duration: ca. 9 minutes
Canonic Perspectives on György Ligeti’s setting of Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘Der Sommer’. Commissioned by Choir & Organ magazine.
I. Canon at the Twelfth
II. Canon at the Eleventh—Per Arsin et Thesin
III. Double Canon (Four-in-Two) in Inversion at the Sixth
IV. Double Canon (Four-in-Two) in Inversion at the Second
V. Epilogue—L’altra sorte del canone all’unisono
Summer Canons is as much a gloss on Friedrich Hölderlin’s 19th century poem as it is a transfiguration of György Ligeti’s 1989 setting of it. Each of the five canons is based on the vocal line of Ligeti’s lied, and each responds to images in Hölderlin’s text (as well as Hamburger’s English translation).
I. Canon at the Twelfth. Still you can see the season, and the field /Of summer shows its mildness and its pride.
The upper voices present the canon, with its quasi-palindromic profile. The long notes of the opening and closing—sunrise, sunset—surround the angular counterpoint of the central section.
II. Canon at the Eleventh—Per Arsin et Thesin. The meadow’s green is splendidly outspread /Where down the brook and all its wavelets glide.
The upper voices present the canon—an ‘outspread’ version of the entire ‘Der Sommer’ melody. Per Arsin et Thesin, often used to mean imitation by inversion, is used here in its rhythmic sense whereby strong beats in the dux become weak beats in the comes.
III. Double Canon (Four-in-Two) in Inversion at the Sixth. So now the day moves on through hill and valley, / Not to be stopped and in its beam arrayed.
The centerpiece is a manualiter canon, a gloss on summer’s ‘inevitability’.
IV. Double Canon (Four-in-Two) in Inversion at the Second. And clouds move calmly on through lofty space / As though the year in majesty delayed.
The cantus is treated canonically in the upper voices, with each note suspended into the next. The world’s oldest surviving canon, also on the topic of summer, is quoted in the pedals.
V. Epilogue—L’altra sorte del canone all’unisono. “Mit Unterthänigkeit, Scardanelli, d. 9ten Merz 1940.”
Ligeti’s lied avoids a peculiar aspect of Hölderlin’s poem: its signature. Hölderlin signed the poem as ‘Scardanelli’, his madness-induced persona, and post-dated the work as written on 9 March 1940 (Hölderlin died in 1843).
This last canon at the unison—the poet chasing himself—is both a summation of the prior canons and a break from them. It sustains double and triple meters simultaneously, fusing the metric strands of the first four canons [I: 4/8, II: 2/2, III: 3/8, IV: 3/2, V: 4/4 + 9/8]. The dux presents the whole of ‘Der Sommer’ twice, the second time in inversion. The comes slowly separates from the dux as the canon progresses, moving from a distance of two to six quavers. The pedal part turns ‘Der Sommer’ into a triple-time walking bass, which fights the duple identity of the canon at every turn. The only two canonic intervals avoided in the piece (the seventh and the third) are introduced in the closing flourish to create the final cadence.