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.