Péter Eötvös String Quartets – The Sirens Cycle, Korrespondenz

BMCCD249 2017

Péter Eötvös continues the great musical tradition of symbiosis of text and music, indeed in many of his works he creates a causal relationship between music and words. He mines the text of the composition to create from it the musical raw material of the work. In his Mese (Tale) of 1968 he wove the polyphonic structure of the composition from a recording of a Hungarian folk tale played at various speeds. Since then, indulging his inclination to experiment, he has for almost every work found a new method of creating music from text. Neither is the wide variety of languages chosen incidental, for different languages exert different influences on the timbre, rhythm, intervallic structure of the music produced – and even its form...


Calder Quartet (1-13):
Benjamin Jacobson – violin
Andrew Bulbrook – violin
Jonathan Moerschel – viola
Eric Byers – cello

Audrey Luna – soprano (1-10)

About the album

Recorded at IRCAM Studios, Paris on 10 October, 2016 (1-10)
IRCAM Computer music designer: Serge Lemouton; IRCAM Sound engineer: Luca Bagnoli
Recorded by Péter Dorozsmai at BMC Studio, Budapest on 26 September, 2016 (11-13)
Mixed and mastered by Péter Eötvös and Péter Dorozsmai (1-13)
Music publishers: Schott Musik International GmbH & co. KG, Mainz (1-10); Edition Ricordi München (11-13)

Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom 

Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár

The recording was supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary


Roger Knox - theWholeNote (en)

Liam Cagney - Gramophone (en)

Richard Hanlon - MusicWeb International (en)

Mark Sealey - MusicWeb International (en)

Jérémie Bigorie - Classica *** (fr)

Stefan Drees - Neue Zeitschrift für Musik **** (de)

Paco Yáñez - Mundoclasico.com (es)

Germán Gan Quesada - Scherzo (excepcional) (es)

Fittler Katalin - Gramofon ***** (hu)

Czékus Mihály - Hangzásvilág Magazin (hu)

Komlós József jr. - Alföldi Régió Magazin (hu)

3500 HUF 11 EUR

Péter Eötvös: The Sirens Cycle (2015/16)

01 Joyce 1 4:10
02 Joyce 2 1:45
03 Joyce 3 2:50
04 Joyce 4 0:55
05 Joyce 5 2:48
06 Joyce 6 3:52
07 Joyce 7 3:51
08 Interlude 2:37
09 Homer 4:29
10 Kafka 9:16

Péter Eötvös: Korrespondenz (1992) Szenen für Streichquartett

11 Szene 1 3:24
12 Szene 2 2:31
13 Szene 3 8:57
Total time 51:25

The album is available in digital form at our retail partners


The creation of a close relationship between text and music has been a constant endeavour in the last 500 years of European music history. Gregorian chant took into account only the grammar of the sentence set, making no attempt to illustrate the meaning of the text, but then from the sixteenth century composers’ attention focused increasingly on expressing the text in music. Renaissance composers took great pleasure in depicting certain words or expressions in music (madrigalism, word-painting, Tonmalerei); Baroque rhetoric created a vast dictionary, a palette of musical rhetorical figures (Figurenlehre) associated with concrete meanings. Interest in text also had an influence on purely instrumental genres, from the matching of the letters of the alphabet with musical notes, to the wordless ‘recitatifs’ of the instrumental works of Haydn and Beethoven; symphonic poems actually attempted to ‘tell’ entire stories.

Péter Eötvös continues the great musical tradition of symbiosis of text and music, indeed in many of his works he creates a causal relationship between music and words. He mines the text of the composition to create from it the musical raw material of the work. In his Mese (Tale) of 1968 he wove the polyphonic structure of the composition from a recording of a Hungarian folk tale played at various speeds. Since then, indulging his inclination to experiment, he has for almost every work found a new method of creating music from text. Neither is the wide variety of languages chosen incidental, for different languages exert different influences on the timbre, rhythm, intervallic structure of the music produced – and even its form.

Both Eötvös’s string quartets can be traced back to texts that served as their starting point, though they were fashioned with markedly different compositional methods. The composer uses the words ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ to describe the different processes used in The Sirens Cycle (2015/16) and Korrespondenz (1992).

After the Calder Quartet incorporated Korrespondenz into their repertoire, they commissioned another string quartet from Péter Eötvös, which included a vocal part. The initial inspiration for the composer was an ironic short story from 1917 by Franz Kafka, The Silence of the Sirens (Das Schweigen der Sirenen). Kafka’s Odysseus is not Homer’s shrewd hero, but a clumsy simpleton, who trusting in his own childish means, the wax stopping his ears and his being tied to the mast, hopes for protection against the dangerous temptresses (unlike Homer, Kafka sends his hero to the sirens alone, devoid of assistance). The sirens punish him with their most dangerous weapon, silence, but Odysseus does not realize they have ceased to sing. Another way this story departs from the original myth is that here it is the sirens that yearn to catch Odysseus’s eye. Kafka’s interpretation clearly represents one possible extreme of the siren myths, and as such provided basic material for the final, third part of the quartet.

Eötvös used Homer’s original version (excerpts from the twelfth book of the Odyssey) for the second part of The Sirens Cycle. Even this seemed insufficiently grand a textual basis for the work, but then he hit on Joyce’s Ulysses. Chapter 11 of this monumental novel is Sirens. (In the original work the chapters have no titles, and only sketches of the novel’s structure, which appeared after the book was published, show the parallels with the Homeric epic). The word ‘siren’ does not even feature in the selected text, although the words ‘lure’ and ‘allure’ clearly make reference to it. Joyce’s playful use of language is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Eötvös. Every word has its own sound and humour. Every word conjures up a new image. The Joycean text forms the first part of The Sirens Cycle, and in itself grew to be a large-scale seven-movement scherzo.

The texts of all three writers are included in the composition in the original language: English, Ancient Greek, and German. Not only are they sung by the soprano solo, but the raw material for the entire work can be derived from them. Preparations for the work of composition were done in IRCAM in Paris, where Eötvös used various programs to analyse audio recordings of the texts of Joyce, Homer, and Kafka, in terms of their respective spectra, their dynamics, and their durations. He transformed the ‘entrancingly beautiful, colourful results’ of this weeklong examination into vocal and instrumental parts.

However rich the detailed documentation of the spectral analysis may be, however much information it may give as to the intonation, dynamics, or even actual pitches of the texts heard, these technical means serve only to trigger the composer’s imagination. The musical texture of the first part (Joyce) deploys an entire arsenal of various ways of playing the string instruments, presenting a veritable pyrotechnic display of amusing ideas, colours, and surprising twists. Not for nothing did Eötvös write: I am especially happy when writing for string instruments, as their enormous wealth of timbres and wide pitch range enable them to articulate in an especially refined, ‘speech-like’ manner. The score is replete with ideas that cannot be directly derived from the basic material of the spectral text analysis. The long instrumental introduction to the third movement (O Rose! ) seems to be fiddle music inspired by Central Eastern European folklore (or virtuoso Irish pub music?), which suddenly switches to an obsessively repetitive section. Into the fifth movement is inserted a flitting instrumental ‘fairy scherzo’ in thirty-second notes. The sixth movement, introduced by pizzicati and glissandi, mentions the Liszt rhapsodies, and this prompts the composer to a comically ‘twisted’ quotation from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

The musical style changes palpably in the second part, in Ancient Greek (Homer). A difference in style can be detected between the doleful narrative tone and the words of the younger siren as she addresses Odysseus. After the earlier virtuoso coloratura soprano pyrotechnics, the vocal part of the third part (Kafka) is simplified to an almost speech-like recitation, but the string quartet accompaniment is generous with comments and parody. The entire cycle is closed with the lamenting solo of the first violin, eloquent even without words. The pre-recorded sound of the two purely instrumental Intermezzo movements was also transformed by the composer in IRCAM. In this movement and in the Kafka section, Eötvös instructs the performers (with the exception of the first violin) to use scordatura, which reinforces the natural harmonics, thus emphasizing the essence of the sirens as a natural phenomenon.

Péter Eötvös received his first opera commission from the Lyon Opera in the 1980s. While seeking possible composition techniques for composing opera, he experimented with assigning each letter of a text to some musical element. The method proved to be unworkable for composing opera, but in smaller musical forms it showed its viability. The textual basis for Korrespondenz is the correspondence between Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, from the turbulent year of 1778 which was full of dramatic events for the family: Mozart was in Paris (his mother, who had been travelling with him, died there) and his father desperately, and quite ineffectively, tried to direct events from Salzburg.

Eötvös assigns each vowel of the text to an interval, so the instruments are constantly using double-stopping. The palette of intervals steadily narrows from the vowel furthest back (U) to the vowel furthest forward (I), and Eötvös couples each letter with a four-note chord consisting of two interval pairs. The equivalent of the diphthong ‘ei’ is typically a glissando. He transposed this musical vowel dictionary into six different registers, in order to exploit the entire range of the string quartet. Wolfgang’s musical material is always a tritone away from that of Leopold. Wolfgang’s words are interpreted by the viola, and Leopold’s by the cello. The consonants are expressed by different ways of playing; for instance, ‘r’ is always a trill or a tremolo. This technique would appear to place severe restrictions on the composer. However, Eötvös feels that the more he has to compose within limitations, the wider opens the store of infinite possibilities.

The work is divided into three dramatic scenes. In the first Leopold tries to dissuade his son from pursuing his passion for the soprano Aloysia Weber, and urges him to complete a flute concerto. In the second Wolfgang complains that the Parisians are indifferent to his music (at the same time turning down the post of organist offered to him). In the third scene Wolfgang tells his father of his mother’s death, about which he has kept silent for some time.

The score contains the complete text. The listener does not know the text, yet the string instruments communicate in a startlingly human fashion. Mozart’s posturing, and the scepticism and mistrustfulness of his father as he reads between the lines, can be clearly heard. In interpreting the French text the viola gives an affectation of nasal vowels, and Mozart’s calligraphic hand is suggested by the pizzicato viola solo. Genuine concern and pretence, fears and tempers, ulterior motives and doubts, the grief at losing a mother and wife, all the tensions in the fatherson relationship come across in these dramatic dialogues. Eötvös’s music ‘reads between the lines’ as it represents the most dramatic period in the life of the Mozart family.

Zoltán Farkas
Translated by Richard Robinson


Composer, conductor and teacher: the Hungarian Péter Eötvös combines all three functions in one very highprofile career. Born in Transylvania in 1944, he has long been considered one of the most significant and influential personalities on the music scene as both an internationally recognized conductor and a composer of successful operas, orchestral works and concertos, written for well-known artists from all over the world.

Péter Eötvös was musical director of the Ensemble InterContemporain from 1979 to 1991, and Chief Conductor of the Radio Chamber Orchestra of Hilversum from 1994 to 2005. He is regularly reinvited as guest conductor by the most important orchestras (Philharmonic Orchestras of Vienna, Berlin, London, Concertgebouw, BBC Symphony London etc.) and opera houses (Glyndebourne, Vienna, Hamburg etc.).

His many compositions are regularly performed throughout the world. Most of his works have been recorded by BMC Records and his music is published by Schott Music (Mainz), Ricordi (Berlin), Editio Musica (Budapest), and Salabert (Paris).



Benjamin Jacobson, violin
Andrew Bulbrook, violin
Jonathan Moerschel, viola
Eric Byers, cello

The Calder Quartet performs a broad range of repertoire at an exceptional level, always striving to channel and fulfill the composer’s vision. Already the choice of many leading composers to perform their works, the group’s distinctive approach is exemplified by a musical curiosity brought to everything they perform. Winners of the prestigious 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, they are widely known for the discovery, commissioning, recording and mentoring of some of today’s best emerging composers (over 40 commissioned works to date).

The group continues to work and collaborate with artists across musical genres, spanning the ranges of the classical and contemporary music world, as well as rock and film/tv soundtracks, and in venues ranging from museums to Carnegie and the Hollywood Bowl. Inspired by innovative American artist Alexander Calder, the Calder Quartet’s desire to bring immediacy and context to the works they perform creates an artfully crafted musical experience.



Boasting a wide repertoire of classical and contemporary roles, Audrey Luna (soprano) has built her reputation on a combination of unique vocal and dramatic strengths.

Luna found unanimous international praise for her dazzling portrayal of Ariel in The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’ The Tempest in 2012, immortalised on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon and subsequently honoured with the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. It was again Thomas Adès who marked Luna’s debut at Wiener Staatsoper, Salzburger Festspiele and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: in Vienna as Ariel, and in both Salzburg and London her highly-acclaimed creation of the role of Leticia in the first performances of The Exterminating Angel, which she will perform at The Metropolitan Opera this season.

Luna debuted in 2017 with the London Symphony and Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle in Peter Sellars’ semi-staging of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, singing both Venus and Gepopo, and at Houston Grand Opera as Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China. She also collaborated for the first time with Peter Eötvös performing his latest commission, The Sirens Cycle, with the Calder Quartet at Tonhalle in Zürich, IRCAM Paris and at the Donaueschingen Festival, and closed the season with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in Ligeti’s Requiem.


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