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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Siegfried Matthus

Siegfried Matthus

As fences have come down and walls have crumbled, the world has suddenly become less forbidding, more intimate. It's not that one part of the world hadn't known of the other part. But mere coexistence — and an often nervous coexistence it was — is not conducive to real acquaintanceship, let alone to friendship which depends on the exchanging of life's details and an ongoing sharing of time.

One of the distinct benefits of our new age is the opportunity to get to know new people and learn something of their productivity. For some time now, the East German composer Siegfried Matthus has had a reputation that has traversed national borders, and we have described some of his successes in these very pages [see MadAminA! Spring '87, Fall '89]. But here we were, sipping coffee on the patio of a colorful little house in the brilliant sunshine of Santa Fe, New Mexico, engaged in lively and quite personal conversation with Matthus and his vivacious wife Helga, who was making her first trip to America. They had come to attend the U.S. premiere of his opera Judith by The Santa Fe Opera.

"I'm very taken by America," Matthus starts off. "My first time here was eleven years ago, and my visits have been increasingly pleasurable. I'm getting to know its people and its places and I have the feeling that my music is well regarded, which of course adds to my pleasure." During the weeks to follow, the Matthuses would get to know many more people and places since they, together with friends from Stuttgart, were renting a recreational vehicle and planned to drive through New Mexico, Arizona, and a good bit of California before returning home to what was East Berlin and now is once again just Berlin.

Siegfried Matthus was born in 1934 in a small village of what used to be East Prussia and is now part of the Soviet Union. (Two years ago he was the first German to return to the locale of his earliest childhood when a film was made on the genesis of his opera Count Mirabeau and the producers wished to show where it all began.) He had little opportunity for formal training in music, although his parents loved the art and his father played in a dance band. "I'm not sure that I ever heard anything by Mozart or Beethoven or Bach during the first ten years of my life. My first recollection of piano studies goes back to 1944, but these soon ended again as we constantly had to flee just ahead of the advancing Russian army. I won't say that anything really bad happened to me, but it was a scary time and must certainly have affected my emotional constitution. Had we been pushed just one day's journey further west, we would have wound up in West Germany. But we were so tired of running, and at least we were hearing German and not Russian, so we stopped in what turned out to be East Germany. I was then sent off to Berlin and thought that I had lost my parents and three younger siblings, but thank God I found them all again."

When he was 14 he was sent to Rheinsberg where he embarked on his first serious music training which led to an early opportunity to conduct a choir and also to compose. Passing the entrance exams and enrolling in the Berliner Musikhochschule, Matthus soon encountered two personalities that helped to shape his musical and professional horizons, the composers Rudolf Wagner Régeny and Hanns Eisler. Although he saw his first opera (Magic Flute) on his 17th birthday, he put off writing his own first opera for another decade. Two other mentors in these student years were the poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht and the legendary producer of the Komische Oper Berlin, Walter Felsenstein. "The former was the personification of intellectual, politicized art, the theatre of alienation; the latter the consummate esthete. We youngsters were simultaneously exposed to these two extreme camps.

Personally, I didn't really understand that there was such a difference between them. Actually, I liked them both a lot. I didn't get why they had to be adversarial. And now I also know that Brecht and Felsenstein respected each other greatly. Eisler, too, was just tremendous, a great personality, fantastically literate. He had been a Schoenberg student and knew as much about philosophy and literature as he did about music. He would sit at the piano — he wasn't much of a pianist — and play everything. He always complained about Wagner, but he knew all the music by heart. I'm just sorry that I had too many complexes when I was a young man to take full advantage of this great teacher. I tell all my students that they should use their teachers to the fullest."

From 1960 to 64, Matthus was a free-lance musician, composing a good deal of Gebrauchsmusik of one sort or another. "I needed the money. My wife was still studying and then our son was born. But it was marvelous experience for me and I was able to learn a lot. It was the first practical aspect of my education and gave me the courage to write my first opera, Lazarillo vom Tormes (1963). It certainly wasn't a masterpiece, but in the audience was none other than Felsenstein who must have sensed that it had something. He invited me to become composer-in-residence at his Komische Oper Berlin and I've been affiliated with that house ever since. What a break! His analyses of opera were among the great highlights of my development. He would question everything. He didn't want to know about the baggage of a thousand previous productions. He started from scratch. Who was Mr. Schikaneder? What could the composer have had in mind with that mezzo-forte? How can one portray all those fast notes on the stage? Walter Felstenstein was no composer and never taught opera composition, but I learned how to compose operas from him."

Matthus got to know other young professionals. One was a budding opera director who suggested that they collaborate on a piece. That turned out to be his second opera, Der letzte Schufß (1966/67) and the director was Götz Friedrich, now in charge of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The composer had just finished a work for soprano and orchestra that he wanted to show to a young conductor, who was so impressed that he arranged for its first performance under his own direction. His name was Kurt Masur. Now music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig and music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, Masur has championed Matthus's music passionately and devotedly ever since and throughout the world. In addition to the growing number of operatic works and pieces with texts, Matthus was writing an imposing canon of instrumental and orchestral works: a violin concerto that has had over 100 performances, several pieces written for and performed by the Dresdner Staatskapelle, many conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (now music director of the San Francisco Symphony), a number of works premiered by Gunther Herbig (now music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), commissions from the Berlin and Munich Philharmonics as well as many other of the world's leading ensembles.

We had had leisurely get-togethers with Matthus in prior years — when his friend Kurt Masur had conducted the first American performances of Die Windsbraut with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra — but the world had changed since then. It was now as unlikely to speak with Siegfried Matthus solely about musical matters as it would be for an interviewer to discuss only the theatre with Vaclav Havel. How was it, we wanted to know, to grow up and live in a world that was sealed off, but that was nevertheless aware of art, politics, and commerce elsewhere? "That's a very important question. The dichotomy of my time had a tremendous impact on my development. I am a child of the Cold War. But we in my circle were always intensely interested in what was going on in the west. I remember in the '60s listening to radio broadcasts at Eisler's house of concerts from Darmstadt and the other contemporary music capitals. If one had the right connections, one could even get a quick look at some of the more important new scores that were kept in what we called the "poison cabinet." Before the Wall went up in '61, it was even possible to go over to the west and hear concerts. But of course we were also very much under the influence of our mentors and, let's face it, Eisler and Brecht were totally devoted Socialists, albeit remarkably critical and questioning. Much of that rubbed off on us youngsters. We were caught up in such paradoxes as, for example, the idiotic idea that one could not express feelings and ideas in serial music! (Eisler always spoke of Schoenberg with great knowledge and respect, but he distanced himself from his politics.) We always grappled with such questions, but there were many things we could not say openly. We had to be crafty and cunning."

Did Siegfried Matthus believe that art had to be reflective of the world in which it was created, or did he think that the artist could isolate himself from that world and devote himself exclusively to his art? "It would have been inconceivable for my mentors, a Walter Felsenstein, for example, to think of art as focusing only on itself. And who would want to forfeit using the infinite resources of one's artistic medium to make a statement about the world and the human condition? We certainly could not close our eyes and ears to such an opportunity. Just think of Judith. Is it not a comment on religion and politics and sexuality? No, I'm not one of the l' art pour l' art people. Even when I set out to write a totally `abstract' work, it winds up with some sort of `message' or extra-musical idea. Not a political treatise, mind you, but a human portrayal. As Goethe observed, there is nothing so grotesque as a human being, and nothing so beautiful."

The very thought of art in a vacuum, devoid of human reference and ethnic fingerprints, clearly disturbs him and his voice, contemplative and calm just moments before, now becomes agitated. "I have been mindful of my cultural heritage since I was a child. I am obviously not an 'East German composer' because that country existed for a scant 40 years, not sufficient time to generate traditions, but I certainly am a German composer. I very keenly feel a cultural continuum that differs in its make-up from the heritage of other lands. I don't say it's better or worse — I have the greatest admiration and respect for other cultures — but we all have our own sensibilities, our own traditions. Take Bach. For me, his passions are the greatest operas ever written, and they reflect human conflict in a way that could only have been created by a German composer. I regard it as very desirable that people recognize my national origins through my music. To me it's awfully boring, in all too much contemporary music, to hear a type of international blandness that reveals nothing about the composer's ethnicity. When music in Japan sounds just like music in Mexico, I find it revolting. When I come to America, I want to hear something idiomatically indigenous, something about the mentality of the people and the various cultures that created it."

And what was happening to all the people who were convinced and dedicated Communists and who owed their professional positions to their party loyalty? Was it similar to 1945 when, one fine day in May, every Nazi vanished from Germany without a trace? "Once I heard a man say that in the '30s, he was an idealist and really believed that Hitler had the answers. Standing in the ruins of the '40s, he conceded that he had been wrong, that it was the Hitler gang that brought about all this misery. By the '50s, he had formed a new set of ideals and really believed that Communism/Socialism was the answer, and he devoted himself to its propagation for 40 years. Now that he was an old man, he bemoaned that there would not be time for him to develop new ideals. You see, there are basically two types of people: idealists, and opportunists who turn whichever way the sun shines. And there are all the gradations in between. Lots of people have asked me why I didn't just leave East Germany. After all, owing to my funny career which permitted me to travel, I could simply have failed to return one day. But although I felt the régime to be all wrong, I am also tremendously loyal to my family and friends, my profession, my heritage and, yes, my country."

Matthus's musical perceptions seem to mirror his philosophical beliefs. His compositions, and most especially his recent works, perhaps beginning with Responso for Orchestra (1977), reveal an imaginative reaching out, a bridging of the old and the new, an attempt to find structural means that facilitate listener identification without turning back to yesteryear. At first reluctant to describe his compositional techniques-he feels that the important thing is what the listener hears and whether it works in the theatre, not how the music is madehe soon warms up to a discussion of his craft: "In Judith and Cornet Christoph Rilke's Song of Love and Death, I began to notice that, although my music was rhythmically complicated, it lacked meter. Furthermore, although serial music was so strictly organized, the harmonic dimension was chance. I wanted to get back to a logical harmonic structure that could be heard, as in the old tonal music. With Judith I discovered or developed an eight-tone scale — not a row, but a scale like the chromatic scale, a melodic-harmonic system — that would enable me to expand tonal principles, but that was conceptually steeped in serial procedures. I am able to base my harmonies on this scale and, of course, by way of transposition achieve the entire twelve-tone scope. The vertical element in Cornet is absolutely demonstrable. With the last production in Hamburg, the chorus master surprised me by saying that there was a note in one chord that must be wrong. He was quite right; I had made a mistake in the score. I'm proud of the fact that one can detect wrong notes in my harmonies."

Since Matthus had developed a harmonic system which he now employs, it seemed only logical to inquire about the public's "inner ear," still very much shaped, both here and in Europe, by folk and pop traditions. "There's no doubt that tonality remains an undeniable force to this day in the whole world. I think that those of us who seek other expressive means — while we should not make an about-face in our search — should not overlook it. After all, it's been pronounced dead many times, and it simply refuses to go away. That may be because all of folk and pop are based on it. In my own works, having acquired my vocabulary over these many years, I can't turn my back on it, I can't go back to composing in an ancient style. But my son, who is very musical although he is in the legitimate theatre, has asked me if there's nothing that I can learn from rock techniques. Now, while I don't think that's possible in a simplistic way, I also don't think that we can afford to shut our eyes to what's going on in pop and entertainment music. For example, I use an electric bass guitar in Judith and Cornet that give me effects which I couldn't possibly get with mere bass pizzicati; and I love to use percussion instruments and am certainly aware of the sophistication with which they are used in modern pop."

Curiosity seems to be one of Matthus's essential characteristics. He is genuinely interested not only in his own orbit but in others as well. Conversely, he is astonished by those composers who don't want to hear any music other than their own, observing that they are invariably the victims of their own narrowness. Is he also curious about what music critics have to say about him? "Oh well, I do think that one should take serious critics seriously. I'm always delighted when I read something that shows that a journalist has taken the time and trouble really to study a work, even though I may disagree with his views. The worst aspect is that, at least in Europe, music criticism is imbued with a snotty superficiality. [He was surprised to learn that things were worse here.] First of all, it's insulting to the author but, worse, it loses sight of the very purpose of reviewing. The critic is, after all, supposed to be a facilitator between a work and the public. When a critic writes particularly nasty things about me, I go out of my way to be friendly to him. It has also happened that a member of the music press has privately apologized to me for giving me a poor review, which made me feel sorry for him because he had to do such things, perhaps to stimulate his editor." His most recent opera, Count Mirabeau, written at the invitation of Rolf Liebermann to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day and simultaneously launched by four opera companies and two television networks, and a huge public success, was received by a generally unfriendly press. Matthus thinks that the very extent of its start may have put critical noses out of joint. He regrets that the gulf between the critical establishment and the public seems to be growing larger. He also points to the absurdity of works that are performed once in the presence of a tiny cluster of listeners, to tidal waves of critical commentary and reams of analyses, but then are never heard again. "I do hope that none of my pieces fall in that category," he quips.

New York opera goers will have a chance to view the first U.S. performance of Cornet Christoph Rilke's Song of Love and Death at the Manhattan School of Music in December. Meanwhile, Matthus has begun work on his next operatic venture, to be premiered at the Schwetzingen Music Festival in 1992 under Götz Friedrich's direction. It will introduce a new perspective on the lives of three women, Lysistrata, Desdemona, and a Red Army terrorist, and calls also for a male quartet and 16 instruments. It is anticipated that, following the first performance, a touring company will present the work in German-speaking Europe and Scandinavia. And another project that is beginning to capture his imagination is a children's opera.

Matthus's latest completed work, too, is a reflection of his involvement in the events of his time. As he was about to finish a Concerto for Three Trumpets and Strings, he went for a walk on the very day that the Wall was opened. He was so moved that he subtitled his work O namenlose Freude (Oh untold joy), quoting the great duet of deliverance just before the finale to Fidelio.

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