South African composer Hans Huyssen’s Little Portrait of the World: Allegorical Wind Quintet with Narration (1993) is exceptional within his oeuvre for its reflectiveness that refers to the portrait as interpretative trope, introduced here from a socio-critical point of departure. The work is unique in that it does not relate to the aims of Huyssen’s post-apartheid compositions. In those works, each conceptualised from the point of departure of a powerful contextual framework, the composer deliberately obscures boundaries between present and past, but also between clashing cultural milieus and identities. Although similar allusions are made in Little Portrait of the World, in this work the underlying message of a universally valid moral problem is emphasised.
The research question posed by the article focuses on the degree to which programmatic and symbolic elements of storytelling in Little Portrait aid in highlighting the composer’s commitment to matters of an existential nature. This question is related to the ways in which the musical conceptualisation of the work foregrounds its message. In this regard, Lawrence Kramer’s (1990) idea of musical hermeneutics is of relevance, not only regarding his conviction that music has discursive meaning, but also with reference to his idea that critical interpretation is not only presumed by such meaning, but also mediated by it.
From this point of departure the most important finding is that the trope of the portrait in Little Portrait functions as a hermeneutic “window” (Kramer 1990), so that an interpretative entry into the moral-ethical dimension of the work is enabled. Furthermore, it becomes evident that Huyssen’s deliberate multi-level fragmentation of the work represents the idea of moral dis-integration which is central to the “story” of the composition. Within the context of other forms of textual signification the trope of the portrait powerfully highlights human identity and its ongoing conflict between good and evil, which, in turn, is intricately related to any idea of human “truth”.
In order to situate Little Portrait in terms of Huyssen’s broader oeuvre, it was noted that in his post-apartheid works the composer intensively engages notions of music as a multicultural “language”. However, it is clear from his own statements that he does not intend to focus such efforts within the terrain of any ideological or political programme. Rather, he aims to facilitate a “political” message of a higher order, namely a play of differences from which relational dialogues, and the negotiation of meaning and understanding between different cultural groups, may emanate. This point of departure differs considerably from that of politically-oriented post-apartheid works, such as Philip Miller’s Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony (2006) which has as its explicit aim to foreground the atrocities of apartheid in a most realistic manner.
Little Portrait is conceived from yet another conceptual basis. This composition interrogates human experience by way of allegory, and from this point of departure suggests that art music may serve as social critique. Thus, it was found that in the last movement of the composition the composer employs citations from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in a manner that impacts on its musical and structural dimensions. Yet contrary to Wilde’s work the composer’s allegorical meaning-making does not suggest that art is removed from human existence, or that it transcends natural life. Instead, his theme is explored in departing from the centuries-old moral conflict between good and evil. In terms of his use of musical parameters Huyssen projects a cynical view of “music about music” and conceives Little Portrait as a representation of moral degeneration where no redemption is to be found.
Ultimately, it was established that a possible frame of interpretation for this work is Kim Miller and Brenda Schahmann’s notion of “public art” which points to works of art which, contrary to politically conscious works, do not comment on colonialism, apartheid, liberation, or even concepts of remembering, but nevertheless take on an important social role in their engagement with existential human issues. It is from this more “universal” point of departure that Little Portrait of the World is understood as a powerful expression of social commentary.
Keywords: Hans Huyssen; hermeneutic “window”; Lawrence Kramer; Little Portrait of the World; metaphor analysis; music production and reproduction; public art; social involvement; South African art music