Sacrosanto: Finding the Holy Place

Austrian composer Herbert Willi will tell you, for every person, there is a turning point in life, a revelation. His happened at the world premiere of his violin concerto at the Musikverein

Herbert Willi

Austrian composer Herbert Willi finds his ­musical inspiration in rural solitude | Photo: Schott

Herbert Willi is a small man with a shock of white hair, a slight build and calm, blue eyes. He agreed to meet just after the Wednesday rehearsal of his violin concerto Sacrosanto that would have its world premiere with soloist Nikolaj Znaider and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) under principal conductor Manfred Honeck one day later at the Musikverein, which had commissioned the piece as part of its 200th anniversary.

Willi was basking in the spotlight of the premiere. He is not a prolific composer, so public appearances are rare. He waits for ideas to come; in the case of Sacrosanto, it took seven years.

Music can be difficult for him to describe, so he paused often to search for the right words to describe the narrative of the concerto.

“We are functioning; there is scarcely any room to breathe… we are going, going, going… and then, suddenly, completely unforeseeable, something unexpected happens, which changes everything. Then nothing functions anymore,” he said.

“I call this a holy space.”

This is the moment Willi hoped to capture at the All Saint’s Day performance. It was a fitting occasion, even though he describes his music as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” as with a second Willi work, ABBA-MA that conductor Honeck had chosen to begin the evening with.

It was a bold choice, as the six-minute piece had met a cool reception in Pittsburgh. Still it made sense; the two works are part of a new cycle he is currently writing. This one is completely different from his earlier Montafon Cycle.

“Starting with ABBA-MA, I have a new beginning,” Willi said. “The new thing is, there are always two levels, inside a space [a second level]. A transformed, holy space.”

The first three movements of Sacrosanto express our hectic lives, in which we simply exist. With its strong percussion line, we can hear the machine cogs that push us through our day. The violin solo, struggling to be heard in the extreme high ranges of the instrument, was handled ably by Znaider. Yet all the while, the energy is continuous, unrelenting.

Then, the moment comes. The revelation, when life pauses, slows down, feels unreal, the time of reflection – of what is important and what is superfluous. This is the fourth movement, sacrosanto e devoto, or holy and devotional. Here, violinist Znaider settles into a richer voice, a reflection that was quiet, sensitive and moving.

Finally, in the fifth movement, in which life goes on, we humans continue as before – and yet, changed. Now the violin rediscovers humour, joy, love and sometimes a bit of impatience and sadness.

Willi dedicated Sacrosanto to Znaider after he learned the violinist had agreed to play the piece. The two met in Italy about two years ago to discuss music and Willi said he knew then that the Dane had to be the one.

“You have a musician who feels the same about the music. That is so very special,” he said.  It was a stroke of luck, too, he said, that Honeck, a friend for some 20 years, would conduct. Then he added quickly that he didn’t believe in luck.

“We speak in dialect, so he knows my music. He can translate perfectly to the orchestra,” Willi said. “Sometimes you can’t write everything down. A lot of things you have to feel. This is a perfect situation. We know each other very well. You just make a movement and he knows.”

Like Sacrosanto, ABBA-MA has a strong percussion line. However, while the violin dominates in Sacrosanto, the choir has a decisive role in ABBA-MA, sustaining joy and transforming the holy space through the text.

The choir sings the Lord’s Prayer in the present tense. “…thy Will is being done; Our daily bread is being given. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

The former theology student rejected the prayer as it is usually recited and understood – in the future tense – because “then we will never reach the holy space.” By staying in the present, Willi said, “I can feel it has something to do with me. This space belongs to us,” as accessible and open to the Zen Master, he believes, as it is to a priest.

Austria’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who attended the concert, approved of the editing. “It was fantastic, beautiful,” he said. “It’s an expression of great trust. Trust that is needed now.”

With the concert over, the PSO now long gone, on to the next points of its three-week tour, Willi travels back to his home in Vorarlberg – only 30km away from Honeck’s home – where he skis avidly. He revels in the solitude. It clears his mind so that he can find the stillness he needs to hear the music.

“After a while, the everyday thoughts go away, and there is quiet,” he said. “In a while, the music – the real music – can be heard. That’s what I write down. That comes from another source. Then from this quiet, I hear the music.”

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