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The Viola Music of Rudolf Haken

Paul Groh


The death of Jean Sibelius in 1957 was hailed as a milestone, the passing of the last surviving composer of the Romantic era; but we violists should be aware that Alfred Hill and York Bowen, both of whom composed major works for the viola and also played the instrument themselves, outlived the great Finnish symphonist by several years.  And while Sibelius composed practically nothing after 1926, Hill and Bowen continued to express themselves in the musical style of their youth throughout the first half of the twentieth century and into the age of Rock and Roll.  Some might accuse them of a lack of imagination, but that would be unfair.  The truly unimaginative composers are the ones who obsequiously follow every new trend as it arises.  Musical styles do not come with expiration dates, and composers should not be slaves to fashion.  Some of the styles that were current before any of us were born are still beloved by millions of people; and a contemporary composer working in such a style may ultimately take it in directions other than those taken by history.

Consider the music of Rudolf Haken, Professor of Viola at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Born in late 1965, only a few years after the last of the Romantic composers had passed away, Haken was a child prodigy who conducted his own orchestral music at the age of ten and had the good sense to select the viola as his primary instrument at an early age.  He has become an outstanding concert artist, a bold and exciting performer who has toured internationally to great success (but, so far, not to Australia or New Zealand).  His viola works, many written in the lush and dramatic style of the late nineteenth century, are distinguished by a sensuous lyricism, an exuberant sense of humour, a natural and thorough mastery of compositional technique, and above all an intimate understanding of the technical and expressive capabilities of the viola – a body of work all the more remarkable in that much of it was composed when Haken was still in his teens.  Best of all, scores and recordings of his music may be downloaded directly from his website.  When a musician of this calibre takes the trouble to make his music so immediately accessible, it’s worth our while to check it out.

Haken’s Polonaise for viola and piano (1990) is a virtuoso showpiece in the same vein as the two by Wieniawski, but with a cheekier attitude.  Haken is clearly having fun with the conventions of the genre, teasing the listener with abrupt modulations, sundry rhythmic tricks, and transitional passages that veer off on unexpected tangents before snapping suddenly back to the main theme.  Like all of the best virtuoso music, it is not nearly as difficult as it looks on the page; Haken’s fingerings are very helpful.  I’m not sure that I care for the ending, in which the piano accompaniment peters out in a long diminuendo by itself.  This might negate the piece’s utility as an encore number – the usual raison d’être of any virtuoso polonaise – but it would make a fine recital opener.

Another charming miniature for viola and piano is Für Fritz, a Kreislerian “Wienerwalzerrondo” in F major.  Playful and poignant in turn, its delicate textures and rich harmonies recall the Viennese salon music from the turn of the last century.  This piece, however, is daunting in its sheer difficulty.  The double-stops in the opening theme require an especially light touch, and the frequent shifting and heavy chromaticism make intonation a challenge.  Für Fritz would serve as an effective interlude or encore for virtuoso performers, but I despair of ever working it into shape myself.  Haken was fourteen when he wrote it.

The year 1981, when Haken had not yet turned sixteen, saw the composition of no less than three major works for the viola.  The Fantasia in F sharp minor for viola and piano is perhaps the most playable of his viola works, and one of the most beautiful.  Its four movements – an Allegretto tristamente ma con grazia, a brief Scherzo, a lyrical adagio, and a dramatic finale – suggest something of the mood of the Schumann Märchenbilder, but with better viola writing and a more satisfying conclusion.  At seventeen minutes, the length is convenient for programming purposes; and it would make a fine recital piece for tertiary or advanced secondary students. 

The Suite in A minor for solo viola will delight any violist who feels that six Bach Cello Suites are not nearly enough.  Written in the form of a Baroque suite (with a second Giga), but harmonically a little closer to those of Reger, its seven movements are perfectly crafted and very moving.  There is not a weak movement in the set (which same cannot be said for the Reger suites).  For some reason Haken did not provide the repeats typically found in binary dance form; you may be tempted, as I am, to add these in performance.  Give into this temptation; the experience is worth prolonging.   I should point out that attempts to apply Baroque period performance practice to this piece will not succeed; a Romantic interpretation, like that of the composer himself, is called for here.

Haken’s third viola work from 1981 is a Sonata in D minor for viola and piano, quite possibly the finest viola sonata ever composed in the state of South Dakota.  This monumental work – it lasts a full half hour – displays Haken’s command of large-scale form and sophisticated approach to tonality while testing the skill and stamina of both performers (Haken is also an accomplished pianist).  The first movement is in expanded sonata form; a slow introduction, repeated later at the recapitulation, gives way to a brisk vivace in saltarello character.  I particularly like the central fugato, with a subsidiary theme as its subject, that begins the development section; the use of counterpoint is skillful without ever sounding academic.  The slow movement is a theme and variations of great warmth and tenderness; while the finale, marked Giocoso ma teneramente, is an energetic movement in a fast three that builds to a glorious finish.  Ambitious violists should not be deterred by the sonata’s length; the effort, though considerable, will be well worth it.

When these works first came to my attention some ten years ago, I assumed that their composer was a man of my father’s generation, probably a German or Austrian, with a lifetime of musical experience behind him and somewhat old-fashioned tastes.  That they were composed by an American teenager five years my junior, if I may employ an expression that was current during my own youth, blows my mind.  Consider this: Felix Mendelssohn, history’s most celebrated musical prodigy after Mozart, composed a sonata for viola and piano, like Haken, at the age of fifteen.  Yet in any comparison between the two, it is the Mendelssohn that falls short.  In fact, the Mendelssohn – with its banal themes, its by-the-numbers approach to the form, and worst of all, the colossal blunder of treating the viola chiefly as an accompanying instrument rather than primus inter pares – is woefully, spectacularly inferior in every respect.  It is a fine effort for a young person, showing great talent and promise; but clearly Mendelssohn had much to learn before producing his first true masterpiece, the string Octet, a year later.  Haken, at the same age, had already attained a higher level of development – yes, than the young Felix Mendelssohn.    

I dislike hyperbole and exaggeration.  I realise that I have compared Haken’s early music favourably to that of some of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, as well as some of the core works in the viola literature.  I mean every word.  They really are that good.           

Haken’s mature style, while still grounded in the traditions of Western music, has become more eclectic, borrowing elements from genres as diverse as Rock and roll, country fiddling, various forms of jazz, traditional Korean music, and more.  If one wished to assign labels, one might say that he has proceeded from Romanticism directly to Postmodernism while having avoided any fruitless detours through the excesses of 20th-century Modernism.

Surennatalia (1998) is a duet for two violas whose five movements, played without pause, stand in marked contrast to one another.  The first is a very aggressive prelude in the odd metre of 13/16, reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme – indicating, as the composer states in his preface, that “what follows should be attempted only by virtuosos.”  A funeral march, in which the second viola accompanies the first in a set of four variations, is followed by two movements in ragtime style: a fast one, “Rag à grande vitesse” (a pun on the train à grande vitesse, or French high-speed train), then a slow one, “Rag des Régrets” (derived from Valse des Régrets, the French title of Brahms’s Waltz in A flat major, upon which the movement is based).  A lively, if all too brief, Gigue brings the work to a spirited conclusion.

Although Surennatalia was originally written for, and first performed by, two cellists, the version for two violas improves upon the original in terms of textural clarity and colour.  Haken’s introductory caveat is, I think, unnecessarily intimidating.   Several pages are fairly black with notes, true, but the viola writing is idiomatic and fits the hands like a pair of gloves.  Viola duets of this quality, embodying such a wonderful sense of fun, are not so common that we can afford to leave this one to the cellists.

A number of Haken’s other works exist in multiple instrumental versions, among them the Suite pour Jean (2008), which was originally composed as a solo piece for flutist Jean Ferrandis.  Haken has since arranged it for the viola, as well as for several other solo instruments, including the marimba and the guitar.  Like the Suite in A minor written 27 years earlier, Suite pour Jean follows the form of a six-movement Baroque suite, but in this case a decidedly modern sense of tonality prevails.  The work is built entirely upon an octatonic scale: there is no C#, E, G, or B flat anywhere in the piece, making it in essence a musical lipogram.  The writing is likewise economical, with only 150 bars in the entire work (not including the da capo in the Gavotte).  Elements such as syncopation, artificial harmonics, and col legno combine with the octatonic modality to impart a contemporary flavour to the traditional Baroque idiom.  The movements vary somewhat in difficulty; the Gavotte is a real handful, but the Courante is great fun.            

In recent years Haken has taken to performing on the viola pomposa, a five-stringed instrument developed by eighteenth-century luthier Johann Christian Hoffman to combine the accordature of the viola and violin.  Haken has arranged the Brahms opus 120 sonatas for this instrument, eliminating some of the awkward octave transpositions found in most editions; and it allows him to play the sixth Bach Cello Suite, originally written for a five-string cello, in its original key of D major.  (He has also arranged this same suite, transposed into G major, for four-string viola.)    

One problem with the viola pomposa is that it requires a substantially larger resonating chamber than the four-string viola in order to produce a full sound in both low and high registers.  Of Hoffman’s few extant viole pompose, most have been cut down to more comfortable dimensions; one in its original condition measures fully 78 cm in total length, with ribs 8 cm in width – much too large to fit under the chin of even the most gargantuan violist.  It could only have been held against the chest like a viol, severely cramping the player’s technical capacity, to say nothing of his style.

Haken uses two five-string violas of modern origin which solve this problem in different ways.  One is an electric instrument designed and built by Eric Jensen of Seattle which, as it requires no resonating chamber at all, lacks even the semblance of one.  It appears to be all strings and fingerboard, with the tuning pegs tucked away beneath the chinrest.  You can, and should, download video from YouTube of Haken performing the music of Van Halen and Metallica on this instrument.

Haken’s other viola pomposa is an acoustic instrument custom built by David Rivinus of Portland, Oregon, using a highly unconventional design.  The body bulges out to the northwest and southeast, as it were, thereby increasing the size of the resonating chamber while allowing for ease of handling.  Two additional sound holes boost the volume still further.  The body has been intricately decorated with paintings of Haken’s three children, a pair of folded hands, a spray of lilacs and a harp in the shape of a hook (Haken means “hook” in German); and the scroll has been carved and painted in the image of a brightly coloured songbird.  This instrument is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, a real work of art, but I fear that its ultimate destiny may lie as either a museum piece or a family heirloom.  The viola pomposa has few enough proponents as it is, and I doubt whether any of them would have much use for an instrument whose very construction has been so thoroughly personalised for another musician.

The viola pomposa is used as a solo instrument in Haken’s tone poem Galápagos (2004), inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel of the same title.  The story concerns a party of tourists in the Galápagos Islands who, owing to a variety of natural and man-made catastrophes occurring worldwide, become the last people on earth.  Over the next million years their descendants evolve into a species of furry, small-brained aquatic mammal.  Thus humankind finally learns to live in peace and harmony with nature; but the great works of human civilization – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony being the seminal example given in the novel – no longer exist, and would have no meaning if they did.

The tone poem is not a musical retelling of the novel; rather, it takes the form of a funeral service for Beethoven’s Ninth, with quotations from all four of its movements interspersed throughout.  The conflict between the creative and destructive sides of humanity forms the dramatic impetus of the piece, a struggle resolved only by the ultimate transfiguration of humanity and the death of Art itself.  Galápagos is a well-written, witty, and effective tribute to the novel that inspired it, yet it may never be widely performed because of the programming problems it engenders.  At only nine minutes, it is simply too short to take the place of a concerto.  Perhaps the best solution would be for Galapagos to be performed immediately prior to the Ninth itself, if only to prove that reports of its demise, like that of Vonnegut’s hero Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.

No such programming difficulties surround Haken’s twenty-minute Concerto for Five-String Viola and chamber orchestra (1998), a dazzling showcase for the viola pomposa and one of the very best new viola concerti I heave heard in recent years.  This is essentially a modern concerto grosso in concertato style; the orchestra does not serve as accompaniment, but acts in opposition to the soloist, creating a dramatic interplay of brilliant colour and virtuosity.  Having premiered this work on his Jensen electric viola, Haken now uses both of his five-string violas in performance; the majority of the solo part is played on the acoustic viola pomposa, with the electric instrument reserved for the final variation of the second movement, “Triathlon” (in which a Crybaby pedal is used to imitate the sound of the “wa-wa” muted trombone), and the eerie cadenza that introduces the finale, “Walpurgisnacht”.  The first and third movements, “Possum Trot” and “Hoedown”, make wonderful use of country fiddling techniques, whose treatment here is more Gershwinian than Coplandesque, if those are the words I want (if, indeed, they are words at all).  The titles of the four movements convey a sense of the ebullient humour that pervades the entire work.  Haken’s performances of this concerto have been received with tremendous enthusiasm by musicians and audiences everywhere, and his recording of it on the Centaur label (CRC 2826) was chosen as an American Record Guide “Critic’s Choice” for 2007.

Musical quotations abound in Haken’s recent music.  The five-string viola concerto includes snatches of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and the Dies Irae, for example, and the other concerti on the Centaur recording contain sometimes extensive quotations from Haken’s own viola works.  The second movement of the Clarinet Concerto is virtually identical to the third movement of the Fantasia in F# minor, transposed up (or down) a tritone and ingeniously orchestrated for Caribbean steel drum ensemble.  The theme from the trio of Haken’s Polonaise for viola and piano occurs three times in the finale of the same concerto: first dolefully, then sarcastically, and ultimately in a grandiose tutti.  And the slow movement of his Oboe Concerto is an adaptation of the funeral march from Surennatalia.  It’s nice, for a change, to hear other instruments play transcriptions of music originally written for the viola.     

Haken’s success as a composer has brought him numerous commissions for solo and orchestral works in a wide variety of styles.  He continues to maintain a busy schedule as a soloist, teacher, and adjudicator.  He has entered the prime of his career, and he is still young.  It remains to be seen whether time and circumstances will allow for the composition of new viola works in the future.  But those of us who carry on a love affair with the viola, whether four- or five-stringed (and last year I tried out a seven-string electric viola which, as far as I know, has no original music written for it whatsoever), can applaud the achievements of this extraordinary musician and take pleasure in his contributions to the literature for our instrument.  They are great stuff.  And they’re all available to us at the click of a mouse.

Recordings and scores of Rudolf Haken’s music may be downloaded directly from his website,  Follow the links to his YouTube page.