When a friend sent me a YouTube video of Helmut Lachenmann’s newest piece, “Marche fatale” for orchestra, I texted him back asking, “Holy shit, is this a joke?” The eminent German, who writes noisy works of intimidating craft and intelligence, who has probably single-handedly invented more new instrumental sounds than anyone in music history, had composed a tonal march with a catchy tune and a musical fart joke; the white-bearded intellectual famous for deconstructing the classical repertoire through instrumental techniques of incomparable refinement had written a cousin to the ultimate cartoon music, Johann Strauss the Elder’s “Radetzky March.”
Online, the reaction to Lachenmann’s piece can be summed up briefly: “What?!?” He is, particularly to U.S.-based avant-garde composers struggling against the tide of bland post-minimalism, something of an icon: hence the red t-shirts of Lachenmann as Che Guevara, and the Helmut Hard Core Total Devotion Group on Facebook. It’s not necessarily that his fans sensed betrayal; more that they felt they needed to know the reason behind the “Marche fatale”—because with Lachenmann there is always a reason. But this time, there was no guessing what that might be.
I asked Lachenmann how people had reacted to “Marche fatale” after the premiere:
I don’t know if that’s really important. Besides, who is “people”? My kids, my accountant, my doctor, the person in the audience sitting next to me? Of course I experience a lot of pleasantries that vary in honesty….But I’m glad that the orchestra enjoyed playing it and did so with so much verve. Who says to a composer that the music disappointed, confused, or repelled him? (On YouTube at least someone wrote, “Shocking!”)
The first time I heard Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 1 “Gran Torso,” in 2008 or so, it was also a shocking experience: almost painful in my ears, the music’s radical ingenuity made me feel resentful and irrelevant, like a coal miner in a Trump-voter think piece. “Marche fatale” is shocking in the opposite way. “It’s an imprudent, daring escapade, it might confuse my listeners more than my earlier pieces—which themselves caused scandals at their premieres before being accepted,” Lachenmann wrote in his program note to “Marche fatale.” The musical language is unfamiliar in Lachenmann’s oeuvre, but the sensation of being completely unmoored is not.
Lachenmann’s work has always been deeply concerned with the implications of music history. While his “Accanto” for clarinet, orchestra and tape refers to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with “veneration and anguished love,” he situates the “Marche fatale” within a kind of alternative Canon of the Banal: Mozart’s “A Musical Joke,” Beethoven’s Bagatelles Op. 119, Kagel’s “10 Märsche um den Sieg zu verfehlen,” Ligeti’s “Hungarian Rock,” and Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka,” which transfigures a Schubert military march for piano four hands. But Lachenmann is obsessed with history—it would never occur to him to do a piece, even a bitterly satirical one like the “Marche fatale,” badly. When I asked him if his tonal writing had gotten rusty with years of molecular-level focus on instrument timbre, he answered:
You aren’t familiar with my “Sakura Variations” in C Minor or my “Variations on a Schubert Waltz” in C-sharp Minor. A composer who doesn’t search for his own path through historical composition, music theory, and instrumentation practice is a dilettante. He should just give up.
As he points out, the “Marche fatale” is more of a typical Lachenmann work than it might seem at first listen in this sense too. The “Schubert Variations” use more atonal—in this context, more familiar—sonorities, but share an interest in deconstructing gesture with the “Marche fatale.” For example, the “Schubert Variations” take an accented, accompanying right-hand motive and exaggerate them, in Variation II and later, into something more decisive, martial and therefore perverse. In “Marche fatale,” the absurdity and “banality” of marching music comes into focus as well. “Is a march, with its forcing of the collective into a martial or celebratory mood, a priori ridiculous?” asks Lachenmann. “Is it even ‘music?’ Can one march and listen at the same time?” Whether his pieces are gorgeously noisy or gratingly tonal, Lachenmann wants to ask serious questions with them.
I laughed at moments in “Marche fatale,” and funny art can doubtlessly pose deep questions about the human condition. But in the work, Lachenmann makes a distinction between humor and what he calls Heiterkeit—cheerfulness or, better, liveliness. Humor and liveliness have little to do with one another, he writes. The distinction lies in a kind of latent danger that the German word connotes: “At some point I decided to take ‘ridiculousness’ as the revealing characteristic of our civilization, as it sits at the edge of the abyss, seriously—perhaps even with bitter seriousness. The unstoppable journey to the black hole, its crippling evil: ‘Things are bound to get lively,’” Lachenmann writes.
He added in his email to me:
Daily life is full of pettiness. Humor, God knows, can help with that—maybe it’s even essential. In music, and while composing, I care as little about [humor] as a cook would care about it while he’s making his food or a surgeon while he’s operating on a patient. Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to laugh sometimes—not just in rehearsal—at the mischief I made. But I can’t help someone who can’t distinguish between humor and liveliness in any case. Politicians like to say that “the situation is serious, but not hopeless.” Not I—a composer should refrain from speaking—but my “Marche” says: “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.”
This is the decisive characteristic that makes the “Marche fatale” a typical Lachenmann piece below the sonic surface. Maybe even an archetypical piece. Listen to it again: Doesn’t it start to sound less funny and more apocalyptic? Instead of a march up the mountain, a march down to hell? “How could this happen?” Lachenmann asks in his program note, with “this” meaning the piece itself. It could happen because even a tonal march can be suffused with the irreducible elements of Lachenmann’s style: knowledge, care, irony, bitterness, and fear for the future. ¶