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solo soprano and small ensemble

A tour de force for soprano and chamber orchestra, György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre (1991) exemplifies the Hungarian composer’s cartoonesque virtuosity of composition and his use of irony, wit and absurdity in delivering a dark and deadly message. The vocal writing for this particular piece has its roots in Rossini and Mozart’s fireworks-filled coloratura arias: technically demanding for the singer, but composed entirely within the vocal tradition despite its challenging intervals and rhythms. Mysteries of the Macabre is an arrangement by Elgar Howarth of the 3 arias sung by the Gepopo character in Ligeti’s opera, Le Grand Macabre (1974-77). The piece can also be performed by solo trumpet (instead of soprano) and ensemble, after the virtuoso Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger took over for an ailing soprano on short notice in a Vienna performance of the opera, and this piece is dedicated to him.

The character Gepopo, the chief of the secret police of Brueghelland, approaches Prince Go-Go to warn him and the people of Brueghelland that intelligence has learned of a huge comet heading through space towards them which will destroy their planet. Unfortunately, Gepopo is paralyzed with fear and paranoid hysteria, so his almost unintelligible, coded warning is not easily understood by Prince Go-Go, who, mainly interested in a hearty meal, drives Gepopo to further convulsions of highflying vocal panic as the piece draws to a anxiety-ridden finale. The chamber orchestra mimics and grotesquely accompanies the soloist, with cock-crows from the contrabassoon, a sinister trombone solo, police and slide-whistles, whispered vocal sounds and a countdown screamed out by the players as Gepopo cries out desperately for help. — Barbara Hannigan