Tonight’s program consists of music by relatively young composers: each began their respective works between the ages of 26 and 31. The second of these pieces is the moving and deeply personal Herbsttag (German for Autumn Day) by Miguel del Águila, an Uruguayan-born American composer who lives in Seattle. Del Águila’s music has been heard at Orchestra Hall only once before: his sextet Salón Buenos Aires was performed in a chamber music concert at Sommerfest 2016. Scored for flute, bassoon and harp, Herbsttag was composed in 1984 and received its premiere in 1986 at Vienna’s Austrian Radio Concert Hall by the American Music Ensemble Vienna, whose members were flutist Maura Bayer, bassoonist Judith Farmer and harpist Gabriela Mossyrsch.
Spanning eight minutes, Herbsttag is music that defies expectations and creates fresh and unusual sounds. Although the bassoon is a “low” instrument and the flute usually plays up high, the score often calls for bassoon to play in its upper register while flute sounds in its lowest octave, to an extent that the bassoon sometimes crosses above the flute. Both the flute and bassoon players are occasionally instructed to employ special effects such as blowing or speaking into their instrument at no specific pitch. Meanwhile, the harpist strays far from the instrument’s stereotypical gentle arpeggios and glissandos by using modern techniques including whistling sounds, percussive finger-taps on the instrument’s soundboard, and pedal slides in which a sustained pitch is altered by adjusting the foot pedals rather than re-plucking the strings.
The music begins and ends with rhythmically simple, sparsely-scored passages, while the midsection is much more active. The score at times calls for complex polyrhythms, with five notes per beat in the flute clashing against six in the bassoon. Harmonies are adventurous and sometimes jazz-tinged, and the tempo shifts several times but remains relatively slow throughout.
Words from the composer
The title and inspiration of Herbsttag come from the country where the work premiered: Herbsttag is the title of a poem by the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived from 1875 to 1926. Del Águila offers the following comments on his composition:
“Rainer Maria Rilke’s same-named poem inspired the work and sets the tone for the entire piece. Just like Rilke’s poem, my work recreates an existential reflection about loneliness, the end of youth, the passing of time and the meaning of our own existence. At the time I composed this work, in my mid-twenties, I was exiled in Vienna, most of my family was in the U.S. and some were still left in Uruguay enduring the horrors of a military regime.
“This work stands alone among all my works which are often driven by Latin rhythms, energetic and with clear structure and melodies. In Herbsttag the distant hints of Jazz in the harmonies and in melodic inflections (blue notes, glissandi, bending tones) convey my longing for a distant America and my family there. Herbsttag does not develop or modulate. Just like my feelings while composing it, the work seems caught in a somewhat depressive and hopeless mood from where there is no escape or resolution. The middle section portrays Rilke’s cold Autumn Day wind blowing the dry leaves along the wet streets of Vienna. The work ends with a glissando to nowhere from the same chord that began the piece, now missing the harmonic ground of tonic and third. After numerous reiterations of the theme, flute and bassoon end the piece with empty air notes.”
Inspiration from poetry
In addition to his comments on Herbsttag, del Águila has produced his own English translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s German-language poem that inspired the music.
Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,
lay your shadows on the sundials,
and over harvest piles let the winds blow.
Command the last fruits to be ripe;
grant them one last southern hour,
urge them to completion, and with power
drive final sweetness to the heavy wine.
Who’s homeless now, will for long stay alone.
No home will build his weary hands.
He’ll wake, read, write letters long to friends
and will the alleys up and down
walk restlessly wandering, as falling leaves dance.
About the composer
Miguel del Águila is one of the most distinctive and highly regarded composers of his generation, and his music has enjoyed great success and frequent performances, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it has been shared with both in-person and online streaming audiences. A three-time Grammy Award nominee, he has composed more than 130 works, ranging from chamber music to concertos to operas, that couple drama and driving rhythm with nostalgic nods to his South American roots. His music has been been played by nearly 100 orchestras and thousands of ensembles and soloists, and is featured on more then 50 CDs.
In 2021 del Águila is serving as composer in residence with Danish Chamber Players/Ensemble Storstrøm in Denmark. His recent commissions include works for John Hopkins Center for the Arts, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Eroica Trio, Kalliope Reeds and Fivebyfive. A sought-after guest as lecturer, educator, music advisor and curator, he is currently a BYU Barlow Endowment’s Board of Advisors member, and he served as judge for United States Artists Fellowships, the Camino de la Fe competition and the Cayambis Music Press Editorial Committee.
Del Águila’s training and early professional experience took place in Uruguay, the U.S. and Europe. After graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he traveled to Vienna, where he studied at the Universität für Musik un Darstellende Kunst and Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna. Early premieres of his works in Vienna’s Musikverein, Konzerthaus and Bösendorfer halls won him praise from audiences and press. He returned to the U.S. in 1992, settling on the West Coast. A full biography appears on the composer’s website.
Instrumentation: flute, bassoon and harp
Program note by Carl Schroeder.