Sunday, December 09, 2007

A minor German paradox

One striking aspect of the West German new music scene of the fifties is how rapidly an institutional consensus formed around the importance of two young figures, Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and how different those figures and their music have been. This development and the contrast between the two could certainly not have been predicted in 1953, when Henze established his permanent domicile in Italy and Stockhausen first began his long association with the electronic music studio at the WDR. At that point in time, both shared horrific experiences in the late war years, and both were decided modernists. Each had initiated their own path away from a 12-tone orthodoxy, one towards a less rigorous usage of the method, and the other toward more total serialism, but that was an unremarkable fact for the era, in which West Germany could look to a number of other significant composers with siomilar concerns (Fortner, Hartmann, Klebe, B.A. Zimmermann).

Musical success is a mysterious matter of determination, talent, timing, connections and some of these factors are governed more by chance than ratio, but the postwar predominance of the music of Henze and Stockhausen is that of music from an unlikely and remarkable pair. Henze, marxist and gay, was able from the distance of his Italian villa to carefully build institutional ties in Germany, as a teacher and festival organizer, and was equally careful to insure that the political content of his work never overwhelmed his musical surfaces which were approachable by a wide audience and always displayed more continuity that contrast with his received musical tradition, making it readily playable, even by the most conservative ensembles or in the most traditional opera houses. Moreover, he composed repertory pieces that could share programs and seasons with the works of others. Stockhausen, on the other hand, straighter than straight and politically disengaged, successively burned down each of his institutional bridges (Darmstadt, his publisher, his recording company, his professorship, and eventually the radio station), choosing instead to create his own institutions in their place, in pursuit of musical ideals which seldom coincided with those of institutional musical life. His catalogue has remarkably few pieces that could be played in short notice or in company with music by other composers due to unusual instrumentation or technical requirements, but mostly from design, due to his strict breaks with conventions of technique and style, which thus requires rehearsal time well in excess of that usually possible, as well as his frequent usage of specialized technologies.

Stockhausen neither read the news nor watched television, his literary interests seem to have ended with his youthful attachment to Hesse's Glasperlenspiel, his scientific investigations likewise seem to have ended in the 1950's with his study of phonology. His deeper attachments were to a spiritual impulse, one which wandered from Cologne-style catholism to religious exotica east and from outer space, but in the end was essentially a faith in his own work. Henze's Italian P.C. -style Marxism took its own twists and turns, and is, one supposes, ultimately also a faith in the work itself more than an orthodoxy and always more pragmatic than idealist, allowing him to keep a professorship in Cologne, while Stockhausen gave his up, and to lead music festivals in Italy or in Germany, successfully navigating real political -- and often very conservative -- waters. Henze has always remained informed about world affairs, and his interests in the work of others and in other art forms are far from casual or naive. Unlike Stockhausen, whose ambitions turned to writing his own libretti, Henze prefered that others provide him with words, most notably the writer Ingeborg Bachmann as well as a series of operas on classical themes.

The paradox, that the more conservative composer was politically further left, although never a populist in the socialist-realist style, while the more progressive composer sat more easily in a conservative political frame is perhaps typical and unique to post-war West Germany. I can't quite reconcile this, another symptom of the limits in my anthropological insight when it comes to this country where I happen to live, an accidental guest in a place in which music is sometimes a wonderland.


Samuel Vriezen said...

Politics and art, in however many ways they may find themselves touching one another, are just not the same thing. I recall Satie already was amused by the conservative tastes of his communist friends and the political conservatism of Debussy (IIRC Satie's words were "Debussy was against raising wages - except his own")

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