Aware of Henze’s hostility towards much Wagner, his librettist WH Auden had coaxed him very much in that direction, insisting that he study the score of Götterdämmerung – Henze always had less of a problem with Tristan, and indeed would write his own Tristan-work himself – and even had him attend a performance in Vienna, where he met Adorno, incidentally, intently studying his score, in order, according to his autobiography, that he should ‘learn to overcome’ his ‘aversions to Wagner’s music, aversions bound up in no small measure with my many unfortunate experiences in the past’. And, of course, with Germany’s many unfortunate experiences in the all-too-recent past. Success was at best mixed. According to his autobiography:
I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience… But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.
The result was nevertheless in many respects Henze’s most Wagnerian drama, and one which he considered confronted ‘this “I was always against the Nazis”’ position, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on… stage in the last scene…)’. At the time, Henze was willing to consider that the musical path from Tristan, at least, might be of some importance in his work. In an interview for Die Welt, marking the premiere, he proclaimed his belief ‘that the road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and with The Bassarids I have tried to go further along it.’ Moreover, he could claim impeccable musical and German warrant for what many would decry as the score’s eclecticism:
It may be unfashionable to continue musical traditions in this way [he is specifically referring to the use of symphonic forms in the opera’s four ‘movements’], but with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: ‘An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.’ If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics…
The composer could not, should not, ‘spend all his time destroying language instead of developing it dialectically’.
That said, the very success of the opera in so bourgeois a context troubled Henze, that unease not merely coincidental with his political move from what he would call ‘generalised anti-fascism’, inspired, he explained, by the example of Italian Marxist friends. He had intervened politically, not least in 1965 during Willy Brandt’s election campaign, but now, from Rudi Dutschke and his comrades he ‘now learned to see contexts, and to see myself within those contexts’. This was why he took the decision that he would write not for himself and his friends, but ‘to help socialism’, that he would embody in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and yet ‘transform these into something that the masses can understand’. This certainly did not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. In September 1968, Henze published a declaration, ‘Mein Standpunkt’, ending:
Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men. Necessary, to change mankind, which is to say: necessary, the creation of mankind’s greatest work of art: the World Revolution.
Those words could almost have come straight from an earlier German revolutionary-composer’s pen, from Wagner’s 1849 Die Revolution. read more