If there was ever a case for establishing a middle ground between separating the art from the artist and not, it’s Othmar Schoeck. Born in 1886 by the shores of Lake Lucerne, Schoeck found himself in the unfortunate position of being a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic working in a world that was trending inexorably towards the modern (for context, Berg was born in 1885 and Stravinsky in 1882). The son of a landscape painter, Schoeck preferred to live in the lush vistas of Strauss and Wolf, and continually dug his heels into that style.
Despite his Swiss nationality and an apparent disdain for National Socialism, Schoeck’s musical style—rooted in an affinity for the German language—made him a flame for the Third Reich. Or, rather, he himself was a moth attracted to the flames of success, any success, in a world predisposed to atonal intellectualism over plush modernism. In 1937, he accepted the Erwin von Steinbach Prize—for the preservation of the “Alemannic folklore”—from Freiburg University, deflecting criticism by saying: “As a Swissman, I’m neutral.” In 1943, he gave the premiere of his final opera, “Das Schloss Dürande,” to the Berlin Staatsoper, working with Nazi-supporting poet Hermann Burte as librettist.
Unfortunately, between the beginning of work on the opera and its subsequent premiere, the writing on the wall was becoming clearer for the Third Reich, and some of the elements of the plot (based on a Romantic novella) became seen as metaphors for the regime’s downfall. Hermann Goering called the work “horseshit” and canceled the run after four performances. The work’s debut in Zurich was also a failure, though more because audiences had yet to forgive Schoeck for trading ethics for ego. The following year, after lingering in a deep depression, Schoeck suffered a heart attack, the effects of which hovered over the last 13 years of his life. He was easily relegated to the dustbin of history after his death, regarded as a composer short on ideals and ideas.
It’s hard not to superimpose this history over Schoeck’s works, even those written long before the rise of Hitler. Yet, in a sense, this heightens their impact rather than diminishing them. Hearing “Elegie,” a 24-song cycle of Nikolaus Lenau and Joseph von Eichendorff settings, is a bit like watching John Adams’s “Nixon in China”: We know what happens to the figures after the conclusion of the work, which remains mostly unspoken in the moment, and that provides the truly operatic dimension. Likewise, we know what will happen to Schoeck in the decades to follow this 1922 song cycle; in an extra bit of foreshadowing, Eichendorff’s novella was even the source material for the ill-fated “Schloss Dürande.”
Listening, then, to baritone Christian Gerhaher’s new recording of “Elegie” becomes even more haunting and haunted than is indicated in the score—not that Schoeck skimps on the unsettling and crepuscular in his works. Despite his wistfulness for a bygone era (it’s not hard to imagine Schoeck taking rooms at the Grand Budapest Hotel in pursuit of Stefan Zweig’s world of yesterday), he still works in the unsettling tenterhook intervals of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” at times painting with the same bitonal palette Strauss used to set the scene for “Salome.” There’s no narrative woven from the texts, creating an affectation of “no thoughts, just vibes,” though there are some passages of the score that are so exquisite, so perfectly marrying orchestra and voice, that those vibes are more than enough.
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Interviewing the German-born baritone for VAN a few years ago, Tobias Ruderer wrote, “Sometimes, I think that when he’s talking about music, he’s talking about himself as well.” It’s the sort of layered meaning or double reflection that lends itself well to Gerhaher being the one to champion Schoeck’s works. There’s no merit in fully equating the music to Schoeck’s political opportunism, but there’s also little to be gained from examining one independently from the other. When Gerhaher sings these works, he has one foot in both worlds.
Returning to the Republic of Zubrowka for a moment, I also had Wes Anderson’s 2014 homage to Zweig in mind when hearing about Harrison Birtwistle’s death last week. Having recently heard the film’s main character, Monsieur Gustave, described as “a poet with an overly-filthy mouth,” I realized that was the perfect epigraph for Birtwistle. Take, for instance, a scene where Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave mourns for the death of an octogenarian dowager: “There’s really no point in doing anything in life because it’s all over in the blink of an eye. The next thing you know, rigor mortis sets in. Oh, how the good die young,” he laments in a Rilke-esque cadence. He then adds, “She was dynamite in the sack, by the way.”
Birtwistle toed a similar line. He would have decimated Schoeck with one withering glance of his anti-pastoralist, rebellious tonalities. His works are unsettling, but in a different way—violent, decisive, at times even crass. His Trio for Violin, Cello & Piano, begins as if mid-conversation, thrusting the listener into a landscape that at times calls to mind Stravinsky’s “Adoration of the Earth,” but for the most part leaves the listener in a completely foreign landscape, strangers in a strange land. Still, we can’t help but follow, anxious to see where the narrative leads—but, moreso, anxious to see what is revealed along the way. As Benjamin Poore put it in last week’s Harrison Birtwistle playlist, it’s narration as ritual and repetition. Birtwistle’s Trio ends as suddenly as it begins, offering little in terms of a recap. It’s best to ignore that an ending will ever come and focus on the sounds being pulled taut in the moment. What initially rings as rough becomes shaped into something poetic.
The 2010 Trio opens a portrait recording released earlier this year by longtime Birtwistle partner the Nash Ensemble. Nash’s members dive into the composer’s work with the ferocity and evangelism of old believers. Birtwistle’s Duet for 8 Strings, written for Nashers Adrian Brendel and Lawrence Power, begins almost like “Das Rheingold,” the initial frequencies so subtle and shaded that you have to adjust your listening to pick them up. Rather than revealing the luxurious waves of the river Rhine, however, this duet builds on a single thread of tension, sustaining it for nearly 20 minutes without offering any hope of release. It’s a dialogue that goes everywhere and nowhere, and at times the amount of detail given to Brendel and Power to explore seems more fetishistic than anything else (though I’m not one to kink-shame).
There’s little room for separation or separateness in Birtwistle’s worlds, even though they’re built on a sense of transcendental juxtaposition, if not outright antagonism. There may be conflict, but there’s never a sense of detachment, of overly-intellectualizing sound to the point of creating a sonic circle-jerk. Much like the ancient Greek tragedies he adored, and the cultic mysteries out of which those tragedies emerged, it’s hard to distinguish the self from a collective whole. Which is fine when you remember that Birtwistle considers himself part of that collective, too. ¶
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