“ I never thought I would address the Holocaust as a topic in my work, let alone in such a deep and painful way. This cycle wasn’t meant to develop in that direction in the first place. However, as soon as I had made up my mind to write the final song on the text of Paul Celan’s poem, Todesfuge, the concept radically changed. The parts wrote themselves neither in their eventual order nor in their entirety. For more than a year I felt like assembling some peculiar mosaic, and I finished about five parts with no clue whatsoever how to name them.
But then I watched Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah — one of the most powerful documents of that unfathomable tragedy of humanity, shedding light on a plethora of momentous details. At some point in this film a woman recalls how a naked crowd was driven through the dark from the train to the chambers, with dogs barking and wardens yelling at them and beating them up… She then heard screams from the crowd and suddenly realized: those people were pronouncing the names of the Angels of Death.
This is how the Angels of Death came to entitle six parts, concluded by the epilogue of the Todesfuge, which Maya sings and plays at the same time.
The most horrendous Angel of these six is Abaddon, who annihilates all around. For a long time I was trying to imagine how this might sound, how one could express such an image in music at all. I got the idea of an uninterrupted, aggressive, a-periodic glissando, beginning from an ultra-high register and gradually descending into the lowest. A slow discharge of blood… On top of this, layers of screams: from the crowd, from the wardens? This remains unclear. Here I appealed to a dictionary of swearwords that were used for Jews in the camps; mostly German, partly Polish and Ukrainian. This body of text got mixed with made-up syllables, moans, bleating, and other stuff. And with the sound of blows — what sort of blows, I’m not sure myself — that cut through the texture irregularly.
The Todesfuge turned out to be a real piece of composer’s luck, and, although very hard to write, unputdownable in the process. The structure of the poem itself suggested certain compositional solutions. Whenever a composer has such a tight energetic bond with a piece of poetry, he or she can’t imagine its existence without music. That’s why there was nothing left for me to do, but to write it as it has to sound.
Still, I must acknowledge that I don’t understand completely what’s the function of this music and why I wrote it. But I feel that, however naive it may seem, it formulates something unsteady, fragile, and nevertheless important and ponderable.
I let this ship sail, hoping it may turn into a haven for someone at least. ”
— Maxim Shalygin