BENGT HAMBRAEUS – Spectrogram

Published: 2001-10-01 by Stellan Sagvik

by Christina Tobeck (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 2, 1984/85)


One of the works receiving the greatest attention at Darmstadt in the summer of 1953 was Spectrogram by Swedish composer Bengt HambrŠus. A chamber music piece for vocalising soprano, flute, vibraphone, four suspended cymbals and a large tam-tam, it was first performed at one of the concerts reserved for the younger generation of composers. Conductor and composer Bruno Maderna led an ensemble that included the soprano Ilona Steingruber, who along with Maderna was a leading interpreter of contemporary music and had served as a teacher at Darmstadt for several seasons. By some twist of fate, the same concert some 31 years ago included a work by the Dutch composer Ton De Leeuw. Darmstadt was an extremely important centre for new music in post-war Europe and this was HambrŠus’ third semester course here, the first having been in the summer 1951 when he made his debut with Musik for trumpet, violin and piano, Opus 18, no. 2 (1949).


Since the end of the 40s, the semester courses at the ‘Kranichsteiner Musikinstitut’ in Darmstadt had come to serve as something of a magnet for those wishing to orient themselves in the avant-garde music art of the 20th century starting with Arnold Sch÷nberg. In the summer 1953 special attention was paid to Anton Webern and some of his early chamber music, in part because Webern would have been seventy years old in December of that year. In a feature article in the Svenska Dagbladet daily, 11 August 1953, titled ‘Music Weeks in Darmstadt’, Bengt HambrŠus wrote that “it is high time that Webern’s music be given serious attention and application in Sweden, rather than only being seen as some sort of musical cul-de-sac or even an abnormality…”


HambrŠus was the first to introduce Webern in Sweden. In 1952 he published a longer article in the Ord och Bild magazine, written in his own words “while under the direct influence of my being confronted by Webern’s music in Darmstadt in 1951” (Nutida Musik no. 2, 1983/84). In 1955 a Webern festival and discussion was arranged by Fylkingen in Stockholm, with HambrŠus as one of the panel members.


At the Darmstadt summer course, set up as they were for contemporary composers from various countries, the actual setting was clearly important. It was an enriching process to be able to hear the younger generation’s music, as well as to exchange thoughts and experiences with them. Among the composers HambrŠus got to know at Darmstadt were Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen, all of whose music and compositional techniques he studied thoroughly.


HambrŠus had gained a solid theoretical and musicological background during his school years, as well as having learned practical musical skills with the organ as his main instrument. Still, he is generally considered self-learned as a composer. It is possible that his turning to international trends early on was simplified or even encouraged by the fact that he was not tied to any domestic composition teacher, be it a private one or one at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Style-wise his music from the early 50s and onwards would seem to be part of the tradition which grew out of the Darmstadt courses, with Webern’s pointilistic music as a point of departure. Spectrogram (opus 34) can be seen as a milestone in his entire production.
Still, it isn’t quite that simple to put HambrŠus’ music in a 50s’ slot, for there is at least one more name that must be mentioned, namely that of Edgard VarŔse. And of his work, it was primarily his expanded sound world and expansive tonal language that addressed the sonorally interested HambrŠus.


During the 1952 and 1953 summer sessions at Darmstadt, HambrŠus attended Olivier Messiaen’s classes in composition and analysis, in large based on Messiaen’s own music. It is difficult to see that this teaching left any deeper artistic or stylistic tracks in HambrŠus’ musical creativity. However he did adopt certain parts of Messiaen’s compositional technique. From 1952 to 1956, all his works make use of a transformation technique fetched from Messiaen’s Quatre Útudes de rhythme (1949-50). And the first work HambrŠus composed using this almost automatic technique is just Spectrogram, completed in January 1953.


The twelve-note series used in this composition consists of two, symmetrical halves, which according to the composer himself have Webern’s symmetric series as model. This statement is found in an informative article about his own music titled Visions – transformations – retrospections published in The Swedish Journal of Musicology (STM, 1970).


The silence which opens Spectrogram is broken by one weak tam-tam beat, followed by one ppp stroke on one of the larger cymbals. These two beats form the first, defined phrase. Pause. Two more ppp cymbal strokes. The vibraphone sounds a long A, pauses and then C, B, C# and D. The flute follows the vibraphone line, lifting the melody to a higher register and volume – pp. The vibraphone finishes the series with F and Eb. The twelve notes of the basic series have now been sounded in first phrase of the work, for in this delicate and spare music where each note owns expressive power, even the pause has a musical quality which must not be belittled.


HambrŠus shows his sonoral, compositional awareness right at the start: the first vibraphone tone is an A, two above middle C, one which seems to grow out of the cymbal sound. In the next phrase, the soprano creeps in unnoticed on the same A, ppp, increasing in strength and then diminishing to nothing. He has chosen an ensemble with a certain, sonoral homogeneity, one where all instruments have a rich overtone spectrum as well as other similarities.


The vibraphone commands something of a unique position among the three melody instruments. Viewed from the composition as a whole, the vibraphone plays in all, six times. Every time the melodic material comprises just the named seven notes in varied rhythms and phrasings: A, C, B, C#, D, F and Eb. The composer has himself marked the vibraphone’s six appearances as refrains.


How then has HambrŠus developed these seven notes within the strict, twelve-note system used to compose Spectrogram? To begin with, the notes return in the exact same, fixed location every seventh transformation. The limited musical material offered by the vibraphone is defined within the long series of transformations. All other notes are found in the flute voice and in the wordless, instrumentally used soprano voice. The 35th transformation becomes a chromatic scale and with the last twelve-note series in the 36th permutation the circle is closed and we have returned to the first, basic row. The original melodic material has traversed a gradual change and given reality through the work’s title Spectrogram to this concept of continuity and variation.


HambrŠus has been satisfied with making series of the melodic parameter in the soprano, flute and vibraphone voices, leaving such parameters as the rhythm unshaped. However, there exists an internal, if theoretic relationship or agreement between the melodic and percussionistic voices: for the percussion instruments, the melodic series has been translated to equivalent time values. Still, HambrŠus has emphasised “the purely melodic drive power behind all the different series’ manipulations. Melody, rather than melodic cores.” (STM 1970, p. 18)


The main melodic happening is placed in the soprano and flute voices, two related voices with a similar musical development. Now and then, the melodic lines are braided into an intricate counterpoint technique or dissolved into short phrases of as little as a few notes in more or less defined figures. Both rhythmic and melodic imitations between the voices are common. The two voices seem rather to own a solidarity, forming a unified, living organism with various nuances shifting between shading and illuming each other.


Even if the piece has an extremely limited scope what with its six minute playing time, its emotional range is great. “The living organism” has a sensitive emotional life. The piece encompasses thoughtfully cooing, introverted lyricism, flaming aggressiveness and strong decisiveness, but also playfulness.


As mentioned above, Spectrogram ends with the basic note-row fading out in the last bars. Mentally HambrŠus returns to the beginning. There is a diminuendo. A tremolo on the cymbal and a last beat on the tam-tam – pp - ppp - pppp – and all is again silent.


In spite of the strict compositional principles, the composer states that “prior to the calculations, the point of departure itself is always the spontaneous, initially undefinable sonoral phenomena which exist in the composer’s imagination and mental world.” (Technique and aesthetics in pointilistic music, published in Modern Nordic Music: Fourteen composers about their own works. ed. Ingmar Bengtsson. 1957)


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