ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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
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
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.