Johannes Maria STAUD

© Lorenzo Vitturi - 2016

Johannes Maria Staud draws much of his inspiration from literature and the visual arts. Reflections on philosophical questions, social processes and political events also influence his compositions.

Johannes Maria Staud composed orchestra pieces commissioned by orchestras such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and ensemble works for Trio Catch, Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, ensemble recherche and others. The Lucerne Festival, where Johannes Maria Staud was composer-in-residence in 2014, presented the world premieres of his violin concerto Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue II) and of the opera Die Antilope.


" Tondo "

Prelude for orchestra

Universal Edition Wien


W O R L D   P R E M I E R E
May 1st 201 – Dresden - Staatskapelle Dresden - dir. Christoph Eschenbach. Ordered by Staatskapelle Dresden.
Work dedicated to Elisabeth Staud.

Tondo is the first of three works that Johannes Maria Staud composed for the Staatskapelle Dresden during his tenure as “Capell-Compositeur” for the 2010–2011 season.

Lasting some 11 minutes, the 4-part piece is grouped around the central sound of the four horns and is characterised by a big and compact, yet highly intricate sound. Composed with a circular structure, the work can finish after one run-through or can be repeated da capo, as long as required or as external conditions permit.
Johannes Maria Staud


" Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue II) "

Universal Edition

"Making the Violin Smolder": Johannes Maria Staud's New Concerto

Johannes Maria Staud, who was born in 1974 in Innsbruck and educated in Vienna and Berlin - and who serves as this summer's composer-in-residence - has always drawn on an interest in literature and the visual arts for his creative work. The starting point for Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue II), his new Violin Concerto (subtitled "Music for Violin and String Orchestra with Percussion") was a commission he wrote for the 2005 ARD Music Competition in Munich: Towards a Brighter Hue (2004). Created for solo violin, this agitated, insistently forward-pressing solo piece uses a rhythmically distinctive germ cell from Berenice, the opera Staud had completed shortly before, to achieve what the composer calls a "more-introverted and brighter color scheme" by means of micro-intervals in the last third of the score.

Towards a Brighter Hue was inspired by sculptures by the English artist David Nash (born in 1945), who often works with charred wood. "Different woods take on different tints - charred wood doesn't always have the same shades of blackness," explains Staud, who attempted to adapt his impressions of Nash's process into musical terms. "For me it was delightful to set a brighter tint against this 'charred wood.' The image of 'wood' here stands for a highly virtuosic piece that makes the violin smolder, so to speak."

Almost ten years later, the Austrian composer has once again taken up this idea of juxtaposing a powerful compression with gentler brightenings – the idea of linking different "types of wood" - in his new Violin Concerto Oskar (Towards a Brighter Hue Il), which represents a "parody" of Towards a Brighter Hue. That is to say, it reuses pre-existing material in a new context. Staud explains what this very old compositional process means for him: "I found it nice that the technique of parody preserved certain things while others had to be altered, especially on account of the distance in time and the compositional experience I had gained in the interim. At the same time, with a new orchestration a different dynamic is always developed. It's a matter of back and forth, meandering between an old piece and a new discovery via parody, and that interested me a good deal." The violin line in his new concerto, says Staud, "in part closely follows the solo piece, while the orchestra sounds out the potential that lies dormant in this viol in piece. What is new here is that it becomes in a sense an ascetic work, ascetic in its orchestration - a piece that leaves a lot out. Opulence is of no interest to me, and here there is none."

The orchestration originally included winds, but Staud decided to omit them, slimming the ensemble down to just solo violin, string orchestra, and three percussionists. He uses this palette of disparate sonorities to elicit interesting contrasts and connections: for example, the percussion, which is played with bows and rubbed with wooded sticks, and the string orchestra allow Staud to establish a sensual counterpoint in the low register. Characteristically, the sound colors become conflated here: "I must find a point where the solo part and strings merge into a color that becomes a signature of the piece.

And from the percussion meanwhile there emerges a specific hue, in part a wooden hue. "The solo violin recurrently joins with the other strings, only to separate once again from the tutti. Says Staud, everything resembles" a large organism that breathes and aspires to different phases of matter." ln a freshly composed prologue, "old material from the solo piece is linked with another sound world." Through this juxtaposition small islands recalling the prologue stand out as the concerto progresses.

Staud composed the work for "artiste étoile" Midori, whose repertoire also includes Towards a Brighter Hue. "In Vienna I have heard her playing," says Staud. " She can shape quiet and intimate moments with real beauty. So I attempt to carve out these delicate sounds, giving them more time. While composing 1 had Midori in the back of my mind and was able to hear in my inner ear how her sound unfolds, how she deals with little vibrato motions." While this genuinely melody-stamped concerto provides for no solo cadenza, the piece does have "a cadenza-like aspect."


" Maniai "

For Orchestra

Universal Edition



09/02/2012, SO des Bayerischen Rundfunks, dir. Mariss Jansons


Interview (extract) with the composer by Sibylle Kayser
(…)The name Maniai is Greek; it refers to the three Furies. What prompted you to choose that title?

The title came to me more or less in the middle of my work on the piece. In Old Greek, the Furies are actually called the Erinnyes together, individually Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone. Their origin is in a pre-Christian time when it was the Furies’ task to avenge unpunished murders and capital crimes – that is, to persecute the criminals incessantly, to drive them mad and ultimately to induce their suicide. For instance, Alecto scourges a criminal’s thought, mercilessly wearing down his psyche, before handing him over to her two “colleagues.” But the most striking thing is this; in Greek mythology, the Furies occasionally transform into the three Graces – sometimes dressed in black, sometimes in white. But we are never entirely sure whether they are actually identical – and it was that ambiguity which fascinated me; avenging goddesses can also be goddesses of forgiveness – which was the case with Orestes, for example.

I was looking for a title to match the character of my composition. It was already certain that it would last about 10 minutes. I had already written several works for orchestra, but I’d never held the tempo pedal down for so long – almost seven minutes, about 2/3 of the piece. The music never allows you any calm – it pursues you relentlessly, like the Erinnyes.

Besides, "Maniai" sounds so mysterious and archaic; “mania” and “manic” stem from it. Italian “furioso” is therefore the agogic marking for the first part. I gave “grazioso” to the second half; the Furies have apparently transformed into the Graces – but we don’t know for sure …

To return to the musical construction: you mentioned that you work with scales. But it is worthwhile to describe them in more detail; you also use microtones – in what form?

There is a microtonal web over the entire piece; that is, I am working with the “normal” stock of pitches, but I detune 12 of them a quarter-tone lower over the entire gamut. Gérard Grisey did much the same thing in his Vortex Temporum, tuning four pitches a quarter-tone down. What intrigued me was how the harmonic colour changes when constantly shifting the scale entries and their modulation, yielding up continuously new, microtonally shaded mixtures. I also confronted anew the idea of harmonic rhythm, of which Beethoven was an unsurpassable master. Because I juxtapose the scales closely and polyphonically – it is not for nothing that all the strings are subdivided into at least two voices, and sometimes even three or four – an iridescent sonic shimmer results – and I find that enormously exciting combined with heavy concentrations of sound. The more voices I have, the tighter I can weave my sonic web.

Subdividing the strings (16 of them), tripling the winds and quadrupling the horns gives you over 30 voices. Do you consider all of them equal?

Indubitably. They allow me more options for combination – and not only harmonically; I am also talking about Klangfarbe. For instance, I can have the first trumpet accompany the clarinets and let the second trumpet play together with the bassoons, all at the same time. Besides, I need a lot of parts because the melodic voices countering the frenzied scales keep entering in mixtures of three to six voices, sometimes even with antiphonal additions.

Maniai is in two parts – the first, somewhat longer part, is very fast, while the second part is slow. Yet short slow passages keep interrupting the rapid initial part. Can you tell us something about those musical hiatuses?

Everything in the piece intermingles and interweaves; everything is interrelated. The calm moments in the first part anticipate the second one, while also integrally comprising an extremely rigorous proportioning of time. The first section starts with about 60 seconds of rapidity; then come 15 seconds of slow music, followed by 45 seconds fast, then 30 seconds of calm, which then devolves to the initial impulse, again anticipating the two large, weighty tutti hammering at the end of the first part – it is all worked out, even the minutest details. In addition, rhythmic and melodic material often switch places from background to foreground in the course of the piece – again, Beethoven was my model, with his extremely economical use of motivic-thematic material.

Regarding the orchestration as well? Near the end of the piece an oboe line comes to the fore, played by the oboe, cor anglais and musette. Could that be a musical personification of the three Furies/Graces?

I have always felt that one of the most beautiful moments in Beethoven’s First is in the second theme-group of the first movement, where the high oboe hovers over the low, descending strings – its melody is at once incisive and plaintive. It has something mysterious, incredibly moving about it. I use three members of the oboe family in Maniai – oboe, cor anglais and high musette – also known as “piccolo oboe.” Of course these three instruments – which have prominent solos especially in the final section – could be considered as something like personifications of the three Furies. The emphasis is on “could” since, thank goodness, composing is too abstract to carry such analogies too far.

Your love and knowledge of Beethoven’s works is evident. But I would still be interested in how you reacted when you got the commission, including stipulations, for [Maniai] – very free, because you were merely supposed to deal with Beethoven’s First Symphony – yet that was a stipulation.

If the stipulation had been to continue working with Beethoven’s given material, to quote him in my piece, I could not have accepted the commission. But “take Beethoven 1” was a wonderful stimulus for me. That did not curtail my artistic freedom at all – quite the contrary. Often it is just such an impulse which gives rise to a certain work – for instance, I wrote a cello concerto for the Salzburg Festival based on a sketch Mozart made for a cello-piano sonata. Now, for my latest work, I have taken Beethoven as a model to the extent that I have always been fascinated by his ability to have absolute gentleness co-exist with absolute savagery, to retain abruptness undisguised – indeed, to bring it into chiselled prominence – without disturbing the formal coherence.

Did the performance situation influence your work?

There are two kinds of commissions – those involving contemporary music and the so-called “sandwich concerts,” where new pieces are placed between familiar orchestral works of the Classical and Romantic periods. The old and the new are much more separated in the fine arts. In music, we are confronted with history, much more often, due to programming alone. For me, the work on Maniai also meant looking very closely again at an old, very familiar masterpiece – Beethoven 1, in this case – and tapping into its qualities. For the audience, it’s also a chance to have a morsel of contemporary music served up to them within a familiar framework. And of course there are always people –many more than one thinks – who are caught up by the new music at such a concert.


" Contrebande (On comparative Meteorology II) "

For large orchestra

Universal Edition Wien


W O R L D  P R E M I E R E
November 6th 2010 - Paris - Ensemble Modern Orchestra - dir. Pierre Boulez.
Ordered  by  Ensemble  Modern  Orchestra,  friendly  sponsored  by  German  Federal
Cultural Foundation and Kulturfonds Frankfurt Rheinmain.

Following On Comparative Meteorology (2008–09; rev. 2010), this work is also the result of a startling discovery: I learned about Bruno Schulz (1892–1942). The only surviving works by this Polish-Jewish visionary are the two short-story collections Cinnamon Shops (Sklepy cynamonowe) and Sanatorium  Under the Sign of the Hourglass (Sanatorium  pod klepsydra), along with the short story The Comet (Kometa) and a few prose fragments, letters and sketches – but his oeuvre had a meteoric impact on the world of literature, and its significance is only gradually gaining worldwide recognition.

Using fantastically expressionistic and exaggerated memories of his own childhood, Bruno Schulz creates a bizarre world that is a law entirely unto itself, with a hyper- realistic language of incomparable colourfulness. Outside temporal causality, Schulz dissects reality into its individual components and puts them together again in new combinations like a kaleidoscope, fractured by an individual consciousness for which prosaic literalism seems not to exist.

Hypertrophic descriptions of nature and weather and their unique reflections in the inner  life  of  humans;  questionable  acts  of  demiurgism  and  uncharted  realms  of existence; byways and blind alleys in time – these are his themes, the foundations of his bizarre world, which is made up of the little narrator Józef, his enigmatic father Jakub, the lascivious servant Adela and a series of other peculiar figures. The heat of an August day, the violence of a stormy night (in the company of an unhinged and fulminating aunt), the fertility of the arrival of spring (and its interpretation with the help of a stamp album)... I do not exaggerate when I say that I have seen all these things with new eyes and experienced them with new senses since I started reading Bruno Schulz.
This work is dedicated to Pierre Boulez and inspired by my wonderful, long-standing partnership with Ensemble Modern. It represents my attempt to trace the mysterious world of Bruno Schulz in a musical way, without duplicating or illustrating it. The title is taken from the short stories The Age of Genius, in which the narrator Józef explores his creativity and illegal byways of time, and A Second Autumn, in which his father conducts the most peculiar studies of the parasitically rampant autumn wildlife and the specific climate in his area.

Contrebande (On Comparative Meteorology II) is made up of six and a half variously short pieces, which follow each other without pause and which are set off by short fragments of text by Schulz. This work is also the second part of an orchestral diptych, which began with On Comparative Meteorology. The first part of the diptych received its world première in 2009 with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst before premièring in a revised version with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Pascal Rophé in 2010.
Johannes Maria Staud