU
Catriona Morison, mezzo-soprano /
Christian Immler, bass-baritone /
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra /
Semyon Bychkov

14-15 June 2023 (Dutch premiere)
Royal Concertgebouw Hall, Amsterdam
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mezzo-soprano /
Christian Immler, bass-baritone /
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra /
Semyon Bychkov

22-23 June 2023 (German premiere)
Grosser Saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
Catriona Morison, mezzo-soprano /
Christian Immler, bass-baritone /
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra /
Semyon Bychkov

>  Further information on Work: Prager Sinfonie. Lyrische Fragmente nach Franz Kafka (Sinfonie Nr. 4)

Photo: Bettina Stoess

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