Paul Frehner’s Berliner Konzert - Program Note (Long Version)

When asked to compose a triple concerto in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall there were numerous compositional pathways that I considered taking.  I did not want to simply write a celebratory fanfare that did not acknowledge the inhuman and horrific realities and consequences of the Wall’s existence.  There was also the concertante aspect of the work that needed to be reconciled with its thematic concept and content.  I decided finally to write a piece in several movements in which each movement would be inspired by and reflective of specific events that occurred during the history of the rise and fall of the Wall.  The roles assigned to the piano trio and the orchestra are flexible and vary from movement to movement.  The players in the trio, for instance, do not necessarily represent individuals and the orchestra, the oppressive power-political complex.  Rather, the music of each movement is a musical reflection on specific events or ideas and both trio and string orchestra combine to express that reflection.

Prelude: Nachtmusik

Between dusk and dawn on August 12/13 1961 East German forces, under a blanket of darkness, spread out into the streets of Berlin and divided the city by rolling out over a hundred miles of barbed wire.  Berliners woke up that morning to a tragically changed daily reality.  In this prelude I’m trying to evoke the dark and ominous nature of that night’s activities. 

I. Sand and Cement

Given the nature of the sandy, boggy soil it is built upon Berlin was an improbable metropolis.  Originating in the Middle Ages as a fishing and trading settlement the city was likely named after the West Slavic word brl, which meant marsh.  In the post Second World War period and before the erection of the Wall, Berlin, though a broken, divided and occupied city, was on its way to once again becoming a dynamic metropolis, especially in the western sections. This progress was suddenly halted for almost three decades by the events of August 1961.

Sand has a loose, granular and fluid quality that I find comparable to the nature and movements of free people in a large city.  When compacted into cement, though, sand becomes rigid and almost impregnable.  In this movement the granular and fluid quality of sand is evoked in the running folk-like melodies played by the trio.  Superimposed on this music is a rather harsh and inflexible chordal texture played by the string orchestra.


II. No Man’s Land

On August 17, 1962 eighteen year old Peter Fechter and a friend attempted to escape into West Berlin.  They crossed the barbed wire barrier on the Eastern side of the wall and negotiated the death traps in the area that bore the name ‘No Man’s Land.’  Fechter’s friend managed to scale the final 8-foot barrier, with bullets barely missing him, and gain his freedom in West Berlin.  Fechter, though, was shot in the leg, and slid back into the no man’s land.  The shot had severed an artery and he lay there crying for help while he slowly bled to death.  East German and West German authorities and onlookers were all too afraid to help him.  American GIs did nothing.  One of them was reported as shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘Not our problem.’  Finally, some East German guards were goaded into action but it was too late. 

This movement is written in commemoration of this tragic event.

III. Kooltur

Composer György Ligeti called the half-city of West Berlin a ‘surreal cage’, a bizarre prison in which paradoxically only those locked up inside were free.[1] In the 1960s and through the 1980s West Berlin was slowly depopulating.  It was not a place to which a person would go to advance a career and immigrants were not the usual assortment of people looking for work.  They were typically people looking for an alternate lifestyle, inexpensive rents and round-the-clock nightlife as well as a certain number of young West Germans looking to avoid mandatory conscription in the Bundeswehr.[2]  It was also a city still occupied by the French, British and American authorities, and as such, was somewhat of a cultural melting pot.  Among the West Berlin youth American popular culture and sub cultures exerted a strong influence. This influence was evident in the West German popular and alternative music scenes during these years.  

The music I’ve written here fuses aspects of contemporary triple concerto form with musical references to jazz, blues, early rock ‘n roll and new wave music with the intention of conveying, in the form of a multilayered musical snapshot, my personal impression of West Berlin in this period.

IV. Fragment

In the days immediately following November 9 1989, exiled Russian cellist Rostropovich traveled to Berlin and gave an impromptu performance of the Bach cello suites at the Wall in celebration of its fall. 

Fragment, the shortest of the five movements of this work, draws upon short melodic fragments extracted from the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.  The melodic fragments are played by the solo cello and are commented upon by the solo violin while the strings softly provide harmonic support.   The music is severed by a strong chordal attack from the solo piano.


V. Dresden 2.10.89

In September 1989 East German tourists were fleeing across the border between Hungary and Austria and eventually making there way into West Germany.  Concurrently, thousands were seeking refuge in the West German embassy in Prague.  By the end of September there were over 4000 people camping on the embassy grounds.  It was an embarrassing situation for East German leader Erich Honecker. Eventually he agreed to allow the East German refugees to go to West Germany, but on his terms.  They would travel through the DDR into West Germany onboard sealed trains.  During the ride they would be stripped of all identification documents and have their East German citizenship withdrawn.  It was an attempt to send them to the West humiliated and in disgrace.  This plan catastrophically backfired on Honecker.  By the time the trains left there were 12000 refugees on board.  In East Germany thousands of citizens lined the route of the trains to cheer on the refugees as they gained their freedom.  In Dresden, instead of surrendering their identification documents, the refugees tore them up and tossed them out the windows of the trains.  They also discarded their soon-to-be worthless East German money.  At the Dresden train station many other citizens greeted the refugees and tried to get on the trains to also gain their freedom. Fighting broke out with the Vopos (People’s Police).  Demonstrations continued in Dresden after the refugee trains left.  When they finally arrived in the West, there was great celebration. The West German television broadcasts of the emotional event were easily picked up in the East.  Almost immediately the embassy in Prague started filling up again with more East Germans hoping to get on another freedom train.[3]

While writing this movement I was trying to portray the uncontainable energy and excitement of those history-making train rides to freedom.      

Berliner Konzert was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada, the Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn and the Gryphon Trio in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

Financial support for this work was graciously provided by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Wurttemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn.

[1] Richie, Alexandra. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin. London, 1999. 

[2] Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, Harper Perennial, Toronto. 

[3] Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, Harper Perennial, Toronto.