Waterhouse, Graham

The WEREWOLF PROJECT – a contemporary re-evaluation of the genre Melodrama

by Graham Waterhouse

The Werewolf Project incorporates three works for Cello and Speaking Voice by Graham Waterhouse. Each relates to the poem “Der Werwolf” (1907) by German poet and anthropologist Christian Morgenstern. There are three versions, in German, Englisha and French. Der Werwolf sets the original German, The Banshee is an English setting of the same poem and Le Loup-garou is a setting in French. The pieces were composed between 2011 and 2014.

The project came into being following a heated discussion with an eminent Intendant, who declared Morgenstern’s poem to be unsettable and untranslatable. The first challenge was taken up with the German setting, the second challenge by the two further settings in English and in French.

Der Werwolf was first performed in 2012 by the composer at a literary festival at Essen-Werden, Westphalia, Germany, home of the dedicatees. The Banshee and Le Loup-garou were first performed also by the composer in 2012 and 2014 at the National Chamber Music Course, UK. The first performance by the composer of all three settings was in Munich in 2016.


The genre melodrama - a combination of the spoken word with music - reaches back to Baroque Italian Opera, with subsequent examples in works as diverse as Weber’s Der Freischütz and Britten’s Gloriana. The intention in The Werewolf Project was to reflect the sounds, cadences, idiosyncracies, sensibilities of three languages using a different type of musical expression for each particular setting. Der Werwolf partly reflects the early 20th century expressionist world of early Schoenberg, with the self-doubt and Angst of the central figures in Pierrot Lunaire and in Erwartung. The Banshee harks back to Gilbert and Sullivan and to the slap-stick world of music hall & vaudeville, Façade by Walton/Sitwell, perhaps with shades of Gilbert and Sullivan. Meanwhile Le Loup-garou, possibly the most advanced of the settings, invokes the syllabic word-setting of Perséphone by Stravinsky/Gide, Berberian’s rendition of Berio‘s Folksongs, the crooning of Jacques Brell, as well as the abstruse instrumental writing of certain avant-garde post-war tendencies, and the insatiable 1960s Darmstadt appetite for new sounds and notations.


In the early 1990s on the suggestion of Siegfried Palm I made a first attempt to combine a limerick with cello music, resulting in Vezza (publ. Hofmeister). Subsequent settings included Der Handschuh after Schiller (publ. Heinrichshofen) and Lear-Storm-Calm after Shakespeare. In contrast to the pianist or organist, who by the nature of the keyboard instrument, commands sophisticated polyphony, the cellist usually works with a single line. In the cellist-composer‘s constant quest for counterpoint, the melodrama genre fulfills a desire for combining and interacting different lines. The pieces are similar to two-part inventions, each line in dialogue with the other, reacting off and enhancing the expression of the other.

The linguistic raison d’être of the Morgenstern‘s poem is a feeble word-play on “Werwolf”, its conjugations contrived as 1) the genitive “Weswolf” (“whose-wolf”) 2) the dative “Wemwolf” (“to whom-wolf”) 3) the accusative “Wenwolf” (whom-wolf). This was probably the aspect of the poem, which the Intendant considered untranslatable, though the anonymous author of the English version of the poem and the French version by R. Platteau found ingenious (if banal) solutions to the implied linguistic conundrum. There have since appeared translations/re-constructions of Morgenstern’s poem in six other languages including Finnish and Esperanto.

Set in a country graveyard, the poem describes a nocturnal encounter between a deceased village teacher and a (grammatically inclined) werewolf, who requests that the teacher decline his name. The exchanges between the two protagonists become quite intense when the teacher declares that, in contrast to the word “Werwolf”, “wer” (who) only exists in the singular. This causes enormous distress in the werewolf, who is one of a family of other werewolves. In the German version the dialogue implies an element of tragedy and impending doom. In English the same meeting comes across as comical, whilst in French the entretien is reduced to the downright farcical.


The types of music reflect the different sonorities of the three languages. In German there are abundant dipthongs, with evolving vowels, e.g. “Deeer Weeerwolf, entwiiich von Weeeib und Kiiind”. The resonance of these dark sounds is partly reflected in the long, double-dotted notes in the cello part and the chromatic harmonies of major and minor 6ths and tritones. The English language mixes all manner of different types of word-sounds, both short and long, e.g. “One (short) niiiight (long). A Ban (short)-shee (long)”. The particular word-setting of this version is enhanced by syncopations and a mixture of pizzicato and bowed passage-work. The French word-setting of the examples quoted above tends to be monosyllabic, percussive, staccato, nasal-sounding - as in “Un loup ga-rou une cer-taine nuit”. The natural rhythm falls into an irregular 4/4 metre, notated as 15/16, which remains constant throughout much of the piece.

Related to this is the intonation of language. Whereas English has undulating, sing-song contours, the typical Parisian French is more monotone. German, with its hinterland of Romantic poetry, has its own unique gravitas and depth. These local deviations are reflected in the music, but should also be brought to life by the delivery of the performer. Though the notes are written on a single, pitchless line, lively expression, nuance and colour are required. One recalls Boulez’s observation regarding the spoken text of L’histoire du soldat, „on doit garder toutes les qualités de l’acteur simplement discipliné par sa contacte avec la musique“ (one should maintain all the qualities of an actor, disciplined/channelled through contact with the music).


In Der Werwolf, particular intervals, ranges of the instrument and tone-colours are associated with various moods or persons throughout the piece, in a similar way to the use of the Leitmotif in a Wagner opera. The work opens with tremolo on a low “A”, varying in timbre between sul tasto and ponticello, between rapid and slower bow-strokes conjouring an atmosphere of foreboding and mystery. The sul ponticello “A” transforms seamlessly via pitchless “white sound”, played literally on the bridge of the instrument, into a bisbigliando (whispering) glissando of string-crossing harmonics on the highest reaches of the upper A and D strings. There is a similar instance in Klaus Huber’s Transpositio ad Infinitum where the tremolo proceeds from ordinario via sul pont. to behind the bridge. In the high-altitude passages of harmonics which follow the strings are half-stopped, rendering a brittle, “broken glass” sonority, where the harmonic overtones are hinted at, but distorted through excessive finger-pressure. Salvatore Sciarrino deploys similar scale-like passages of standard, natural harmonics in his 2nd Piano Trio, but the intended effect in Der Werwolf is more aleatoric than melodic, creating a vertiginous, cascading impression. The double-dotted motive and low-lying double-stops are mainly associated with the dialogue of the werwolf, while the schoolmaster is often accompanied by recitative-like chords, or by music in a higher tenor register. The single, expressive word “tränenblind” (blinded by tears), describing the height of the desperation of the werwolf is coloured by a tremolando chord played sul ponticello.
The work closes with the same bisbigliando and low tremolo “A” of the opening (in reverse order here) bringing the action full circle back to the lonely, other-worldly nocturnal scene of the opening of the poem, as the werwolf disappears back into the gloom.


The music for The Banshee is characterised by string-crossing, quaver ostinato pizzicati, recalling the opening double bass part of L’histoire du soldat, except that here single and double notes alternate over all four strings for greater harmonic colour. The mood is at times ballad-like, elsewhere rap-like. The nonsense aspect of the poem is enhanced by the outrageous translation of “Werwolf/Wenwolf” as “banshee/banhers”, also by such tenuous rhymes as family/humberly/clammily. The declamation of the words is often synchopated over the regular, quadratic patterns of the quaver bass line. The accompanimental patterns recur, as if “strophic”, i.e. written in verses. The point of maximum despair of the banshee (“what about my family?”) is accompanied by a chromatically rising figure landing on an absurdly high c#````. The suggested harmony of the accompaniment veres between triadic and chromatic. Towards the end, f major and f# minor chords are juxtaposed, the open a-string common to both.

Whereas Der Werwolf and The Banshee use predominantly traditional playing techniques, Le Loup-garou inhabits an entirely new sound world. Comparisons could be drawn to Pression and Vor der Erstarrung by Helmut Lachenmann, for which new instrumental techniques are devised. Le Loup-garou is played without use of the bow by employing percussive (tapping/flickering) and pizzicato techniques in both hands, as encountered in both flamenco and in electric guitar. Extended techniques used include 1) “thumping”, a percussive, twanging sound achieved by forcefully tapping the l.h. finger onto the string 2) “flickering”, a rapid oscillating motion between thumb and 3rd fingers of either hand over several strings. This technique can be used as a single rhythmic impulse or as a continuous tremolo, as in the opening, mirroring the bowed tremolo of Der Werwolf 3) knocking on the corpus of the instrument with the knuckles, e.g. towards the end of the piece, where repeated knocking on the buffs (side) of the cello depict the the loup-garou trotting off into the gloomy night.

A new system of notation was devised, using separate staves for the right and left hands. Together with the vocal part, there are three lines which are to be read concurrently. Pitched notes are notated with the traditional, oval note-head, unspecified pitched notes with a cross. Rapid passage-work is achieved through alternation of thumping with left hand pizzicato and regular pizzicato, a similar instance of which appears in Paganini 24th Caprice. The notation for the newly devised “flickering” technique proved elusive, since both the relative pitch position on the finger board (extending to behind the bridge) and the strings being struck needed to be specified. The notation of flickering was on a three line stave for greater ease of reading.


The visual element plays an important role in these pieces. Théatre pour la pauvreté was a term used for L’histoire du soldat, but that does not imply a poverty of means and ideas. Seeing the player in dialogue with the instrument, stretching his mental and physical concentration in bringing the piece to life is a vital part of the experience. Stravinsky states that “visibilité des instruments, suivre avec les yeux des mouvements, qui, comme ceux des bras du timbalier, du violon, du trombone, vous facilitent la perception auditive” (following the movements of the instruments with one’s eyes, such as the arms of the timpanist, of the violinist, of the trombonist enhances the auditory perception).


The composition process was achieved largely through trial and error, by searching for the suitable sounds and the right intervals at the instrument and repeating the words over and over until they fell into natural rhythmic patterns. Actor/director Buster Keaton remarked about his approach to making films, “about fifty percent you have in your mind before you start the picture and the rest you develop as you’re making it”, neatly expressing the delicate balance between speculation and improvisation in creating a new work. Whilst the composer has a vision of how the piece unfolds from the outset, many details only become clear during the process of composition. One thinks of Requiebros by the Spanish cellist and composer Gaspar Cassado, which underwent countless versions before the final result. Many details came to him during performance - a phenomenon I too have noticed with these three pieces. The idea of knocking with the knuckles and of the dampening the string with the chin towards the end of Le Loup-garou occured to me during the first performance.


These works rely upon imaginative and vivid performance, characterising the rhythms and words and assuming different shades of voice according to the inflections of the language and the sentiments of the respective protagonists figures speaking and the sentiments being expressed. In the vocal line there is virtually no notated melodic interest, hence reliance upon a dramatic delivery. There is an element here of what my friend and colleague, violist Gunter Pretzel calls “offene Musik” (open music), which depends for its effect as much on the skill and spontaneous inventiveness of the performer as of the composer. As with much baroque and jazz music, the notated piece of music is only the starting point for a lively and engaging performance.


Multi-tasking is an intrinsic part of playing a stringed instrument. Bowing and fingering have to be coordinated; intonation, vibrato, bow-pressure, bow-speed, bow-placement among other skills must be reduced to a single flow of mental and muscular intent. The vocal part is yet another element requiring concentration. Adding this element further enhances the skill in combining various musical actions to a single thought-process. Beneficial results have been achieved with my pupils by training coordination through simultaneous playing and speaking/singing. This is a procedure which could be expanded in the future.


The breadth of colours and potential for expression in the cello (the form of which has remained virtually unchanged since the mid-16th century) are as wide-ranging and open to further development as ever. Audiences can relate to the wealth of timbres and manners of playing by seeing and hearing the instruments and players in action. Particularly young persons may recognise and appreciate different string techniques in conjunction with a story and characters. Hence the melodrama with its unique combination of string playing and theatrical narrative may even hold potential for introducing future listeners to the art of music making.


Note: Recordings of Der Werwolf and Le Lou-garou are available on YouTube. The notes of these two pieces can be accessed under the EThOS e-theses online service of the British Library:



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