Georg Friedrich Haas

Georg Friedrich Haas was born in 1953 in Graz, a city in the east of Austria. His childhood was spent in the mountainous province of Vorarlberg, on the Swiss border. The landscape and the atmosphere of the place have left a lasting impression on his personality.

The atmosphere was marked not so much by natural beauty in the accepted sense of the word. Rather, Haas experienced the mountains as a menace; he felt closed in by the narrow valley where the sun rarely penetrated. Nature for him represented a dark force. The composer adds: “Just as important for me was the experience of being an outsider: unlike my younger siblings, I never learned to speak the local Alemannic dialect. Also, I was a Protestant in a predominantly Catholic society.”

To study music, Haas returned to his native city where his professors were Gösta Neuwirth and Ivan Eröd. Later, he continued his studies in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha. Haas: “For all our apparent differences (and probably mutual personal disappointments) I learned from Eröd – apart from many things about the craft of composition – one principle above all else: that the measure of everything is Man, that is, the possibilities inherent in human perception”. Haas holds Friedrich Cerha in high esteem, something that the older composer (born in 1926) returns in full measure. When the occasion arises, they demonstrate their mutual appreciation unstintingly. In 2007, it was Cerha, the doyen of Austrian composers, who proposed his former pupil for the Great Austrian State Prize which Haas duly received that year.

Until then, however, Haas had had a thorny path to traverse. He speaks openly of the years of “total failure” in trying to make his mark as a composer – another experience to leave its imprint on his development, aggravating his pessimistic leanings. Success, when it did gradually emerge, only mitigated his pessimism but could never wholly eliminate it.

It is no wonder, then, that night, darkness, the loss of illusions should have played such an important role in Haas’ oeuvre (such as in his Hölderlin-opera Nacht, 1995/1998). It was not until quite recently that his music has been illuminated by light. Light effects, as integral components of a range of his compositions, have featured prominently for quite some time now, designed by artists specially for the music. (in vain, 2000, and particularly Hyperion, a Concerto for Light and Orchestra, 2000). However, light as opposed to darkness first emerged as late as 2006 in Sayaka for percussion and accordion as well as in the piano trio Ins Licht (2007) written for Bálint András Varga.

Georg Friedrich Haas is known and respected internationally as a highly sensitive and imaginative researcher into the inner world of sound. Most of his works (with the notable exception of the Violin Concerto, 1998) make use of microtonality which the composer has subjected to thorough examination in the wake of Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Alois Hába. He has taught courses and lectured on the subject in several countries; in 1999 he was invited by the Salzburg Festival to give a talk under the title “Beyond The Twelve Semitones”, with the subtitle “Attempt at a Synopsis of Microtonal Composition Techniques”. In the last paragraph, he writes:

“Micro counts as ‘tonality’ only in contrast with ‘normal tonality’ in its role as a system of reference. Where this system of reference has become obsolete, the notion of ‘microtonality’ has been replaced by the free decision of the individual composer in his use of pitch as his material.”

“I am not really comfortable with being pigeonholed as a ‘microtonal composer’. Primarily, I am a composer, free to use the means needed for my music. There is no ideology regarding ‘pure’ intonation, either as Pythagorean number mysticism or as a notion of ‘Nature’ determined by trivial physics. I am a composer, not a microtonalist.”

 

Haas has emerged as one of the major European composers of his generation. His music synthesizes in a highly original way the Austrian tradition of grand orchestral statement with forward-looking interests in harmonic color and microtonal tuning that stem from both French spectralism and a strand of American experimentalism. The result is an exploratory, uncompromising music that is also sensuously attractive. His music appeals to unusually diverse constituencies, from avant-garde composers for its microtonal investigations to casual listeners for its spacious forms and euphonious harmony.

Haas’s hour-long in vain, for 24 musicians, is widely regarded as one of the most original and path-breaking new compositions in the past quarter century. Another important work is limited approximations, for orchestra and 6 microtuned pianos. He has composed several operas and concertos and a variety of chamber works, including seven string quartets. He has received numerous national and international prizes, including the Kompositionspreis of the SWR Symphony Orchestra (2010) for limited approximations and the Grand Austrian State Prize for Music (2007), the country’s highest artistic honor.