Duration: 17′

  • Flute, clarinet, harp, string quartet
  • 1: Method of measuring time | 2: Walking the line | 3: Before the snow | 4: I had to dance
  • Gemini Publications
  • Commissioned by Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts
  • First performance 26th August 2002 – Presteigne Festival Ensemble | George Vass – St Andrews, Presteigne, Wales
  • See also: Wind and Brass, flute, clarinet, string quartet, harp

Link to score:

Dream City draws its inspiration from the life and work of the artist, Paul Klee, and in particular, his painting, Traumstadt, or Dream City. Klee was surrounded by music: both his parents were musicians and his wife, Lily Stumpf, was a pianist, who provided the much needed financial support for their early years together by teaching the piano. Klee, himself, was a very good violinist and music was always central to both his art and his pedagogical writings. He was somewhat out of sympathy with contemporary composers, finding Schoenberg dry and academic. His real interest lay in his passion for the highly developed structures of the music of Bach and above all, Mozart. His passion was reflected in his interest in rhythm and musical forms which played an integral part in his artistic conceptions.

Klee painted a series of pictures with transparent layers of paint, which he referred to as his ‘polyphonic paintings’. Dream City (1921) is one such example. The French scholar, Jean-Louis Ferrier, writes of the painting: ‘the contrapuntal composition of Dream City, in which forms are allowed to float beyond their own boundaries, evoke the art of fugue. We see a juxtaposition of houses, trees, plants and abstract motifs which are echoed to the very edges of the painting. This is a dream city, but also a glass city, so transparent to the mind’s eye. It is perhaps also an ideal city.’

I have called the brief opening movement, ‘method of measuring time,’ as I was intrigued by Klee’s application of that phrase to his technique of layering watercolours (tonality) in the ‘polyphonic paintings’. In this introduction the flute, clarinet and harp give a bright edge to the supporting texture of the sustained string ensemble. Each instrumental flourish is ‘measured’ to give a feeling of rhythmic freedom and spontaneity.

Klee also described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. In the second movement the first violin takes charge of the ‘line’, sometimes held in suspension and sometimes sent in wild zigzag motion. The other instruments of the ensemble are either ‘with’ the solo or in opposition to it.

The third movement suggests the distant, still world of the ‘Oriental’ landscape, Before the Snow (1929). Klee’s painting evokes the poise and transparency of the Japanese artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige. The texture of the strings provides a gently rustling backdrop to the solos of the flute, clarinet, harp and cello.

In 1921 Klee moved to a studio at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he became lecturer, the same year in which he painted Dream City. One day, a fellow artist, working in the studio below his, heard a strange rhythmical banging. Curious, he asked Klee what it might have been when they next met. Mortified, Klee explained, ‘I was painting and painting and suddenly, I don’t know why, I had to dance!’ The last movement opens with angular dance-like shapes which move swiftly towards a twelve note fugue. Each entry, whether inverted, in retrograde or in augmentation, is interrupted by the clarinet and flute, both inveterate dancers, intent on bringing levity to the proceedings. In a lyrical middle section the flute and clarinet use rhythmic motives from the opening section of the movement and intertwine them across the supporting string texture. The opening ‘dance’ is then reprised followed by a return to the initial flourish of Dream City; the final bars leave the City suspended in the air.