Musik in Deutschland 1950-2000: Experimental Music Theatre

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COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
PERFORMER: Various
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 73675 2

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‘Theatre Music’ was bound to be the most tantalising section of this colossal conspectus of German music of the last half-century, compiled by Germany’s Music Council and BMG. Sixteen CDs’ worth of extracts might sketch trends and sum up schools while failing to convey one composer’s feel for the stage. But there are spine-tingling moments: 17 minutes of Detlev Glanert’s Mirror of the Great Emperor (1989-93) build to a shattering climax.

Not surprising, from a pupil of Henze, whose dramatic and melodic gifts also leap from these discs. Like ‘Concert Music’ before it, ‘Theatre Music’ is subdivided into several boxes, with the main strand, ‘Opera’, shared between two. The box of ‘time-slices’ is easily the more recommendable, starting with a flyover of Germany in ruins: Carl Orff is riveting in a reading from the libretto of his Die Bernauerin, but his music is thigh-slappingly awful.

High points of the next six CDs, each covering from five to 15 years, are Henze, madcap but brilliant Kagel, three variously inventive Zimmermanns, Kunad, Trojahn and Glanert: the latter’s setting of an apocalyptic dream, in which a medieval monarch foresees Germany’s defeat in the Great War, dominates Invasion of the Nutters, 1990-96 (I translate, freely).

That CD affords great hope for German opera; laudably but depressingly, it’s followed by two charting the decline of German operetta and musical comedy into sub-American pap – one would have sufficed (with texts, please). The box of ‘portraits’ is less successful than its counterparts in ‘Concert Music’. Two State Operas – Hamburg’s and Berlin’s – are comprehensively profiled – can’t argue with that – as is Munich’s Biennale showcase for young composers, though the four pretentious entries here hardly merit immortality. But I’m not convinced that ‘dramas about artists’ reflects anything deeper about German music theatre than the perennial search for a decent libretto.

And if German children’s opera really is in such a dire state, a discreet silence might have been kinder: 28 minutes of Kurt Schwaen’s tuneless Pinocchio can’t slake the thirst left by just half as much of Kagel’s astonishing Erschöpfung der Welt, a darkly comic upending of Genesis which shares another CD – categorically dodgy but musically mesmerising – with extracts from Stockhausen’s cosmic Licht.

Waiting its turn not in the wings but in the foyer, on the roof and even in the car park is ‘Music Theatre’ box No. 3 (No. 4 – ‘Ballet/Dance Theatre’ – will follow). ‘Experimental Music Theatre’ chronicles the more extreme explorations of music’s fringes that flourished in post-war Germany.

At first I was disconcerted to find that much of this ‘theatre’ is instrumental, from the single second it takes to destroy a violin in Nam June Paik’s One to the 566 tam-tam strokes of La Monte Young’s arabic numeral (any integer), which drew sniggers even from the 1961 Darmstadt audience. Such ‘happenings’ really need video; other pieces might fit just as well in the forthcoming ‘Electronic Music’ box. Radio opera certainly qualifies as an experiment in music theatre but, on this evidence, mostly a failed one, despite a valiant start by Henze in 1953; whereas Meta-Opera is a misnomer, only Cage’s Europeras being (vaguely) about opera. Results: one mostly rewarding box, one intriguing near-miss, one that is more polemical than historical.

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So many extracts can seem indigestible – and I certainly don’t recommend consuming them, as I did, almost in one sitting – but in the end they leave you hungry for more, yet replete with admiration at this nation’s healthy questioning of the nature and purpose of music. The impressive booklets are in scholarly German only, presentation is clear and sober, the recordings, archive and commercial, mostly excellent. Nick Morgan