Dr. Mengele, we are told, sometimes relaxed to the strains of “Tristan und Isolde” after performing his experiments. The Berlin Staatskapelle played Siegfried’s Funeral Music at the state funeral of S.S. Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, whose middle name was Tristan. Adolf Hitler, intending to make Wagner’s operas the liturgy of a new religion, saluted the 1933 Nuremberg Party Congress with a quotation from “Die Meistersinger”: “Wach’ auf!” For a time, Hitler’s speeches on cultural matters were preceded by excerpts from the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. That horrible musical scene in “Schindler’s List,” in which an S.S. man plays Bach on an upright piano while Jews are being shot around him, is apparently based on fact. At one of the Berlin Philharmonic’s final performances of the Nazi era, members of the Hitler Youth handed out cyanide capsules to members of the audience.
There are many such anecdotes about music in the Third Reich, and they serve to back up Thomas Mann’s controversial but not easily refuted contention that in Nazi Germany the greatest art was implicated in the greatest evil. The association of classical music with spiritual corruption has become so prevalent that it is now a staple of popular culture. Ben Hecht, in a wartime polemic, wrote of Germans who “listen to Beethoven and dream of murder,” and such images multiplied in movies of the postwar years. Where musicians were once the noble, fragile heroes of high-class studio pictures, after the war they acquired a hint of sadism, of cultivated malice. Now when any self-respecting Hollywood arch-criminal sets out to annihilate mankind he listens to a little opera to get in the mood. Even Hannibal Lecter, moving his bloodstained fingers in time to the “Goldberg Variations,” might be distantly echoing the Nazis’ twin enthusiasms for music and death.
Hitler seemingly tainted the art; he made it dubious. No music was more suspect than the Führer’s favorite late-Romantic strains of Wagner, Bruckner, and Strauss, a few bars of which are enough to give Holocaust survivors flashbacks of horror. Conversely, it was thought that no music resisted the Nazi taint more thoroughly than the modernist school that Hitler detested. Thus did Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of atonality and of twelve-tone composition, become a heroic figure in the postwar years; he had stayed, it seemed, absolutely pure. After 1945, a new morality of music evolved, based on two questionable but potent syllogisms: (1) if Hitler liked it, it must be bad; (2) if Hitler hated it, it must be good.
There are many things to be said against this way of thinking, the first of which is “So what?” The fact that Hitler loved music says as much about the nature of his crimes as the fact that he loved dogs. All it really tells us is that he emerged out of a culture that had already made music a religion. Hitler loved Beethoven because everyone loved Beethoven. The orchestras of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt played Beethoven, too, with desperate devotion. The threadbare ranks of the German resistance had as many music lovers as the entire upper echelon of the Nazi Party. Hans von Dohnányi, one of those who plotted against Hitler, was the son of the composer Ernst von Dohnányi and the father of the future conductor Christoph von Dohnányi; he, too, listened to Beethoven as he dreamed.
Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” tells the true story of the Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was saved from certain death by an anti-Nazi Wehrmacht officer named Wilm Hosenfeld. As Szpilman plays Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor for his enemy, each man seems to save the other. What this magnificent movie suggests is that music was in the end a neutral ground—another of the compromised geographies on which the Second World War was fought. Today, younger composers can avail themselves of Wagner and Strauss without any sense that they are treading on forbidden territory.
Except in Germany: there a deep mistrust of the musical past lingers. After Auschwitz, the thinking goes, the comfort of C major is taboo. The entire classical and Romantic tradition remains roped off, like a crime scene under investigation. Spending time in Berlin last fall, I noticed how often Nazism was invoked in artistic matters—not as history but as a negative example for contemporary style. I heard an architectural guide condemn one of the new buildings in Potsdamer Platz for having too many right angles, and thereby reviving a totalitarian aesthetic. Much the same critique extends to new music that uses too many major and minor chords: even a few of these are liable to raise suspicions of neo-fascist kitsch. It is understandable that such extreme attitudes took hold immediately after the war, when Germany felt the need to wipe the slate clean and build anew. But why are they so pervasive five decades later? Why do German composers still fetishize dissonance and make a virtue of the ugly? This overweening self-denial has become absurd, and has contributed to the widespread perception that German music came to a sudden end with the death of Richard Strauss, in 1949.
“After Auschwitz” is the signature slogan of the philosopher, sociologist, music critic, sometime composer, and all-around conversation-stopper Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, who, more than thirty years after his death, still reigns as the godfather of German musical thought. There is no better way to understand what has happened to German music than to spend a little time in Adorno’s world. For most American readers, he is an obscure bogeyman of post-Marxist social theory, the author of such impenetrable tomes as “Negative Dialectics.” Readers of Thomas Mann know him as the musical expert who furnished material for “Doctor Faustus,” including a large chunk of the Devil’s disquisitions. In Germany, however, Adorno is an intellectual folk hero, a symbol even to those who have never tried to read him. Perhaps the principal source of his authority is the fact that, as a German of partly Jewish descent in American exile, he recognized, as early as the autumn of 1944, the enormity of what was happening in the death camps. Adorno thus became the prophet of a modern Germany obsessed with understanding its past. Next September 11th is the centennial of his birth (how like Adorno to be born on that day), and one learns from a recent full-page feuilleton on the philosopher in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that no fewer than four biographies are on the way—a generous spotlight to shine on a man who lived life almost exclusively inside his own cranium. Readers can content themselves in the current season with a seven-hundred-and-forty-three-page compendium of Adorno’s writings entitled “Essays on Music” (California).
I studied Adorno in college, at a time when it seemed provocative to read books about Charles Manson and listen to rock bands that sounded like coffee grinders. My post-adolescent mind thrilled to the opulent negativity of Adorno’s proclamations, some of which I can still recite off the top of my head: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” “The whole is the false.” Adorno is the dark prince of intellectual life—the connoisseur of the dense, the difficult, the dire. He never met an apocalypse he didn’t like. But he is not quite as solemn as he seems; he can be hilariously bitchy. Here he is on the nascent American gym culture of the forties: “The very people who burst with proofs of exuberant vitality could easily be taken for prepared corpses, from whom the news of their not-quite-successful decease has been withheld for reasons of population policy.” On young left-wing intellectuals: “To see them as renegades is to assess them too high; they mask mediocre faces with horn-rimmed spectacles betokening ‘brilliance,’ though with plain-glass lenses, solely in order to better themselves in their own eyes and in the general rat-race.” Adorno’s sentences twist around like scorpions to deliver a valedictory sting.
It is easy to see why Adorno has proved so durable in Germany, which, having exhumed its own past, now wishes to confess the sins of the rest of the world. When Adorno lived in America, from 1938 to 1949, he advanced the now familiar argument—practically printed on the menus of European cafés—that American culture was fascism with a happy face. Corporate capitalism, Adorno said, was turning human beings into twitching drones, though its methods were subtle enough to conceal from almost everyone the barbed wire at the edges of the theme park. Notorious among his writings were his musings on jazz, in which he tried to find a sinister, quasi-fascistic energy in collective improvisation and jitterbug dancing. Richard Leppert, the editor of “Essays on Music,” bravely defends these tirades; he wishes us to believe that Adorno was attacking not authentic African-American composers such as Duke Ellington but white jazzmen like Paul Whiteman—those who appropriated the original “hot music.” Indeed, when Adorno described thirties-era popular music as a “confusing parody of colonial imperialism,” he was on to something. But if he had any positive feelings about the work of black musicians he failed to put them down on paper. The only jazzman named in the essay “On Jazz” is Ellington.
Adorno’s generalizations are sometimes so brazenly sweeping as to make you want to throw his books against the wall. Here is a choice pronunciamento from his New York period: “It is highly doubtful if the boy in the subway whistling the main theme of the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony actually has been gripped by that music.” I think police records would show that the last boy to whistle Brahms on the subway was beaten to a pulp in the seventies. “When people dance to jazz, they do not dance for sensuous pleasure or in order to obtain release,” he says, in another essay. “Rather they merely depict the gestures of sensuous human beings.” This is the place to mention that Adorno, despite his mousy appearance, was reputed to have been an excellent dancer. Implicit in his assault on mass culture is the belief that any work of art that attracts large numbers of people has no value. This applies not just to popular music but also to classical music that has reached a wide audience. Adorno was never so ferocious as when writing about Arturo Toscanini, whose concerts on NBC radio attracted millions of listeners. Adorno was convinced that Toscanini’s fans, like the boy in the subway, were too stupid—“retarded” was the word he used—to grasp the music of the Masters: “The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert.” A footnote is called for: in 1938, when Adorno wrote these words, tickets to Toscanini’s NBC concerts in Studio 8H were free.
Still, some of these poison darts hit their target. Adorno was certainly right when he said that radio broadcasts of classical music flattened its dynamic extremes and muted its colors, robbing it of passion and danger; today’s soporific all-Pachelbel stations vindicate his critique. Pop-music scholars, for their part, stop short of dismissing Adorno out of hand and, indeed, routinely rejigger his aesthetics to serve their own ends. Greil Marcus, in his book “Lipstick Traces,” ingeniously conscripted Adorno into the subversive élite of punk rock. It seems that almost everyone believes that ninety per cent of music is junk; we just can’t agree on what constitutes the remaining ten per cent. Adorno is to be admired for lustily defending his chosen fraction—he was a snob of deep conviction. Despite his Marxist trappings, he was really a bourgeois elegist, a prose poet singing of lost childhood realms. The son of a Frankfurt wine merchant, he was born into the last flowering of bourgeois culture, and he never came to terms with its overnight demise.
Tragically, Adorno was himself a victim of the shock tactics of pop culture. In April, 1969, a group of female activists interrupted his lecture “An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking” by flashing their breasts in his face and taunting him with flowers. He died a few months later, on August 6, 1969. It was twenty-four years to the day after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima.
A composer of no small ability, and no large ability, either, Adorno studied in the nineteen-twenties with Alban Berg, Schoenberg’s most gifted pupil. From Berg he absorbed the tenets of Schoenbergian philosophy, which held that music had to strike out into unknown regions in order to stay true to a Wagnerian ideology of progress. Adorno monumentalized Schoenberg’s thought in “The Philosophy of New Music,” published in 1949. This small book gave voice to the iconoclastic mentality of firebrands like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who descended on modern-music gatherings in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen and forged the splintered sounds of the avant-garde. The “Philosophy,” which still awaits a decent translation, argues that music must expunge all familiar sounds and conventional notions of the beautiful. In a world of triumphant kitsch, composition can justify its survival only by becoming a mirror image of physical and spiritual destruction. Adorno sounds a call to arms for those who wish to ride off into the sunset of avant-garde obscurity:
[Modern music] has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. All its happiness comes in the perception of misery; all its beauty comes in the rejection of beauty’s illusion. Neither the individual nor the collective wants to have any part of it. It dies away unheard, without echo. When music is heard, it is shot through with time, like a shining crystal; unheard music drops into empty space like a rotten bullet. New music spontaneously takes aim at that final condition which mechanical music lives out hour by hour—the condition of absolute oblivion.
Such writing suggests the psychological state of one who has been deeply hurt by rejection, and who wishes to burn all bridges of reconciliation. It is the cry of a music lover who came into a world ruled by Mahler and Strauss, and lived into the time of Sinatra and the Beatles.
The “Philosophy” falls into two main sections, one devoted to the music of Schoenberg and the other to the music of Stravinsky. Schoenberg stood for the truth, for seeing the terror of the world as it was. Stravinsky, who, at the time of the “Philosophy,” was still working in the neoclassical mode, stood for falsehood and regression. There was, of course, something fascistic about Stravinsky. Adorno did not base this argument on the fact that Stravinsky himself voiced sympathy for Mussolini in the nineteen-thirties; instead, he felt that a Fascist mentality was ingrained in the music, simply in its reassertion of tonality after Schoenberg’s putative annihilation of it. Repeated readings of the “Philosophy” fail to disclose exactly which parts of a radiantly beautiful work like “Symphony of Psalms” display the authoritarian personality, but the argument goes something like this: Even though tonality has become irrational, Stravinsky forces it to remain in place, and mesmerizes his audience into accepting the unacceptable. Merely by choosing to write in the key of A minor, Stravinsky is acting like you-know-who. Adorno concludes, a little mysteriously, “The statement attributed to Hitler, that a man could die only for an idea that he does not understand, would be a good inscription for the gate of the neoclassical temple.”
A writer who throws bombs of this kind should be very sure of his own ground. Adorno was not quite safe, in several ways. He came late to an affirmation of his Jewish roots, and his correspondence with Alban Berg contains moments of anti-Semitism. In 1933, Adorno advised his teacher not to feel solidarity with a Jewishness “about which one can ultimately have few illusions”; and he suggested that Berg publicize his pure Aryan ancestry to the Reich Music Chamber, whose president was Richard Strauss. There are eerie moments when the agendas of Adorno and Hitler coincide. A 1933 essay entitled “Farewell to Jazz” begins by noting that radio broadcasts of jazz have been banned in Nazi Germany, and goes on to say, in so many words, “Good riddance.” Interesting, too, is the way Adorno denounced the Weimar-era musical “Das Dreimäderlhaus” for abusing the sacred melodies of Schubert; Hitler made the same point in a speech of 1929.
Adorno’s subsequent thunderings about Auschwitz have a self-corrective aspect, as if he were making up for years of not quite looking evil in the face. Some skeptical commentators argue that he continued to promote a nationalist musical agenda, excoriating almost all composers who were not German or Austrian. It could be said that Adorno used the Holocaust a little too freely, a little too superciliously, as a way of escalating aesthetic battles that predated Hitler’s rise to power. The phrase “after Auschwitz” sometimes comes crashing down like the sixteen-ton weight that ends certain Monty Python skits.
In 1949, it worked: “The Philosophy of New Music” wowed the confused young minds who were seeking new certitudes, new laws, new gods. Adorno, together with his comrade-in-arms Boulez, probably succeeded in frightening more than a few composers of the neoclassical type into thinking that their music was not just bad but criminal. It is instructive to look at the names of works that were played at Darmstadt from 1946 on. In the first few years, you see titles such as Sonatine, Suite for Piano, Chamber Symphony, Scherzo, and Concerto in E Flat. After 1949, the year of the “Philosophy,” neoclassical titles dwindle and are replaced by phrases fit for a “Star Trek” episode: “Music in Two Dimensions,” “Schipot,” “Polyphonie X,” “Syntaxis,” “Anepigraphe.” There was a fad for abstractions in the plural: “Perspectives,” “Structures,” “Quantities,” “Configurations,” “Interpolations.” Audiences enjoyed “Spectogram,” “Seismogramme,” “Audiogramme,” and “Sphenogramme.” Emblematic was the career of the minor composer Hermann Heiss, who, back in the Nazi regime, had written a “Fighter Pilot March.” At the first Darmstadt gathering, in 1946, he was represented by a Sonata for Flute and Piano. In 1956, sensing which way the wind was blowing, he showed up with “Expression K.”
Adorno, who taught at Darmstadt for nine summers after his return to Germany, knew well that his beloved ideology of progress was yielding mixed results. To his credit, he subjected the modernism of his day to the same withering critique that he applied to Stravinsky and jazz. The saving grace of his writing, aside from its sheer tortured elegance, is that it often veers in unpredictable directions; one would expect no less from a man who in his student years was planning an opera about Tom Sawyer. The dirty secret of “The Philosophy of New Music” is that, even as it savages Stravinsky, it picks away at Schoenberg; this, perhaps, is the reason that Schoenberg instructed his wife, Gertrud, to keep Adorno away from his manuscripts. The twelve-tone method, Adorno said, tends to turn out same-sounding, de-individuated products, insidiously reflecting the mass-culture marketplace. The 1955 essay “The Aging of the New Music”—one of the highlights of “Essays on Music”—dissects the “sectarianism” and “academicism” of the new-music scene, the “cheapness of being daring,” the fetishism of elaborate mathematical processes, the fascination with weird sound materials undigested by compositional logic, and so on. Leading composers, he says, “never get farther than abstract negation, and take off on an empty, high-spirited trip, through thinkably complex scores, in which nothing actually occurs.” Music had passed the limit of what the ear could handle; one young composer at Darmstadt was said to be writing “the craziest gibberish” and “purest nonsense.”
No doubt; but how was it given to Adorno to determine when and where the avant-garde had finally devolved into gibberish? Many would say that that point had arrived some time earlier. Like so many critics before him, Adorno jumped off the merry-go-round of progress and threw up his hands at the lunacy of the young. Indeed, in his later writings he seemed on the point of saying that a basic mistake might have been made somewhere along the line. “There is a possibility of reopening the question of harmony,” he allowed. “Composite sounds may gain a specific significance again.” Chords? Exciting! But he could not follow up on that tentative lead. Instead, the “negative” in “negative dialectics” really kicked into gear. Rather than move from one extreme to another, in dialectical mode, Adorno stopped in his tracks and sank into despair. There was no way, he said, to bring back the old chords. It would deny history; it would be an exercise in nostalgia—or, worse, a “positive lie.” Better to contemplate the possibility of music’s falling silent altogether. In his last book, “Aesthetic Theory,” he wrote, “A latecomer among the arts, great music may well turn out to be an art form that was possible only during a limited period of human history.”
This was the point at which Adorno—together with legions of German musical pundits and pontiffs who followed him—experienced a catastrophic failure of imagination. The claim that tonality had permanently disintegrated was arbitrary and without intellectual foundation; not even Schoenberg could endorse it in the end. The attempt to trash a masterpiece like “Symphony of Psalms” causes a visible strain; you don’t believe that Adorno believes it. Much of his social history was bunk, too. He could not see that music had been commercialized before radio came along—that it was chopped to bits and consumed en masse even in the golden age of Mozart and Beethoven. The entire theory rests on the assumption that the twentieth century was a time of unprecedented suffering, which required radical new languages in art. If history and art obeyed such a tidy, tit-for-tat dynamic, then Italian painting after the Black Death, to take one of many possible counterexamples, would become inexplicable. The insistence on the traumatic uniqueness of one’s individual moment is the mark of an immature mind; it is not so far removed from the rage of the teen-ager who runs up to his room and blasts Eminem from behind a locked door.
Last October, the Berlin Festival presented a concert of works by the twenty-eight-year-old Johannes Maria Staud, who is evidently a rising star in German music. The event took place in the chamber hall of the Philharmonie, and drew a small but avid crowd. The pre-concert chatter around me—from students in T-shirts and camouflage pants—promised some kind of display of youthful renewal. But the titles in the program—“Incipit,” “Configurations/ Reflet,” “perhaps at first really only”—produced that familiar sinking feeling. Staud is a gifted, even brilliant composer; his works were finely crafted, clearly instrumented, charged with energy and humor. The rhythmic writing even sounded a bit pop, with thwacks of bass drum and splashes of hi-hat thrown in. All the same, to quote Beckett, the sun shone on the nothing new. The music had an antique flavor—the flavor of the fifties, of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, of university research and Cold War worry, of men in short-sleeved button-down shirts and thick black glasses writing on chalkboards. Even the popular gestures recalled the fifties—bebop jazz and early rock and roll. It amazed me that this music was composed by someone born in 1974.
In America, England, Russia, and Scandinavia, among other places, composers have embraced a vast diversity of approaches to the problem of how to write classical music in the twenty-first century. Minimalism arrived decades ago; C major is back. Manifestos and theorizing have fallen out of vogue; composers are more likely to let their music speak for itself, or cite an image or story that inspired them. In Germany, however, dyspeptic complexity of the Adornian variety still holds sway. Everyone is writing fragments of sketches of pieces. Works are accompanied by notes that take longer to read than the music takes to play. Parodies of Adorno-ese proliferate. The gnarled art of the young Olga Neuwirth is said to be “running away from itself”; it is “a running away and a staying at the same time, in the passing of time, which is, however, no healing ointment.” Notions of melody and harmony are verboten. Georg Friedrich Haas, the composer of a piece entitled “. . . .,” says, in one program note, “I would like to avoid using the term ‘theme.’ “ Sometimes composers allude in their works to the canonical repertory or parody a certain kind of Romantic phrase, but these Zitate, or citations, last for no more than a few seconds. They are marched in and out of the music as if under armed guard, with terrified looks on their faces.
Forty years ago, the big man in German music was Stockhausen, who unveiled revolutionary-sounding paradigms in almost every festival season. Stockhausen is still around, but is no longer taken very seriously, even though he plugs away on his mammoth days-of-the-week opera cycle, “Licht” (the last part, “Sunday,” will be ready in 2005). The current “great man” is a sixty-seven-year-old experimentalist named Helmut Lachenmann, who, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, specializes in “the exploitation of loud and unconventional sounds more in the nature of noise, of the kind generally suppressed in traditional instrumental performance.” Curious readers are referred to supplementary writings such as “Helmut Lachenmann’s Concept of Rejection” and “Moments of Irritation.” The composer states, “My music has been concerned with rigidly constructed denial, with the exclusion of what appears to me as listening expectations performed by society.” Although Lachenmann has attacked Adorno as a “naïve Romantic,” he honors the Master’s spirit. There is no denying Lachenmann’s virtuosity; he is able to arrange the unlikeliest assortment of sounds—flutes blown at the wrong end, cellos bowed in places other than the strings, paper crinkled, sheet metal banged with rods—into an intermittently gripping narrative. His most formidable achievement is the opera “The Little Match Girl,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the child who freezes to death on New Year’s Eve after lighting matches to keep herself warm. The Andersen tale is interwoven with quotations from Leonardo da Vinci and from the leftist radical Gudrun Ensslin, one of the Baader-Meinhof gang, who was jailed for firebombing two Frankfurt department stores. She wrote, “Criminal, madman, and suicide. . . . Their criminality, their madness, their death express the revolt of the destroyed against his destruction.” A surefire holiday favorite.
A key concept in the Lachenmannian Weltanschauung is contamination. The commentator in New Grove writes, “Lachenmann has repeatedly emphasized the novelty and uncontaminated aspect of his sound worlds.” In case we missed the point, we also hear of “sonorities which had remained unused and hence uncontaminated in the past”; of sounds “not yet devalued by excessive use”; of “aesthetic experience largely undistorted by habit.” This thinking is of a piece with Adorno’s potshots at Toscanini, and goes back to Schoenberg’s epic epigram “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” The notion that popularity destroys the purity of art is so cherished in German-speaking lands—and, it should be said, on American college campuses—that it takes on the solidity of religious belief. One may as well try to argue with the men ranting in Times Square. But the fact is that mass culture has co-opted the weird sounds of the avant-garde as thoroughly as it has the splashy chords of Romanticism. Every variety of dissonance, microtonal writing, and unpitched noise has been used in a hundred horror movies and suspense thrillers. And there is something creepy about the talk of “contamination” and “taint.” It is redolent of turn-of-the-century pseudoscientific textbooks about the invasion of German culture by alien bodies. At the very least, Hitler still casts a mysterious spell over the music scene: the project of writing according to his likes and dislikes gives him a power that should long ago have been denied.
Reading between the lines of Adorno’s brilliant, maddening books, I suspect that he knew exactly what had gone wrong in German music but could not bring himself to admit it. He might have put it this way: The pure is the false. The aesthetic of rejection will always depend on the music it excludes. Continuously present in atonal music is the C-major triad that the composer scans his pitch charts to avoid. The attempt to abolish kitsch produces kitsch of a higher absurdity—an overebullient marketplace devoid of consumers. Filling the empty seats at correctly subversive new-music concerts are the laughing ghosts of a formerly outraged bourgeoisie that died out long before today’s radical star was born. This scorched-earth music yearns for Hitler’s hate; in some inverted way, it still salutes the Führer, by fanatically disobeying his orders.
German music is not entirely a wasteland of modernist conceits. A few composers have escaped the cul-de-sac of theory and have written works of immediate sensual appeal. One is Wilhelm Killmayer, a seventy-five-year-old minor master whose music is almost entirely unknown in this country. Without resorting to pastiche, Killmayer has found a kind of secret doorway to the Romantic tradition of Schubert and Schumann; his “Heine-Lieder,” newly recorded on the CPO label, show an electric connection between word and music. Hans Werner Henze, who fled Germany for Italy in the fifties, maintains his independence from musical dogma. Wolfgang Rihm veers between the high-modernist and neo-Romantic camps, and, in his more generous moods, writes with real expressive force.
Totally different in orientation is Helmut Oehring, the composer of “Lethal Injection,” “Suck the Brain Out of the Head,” and “Do You Wanna Blow Job.” At times earsplittingly cacophonous, at times charged with an astonishing rhythmic energy, Oehring’s music communicates a kind of savage joy; one two-minute stretch in his piece “Self-Liberator” could go over big on the dance floor of the Roxy. Another German maverick is Heiner Goebbels, whose multimedia works run rampant over all available styles, literary sources, and theatrical techniques. This month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting a Goebbels piece entitled “Hashirigaki,” which is described as a synthesis of Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans” and the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds.”
The German scene will surely change in coming years, now that government and state subsidies for the arts are shrinking. Since the late forties, composers have sustained themselves on radio commissions, teaching assignments, festival appearances, and other institutional appointments. This arrangement goes back to the days of the American occupation, when, in the interest of detaching young composers from the Nazi past, the musical operatives of the Information Control Division—an outgrowth of General Robert McClure’s Psychological Warfare Division—encouraged the propagation of what one internal memo described as “modern music of the international repertory.” To this end, Darmstadt received in 1949 a grant of eight thousand Deutsche marks from American “reorientation” funds. Irony of ironies: the holy ground on which Adorno withstood the onslaught of mass culture was, in its own small way, part of the military-industrial complex.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, no impregnable high-culture fortresses remain. If composers are to survive, they must learn the art of compromise. They might bear in mind the instruction that Leopold Mozart gave to his son: every work should have in it something for the connoisseurs and something for the people. It is a simple, even naïve-sounding principle, yet an entire majestic tradition rests upon it. “Be embraced, you millions”: the exultant shout of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was, among other things, a statement of heated personal ambition.
One of the abiding myths of musical modernism is that the great masters were rejected by audiences of their time. The history behind these claims is specious—Bach won respect wherever he worked; Mozart thrived as much as he struggled; Beethoven became a living god—and the logic is inane: from the fact that great music was rejected it does not follow that rejected music is great. Certainly, a piece such as Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 130, with its dissonant fugal finale, caused difficulties for its early listeners. “Incomprehensible, like Chinese,” a critic said. The telling thing, however, is what Beethoven did in response to the criticism. He did not say, “Silence, retarded masses! This work displays the inherent tendency of the material and cannot be altered! Perhaps you will understand it in a hundred years; perhaps never. It is your problem.” No, he took note of what a few aristocratic dilettantes had to say and wrote a new, lighter-toned finale to replace the Great Fugue. Beethoven, the god at the center of the musical pantheon, compromised.
Was this the tragedy of an unemancipated genius, as Schoenberg claimed? Or was it of a piece with the composer’s greatness? As Lewis Lockwood notes, in a recent biography, Beethoven lavished care on his new finale, using it to create a quite different trajectory for the work. It was the last thing he ever wrote. Even though he was almost completely deaf, and had only a few months to live, Beethoven was listening to his audience. ♦