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Hermann Meier: Jubilee concert

24 September 2009 |  Dominik Blum

When he first heard some of Hermann Meier’s piano music, one of his grandsons remarked that it sounded like heavy metal. And indeed, Meier’s music is hardly ideal for esoterics or film-music lovers. There isn’t a note too many, and there’s no surrealistic “musical dirt”, as he himself once put it. Meier’s first commandment was constructivist rigour and absolute clarity of sound. He believed that music should not convey any emotions, but instead express mathematical, philosophical thoughts and concepts. He was the only Swiss composer to take the path of the Darmstadt School in the 1950s (Boulez and Stockhausen), but without their tendency either to the transcendent or (as already intimated) to musical intoxication. His serial pieces from that time are characterised by an austere constructivism; the most radical structures are to be found in his two pieces of 1957, in which every note, every sound has its fixed position, its own place in a rhythmic row, and its own fixed volume.

The composer proceeds along this rigorous path like a camel through the proverbial needle, though he subsequently devoted himself to freer layers of sound. Innumerable written plans bear witness to this, which Meier designed and drew himself. He turned some of them himself into notated pieces for assorted ensembles. And one of these plans can be heard here in Laufen, performed as “composed out” by the pianist Dominik Blum, for voice, piano, wind quintet and loudspeakers.

Meier’s late Wind quintet from 1989 will also be on the programme – a work that has not yet found its way into the contemporary wind repertoire, despite its excitement and rigour. There is also his first song cycle, from the year 1950, still dodecaphonic in its melody, and then his epochal, 25-minute Piano sonata from the same time. Not unlike the late works of Bach, this seems to look both forwards and backwards concurrently, combining gestural melody with Meier’s later concepts in the form of over-layered numerical sequences, while still retaining the classical model of the three-movement sonata.

Meier belongs among the most important Swiss composers of his time. The fact that his bold, avant-garde oeuvre could not make itself heard should surprise no one who knows of the rough, conservative cultural climate that dominated in Switzerland in the 1950s. Meier wrote works for piano (also for several pianos or other keyboard instruments), chamber music, orchestral works (of which there are over a dozen extant), and he also conceived plans for electronic works of which he only realised one himself – and promptly won a Solothurn Work Prize for it. That was in 1976. The organisers and performers of this concert in Laufen are doing their bit to ensure that Meier’s work is not forgotten, neither today nor in the future.

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