Friday, 15 February 2013

Henze, Wagner, and the Weight of German Culture

This paper was given at the recent Wagner World Wide conference at the University of South Carolina. It gives a little taste of what will be in the chapter on Henze in my forthcoming book, to be published at the end of this year by Boydell and Brewer, though that will of course both be more detailed and more wide-ranging. I should normally remove, or rather not include, footnotes here, but have retained them, in case they are of any help to someone seeking the sources.
Hans Werner Henze was born in 1926, in Gütersloh, Westphalia, growing up in a village thirty kilometres from Bielefeld, which he would occasionally be able to visit for musical events. He saw himself as having been triply cursed. Not only was he a German, but a German cut off from the preferable ‘south German, Bohemian, and Austrian world of sun and pleasure,’ and also – important for his experience both during and after the war – a German homosexual in what was, to put it mildly, an unfriendly climate.[1] He felt scarred by seeing his father, an apparently liberal schoolmaster, become transformed into not just a party member, but a Nazi enthusiast. Conscripted during total war, he eventually spent several months as a prisoner of war. Henze began to feel, as a German, responsible for the sufferings of the entire continent and sickened by the attitude of many of his countrymen. He would write, concerning his return to Bielefeld: 
The crimes committed in the concentration camps were now being talked about more or less openly, resulting in a growing sense of shame and horror. No one had known a thing. Everyone had been against it. The men and women of the occupying armies looked disbelievingly at us Germans, or their eyes were filled with loathing. Ever since then I have felt ashamed of our country and of my fellow Germans and our people. Wherever my travels have taken me, my origins – my nationality – have always caused me problems, even in Italy. Nor is it any wonder, since the devils who dragged us into this war did such unforgivable and unforgettable things to our neighbours, especially in Rome, not only in their persecution of the Jews but also following Mussolini’s fall from power and during the subsequent partisan struggles.[2]
For him, moreover, ‘German art – especially the middle-class, nationalistic art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – became insufferable and suspect’.[3] There are no prizes for guessing that Wagner’s music might fall under that rubric, especially given the strong ties between the Bayreuth Festival and Hitler himself. The weight of tradition had grown steadily after Beethoven, notoriously making Brahms so loath, even for a lengthy period unable, to complete a first symphony. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in his celebrated 1802 biography of Bach, had portrayed the composer as the musical equivalent of the classical texts upon which German humanist curricula were founded. Bach, the ‘first classic that ever was, or perhaps ever will be,’ was ‘an invaluable national patrimony, with which no other nation has anything else to be compared’.[4] The posthumous role, then, played thereafter by Bach, Beethoven, and more controversially, Wagner, as German national heroes is well known. Yet, as Thomas Mann,  after whose Doctor Faustus Henze would later composer his Third Violin Concerto, knew all too well, there was a difficult, complicated relationship between such musical heroism and Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’.  What remained was the modernist art proscribed by the Nazis, untainted by association; what had previously been condemned as abstract, degenerate, un-German, and of course Jewish, now offered the opportunity for redemption of German music: a message for ‘outsiders’ that would never leave Henze and would inform the construction, conscious or otherwise, of his image.
For National Socialism had prevented German musicians, composers included, for the first time in centuries from keeping in touch with the latest musical developments. Thus for composers such as Henze and the young Stockhausen, the International Summer School for New Music in Darmstadt, founded in 1946, offered the opportunity to catch up. The occupying powers, subsequently West Germany’s allies, were generally happy to encourage and indeed to subsidise the ‘break’ with the country’s past, although reconstruction, as in other areas of German cultural life, was encouraged too. Moreover, the increasing ‘anti-formalist’ hostility towards twelve-note and serialist works from the East German authorities with their approved ‘socialist realism’ gave an opportunity for an allegedly ‘free’ West to distinguish itself from so-called ‘totalitarianism’ not only past but present. These factors give a number of clues as to why the more politically committed composers such as Henze might eventually find themselves out on something of a limb. How might they reconcile membership of the avant-garde with their political commitment, given that the avant-garde seemed increasingly apolitical or even reactionary? For Western European composers of all nationalities, the strictness of Webern’s apparently hermetic compositional method, somehow divorced from his utterly German context, provided the denationalised precedent – or at least so did a ‘productive misreading’, as it has generally come to be known, of his music. Even the fact of Webern’s shooting in 1945 somehow seemed to ‘fit’ the myth-making requirements of new music. The problem, at least for some, was that in practice this had begun to veer towards a doctrinaire, almost totalitarian attitude on the part of the high priests of the avant-garde. Henze connected this with a revisiting of the catastrophic German past and contrasted it with the freedom of his immersion in Italian life. The tragic irony was that the attempt to nullify the past, or perhaps in some cases to ignore it, led to its return. His recounting the first performance of his Nachtstücke und Arien in 1957 is instructive of the chasm that had opened:
… three representatives of the other wing – Boulez, my friend Gigi Nono and Stockhausen – leapt to their feet after only the first few bars and pointedly left the hall, eschewing the beauties of my latest endeavours. … I suddenly found ourselves [that is, he and Ingeborg Bachmann, who provided the texts] cold-shouldered by people who actually knew us … There was a sense of indignation throughout the building, no doubt made worse by the fact that the audience had acclaimed our piece in the liveliest manner… The impression arose that the whole of the world of music had turned against me, a situation that was really quite comical, but also somewhat disturbing from an ethical point of view: for what had become of artistic freedom? Who had the right to confuse moral and æsthetic criteria?[5]
This conflict between freedom and authority, and the question of what freedom might really entail, is dramatised in Henze’s opera, Der Prinz von Homburg (‘The Prince of Homburg’), which has its origins in Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, a surprisingly militaristic, indeed Prussian, text for either Henze or his librettist, Ingeborg Bachmann. Needless to say, many modifications are made. Der Prinz von Homburg was first performed in 1960, Henze provocatively claiming his model to be nineteenth-century Italian opera.’[6] Verdi and Donizetti seemed at least as much his anti-Wagners as inspirations in themselves. ‘Every bar,’ he would write, ‘reveals Verdi’s influence as a music dramatist.’[7] Such remarks, such intentional implicit criticism of Wagner, could certainly never have emanated from Schoenberg, his circle, nor from anyone seeking to position himself in the role of successor to the Second Viennese School. The claim of an ‘Italian model’ was indeed largely rhetorical, for Henze also tells us that the drama ‘very much cried out for this contrast between dodecaphony and what – with a pinch of salt – might be termed traditional harmony: the dialectics of the law and its violation, of dreams and reality, of mendaciousness and truth.’[8] One could also point to the Nietzschean dialectic – actually Wagnerian in origin – between Apollo and Dionysus. This is all thoroughly Germanic, not Italian at all, but so of course is the desire to escape from Germany to the warm Meditteranean south. Henze’s words are thoroughly German.
Needless to say, many modifications are made; the Prince’s battle-cry, ‘In Staub mit allen Feinden Brandenburgs,’ bidding Brandenburg’s foes return to dust, no longer plays a role of jubilation, quite otherwise, in Bachmann’s and Henze’s conception, which might be understood to echo Brecht’s earlier (1939) rewriting, a sonnet upon the play, the prince lying not dead but ‘on his back with all the foes of Brandenburg in the dust’.[9] As Frederic Jameson remarked in that very context, ‘where American pop psychology would evoke adaptation, Brecht overtly specifies learning.’[10] So do Bachmann and Henze, knowing, or at least believing, not unlike Wagner with his mediæval sources, that their audience will be aware of the ‘original’, though without going to the extreme of making appreciation dependent upon that knowledge, without tending to the world, as it were, of meta-art. To present march rhythms on the harp, for instance, rather than trumpets and drums, seems in context a statement, an inversion, in itself, both of pacification and of passive aggression against the political (and æsthetic) authorities that had brought the world to war and might do so again
The first two scenes of Henze’s second act are punctuated by the repetition of distorted brass fanfares, as Friedrich realises that he is hemmed in: ‘I am lost’, he sings.  (Unfortunately, I do not have time to play an excerpt.) Nothing changes; what can he do? He has broken the law in order to attain victory for the Elector of Brandenburg, and death will be his reward. The contrast between twelve-note technique and Henze’s ‘traditional harmony’ evokes not only musical but also dramatic crisis – and, in a broader sense, the dialectic of crisis between the modern subject and the objective world. Meanwhile, the ‘modern’ quality of the fanfares suggests the powerlessness of the subject in relation to the fatal power of the state and its laws. Always we seem to return to the opening scene of this act, to Friedrich’s powerless plight. In Henze’s own words:
Der Prinz von Homburg… sets itself against the blind unimaginative application of laws, in favour of an exaltation of human kindness, an understanding of which reaches into deeper and more complex realms than would be ‘normal’ and which seeks to find a place for a man in this world even though he is a Schwärmer and a dreamer, or perhaps because of that.[11]
Are the laws of Brandenburg as impervious as those of Schoenberg and, after him and deadlier still, Darmstadt, let alone those of the Third Reich, being reconstructed before their eyes? Could things actually be otherwise, without a radical transformation of society as a whole? That brings us to the question of intention. Henze claimed:
I have striven for greater freedom, or at least what I understand by it: certainly not improvisation, but independence, and a preparedness for decisions outside established categories. Music is not musicology, and the logic of a work rests on a unique constellation of incident, encounter, experience, agreement; it transcends inherited rules, construction, calculation. It seems that the vegetative element of music surpasses its other, lesser, musicological dimension, and that, as in the life of the Prince of Homburg, illuminations and discoveries take place in dreams, not in the laboratory. Not, however, in a state of haziness, but in the wakefulness of sleepwalkers, where facts are perceived with abnormal clarity.[12]
There is something Romantic about this; we might imagine ourselves returned to Wagner’s Nuremberg. Walther’s Prize Song was conceived in a dream, although it then had to be refined by the Master, Hans Sachs. Moreover, Walther’s songs also transcended inherited rules and calculation, outstepped established categories. Henze’s drama throws up another Meistersinger problem. Where is the social world; where is the public nature of art? A dream is all very well, but without transmission and reception it remains but a dream.
International climax was arguably centred upon the triumphant 1966 premiere of The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festival – Karajan’s citadel, no less. Aware of Henze’s hostility towards much Wagner, his librettist WH Auden had coaxed him very much in that direction, insisting that he study the score of Götterdämmerung – Henze always had less of a problem with Tristan, and indeed would write his own Tristan-work himself – and even had him attend a performance in Vienna, where he met Adorno, incidentally, intently studying his score, in order, according to his autobiography, that he should ‘learn to overcome’ his ‘aversions to Wagner’s music, aversions bound up in no small measure with my many unfortunate experiences in the past’. And, of course, with Germany’s many unfortunate experiences in the all-too-recent past. Success was at best mixed. According to his autobiography: 
I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience … But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.[13]
The result was nevertheless in many respects Henze’s most Wagnerian drama, and one which he considered confronted ‘this “I was always against the Nazis”’ position, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on … stage in the last scene…)’.[14] At the time, Henze was willing to consider that the musical path from Tristan, at least, might be of some importance in his work. In an interview for Die Welt, marking the premiere, he proclaimed his belief ‘that the road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and with The Bassarids I have tried to go further along it.’[15] Moreover, he could claim impeccable musical and German warrant for what many would decry as the score’s eclecticism:
It may be unfashionable to continue musical traditions in this way [he is specifically referring to the use of symphonic forms in the opera’s four ‘movements’], but with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: ‘An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.’ If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics …[16]
The composer could not, should not, ‘spend all his time destroying language instead of developing it dialectically’.[17]
That said, the very success of the opera in so bourgeois a context troubled Henze, that unease not merely coincidental with his political move from what he would call ‘generalised anti-fascism’, inspired, he explained, by the example of Italian Marxist friends. He had intervened politically, not least in 1965 during Willy Brandt’s election campaign, but now, from Rudi Dutschke and his comrades he ‘now learned to see contexts, and to see myself within those contexts’. This was why he took the decision that he would write not for himself and his friends, but ‘to help socialism’, that he would embody in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and yet ‘transform these into something that the masses can understand’. This certainly did not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’.[18] In September 1968, Henze published a declaration, ‘Mein Standpunkt’, ending:
Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men. Necessary, to change mankind, which is to say: necessary, the creation of mankind’s greatest work of art: the World Revolution.[19]
Those words could almost have come straight from an earlier German revolutionary-composer’s pen, from Wagner’s 1849 Die Revolution.[20] Henze had by this time lent his support to the APO (the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition) and the SDS (the Socialist German Student-league).
This brings us to Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer, entitled a ‘show for seventeen performers’, rather than an opera. Work began in January 1971, when Henze and some friends recorded street sounds near the Zoo Station in West Berlin, along with newspaper extracts read onto tape at varying tempi and pitches. The text’s author was a Chilean poet, Gastón Salvatore, who had been an active participant as a member of the Socialist German Student-league in the events of 1968, was imprisoned for a few months thereafter, and was Salvador Allende’s nephew. It is worth quoting from Salvatore’s account, which introduces the printed score: 
Natascha Ungeheuer is the siren of a false utopia. She promises the leftist bourgeois a new kind of security, which will permit him to preserve his revolutionary ‘class conscience’ without taking an active part in class warfare. This false Utopia should be regarded as an all-denying immobility, as a kind of cowardice, which permits itself to appear identified with the ‘Revolution’ and believe that such an identity could equal the consummation of revolution.
Such an existentialistic, non-historical form of political self-reflection places the leftist bourgeois in the position of exploiting the proletarian struggle, as an occasion for a merely self-indulgent moralising. He ‘muddles through’ between the temptation either to surrender consciousness and return to the bourgeoisie or to choose one of the two possible forms of helplessness: either that of the lonely Avant-garde in their homes or that of Social Democracy.
Natascha Ungeheuer promises both possibilities. The leftist bourgeois sets out for her apartment, plagued by all the anxieties and insecurities which characterise his social position ... Natascha Ungeheuer knows ... [them] only too well. She torments him, she provokes him, yet at the same time she lures him into her apartment ...
The leftist bourgeois ... refuses to go the full way to the apartment of Natascha Ungeheuer. He has not yet discovered his way to the revolution. He knows that he must turn back on the way he has gone so far, and begin again.
Everything about the work – its ideological intention, its music, and its staging – was calculated to provoke, and it was roundly booed when performed at West Berlin’s impeccably bourgeois Deutsche Oper.
The musical forces required are a vocalist – a baritone of sorts – a brass quintet, a Hammond organ, percussion, a jazz ensemble, allegedly redolent of the Berlin underground, though perhaps a few decades late, and, perhaps most notably, denoting the bourgeois origins of the protagonist, an instrumental quintet (piano, flute, clarinet, viola, and cello) identical to that used in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Here is sickly, decadent, bourgeois expressionism. (Here, I might personally add, is the more compelling music; perhaps Henze spoke more truly than he realised.) To underline the already heavy symbolism, Henze, who also directed the first performances, had the Pierrot quintet – Peter Maxwell Davies’s Fires of London – dress in blood-soaked white coats, each member sporting a different physical injury: ‘one with eye bandaged,’ presumably a coincidental homage to Wotan, ‘another his leg and yet another his arm in plaster of Paris, etc., etc.’ Once again, conflict between different sound worlds, representing different aspects of the political and social situation is readily apparent in what is notably called a deutsches Lied, a German song.
 [text and translation at end]
In a 1972 interview, Henze also made an interesting connection with his experience of Italian opera and the physicality of the human voice he experienced in that, and implicitly not in German tradition:
When I wrote my first opera, Boulevard Solitude in 1951 – it had its premiere the following year – 50 per cent of it was dance. The singers were treated in rather a statuesque manner because I didn't believe in the traditional movements for them. I overcame that view when I saw Italian opera and I realised that the physical presence of music in a human body is much stronger in a singer because of his voice. This process of making music physically present is still concerning me today. In Cimarrón and Natascha Ungeheuer, I make even the musicians visible and they more or less become actors. I think I will pursue this line.[21]
The score tells us that ‘the work can be performed in gymnasiums, in the open air or on concert platforms.’ Yet, the opera house, or at least the theatre, retains a certain primacy. ‘When performed on the stage, dance elements and lighting effects can be increased. It is conceivable to blend in films and to add to the scenic actions.’ Shorn of the optionality and translated into Hegelian, Henze’s notes might come from Wagner’s Opera and Drama. This is a Gesamtkunstwerk of the early 1970s, however much Henze might have wished to escape Wagner’s legacy.
The protagonist’s predicament was clearly Henze’s own: stuck somewhere between Natascha’s flat in Kreuzberg and the German bourgeoisie which, even during his self-exile, had funded so many of his activities to date – and would continue to do so. However, most of his audience had not even begun its journey. In Henze’s words, ‘our hero does not reach his destination: but … he hears in his head the sirenlike voice of Comrade Natascha, who, far from welcoming and accommodating, reels off a list of objections to him.’ Has nagging Fricka been resurrected, post-Götterdämmerung, to assail our artist-Wotan? ‘Attempts to renew his bourgeois connections prove a failure. It is a lonely show that our hero stages.’[22] Having turned back from the former, he does not return to the latter, though it remains quite unclear what will happen next. Such would be the besetting yet fruitful problematic of Henze’s career and œuvre.
L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, another Salzburg commission (2003), would be in character if not in form his Singspiel, a loving tribute to the composer of Die Zauberflöte. However, despite its debts to Wagner and to Berg, Henze still did not feel comfortable with an unalloyed tribute to the former and never really would; Mozart was for many reasons more approachable. And yet, in an unguarded moment during a 2010 interview, shortly before the British premiere of his penultimate opera, Phaedra, Henze would aver, ‘German music, it’s difficult to match isn’t it? It’s so rich and so deep and has inspired so many adventures – and still can, I believe.’[23] If he had not yet made peace with German politics – and why should he have done so in the age of Merkel any more than during the era of Adenauer? – then the richness of his engagement with German music, and more broadly German history and culture, would never be in doubt.


8. deutsches lied

bruitage (40″)


was treibt die revolution

 VOCALIST (ausdruckslos, noch immer seine zigarette rollend)     


            in diesen zeiten

            ist sie ein wenig fett geworden

(eine silbe wie die andere)

hinter der allgewalt von genähten und

eingedämmten winden


bedeckt mit rechenschiebern brüsten

            und mahlzeiten

von schlafsäcken und

hodenentzündungen begleitet

eintönig wie ein endloses sinken

breiten sich aus die kreuzberger


8. german song

how is the revolution coming

(expressionless, still rolling his cigarette)

thank you

during these times

it has become a little fat

 behind the overpowering strength of

            the sewn-in and dammed-up


protected by slide-rule bosoms and


accompanied by sleeping bags and

            inflamed testicles

monotonous like an endless sinking

lies the expanse of kreuzberg flats

[1] Hans Werner Henze, Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography, tr. Stewart Spencer (Faber: London, 1999), p.22.
[2] Ibid., p.53.
[3] Ibid., p.53.
[4] Johann Nikolai Forkel, Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, ed. Claudia Maria Knipsel (Henschel: Berlin, 2000), pp.21-22
[5] Henze, Bohemian Fifths, p.146.                                                                                                                            
[6] Ibid., p.161.
[7] Ibid., p.161.
[8] Ibid., p. 156.
[9] Heinrich von Kleist, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (Echo Library, Teddington, 2007), p.75; Bertolt Brecht, ‘Sonnet über Kleists Stück “Prinz von Homburg”,’ reprinted with commentary by Walter Benjamin, in ‘Commentary on Poems by Brecht,’ tr. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, eds Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings, 4 vols (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 1996-2003), vol.4, pp.237-8.
[10] Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (Verso: New York and London, 1998), p.90.
[11] Henze, ‘Der Prinz von Homburg,’ in Music and Politics: Collected Writings 1953-81, tr. Peter Labanyi (Faber: London, 1982), p. 102.
[12] Ibid., p.104.
[13] Henze, Bohemian Fifths, p. 207.
[14] Henze, ‘German Music in the 1940s and 1950s,’ in Music and Politics, p.35.
[15] Henze, ‘The Bassarids: (1) Tradition and cultural heritage,’ in ibid., p.145.
[16] Ibid., p.145.
[17] Henze, ‘The Bassarids: (3) Symphony in One Act,’ in Music and Politics, p.153.
[18] ‘Art and the Revolution,’ in Music and Politics, pp. 179-80.
[19] Quoted in Andrew Porter, ‘Henze’s “Young Lord”,’ in The Musical Times, 110 (1969), p.1028.
[20] Richard Wagner, ‘Die Revolution,’ in Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, eds Richard Sternfeld and Hans von Wolzogen, 16 vols in 10 (Breitkopf und Härtel: Leipzig, 1912-4), vol.12, pp.245-51.
[21] Interview with Alan Blyth, in Gramophone, 49 (1972), p.1690.
[22] Henze, Bohemian Fifths, p.303.
[23] Interview with Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2010.

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