Magazine article Musical Times

Songs of Exile

Magazine article Musical Times

Songs of Exile

Article excerpt

Hans Werner Hen^e: Tristan (1973)

Stephen Downes

Landmarks in Music Since 1950

Ashgate (Farnham, 201 1); xiv, i42pp; £35, $69.95 (CD included), isbn 978 o 7546 6655 4.

György Ligen: of foreign lands and strange sounds

Edited by Louise Duchesneau & Wolfgang Marx

The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 201 1); xxii, 298pp; £45, $80. isbn 978 1 84383 550 9.

Ligeti 's laments: nostalgia, exoticism, and the absolute

Amy Bauer

Ashgate (Farnham, 2011); xviii, 234PP; £55, $99.95. isbn 978 1 4094 0041 7.

Few composers born in the 20th century have been more resourceful than Hans Werner Henze in attempting to match Benjamin Britten's genius for reshaping the operatic genre in terms of those very traditions that were continuing to provide most opera-goers after 1945 with all the material they needed. As a long-term resident of Italy, Henze might have been expected, again like Britten, to find sustenance in aspects of Verdian style and structure. But the depths of Henze 's Germanic roots are never more apparent than in his exasperated, hyper-ambivalent response to the ultra-protean Wagner.

Whether or not Henze 's operas (which often set German texts) amount to a constructive counterbalance to a post-war German cultural context deeply tainted by Wagner's social and political Nachlass, his most direct confrontation with Wagner's musical ethos came at a crucial time in his own compositional evolution: and so, though rarely performed since its completion in 1973, his Tristan, Preludes for piano, electronic tapes and orchestra, is a historical document of sufficient interest to warrant its inclusion in Ashgate 's intrepid Landmarks in Music Since 1950 series. It could even be the case that it was only after he had begun to move away from his own most intensively post-romantic and Germanic inspirations, in the prolific outpouring of dramatic music which culminated in The Bassarids (1964-65), that Henze achieved sufficient detachment, and sufficient political determination, to confront Wagner, and less in the manner of a neo-Mahlerian symphonic extravaganza than by way of a late-modernist assemblage that might be interpreted more as a riposte to Stockhausen 's views on the combined role of electronics and psychologically-grounded rituals in contemporary composition than as an attempt to reconstruct Wagner for the 1970s. At the same time as Pierre Boulez (who first conducted Tristan and Parsifal in the 1960s) began his highly allusive transmutation of Wagnerian values with Rituel in memoriam Moderna (1974-75), Henze opted for a more confrontational, explicitly referential memorial. If we take Henze 's own word for it, the result is generically multiple but, most fundamentally, exorcism as lament. Instead of Boulez's lofty sense of distance from Wagner, Henze in Tristan offers a fight to the finish which risks descent into wholesale melodrama as if in the belief that no reference to or recontextualisation of Wagner's actual Tristan und Isolde can be more extravagant or more primitively insistent than Wagner's own music.

In tackling this absorbingly accessible subject, Stephen Downes places a 30-page discussion of Henze's relatively brief composition (provided on the usual accompanying CD), with particular reference to those 'sketches and compositional materials' available in the Sacher Stiftung, in a contextual framework more than three times as long. These proportions enable Downes to continue the exploration of the kind of cross-currents between different phases of musical history which he offered in his recent book, Music and decadence in European modernism: the case of central and eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2010); and although the effect risks allowing the impact of Wagner in general and his own Tristan in particular to overshadow the interpretation of Henze's composition in the context of his wider musico-dramatic output, it is for the most part efficiently done, with a wide a range of reference that doesn't give undue weight to those more extravagant, Lacan-obsessed avatars of contemporary culture than attract so much attention from impact-seeking musicologists today. …

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