Herbsttag for female voice and string quartet
“My worst piece, fortunately never performed at all,” Wojciech Kilar said in the 1990s, “is probably the cantata Herbsttag for alto and string quartet. I think it’s a complete misunderstanding, all the more embarrassing given the fact that it was written to words by one of my two favourite poets (along with Arthur Rimbaud): Rainer Maria Rilke. To his wonderful poem Herbsttag I wrote a dry, dodecaphonic-pointillistic, absurd piece.”
The work which the composer rated so poorly was written during Kilar’s year-long stay in Paris (1959–1960), when he studied with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Despite rather unfavourable conditions (“I was so bewildered by this city that it’s difficult to speak of any studying. [...] I’d better not talk about the details of my life there”), Kilar did not stop working and attempted to make the most of his experiences from the 1956 International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, the leading centre of the avant-garde at the time. It is unclear to what extent he followed the advice of Boulanger, sceptical as she was about Darmstadt novelties. The subtitle of Kilar's piece suggests that he drew on Karlheinz Stockhausen’s methods of “group composition” (Gruppenkomposition), involving the use not so much of notes as of their groups with specific qualities. The sound of Herbsttag resembles compositions by Stockhausen and other composers for whom the music of Anton Webern was the model, with its ascetic yet at the same time expressive playing of isolated motifs. Kilar drew on Webern’s music in his cantata Lullabies (1957), maintaining some individual expression, however. With Herbsttag, a situation recurred from his earlier works, with Kilar's style giving way to the influence of other composers. In those earlier works, the sources had been pieces by Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while here they were the fashionable idioms of the 1950s avant-garde.
The combination of caustic sound and the meaning of Rilke’s poem Herbsttag seems peculiar. The charm of its verses is extraordinary: “Lord: it is time. Summer was huge, / Lay your shadows onto the sundials, / And in the fields let your winds loose” (translation by Elisabeth Siekhaus). The poetry is not suited by the Webern style in its modernized – or vulgarized, for some – version (though we could imagine Webern composing a masterpiece to these lyrics). Kilar’s infatuation with Rilke seems quite understandable – we should bear in mind that he knew German very well – yet this does not substantiate his risky decision to provide a musical setting in the style of Stockhausen and his followers for this particular poem. It remains hard to explain this, even citing Kilar’s penchant for jokes or lack of prudence. The composer’s musical personality is rather mysterious, and one of its mysteries is associated with Herbsttag.