Erich Urbanner ‘Emotions’: A New Historical Code

Day ‘U’ is upon us, dearest readers, and it is always a task to find a composer with a name that begins with U! Saying this, however, I have decided to write this blog on the marvellous Austrian composer, Erich Urbanner, and his work for saxophone quartet – Emotions. I hope you enjoy this latest instalment in my Alphabet Challenge!

Born on March 26th, 1936 in Austria, Erich Urbanner has had a fruitful career in music and composition. Studying at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, between 1955-1961, Urbanner was able to work with a wealth of different composers. He studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky, piano with Grete Hinterhofer, and composition with Hanns Jelinek, Karl Schiske and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Between 1961-1969, Urbanner taught at the university, both in score-reading, composition and harmony and counterpoint. Urbanner also began specialising his classes in twelve-tone music and Electro-acoustic and Experimental music.

Urbanner’s catalogue of compositions spans many decades and genres, including concertos, chamber music, orchestral work and solo instrumental works. Urbanner has also composed one opera, one musical burlesque, and one monodrama. For many of his works, Urbanner has won composition prizes, such as the Composition Prize of the City of Innsbruck (1980), and the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria (2001).

Emotions for saxophone quartet was composed as a commission from the Raschér Quartet, in 1984. The compositional processes that Urbanner took to compose Emotions, are more unconventional than you’d expect. With the idea that each saxophone is an emotion or ‘voice’, the work has largely been composed as if it were for only one instrument. What Urbanner has done is take the focus off of the melodic content, and instead put the emphasis on the structures within the inside of the composition. Essentially, he has composed this from the inside out, which makes Emotions all that more complex. In Urbanner’s detailed description of Emotions he states:

“Rather than seeing to their mere clever variation, or even their musical ‘destruction’, it seems to me more artistic to allow the structural elements in the musical material to blend into each other; not by their mere juxtaposition as unaltered pieces in a collage, but by allowing for their reciprocal and simultaneous mutual influence in digital space. Various influences were blended into this music. It is narrative music in which the destinies of chords and melodies are described, as well as the destinies of moods, and their correlative experiences. This is not composing based upon ‘historical’ music, but rather composing based upon the historical ‘codes’ of music, which become broken open, newly combined and conglomerated with new sounds. Thus, something new is described, new ‘tonal histories’ are created.”

As you will be able to hear from the recording of the work, each saxophone has its own purpose and destination, which, in due course, brings the whole ensemble into one. Each part is so in tune (if you’ll pardon the pun!) with one another, that each small phrase is perfectly encapsulated by each member of the ensemble. The effectiveness of the piece lies in many different areas of the score, perhaps most notably the accents, and how they create different atmospheres for each phrase. The different sections of Emotions, which can be heard through tempo changes, represent the different emotions that are being pinged around the ensemble. Throughout the different sections there are more solo-lead passages, however the work as a whole places its emphasis on the whole ensemble moving as one unit, making it a very effective and complex work for a saxophone quartet.

Urbanner was able to create his own ‘historical code’ of music to work with whilst composing Emotions. A highly intelligent work that lies its values in the past, present and future, Emotions is worth your time, so do give it a listen if you are into avant-garde chamber music!

That’s all from Day ‘U’ of my Alphabet Challenge, join me very soon for Day ‘V’ of the challenge. We are nearly at the end of the challenge, and I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to all my readers for spurring me on to complete this. There will be some big announcements coming soon, so keep your eyes peeled!

Happy Reading!

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