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English, Français, German Literature, Hölderin Friedrich, Philosophy

Friedrich Hölderlin : Scardanelli

The Hölderlin Tower in Tübingen where the mad poet spent the last 36 years of his life The Hölderlin Tower in Tübingen where the poet spent the last 36 years of his life – Photo Sven Kalbhenn

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) was a major German lyric poet, commonly associated with the artistic movement known as Romanticism. Hölderlin was also an important thinker in the development of German Idealism, particularly his early association with and philosophical influence on his seminary roommates and fellow Swabians Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling.

Hölderlin was a poet-thinker who wrote, fragmentarily, on poetic theory and philosophical matters. His theoretical works, such as the essays “Das Werden im Vergehen” (“Becoming in Dissolution”) and “Urteil und Sein” (“Judgement and Being”) are insightful and important if somewhat tortuous and difficult to parse. They raise many of the key problems also addressed by his Tübingen roommates Hegel and Schelling. And, though his poetry was never “theory-driven”, the interpretation and exegesis of some of his more difficult poems has given rise to profound philosophical speculation by thinkers as divergent as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Neil Paul Cummins, Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno.

Like Goethe and Schiller, his older contemporaries, Hölderlin was a fervent admirer of ancient Greek culture, but his understanding of it was very personal. Much later,Friedrich Nietzsche would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged theOrphic and Dionysian Greece of the mysteries, which he would fuse with thePietism of his native Swabia in a highly original religious experience. For Hölderlin, the Greek gods were not the plaster figures of conventional classicism, but living, actual presences, wonderfully life-giving though, at the same time, terrifying. He understood and sympathized with the Greek idea of the tragic fall, which he expressed movingly in the last stanza of his “Hyperions Schicksalslied” (“Hyperion’s Song of Destiny”).

In the great poems of his maturity, Hölderlin would generally adopt a large-scale, expansive and unrhymed style. Together with these long hymns, odes and elegies – which included “Der Archipelagus” (“The Archipelago”), “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”) and “Patmos” – he also cultivated a crisper, more concise manner in epigrams and couplets, and in short poems like the famous “Hälfte des Lebens” (“The Middle of Life”). In the years after his return from Bordeaux he completed some of his greatest poems but also, once they were finished, returned to them repeatedly, creating new and stranger versions sometimes in several layers on the same manuscript, which makes the editing of his works problematic. Some of these later versions (and some later poems) are fragmentary, but they have astonishing intensity. He seems sometimes also to have considered the fragments, even with gaps and unfinished lines and incomplete sentence-structure, to be poems in themselves. This obsessive revising and his stand-alone fragments were once considered evidence of his mental disorder, but they were to prove very influential on later poets such as Paul Celan. In his years of madness, Hölderlin would occasionally pen ingenuous rhymed quatrains, sometimes of a childlike beauty, which he would sign with fantastic names (most often “Scardanelli”) and give fictitious dates from the previous or future centuries.


Hölderlin’s poetry has inspired many composers.(*)

Hölderlin’s autograph of the first three stanzas of his ode “Ermunterung” (“Exhortation”)

On divise généralement en deux séquences la vie de Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) : la première où il mène une vie mondaine et écrit l’essentiel de son œuvre, la seconde (de 1807 à sa mort) où il vit retiré dans une tour au bord du Neckar chez le menuisier Ernst Zimmer à Tübingen, cela suite au fait qu’après avoir été interné du 11 septembre 1806 au 4 mai 1807 dans la clinique ou « maison de repos » selon Karl Jaspers1 du docteur Autenrieth, il a été jugé « incurable », atteint de ce qui a été, depuis, identifié comme syndrome schizophrénique. On peut aussi penser qu’en dissonance avec une vie normale en société, seul un ermitage permettait à son génie de trouver une relative sérénité : cette situation du poète qui se retire dans la seconde partie de sa vie n’est pas exceptionnelle chez les poètes classiques chinois et japonais.

Pendant cette « autre vie », selon l’expression d’Alain Préaux2, F. Hölderlin écrivit des lettres, à sa mère pour l’essentiel, et des poèmes : une cinquantaine nous sont parvenus3 dont la moitié signés Scardanelli et datés avec des millésimes « fantaisistes » (de 1648 à 1940). C’est vers 1839 selon François Fédier que F.H. « commence à signer ses poèmes et se désigne lui-même sous les noms de Salvator Rosa, Scardanelli, Buonarotti, Rosetti »4, mais d’après Christoph Theodor Schwab (1821-1884), auteur d’une biographie fondée sur une fréquentation du poète, c’est le 21 janvier 1841, qu’Hölderlin, septuagénaire, dit : « Ich heisse Skardanelli » (« Je me nomme Skardanelli ») avant de signer ainsi (avec un « k ») deux poèmes.

Deux ans et demi durant, le poète a écrit et signé sous ce nom (cette identité ?) dont la signification et l’origine ont donné lieu à quelques conjectures. Récemment, D.E. Sattler (1993), à la suite de R. Straub (1986), a rattaché ce nom à la chute de Scardanal sur le Rhin suisse, un des lieux où Hölderlin se détourna de l’Orient… Alain Préaux propose l’anagramme phonétique d’Alexandrien (Alexandrie en allemand)… Bien qu’anecdotique à l’aune de l’œuvre, cette question m’amène à formuler une autre hypothèse car, fortuitement, j’ai appris que Tibor Skardanelli est le nom d’un personnage qui a joui d’une relative notoriété à la fin du XVIIIème siècle et dont Hölderlin eut probablement connaissance car l’affaire qui implique ce Skardanelli eut un retentissement non négligeable dans les gazettes, source d’information des intellectuels de l’époque. (source: Scardanelli: une hypothèse )


Locked in his tower in Tübingen and in the insanity that marked the second half of his life, Friedrich Hölderlin wrote strange poems under several pseudonyms, including that of Scardanelli. Hölderlin gave implausible dates to these writings as well. The ultimate experience Hölderlin’s poetry describes a voyage beyond time and invisibility. The largeScardanelli-Zyklusproject that the composer Heinz Holliger worked on from 1975 to 1993 is a unique experience in 20th century music, an inexorable journal.

Three circles are organized: Seasons for mixed chorus, Exercises on Scardanelli for small orchestra and tape. Finally a series for flute, including the unique (t)air(e) that leads to the psychological limits of the performer, Ad Marginem, one of the works inspired by a Paul Klee painting that provides a key to Scardanelli: the vanishing margins of perception, here ultra-grave and mid-high sounds, is the expression of complete loneliness and oddity. As noted by Schumann, compositional brother of Hölderlin and Holliger, it is “torn to the very roots of existence”.

heinz holliger

Heinz Holliger Scardanelli-Zyklus

The rivers are, like plains, the shapes of wildness
Are scattered also, more revealed the mildness
Of life continues, and our cities’ traces
Appear most clearly in unmeasured spaces.
–F. Hölderlin

Scardanelli-Zyklus (Scardanelli Cycle) is Heinz Holliger’s crowning compositional achievement. It is so lovingly crafted that I cannot help but bask in its atmospheres anew with each listen. This was my inaugural Holliger encounter—as either musician or composer—and will always hold a special place in my life for that among other reasons. I first heard Scardanelli-Zyklus when I was sixteen (as many years as it took to compose), and the experience was nothing short of a revelation. To compare it to anything else would be an injustice.

The cycle is a composite work and is comprised of:

The Seasons, three sets of four songs for a capella choir
Exercises for Scardanelli for small orchestra
comments, mirrors, responses, marginalia to The Seasons
(t)air(e) for solo flute
Excerpts from:
Tower Music for solo flute, small orchestra and tape
Ostinato Funebre for small orchestra

These are squared and shuffled like a deck of cards. Holliger sets vocal passages to the words of famed German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), and for this has selected poetry from the latter years of Hölderlin’s life, a period of mental instability and obsessive writing and revision. Much in contrast to the free verse at his peak, Hölderlin eventually took to penning rhymed quatrains on rather innocuous subjects, many of which he signed with the nom de plume “Scardanelli” and which he dated with absurd imprecision, sometimes years into the future. In many ways, this is exactly what the music feels like: caught in time against the blatancy of its own transcription.

The Seasons are the glue that holds Scardanelli-Zyklus together. Each is divided into three sections and sprinkled liberally throughout. While Hölderlin tends to opt for traditional seasonal imagery, he occasionally surfaces with rather insightful readings of nature. In Scardanelli’s world, Spring is less about new life than the reinvention of its vocabulary. Peaks graze the sky in order to emphasize the darkness between them, looming over the explicit deference to perfection and valorization of the lowly-wise agrarian. Summer is fittingly presaged by Holliger’s Summer Canon IV, in which precision is no longer mathematical, but emotive. Here, the season is about life, the body in all its fragile stages. It is a landscape of rippling water rife with intimations of unity. Holliger makes sure to leave its surface tension unbroken. Sunlight is reduced to a whisper, no longer a blinding presence. We see the wonders of production and learn to appreciate the harvest all over again. These are hymns of heat waves, hair-thin rays of light woven into audible dimensions. Summer is uneasy, unpredictable, more causal than caustic. Glittering streams feed the valley, made known more by light than sound. Autumn is the brittle leaf transformed into a promissory spirit underfoot. We are treated to a stunning confluence of voices and instruments in Holliger’s arrangements thereof. Each word is given equal weight, gilded by an underlying drone. It is supremely unsettling and undeniably gorgeous. A glass harmonica ushers in Winter, lending an icy repose to deadening voices. Some tremolo is introduced, as if of a thrashing possibility yearning for the distant thaw. It is one incarnation of Winter that ends the cycle, growling and scraping the bottom of each singer’s vocal range.

The more instrumentally focused works are cue cards signaling new turns in the cycle’s narrative flow: Fragments is a flute-driven explication of the incomplete; Bell-Alphabetfeatures Japanese bells cradling flute and orchestra on a tonal journey through speech unspoken; Paddlewheel revolves until it is the rasping of strings and air; Ice Flowersburgeons slowly into a frosty cornucopia of sound; Ostinato Funebre is a sketched crease in time overlaid with a warped deconstruction of a Mozart motif; The Distant Sound is a stunning instrumental reworking of an earlier Winter section; (t)air(e) is to the solo flute what Holliger’s Studie über Mehrklänge is to the oboe, and then some (taire = keep secret, not to talk; air = air, song, aria, breath; te = you)…a masterful exposition piece for the non-exhibitionist; Ad Marginem, based on a Paul Klee painting of the same name, utilizes taped frequencies thinner than a molecule’s breath to elicit an inescapable effect.

For all of its complexity and ambition, Scardanelli-Zyklus is a refreshingly straightforward work. Voices sing with little trickery (the most adventurous of which merely requires singers to follow the beat of their own pulses) and instruments faithfully follow the mechanics of their titular signposts. This music carries itself neither programmatically nor incidentally. Scardanelli-Zyklus is not only Holliger’s magnum opus, but is also undoubtedly one of the most compelling masterpieces of twentieth-century music. What a joy to have this recording to preserve its existence.

“Dichterlich wohnt der Mensch.” (Like a poet man lives…)

“Dichterlich wohnt der Mensch.” (Like a poet man lives…)
Friedrich Hölderlin, German Romantic poet



  1. Pingback: Scardanelli | félix molina - November 25, 2020

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