Music of the Other Germany: American Symphony Orchestra

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The Arms of the German Democratic Republic - Click to hear Hanns Eisler's national anthem.

The Arms of the German Democratic Republic. Click to hear Hanns Eisler’s national anthem.

American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein conductor
Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 3 pm, Avery Fisher Hall
Marjorie Owens, soprano

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962): Auferstanden aus Ruinen, Hymne der DDR (1949)

Rudolf Wagner-Régeny (1903-69): Mythological Figures (1951) – US premiere
I. Ceres
II. Amphitrite
III. Diana

Paul Dessau (1894-1979): In memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) – US premiere
I. Lamento
II. Marcia: “der Krieg soll verfluchtet sein.”
III. Epitaph

Udo Zimmermann (born 1943): Sinfonia come un grande lamento, in memory of F. García Lorca (1977) – US premiere
I. Antiphon I
II. Psalm
III. Antiphon II

Hanns Eisler: Goethe Rhapsody (1949) – US premiere
Siegfried Matthus (b. 1934): Responso: Konzert für Orchester (1977) – NY premiere
I. Ostinato
II. Notturno
III. Ciacona
Leon Botstein attracted an impressive crowd to Avery Fisher Hall on the afternoon of Sunday, January 25, to hear him conduct the ASO in a program of extremely obscure music: orchestral works from “the other Germany,” that is the German Democratic Republic (1949-1990), or East Germany. It is most unjust that this music is as neglected as it is today, since every work on the program was soundly constructed and interesting, even astonishing at times. All were worth a second or a third hearing, or even more. Fortunately most of the works on the program are available on CD.

You can stay in a chic Berlin hotel in which every detail of domestic design from the Communist era is faithfully reproduced, even as far as portraits of long-departed leaders of state. In the Ostel you can immerse yourself in the objects and the atmosphere of the GDR. You can even buy East German products in the Ostel’s online shop to bring a bit of the GDR home with you. To support such an enterprise there must be considerable popular interest, certainly more than in East German high culture, the spirit of which is vividly represented by the music on Dr. Botstein’s program. And high culture was of the highest importance, both to the authorities and to many of the people in the GDR, that is, until the American television show Dallas was shown, as Dr. Botstein’s program note explained. When it was being broadcast, theaters and concert halls remained empty, as citizens ogled J. R. driving his Rolls Royce around his Texas ranch. This is not to say that J. R. brought down the wall single-handedly any more than Ronald Reagan did. Today, however, Germans feel more nostalgia for the simpler life of their parents generation, when people were more menschlich and not so obsessed with money, or so said the proprietor of the Ostel in its online commercial, showing cool young people hobnobbing in the hotel garden, consuming nostalgic drinks. It’s not surprising that GDR nostalgia is focussed on lifestyle and design rather than the government’s rigorous ideas of culture.

The works on the program represent a wide range of DDR’schen Ideale, beginning with Johannes R. Becher and Hanns Eisler’s national anthem, Auferstanden aus Ruinen, which Marjorie Owens sang most stirringly, using a microphone to suggest the sound of it being sung in a stadium before an audience of thousands. It is a song of reconstruction, both of buildings and of moral values. Rudolf Wagner-Régeny’s set of three symphonic poems, Mythological Figures (1951) embody the German fascination with classical mythology, which was a dominant guiding spirit in the arts since long before the time of Hölderlin and Goethe. One the other hand, forward-thinking Communist ideology required cultural heroes, intellectual pioneers and creators of doctrine, who deserved commemoration in artistic works of the highest quality, like Paul Dessau’s In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) and Udo Zimmermann’s 1977 Sinfonia come un grande lamento, in memory of F. García Lorca, who was shot by Republican soldiers in 1936.

Hanns Eisler’s Goethe Rhapsody (1949) is founded on the most classic of German highbrow pieties, a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, but it is a sincere and intelligent gobbet, comprised of two quotations from the third act of the second part, that is, the Helen of Troy section. (Misprints in the text as printed in the program, as well as Tony Kline’s translation, make gibberish of the passages, however.) The first, which begins “free from tales,” is a warning that old mythology of ancient Greece will pass away and an exhortation to let them go. The second quotation looks forward to a renewal of song amidst the constant renewal of nature. Texts, which in Eisler’s Marxian interpretation, function more or less as a classic counterpart to Becher’s national hymn. Eisler, ever the populist, depicts this literally in his music, which progressively admits elements of jazz and popular song. It is a very odd work, and that is what makes it good. Siegfried Matthus’ Responso (1977) is a three-movement work which not only includes hommages to the composer’s great modern predecessors, for example Stravinsky and Bartók, but, ending with a chaconne, takes its place in the tradition of uncompromising earnestness exemplified by Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.

And that is what East German culture was like. The highest expressions of German civilization could stand shoulder to shoulder with Communist doctrine and “art for the people” if they were interpreted in the right spirit. They could believe that Goethe’s message was clearer for them than it had ever been before, and for Eisler at least, it could have a populist aspect as well. German Bildung was so highly regarded in East Germany that it was unassailable. One had only to find a “new song” in it. Some may get the idea that this concert was a sort of musical Rumfordsuppe—a watery broth with a few limp bits of vegetable and gristle floating in it. Quite the opposite. The rich imagination and compositional rigor of the music made it riveting to hear, especially with the superb playing of the ASO under Botstein: the precise articulation, careful balances, clear textures, and robust musicality this music music needs were all there. In fact I’ve never heard Avery Fisher Hall sounding so good, and I was beginning to wonder what the problem with it really was, at least after its last renovation. Interestingly, Fisher’s characteristic stridency and constriction were back at a New York Philharmonic concert under Muti I heard the following week. Perhaps the key is that Botstein spread his musicians out over the stage, and Muti had them sit close together, with a good deal of space between the orchestra and the back walls.

The quality of the performance being understood, I’ll concentrate on a few striking features of the music. After Eisler’s attractive national hymn—and it is interesting to study Becher’s text and to observe how skilfully he steered around the more questionable themes inherited from Nazi and Soviet propaganda—Rudolf Wagner-Régeny’s Mythological Figures revealed itself as an audience-friendly twelve-tone work. Wagner-Régeny was an established member of the faculty of the East Berlin Musikhochschule, notorious for his dryness and pedantry. He was not a believing communist, but, while adhering to the formalist techniques of modernism, the cultural atmosphere of the early 1950’s moved him to make this work as accessible as possible. Laura Silverberg’s claim in her program note that this is one of his more interesting works was borne out by the music, although it was still the weakest piece on the program, I thought.

Paul Dessau’s memorial for his collaborator, Bertolt Brecht, is much more daring. A powerful, dissonant work, it does justice to Brecht’s genius and is also a fitting public memorial to a cultural hero of the state. The first movement is a melodic lament with elements of a hesitant funeral march. The second movement, subtitled “Der Krieg soll veflucht sein.” (=”War should be accursed.”) is an horrific march, which stumbles in exhaustion and misery towards its end. The third. “Epitaph” returns to the measure of a funeral march, but on a more monumental scale. Udo Zimmermann’s Sinfonia come un grande lamento begins with a magnificent long tympani solo based on a seven-note row, some of the most complex and interesting music for percussion solo you will ever hear. From there the music progresses into a lament combined with a march. The second movement, Psalm, is based on an inversion of “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,” the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The third movement combines the tympani motive and the lament, bring them to a concentrated, painful unison, concluding this elegiac, but tightly constructed work.

Eisler’s Goethe Rhapsody, although it contained many accessible passages and references to jazz and associated genres, was to my ears the strangest work on the program. Beginning with the high seriousness—and a grim background, the ruins left by the Second World War—the music wanders into realms of jazz and cabaret music—much to the delight of the musicians of the ASO, who seem to thrive on exploring new musical territory, especially if there is a bit of fun in it. Eisler never abandons his earlier mode, however, returning to it without going so far as to arrive at a dialectical resolution of the two styles. The most ambitious work of all, however, is Matthus’ Responso: Concerto for Orchestra. Its three movements are enriched with intertextual allusions to Stravinsky’s Sacre, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Mendelssohn’s Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, the horn passages in Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Brahms Fourth Symphony, which also concludes with a Ciacona. As Byron Adams observes in his astute program note, Matthus carried the post-modern gesture of this work even further by adapting music from it for another work, Adagio and Passacaglia on Motifs from Responso (1982). Unlike some post-modernist music, however, Responso is full-blooded, rigorous, and satisfying.

Between the fascinating program, the stimulating program notes, and the brilliant musicianship of Leon Botstein and the ASO, this concert was like a Bard Festival in miniature—a most welcome treat at the approximate mid-point between the 2008 and 2009 festivals.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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