In Schwarzerde (Black Earth), Klaus Huber does not tell a linear story, one with a plot that can be followed. Instead, in nine sequences, he interweaves situational elements, poems, surreal dialogues and aphorisms. Michael Schindhelm’s libretto makes use of three languages: German, Russian and Armenian. Huber has set poems and prose texts by Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam as well as Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova – Russian poets belonging to the Acmeist school. Formed in 1911, the group sought to dispel the mysticism and occultism of Symbolism and replace them with a new aesthetic that strove for concreteness and clarity.
The period following the October Revolution became problematic for the Mandelstams. Money was lacking everywhere, and their lives were spent alternately in Moscow, Petrograd and Tbilisi. In spite of their situation, they produced numerous poetry collections, which testify to their extraordinary versatility. Osip’s 1925 prose piece The Noise of Time reflects his sense of alienation within the Soviet system – unlike Akhmatova and other poets, he was still able to publish his books in the 1920s. That changed with the advent of Stalin’s purges. In 1934 he was arrested, though after a suicide attempt he received a relatively lenient sentence: he was “only” exiled to Voronezh. It was there that he wrote his last poems, the Voronezh Notebooks. Finally, in May 1938, he was sentenced to five years in correction camps for “counter-revolutionary activities”. Seven months later, at Christmas, half starved, suffering from a heart condition and plagued by hallucinations, he died and was buried in a mass grave.
The premiere of Huber’s opera took place on 3 November 2001 at Theater Basel. In the programme booklet, Max Nyffeler wrote: “Some thematically significant elements find a direct correspondence in the compositional process: for example, the increasingly narrow horizon of their lives, to which Mandelstam’s poetry responds with a widening of the inner space. Where the music approaches silence, an incredible wealth of figures, colours and expressive nuances is generated. The music does not move forward insistently; rather it expands. Change is not the result of dynamic developments; rather it happens abruptly, in a flash. But dialectically engrained in each catastrophic impact is also a utopian moment of force, indicating what could have been otherwise. Like the Mandelstam poetry, Huber’s exceptionally finely polished music is an affirmation of life, and in its very fragility it heightens awareness of the loss of humanity that threatens us today more than ever before.
Stage work in nine sequences
Text: Michael Schindhelm in cooperation with Klaus Huber, based on poems and prose texts by Ossip Mandelstam
Soli: Parnok (Bbar), Boy (Ct), Nadja (Ms), Anna (A), Natalja (S), Officer (Spr/T)
six single voices: S. Ms. A. T. Bar. B. / large choir SATB / 2. 2. 1. BCl. Bassh (on stage).
2. / 2. 2. 2 (1 on stage). 1. / Hp. Theorbe (Guit) (on stage). Timp. 3 Perc (1 on stage). / 5. 4. 3. Vla d'am (on stage). 2. 2. / tape
World Premiere: 3.11.2001, Basel / Duration: full length
Sy. 3509 Score / Pno. / Vx. / carr.
Photo: Harald Rehling