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Haflidi Hallgrímsson

Publisher: Chester Music

Die Wält der Zwischenfälle (2003)
commissioned by Stadttheater Lübeck and NetzZeit Wien
Text Writer
Daniil Kharms, German translations by Peter Urban and Ilse Tschoertner
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Year Composed
1 Hour 30 Minutes
Main role:Tenor/Narrator
Solo Instrument(s)
Group 1: soprano, tenor, baritone, bass; Group 2: soprano, baritone, bass
Programme Note
Haflidi Hallgrímsson Die Wält der Zwischenfälle (2003)

This opera has been described as a kind of ‘Winterreise’, describing the long, complex journey of a lonely individual and then his demise. It takes as its textual base the writings of the absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. The stories of which the opera is made up consist of everyday events: black humour, absurd happenings, mindless violence, eroticism, simplicity bordering on a fairy tale, acts of evil and, towards the end of the opera, a moving story of absurd philosophy on the beauty and mystery of the ‘Whirld’, as Kharms spells it in the title. As the opera progresses, the main character develops vague but complex relationships with the others. Finally proceedings go beyond his control – he has abused the ‘system’. He is arrested and thrown into a large dustbin, where he dies.


I first encountered the works of the Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) in the late 1970’s. It was a dramatic discovery that instantly produced a feeling of total identification. More than 20 years later, I used his writings in my music theatre piece, Mini-Stories, commissioned by the Northlands Festival in Scotland.

In 2002 I was commissioned by the Theatre Lubeck and NetZZeit in Vienna to write the opera Die Wält Der Zwischenfälle (The Whirld of Incidences). I completed the opera a year later, and in January 2004 it was premiered in Lubeck to huge critical acclaim. The opera shares the same material as Mini-Stories, but with several stories added, to form a libretto consisting of 16 stories creating a continuous sequence of words and music lasting 90 minutes.

Daniil Kharms founded the absurdist movement OBERIU (The Association of Real Art) in Leningrad, early last century. This group of so-called Dadaists irritated the authorities no end, and Kharms was arrested twice. He died of starvation in a prison hospital in Leningrad in 1942.

The stories I have chosen range from mundane everyday events, black humour, absurd happenings, mindless violence, eroticism, simplicity bordering on a fairy tale, acts of evil, and, towards the end of the opera, a moving story of absurd philosophy on the beauty and mystery of the ‘Whirld’, as Kharms spells it in the title. The last story refers to a read-haired man, that does not exist.

The use of words is striking in its directness and simplicity. Many of the stories are imbued with an almost unworldly atmosphere, as if noted down by a superior being, observing helpless mankind from afar.

There are eight singers and a chamber orchestra consisting of single wind, brass and strings. There is also a keyboard player (piano, harmonium and celesta), as well as two percussionists. The main role is taken by the first tenor, known as the ‘narrator’. I see him as a modern ‘Yurodive’, the famous Russian equivalent of the ‘holy fool’. He not only sings, but uses ‘sprechstimme’ as well as normal speech, which ranges from whispering to shouting. The rest of the cast also use this wide range of expression. The narrator becomes involved – seemingly against his will – in one bizarre event after another as the stories unfold. Sometimes he stands aside taking notes, observing the rest of the characters entangle themselves in truly absurd happenings.

As the opera progresses, the narrator has developed vague but complex relationships with the other characters. Finally proceedings go beyond his control – he has abused the ‘system’. He is arrested and thrown into a large dustbin, where he dies.

It was obvious that the clarity and directness of Kharms’ writings should be supported by clear harmonic structures and simple musical gestures that allow the audience to follow the proceedings with relative ease. To enhance this sense of clarity, I set the text syllabically.

A German critic wrote after the premiere that the opera was a kind of ‘Winterreise’, describing the long, complex journey of a lonely individual, and then his demise. That is not far from the truth.

© Haflidi Hallgrimsson, October 2004.

Vocal score preview:

For his first opera, the Icelandic composer Haflidi Hallgrimsson (b.1941) united 15 isolated sections of text by Kharms into a full-length collage, and composed the music in a mostly tonal manner. Apparently, Hallgrimsson's point was not to impose his own musical style on a libretto, but rather in the first place to support, strengthen, and clarify the stories within the framework of musical possibilities. Schoenberg, Bartok, Weill and film music are called to mind. Diverse arrangements and tonal nuances are the main stylistic characteristics: from a string cluster through a melodious trombone solo to a humorous ragtime. With the music hall only half-full - "small, but fine" - the public showed their appreciation for the performance with benevolent applause.
Clemens Frankowski, Wiener Zeitung,01/04/2005
The language of the music is clearly invested with "Eastern" appeal, a simplistic veneer but nevertheless complex, parodying and menacing at the same time. The stories, translated into German, are portrayed in witty scenes by the eight outstanding, articulate singers, sometimes solo and sometimes in staccato choral. The implementation of the scenes is imaginative, precise, and unostentatious. As for the musical side, the ensemble "die reihe" (conductor: Frank Maximilian Hube) do their part in the pit quite superbly and with a lot of "groove". Recommended.
Heinz Rögl, Salzburger Nachrichten,01/04/2005
With the festival, "Out of Control", the group "NetzZeit" succeeded in pulling off a great coup. The Icelander Hallgrimsson set some texts of the Russian literary figure Daniil Kharms to music in a catchy, partially swinging fashion. The powerfully rhythmic intermezzi are especially convincing.
Hallgrímsson's music is the connecting element for the isolated and lone-standing incidents described in the texts by Kharms used in the opera . The opera is clearly structured and strongly marked by rhythm. As the separate incidents grow into a biting satire of the Stalinist dictator, the music gains an intensity in tandem with the mounting oppressiveness of the drama.
Anyone who has seen "Die Wält der Zwischenfälle" ought to be convinced that in spite of the half century delay, this work can become to the opera what "Waiting for Godot" is to the theatre, a classic of the Absurd.He mixes virtuoso instruments, from tremulous strings through bizarre interwoven brass, frequently overblown woodwinds, to percussion elements, such as timpani, xylophone, piano, or a wind machine. Hallgrímsson creatively walks the line between tonality and atonality. His sensual, buzzing tones are sometimes reminiscent of Mahler, sometimes of Wilfried Hiller.A great success, that brought much applause from the audience.
Schleswig-Holsteinischer Zeitungsverlag,14/02/2004
It had been his intention, explained Hallgrímsson, who is highly respected as a composer in England, to write "an opera for the 21st century," that is "modern and accessible." He aims to achieve a modern and acesible opera in embracing toanlity as part of the compositional style. Hallgrímsson’s musical setting is extensively syllabic as well as thoroughly singable, whilst being faithful to the text. Thanks to the delicately organised dynamics of the orchestra, every word can be understood. The music with its long held tremoli, oscillating surfaces of sound, solistic lines and jazzy interludes is pleasant to the ears. The public, reacted sensitively - amused, puzzled, thoughtful, and with appreciation.
Jürgen Kesting, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,14/02/2004
The first bars of the prelude already make clear where this opera journey is going - to Absurdistan. Hallgrímsson's music is characterized by rhythm and by a differentiated play with tone colors. He uses a small orchestra with a large percussion section, which is reinforced by a piano, celesta, harmonium and a wind machine. Time and again the composer also allows the orchestra to sound like a harmonium. Full chords with little instrumental solos determine the musical happenings. This is not really modern but very experienced and done with outstanding craftsmanship. The seven vocal parts are most impressive in the polyphone sections. Tension builds up slowly in the music of this opera; in the two final scenes it is almost unbearable. Here Hallgrímsson successfully creates a furious finale, that will be remembered. At the end there were great applause and bravos for opera singers, musicians, and conductor, and for the composer - this does not often happen with contemporary music.
Lübecker Nachrichten,13/02/2004
Hallgrímsson's music does not oppose tradition. It stretches out a supportive net in which Kharm's absurd miniatures seem to jump as if on a trampoline. With extended interludes, following in the tracks of Shostakovich, it designs an atmosphere of the grotesque, which also captures something from the Vita of the poet Charms. The public showed its appreciation with long, drawn-out applause.
Georg Friedrich Kühn, Deutschlandfunk: Kultur Heute,12/02/2004
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