Actually, a Five-Legged Crow

Opus Osm

'Once upon a time there was a four-legged crow ... '

The Berg Orchestra gives wing — and legs — to composer Kryštof Mařatka’s music for absurdist poetry

Kryštof Mařatka, one of the most internationally acknowledged Czech composers, was struck by the poetry of Daniil Kharms already at the age of 18.

Mr Mařatka says he just turned on the radio and suddenly he found himself fascinated by a stream of verses like nothing he had ever heard, unparalleled but charming absurd poetry. It was Kharms’s Jelizaveta Bam. The composer immediately thought of turning them into music; however, that occasion only came sixteen years later in the form of a commission for the French new music festival Présences in 2006.

To give legs to something: an old newspaper idiom, to make something so interesting that it keeps people’s interest for a long time

By that time, Mr Mařatka was sure he was not going to write an opera or another typical vocal composition, but a melodrama (the music term for spoken word accompanied by music, which has a strong tradition in Czech music history). It was A Four-Legged Crow, performed by The Berg Orchestra Oct 14. This form gives the text maximum space, which is a very happy place for Kharms’s poetry.

Opus Osm

Actors Fridrich and Vondráček,composer Mařatka, with The Berg Orchestra

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942, Charms in Russian) was a Russian dadaist/surrealist avant-garde poet and philosopher who grew up in the time of aggrandizement and great hopes, when one believed that art can change the world. Kharms’ misfortune was that he believed it ever still, even in the period of Stalinist repressions (which were finally fatal for him). He was a master of small forms; his poems in prose are often humorous but always tragic, and their accented absurdity is today one of few ways to imagine the monstrous reality of this epoch, farther and farther back in time and now almost unimaginable. Their musical adaptation intensifies it even more.

Composer Mařatka emphasizes that by all the musical means he uses in this composition he tries to support the text, to keep it dominant. The music is made on another level than the words. At the centre of attention there are two actors, Jan Vondráček and Vasil Fridrich, who, with no costumes or props or make-up, and just with their faces, manage to look like at least three completely different people during the performance. Their voices declaim, sing, shout and whisper the verses, re-creating the world of a dying empire, artistic cafés, dadaist theatres, or communist meetings.

Kryštof Mařatka, composer of Luminarium clarinet concerto, awarded the Grand Prix Tansman at the Lodz festival; of Chant G’hai, awarded the main prize at the Shanghai Spring festival and staged at EXPO 2010; of Tempting, performed at this year’s Prague Spring

The whole orchestra plays with them – they sing, blow paper twists, throw a ball, and of course, create an acoustic and musical description of all these ambiences.

Mr Mařatka’s music seems to stay slightly in the background, but only so that in the end you realize – that’s why the texts were so impressive! This is not accidental. A lot of the poems were written to be read aloud, continuing the long Russian literature tradition.

For example:

I had raised dust. Children were running after me, tearing their clothing. Old men and old women fell from roofs.… I rushed on! Filthy, rachitic children, looking like toadstools, got tangled under my feet. Running was hard going. I kept remembering things and once I even almost fell into the soft mush of old men and women floundering on the ground.

These are verses that freeze you in your tracks. And yet there are other ones like:

If you are buying a bird, look first, if it has teeth – if it does, it is not bird!


Once upon a time there was a four-legged crow, which, in fact, had five legs, but it is not worth mentioning.

They are funny in their absurd manner. But only when staged, accompanied by certain three dimensional aspects – a whole orchestra creating a communist parliament by raising their arms, or an actor imitating a public prosecutor from the time of great purges – which are above any personal experience or knowledge you may have, and complemented with congenial music performed by The Berg Orchestra, can you feel the true atmosphere behind them. — oo

— Lucie Rohanová

Photo Credits: Performance photo by Lucie Rohanová

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