Monday, 18 June 2012

Henze, Wagner, and the Weight of German Musical Culture

This paper was given at the annual conference of the Royal Musical Association on 31 May 2012. It is necessarily very cursory, being limited to twenty minutes (including a couple of extracts played), and is in any case part of a much larger work-in-progress, my next book, scheduled for publication by the end of 2013. However, I thought a little 'taster' might be of interest.


Hans Werner Henze grew up during the Second World War, and came of age as an artist during its aftermath. He was born in Westphalia in 1926, 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. [One may detect more than a slight sense of sarcasm here.] 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.
For him, moreover, ‘German art – especially the middle-class, nationalistic art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – became insufferable and suspect’. 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. What did remain was the modernist art proscribed by the Nazis, untainted by association.

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 and 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?
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.’ This is largely rhetoric, however, 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.’ This is thoroughly German.

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.
Are the laws of Brandenburg as impervious as those of Schoenberg and, after him and deadlier still, Darmstadt? Can they actually be otherwise?

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.
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…)’. 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.’ 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 …

The composer could not, should not, ‘spend all his time destroying language instead of developing it dialectically’.

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’. 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.
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 our second work for consideration, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer ('The Tedious Way to Natascha Ungeheuer's Apartment'), entitled a ‘show for seventeen performers’, rather than an opera. ('Ungeheuer' means 'monster', but apparently Natascha Ungeheuer was an actual artist working in Kreuzberg, whose name was discovered in a West Berlin telephone directory. An invitation to her apartment was considered fashionable amongst certain artistic types.) 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 actually Salvador Allende’s nephew. Quite a few boxes are ticked there, then. It is worth quoting from Salvatore’s account:
Natascha Ungeheuer is the siren of a false utopia. She promises the bourgeois leftist a new kind of security which is meant to enable him to retain his ‘good’ revolutionary conscience without taking active part in the class struggle. …

… the bourgeois leftist … oscillates between the temptation to abandon his awareness and return to the old class, or choose one of the two possible forms of perplexity: that of the lonely avant-gardist in his own four walls, or that of social democracy…

Natascha Ungeheuer promises both possibilities. … She torments him, challenges him … [He] refuses to go to the end of the road, to Natascha Ungeheuer’s flat. He has not yet found his way to the revolution. He knows that he has to retrace his steps and start again from the beginning.
Everything about the work – its ideological intention, its music, and its staging – was calculated to provoke, and it was roundly booed when performed at the Deutsche Oper. The protagonist’s predicament is clearly Henze’s own: stuck somewhere between Natascha Ungeheuer’s flat and the German bourgeoisie which has funded most of his activities to date.

The musical forces required are a vocalist – a baritone of sorts – a brass quintet, a Hammond organ, percussion, a jazz ensemble, redolent of the Berlin underground 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 had the Pierrot quintet dress in blood-soaked white medical coats, each with a different injury: one with his eye bandaged, another with his leg in plaster of Paris, and so on. Once again, conflict between different sound worlds, representing different aspects of the political and social situation is readily apparent, as we shall now hear.

Reaching a musical assessment of the work almost seems to be missing the point, or at least there seems to be a strong will on the part of its creator(s) to make one think so. It also seems to have more than a dash of pessimism. Is this, then, what politically-committed music drama had come to?

Nevertheless, Henze has always retained a great deal of revolutionary optimism, even if it has often not been focussed on Germany. In a 1971 interview, he could say:

The proletariat is, fortunately, far less crippled than we are. It is deliberately kept ill-informed, certainly, and bombarded with miserable mass-produced products of the mass media. But in Italy, for example, the workers react in a lively and inquisitive fashion when one takes the trouble to show them things to which they otherwise have no access. They have a great deal of unused receptivity... We must not fall into the trap of seeing our path towards solidarity with the working class as an act of self-mutilation.

Many post-war composers stated more or less explicitly, at least on occasion, that a principal reason for the use of serial principles was to obliterate memory. Yet soon this was bound to seem insufficient. Music or indeed art had never operated unhistorically; indeed, even the obliteration of memory could not be understood except historically. All, it seemed, that one could do was treat with history and with the present; neither could or should be avoided. This need not constitute failure, but nor could it constitute a solution. And if a solution were reached, then there would perhaps – in a familiar Marxist or at least Hegelian sense – be no further need for art. It is difficult to imagine any artist truly wishing for that day to come.


Nicholas Lederer said...


"As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once. Compared with vision, language, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged"

The above is an excerpt from the book "How The Mind Works" by neuroscientist Steven Pinker.

Do you think he’s right?

Let's be very clear and not miss the boat here:

What Pinker is saying is that music never contributed anything to the propagation of the species. To a biologist, that is what counts. Biologists use the word “adaptive” to describe a trait that is cultivated by evolution. Anything that increases an individual’s chances of passing its genes along to the next generation is adaptive. Music, Pinker argues, is not adaptive. He sees no evidence that having rhythm or being a good singer ever helped a person survive or generate more offspring. He believes that music is something humans invented and then cultivated because it tweaks our brains and bodies in a pleasurable way. In other words, humans invented music because they enjoyed it.

Again, the evolutionary status of music is a separate question from THE VALUE of music. Pinker recognizes this, and as an evolutionary psychologist he's only interested in the former. He makes no pretense to explain or even comment on the aesthetic, spiritual, or metaphysical qualities (or any qualities at all) of music. He is a scientist who studies brain function; he comments only on the measurable energy in the brain generated in response to measurable stimuli. The responses may occur in different locations in the brain, with differing intensities, but the cultural significance of the stimuli is irrelevant to Pinker's interests and cannot be identified based on the measured response. For that matter, responses occurring in the same area of the brain, with similar intensities, may be equated even if the stimuli are of entirely different kinds or characters. So there is no point in asking him for thoughts on the ability of a Beethoven quartet or a Schubert sonata or a Mozart opera to inspire higher thoughts or exalted emotions, since those are not measurable by his methods and really not of much interest in the context of his research.

For example, athletic ability clearly increases the chance that an individual will mate. Nevertheless, no one suggests that arms, hands, and legs evolved because of sports. The ability to play sports is a byproduct of adaptations that evolved for other reasons (to procure food, for example). Similarly, science has vastly increased individuals lifespans and even allowed certain people to procreate who could not have in the past. But biologists do not believe that the advanced functions of the brain evolved because they allowed humans to do science. Pinker believes that music is a byproduct of brain features that evolved for other reasons (i.e. not to create or enjoy music).

Of course most people adore music and feel it is far from useless. But we're ultimately going to have to look at the available evidence rather than getting grumpy or righteously indignant because some godless scientist is infringing on one of our sacred cows.

Mark Berry said...

I'd say it is an almost stereotypical example of asking the wrong questions and therefore getting the wrong answers, if any at all. It all seems rather circular to me; if you select beforehand what is of importance, then you are clearly going to disregard what does not conform to your earlier decision. No need to worry, though: I have no intention of becoming 'grumpy or righteously indignant'. The quotation and the ideas, such as they are, are simply not worth that expenditure of energy; pity, perhaps, but I shall leave that to others.

It is strange, moreover, how 'godless scientists' and the more reactionary elements of, say, the Roman Catholic Church all seem utterly obsessed with reproduction, as if nothing else were of consequence. That is certainly not a point of view that has ever attracted, nor even occurred to me, and I am pretty sure that I could say the same of most other people I know, some of them a little more open-minded, cultured even, than Steven Pinker.

For whatever this might be worth, and perhaps I am missing something here, I am a little unclear what any of this has to do with Henze...

Nicholas Lederer said...


Here's a much more thought-provoking quote by Pinker I think:

"In a gathering of today's elite, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh that you barely passed Physics for Poets and Rocks for Jocks and have remained ignorant of science ever since, despite the obvious importance of scientific literacy to informed choices about personal health and public policy. But saying that you have never heard of James Joyce or that you tried listening to Mozart once but prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber is as shocking as blowing your nose on your sleeve or announcing that you employ children in your sweatshop, despite the obvious unimportance of your tastes in leisure-time activity to just about anything"

Mark Berry said...

Nonsense, straightforwardly. The ignorance of 'serious' music, call it what you will, even amongst people who claim to value the arts is staggering in our society. It is considered quite acceptable for visual art students, literary critics, et al., never to have heard a Mozart opera. And again, why should the prosaic world of 'informed choices about personal health' necessarily be elevated over imparting some value to whatever fraction of three scores year and ten we might happen to be allotted? Such words do not sound remotely thought-provoking to me, merely a tepid reheating of CP Snow.

Nicholas Lederer said...


It is strange, moreover, how 'godless scientists' and the more reactionary elements of, say, the Roman Catholic Church all seem utterly obsessed with reproduction, as if nothing else were of consequence. That is certainly not a point of view that has ever attracted, nor even occurred to me, and I am pretty sure that I could say the same of most other people I know, some of them a little more open-minded, cultured even, than Steven Pinker.

I have worked with hundreds of scientists, most of whom were are non-religious (i.e I assume godless). None of them seemed remotely obsessed with reproduction. Of course, I've worked with physical scientists who have no special reason to be especially interested in reproduction. On the other hand, biologists do have a special reason to be interested - reproduction is one critical feature of organisms. Reproduction is even more critical to the study of evolution. I certainly hope they are more interested in reproduction than the rest of us (whether they are godless or not). Would you say it's strange that oceanographers are obsessed with water?

Anonymous said...

I think it's rather unfair to Pinker to portray him as some kind of godless philistine. The key phrase in the first quotation "As far as biological cause and effect are concerned" gives us a clue that Pinker is not really trying to suggest that music is of no value, just that it is of limited explanatory value in terms of evolutionary explanations of behaviour. That is what, I think, Pinker is getting at here, not a question of what is valuable in a normative sense, but in an explanatory sense in evolutionary terms. (It is is still something of an oversimplification, of course, though.) Also the phrase "To a biologist, that is what counts." is also somewhat ambiguous: a biologist as a human being is of course perfectly capable of valuing art etc., so music could still 'count' in a meaningful sense to a biologist's life, it just might not be relevant to a particular biological theory. I think that is actually the point that Mr Lederer is making: Pinker is not attempting to construct a theory of value in the way a theologian, for example, might, and so it is unfair to dismiss his ideas as limited as he is attempting to make scientific progress precisely by limiting the scope of his inquiries to concentrate on biological explanations of behaviour rather than entering into debates about proper allocation of value.
Also I think the point made in the second quotation is quite reasonable, though the "to just about anything" is going a bit too far. Public policy is a matter of earth-shattering importance, when one considers that the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 40 and a baby born in Afghanistan has a greater than 10% chance of dying before it reaches the age of 1. In other words, "we happen to be allotted" sounds very deterministic: in fact, human policy decisions have great power to influence life expectancy etc so we should not see these matters as being questions of "allottment" by some higher power but rather as being ones in which individual and social choices have huge significance.
That said, I too, wondered at first, what this has to do with Henze. Perhaps these ideas might provide a connection of sorts:

Anonymous said...

But saying that you have never heard of James Joyce or that you tried listening to Mozart once but prefer Andrew Lloyd Webber is as shocking as blowing your nose on your sleeve or announcing that you employ children in your sweatshop, despite the obvious unimportance of your tastes in leisure-time activity to just about anything

I can't disagree with SP.

If I were start a thread on one of the classical music messageboards expressing a preference for Weber's music over Mozart's, I would be flamed off the site. I can hardly even admit to enjoying Strauss' waltzes over there!!

My experience among elite company is not much different: you don't need to know much about Shakespeare, Michelangelo, or Bach, but you'd better agree that they're better than Dan Brown, Thomas Kinkade, or Kenny G.

The Wagnerian said...

Not sure what any of this has to do with the paper in question, but would like to point out - having spent more than the average amount of time with "godless scientists" - that their interest in reproduction is pretty much the same as everyone else - which tends to be concerned with the act itself rather than the "evolutionary intended end product" (if any biologist reading will forgive that obvious teleological statement) and when and where they might get some some.

The odd one may even listen to "classical music" although I must say that the frequency that one might find them listening to nothing beyond the Brandenburg Concertos is a tad disappointing.

The Wagnerian said...

"My experience among elite company is not much different: you don't need to know much about Shakespeare, Michelangelo, or Bach, but you'd better agree that they're better than Dan Brown, Thomas Kinkade, or Kenny G. "

You should try exclaiming in frustration one day, that you also like ACDC, Lamb of God, Wu Tang Clan and the work of Dr Dre (especially his production work, on the admittedly highly misogynistic "The Games" album "Documentary."

Oh the hours of interesting discussions I have had...

The Wagnerian said...

Anyway, back to the paper in question (well I felt someone should actually comment on it): an interesting read although, I feel a reread is in order to grasp its central argument in more detail.

The Wagnerian said...

"Nonsense, straightforwardly. The ignorance of 'serious' music, call it what you will, even amongst people who claim to value the arts is staggering in our society.

Alas, I would have to agree. The overall ignorance of the "educated classes" to anything other than "Bach's Greatest Hits" - and its like - is astounding.

I attended a production of Tristan recently and against my better judgment stayed around for an "after performance discussion" And the level of ignorance to either the work in question, Wagner, the production or the artists performing was extraordinary - and this was from many people sitting in the "expensive seats"

Comments such as:

"Well,have to say, I was expecting something more. I saw Boheme recently and that was far more passionate"

"Not much really happens does it" (how many times does one need to hear this? Even a quick read about the opera before attending should clarify just how "passé" that comment is)

"It lacked realism. The chap [the speaker did not know who Ben Heppner was!) was much older than Tristan"

In complete opposition to Pinker's statement, the truth is that we live in a society where "high culture" (god,do I hate that term and even that is redundant as it is quickly becoming associated with "Puccini's Greatest Hits") is scorned in comparison to everything - and that includes science which at least seems to be considered to have some "worth".

How much easier is it to pretend you have a grasp of "quantum physics" then to admit a love of Wagner, Schoenberg or Mozart's operas that is not limited to "Arias from Mozart's Operas sung by Katherine Jenkins.

Anonymous said...

I've never been convinced by Steven Pinker and am even less so now that I see that he seems to be completely unaware of recent research into the the effects of music on brain development. If even I've heard of it, it's not exactly an arcane pursuit. A simple Google search will reveal about a thousand entries on the subject.

Anonymous said...

"I mention these facts not to denigrate the arts but to clarify an important mystery in understanding ourselves. To understand the psychology of the arts, we have to look at the phenomena with the disinterested eye of an alien biologist trying to make sense of the human species rather than as a member of the species with a stake in how the arts are portrayed. Of course
we find pleasure and enlightenment in contemplating the products of the arts, and not all of it is a pride in sharing the tastes of the beautiful people. But to understand the psychology of the arts that remains when we subtract
out the psychology of status, we must leave at the door our terror of being mistaken for the kind of person who prefers Andrew Lloyd Webber to Mozart"

-Steven Pinker

Coincidentally I was just re-reading this very book (Steven Pinker's HOW THE MIND WORKS) this week and the excerpts you posted from it about elitism and music make much sense to me.