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Self Portrait as Mars

For brass quintet

Duration: 17'

Inspired by the work of Otto Dix


Otto Dix (1891-1969), was a German painter and printmaker who focused on brutally realistic depictions of Weimar society and war. One of his earliest paintings, completed in 1915 after having served as an officer of a machine-gun unit on the western front of World War I, was Selbstbildnis mit Artillerie-Helm, known in English as Self Portrait as Mars. This painting served as a reflection of his experiences in war, and borrows from cubism in its depiction. In it, death is abundant, horses rear and flee, and buildings have burst into flames, yet Dix remains alive. One interpretation of this piece, found on the Online Otto Dix Project, is that the painting serves as an expression of a messiah complex developed from having survived a year of serving in World War I.

In this brass quintet, the themes around this particular work of Dix’s are explored both through analysis of the scenes depicted in the painting, and through study of Dix’s life before, during, and after the war. In movement I, “March to the Western Front; An Old Prussian Tune”, traditional fanfare and march are used to portray Dix enthusiastically volunteering for the German army, only to find the harsh reality of the nature of war at the end of the movement. Movement II, “Mortar and Mustard” portrays some of the elements Dix would have experienced in the Aviation Replacement Unit Schneidemühl, including the tuba mimicking a B-12 bomber, and the trombone imitating a bomb siren. Movement III, “Rise of a New Messiah” states fragments of Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” ostinato, reflecting Dix developing the Messiah-complex suggested by the Online Otto Dix Project. Movement IV, “War Horses” is a brief character piece inspired by the three horses found in the painting “Self Portrait as Mars”, further depicting the chaos Dix would have seen in battle. Movement V, “Prayer for Somme”, is a solemn portrayal of the aftermath that this northern department of France saw, particularly after Bataille de la Somme, which Dix fought in. Movement VI “Weihnachten, 1918; The Return Home” takes on a totally different tone and harmonic language, as Dix returned to his family after being discharged. However, the main theme presented in the previous movements is also found here. Movement VII, “Nightmare” is a chromatic, crunchy representation of “horrible dreams” Dix had after the war, where he would find himself crawling through the rubble of houses destroyed by the fighting between the Allied and Central Powers. Finally, Movement VIII, “Painter’s Song”, represents Dix using his artwork to depict his experiences in warfare, tying the piece together with final statements of the themes presented earlier in the piece.

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