Schoeck's Penthesilea

By Palmer, Peter | Musical Times, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Schoeck's Penthesilea

Palmer, Peter, Musical Times

WHILE YET TO BE STAGED outside the German-speaking world, Otiimar Schoeck's music-drama Penthesilea was relayed by the European Broadcasting Union from Salzburg in 1984." The work had its premiere at the Dresden State Opera on 8 January 1927. Five years later it was revived in Zurich and favourably reviewed by such leading critics as Alfred Einstein and Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt. Schoeck's friend and colleague Ernst Krenek referred to it as a timeless creation and as Schoeck's finest work. Penthesilea made a lasting impression on the composer's younger Swiss compatriot Rolf Liebermann. It is possible to see late traces of a Schoeckian influence in the scoring of Liebermann's Freispruch für Medea, first staged in 1995.

In writing his Penthesilea drama, Heinrich von Kleist is said to have been influenced by the frescoes that the Baroque artist Tiepolo executed in Würzburg. In turn, Kleist 's drama has been a source of fascination for later artists and composers. Oskar Kokoschka, Schoeck's exact contemporary, produced a set of Penthesilea drawings. Before the Second World War Leni Riefenstahl planned a film with herself as the Amazon queen. In 1982 Hans Neuenfels made the film Heinrich Penthesilia von Kleist, with music by Heiner Goebbels. More recently, Joel Agée 's new American translation of Penthesilea has been memorably illustrated by Maurice Sendak. And 2001 saw the premiere in Vienna of Christian Ofenbauer's post-modernist opera SienePenthesileaEin Traum.

Although published in 1808, Kleist 's Penthesilea did not receive a public performance of any kind until the 1870s. It was not until towards the close of the 20th century that the play (drastically modified) was first staged in Britain. On that occasion the critic John Barber remarked in the Daily Telegraph that the violence of the clash between male and female could only have been realised by a playwright tortured by the irreconcilable drives and cravings of the individual soul.

The modernity of Heinrich von Kleist has been admirably summarised by George Steiner. Kleist saw human affairs 'in the sharp but unsteady light of the extreme. [...] The action proceeds in fitful brightness, as if a torch had suddenly been raised behind the characters and then put out.'2 In nearly all Kleist 's dramas there are telling episodes of sleep or unconsciousness, representing a transition from one level of reality to another. 'With Kleist that characteristically modern insight into the plurality of individual consciousness is given dramatic expression.' Hence Penthesilea goes well beyond the analogous Sárka texts that occupied Fibich and the young Janácek at the end of the 19th century.

Steiner compares the form of Penthesilea to a murderous sword-dance. When the warrior-queen sees Achilles, he writes, her desire transcends the erotic. 'It is an obsession with the absolute such as we find in the narratives of Poe and Balzac.'3 Similarly, FJ Lamport refers to 'an ideal love of such terrible, incandescent beauty that it cannot but scorch and destroy creatures of mere flesh and blood'.4 In a letter Kleist described the play as containing his innermost being, in all its dirt ('Schmutz') and its radiance ('Glanz'). Some commentators believe that 'Schmutz' was a slip of the pen for 'Schmerz' ('pain'); others maintain that it was precisely what Kleist meant.

Goethe saw seeds of decadence in Kleist 's Penthesilea; Steiner describes it as exalted grand guignol.5 With its near-cannibalistic climax, the tragedy reflects a strain of hysteria which underlies the whole Romantic era in literature, from the Gothic novel to Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Richard Strauss's version of Wilde's play, first staged in 1905, transferred this strain to the opera house. Meanwhile the exploration of dream-states had been musicalised by Debussy in his setting of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. Another work featuring the same thematic complex is Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's castle (19 11).

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