Text by Georg Trakl.
His music, judging by this selection, is grand, serious in mood…[Helian] is a work of considerable intensity.
– American Record Guide, January/February 2012
Helian is a setting of the poem of the same name by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914); my division of this single, continuous poem into four seasons is my own invention, though it is strongly suggested by the text.
The text, while clearly narrative, is quite difficult to understand in any conventional sense. The characters presented in the poem include Helian himself, the (perhaps his) sisters, and passing mention is made of fathers, husbands, brothers. More importantly, there are recurring images throughout: walls (“Mauern,” later “Wänden”), eyes (“Augen”), and white things (“weißen Sternen,” “weiße Wasser,” “weißen Wangen”) foremost. More than the persons present in the poem, I treat these images as the true characters of the poem; they develop throughout and ultimately meet their respective demises.
The first four songs paint a bucolic and generally pleasant picture, though more contemplative than ebullient: already there are hints at impending darkness in the first song (“the Son of Pan…sleeps in grey marble”) and the third (“white water sinks into burial urns”). The fifth song picks up on the religious imagery of the fourth (“bread and wine”) and introduces the young novice and his sisters. The novice will reappear in the seventh song as “the saintly brother,” and the sisters in the ninth and twelfth songs, in the latter as “slender maids.” In both they are transformed into tragic beings through madness or relational unrest.
At the end of the sixth song, Helian makes his first appearance, but only in an embryonic state: he is fully grown (a “man”), but not fully formed as an individual entity. He will not appear as such until the end of the eighth song, when he “steps into the empty house of his fathers.” This emergence of the possible hero coincides with the “shattering…decline of our race.”
The eleventh song suggests a new beginning. Religious imagery is again present in the Kidron valley, and the struggle with the “brazen angel” recalls Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis. Despite Helian’s victory over the angel, it isn’t until the thirteenth song that a kind of transformational healing takes place, when “Helian’s soul surveys itself in the rosy glass” (the only time he is mentioned by name) “and snow and leprosy fall away.” But it is too little, too late: the fourteenth song, in a single stroke, extinguishes the “white figures of light” and circumscribes the “walls” through the only use of “Wänden”: the walls are now viewed from the inside, enclosing the viewer. In the final song, the “eyes” become “broken eyes,” completing the destruction of these three image-characters.
While writing Helian, I was conscious of the lieder-cycle tradition, specifically from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (1816), with which Helian shares obvious structural elements, through Schoenberg’s Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (1908-09). In these works, as well as in the great cycles of Schubert and Schumann, the singer is called upon, above all, to be an interpreter of the text (vocal virtuosity having no value for its own sake); I consciously sought to create an environment conducive to such interpretation in Helian.