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December 25, 2016

Best Classical Music for Christmas

When hearing the term "Christmas music" you are perhaps in the first place reminded of the tunes that are piped through muzak systems in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places already from November on - tunes you have heard so often that you really don't want to hear them again. But as Christmas was an important feast within the church year, there is also a great and long tradition of beautiful classical music specially composed for celebrating the season.

[The Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Abraham Hondius, 1663]

Here are my favorite pieces of classical music for Christmas:

1. Thomas Tallis, "Puer natus est nobis"(1554)
Thomas Tallis is considered as one of the greatest composers of choral music in England. The seven-part Christmas Mass "Puer natus est nobis" was written during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor who had restored the Roman rite. The elaborate mass is based on the plainchant of the same name. The cumulative effect of the polyphony with seven voices has an almost hypnotic effect. This substantial music must have been written for a special event and scholars think that it was the visit Philip II of Spain made around Christmas Day 1554 to England to marry Queen Mary. There is also a double meaning to the title of the mass, for English Catholics hoped Queen Mary would soon bear a son. Her reign, however, was as cruel as that of her husband Philip II with his Inquisition: in the 5 years Mary was on the throne, she had 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake - so much for the spirit of Christmas. In 1558 - a;ready ill - she died during an influenza epidemic and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who reversed her policies.

2. Heinrich Schütz, Weihnachtshistorie (1664)
This music was a revelation to me when I heard it for the first time: from the opening sinfonia it is filled to the brim with good will and joyousness. As in Bach's Passions, there is an Evangelist who sings in accompanied recitative and tells the Christmas story, but the work really comes to life through its great lyrical moments. There are eight such interludes, corresponding to moments of direct speech by characters in the story. Each of them is highly individual, from the shepherds to the Three Wise Man and even Herod.

[Nativity scene by Gerard David, 1495]

3. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (1684)
The French Baroque composer Charpentier wrote various pieces of Christmas music, including a full Mass (Messe de Minuit pour Noël) for Christmas Eve. Charpentier wrote two Pastorals for Christmas - this is the second one (H.483); the other one (H482) is for smaller forces. The Pastoral was popular in France since the 1660s, as a combination of the Bible story with ancient Greek bucolic literature (although the usual love story between shepherd and shepherdess is of course skipped). The Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ consists of seven scenes and follows the story of the shepherds in the fields, the annunciation by the angels and finally the adoration of the child in his straw cradle.

4. Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto No 8 in G Minor "Christmas Concerto" from Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6
Several Italian Baroque composers as Vivaldi, Torelli and Manfredini wrote "Christmas concertos" for performance on Christmas Eve, but the very best is the above concerto by Corelli. It has the usual pastoral elements without getting cloying. Instead of the usual fast movement, the concert ends with a Pastoral. In fact, all twelve Op 6 concertos by Corelli are fantastic, so do yourself a favor and listen to them all!

5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (1734)
The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were performed consecutively on Christmas Day, Second and Third Christmas Day, New Year's day, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. As I have written in detail about these cantatas in my series about the Bach cantata, I will here only refer to those older posts (starting with the first cantata "Jauchzet, frohlocket" for Christmas Day). Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the best Christmas music ever written and for me Christmas is not complete without listening to this beautiful and joyous music. (Bach wrote more beautiful cantatas for Christmas, these are all discussed in my blog).

[The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni, 1640]

6. Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (1741)
Strictly speaking, Handel's Messiah, although now often played in the Christmas season, is not really Christmas music: it was originally meant for Easter, and the Christmas story only takes up small part of the whole oratorio. But today it has become customary among choral societies to perform the Messiah, just like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, around Christmas. The oratorio starts in Part I with the prophecy by Isaiah, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds (the only scene based directly on the Bible): the shepherds are introduced by an instrumental Pastorale, the Pifa, which takes its name from the shepherd-bagpipers, or pifferare, who played in the streets of Rome at Christmas time. The music is in swinging time and resembles a lullaby - here we have some real "Christmas music." This part concludes with reflections on the Messiah's deeds. Part II covers the Passion in nine movements including the oratorio's longest movement, an air for alto He was despised. This part is concluded by a scene called "God's Triumph" which culminates in the "Hallelujah Chorus." Part III of the oratorio concentrates on Paul's teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven.

7. Georg Telemann, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1759)
This double cantata has been called the "best Christmas cantata after Bach." It is tenderly expressive, imaginative and joyous. The text is by the Berlin poet Ramler, and Telemann's music responds with expressive warmth and irresistible charm. It is work of noble simplicity starting with a harmonization of the Latin carol In dulce jubilo. There are in all twelve movements; of outstanding beauty are the "Shepherd's Song" (with an interesting bassoon part) and the bass aria "Hirten aus den goldnen Zeiten." Trumpets and drums add their luster where necessary in this bright piece of music.

8. Johann Baptist Vanhal, Missa Pastoralis in G Major (1782)
Mass written to performed on Christmas Eve. The pastoral style in 18th c. music is characterized by simplicity and rustic charm; also such devices as a drone bass and a yodeling pattern are employed. Unlike the Baroque number mass, the Missa Pastoralis is cast in six major movements, with a central contrasting section in the long Gloria and Credo movements. There are no arias and set-pieces, but the soloists are employed to delineate new ideas. The use of pastoral elements is sophisticated and effective, promoting a coherent musical unity for the whole Mass cycle. And the melodies are simply very beautiful, too.

9. Joseph Leopold Eybler, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1794)
Eybler was a pupil of Albrechstberger and a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Besides chamber music works, he mainly wrote religious music. This oratorio has the same title as the one by Telemann, but the text used is a different one and it is longer: there are eighteen movements. The basic mood is cheerful and there are various delightful musical pictures. There are two divisions; at the center of each stands a meditative quartet. Arias placing high demands on the singer prepare for the concluding chorus in each part. The concluding chorus of angels in Part One is a gentle siciliano; the concluding chorus of Part Two has strong dynamic contrasts and ends with a finely crafted fugue.

[Czech nativity scene]

10. Jakub Jan Ryba, Czech Christmas Mass (1796)
This is delicious folksy music, telling the Christmas story in a rural Bohemian setting, in Czech, and that all in the frame of a Mass. The music contains characteristic short melodic motifs and colorful rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. Because of its folk character and simplicity, it was excluded from the Catholic liturgy, but it iwa nonetheless often performed. The mass consists of nine parts. The opening part (Kyrie) begins with a popular verse "Hey Master, get up quickly," with a young shepherd waking his master. The Gloria celebrates the birth of Christ; in the Graduale shepherds assemble people from all lands for a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where the visitors finally plead with Christ for the protection of all people.

11. Hector Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ (1853–4)
L'enfance du Christ is an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based on the holy family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Berlioz described L'enfance as a "sacred trilogy." The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judea; angels warn Joseph and Mary to flee and save their child. The greatest aria of this part is the one by Herod, expressing his inner despair as he is tormented by a recurring dream of a child who will overthrow him. Herod is accompanied by trombones just as Méphistophélès was in The Damnation of Faust. The second part shows Joseph and Mary setting out for Egypt with the baby Jesus. Here we have the most famous part of the oratorio, L'adieu des bergers ("The shepherds' farewell"), which is often performed separately. The final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. The work concludes with a serene movement for tenor and choir.

[Cornelis Massijs - Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, 1543]

12. Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)
Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio is somewhere between a cantata and an oratorio: the size is compact, but the structure is that of the larger oratorio. Most of the work is lyrical and contemplative in character. Saint-Saens wrote this work when he was only 23. The work is in ten movements, a prelude followed by nine vocal numbers. The pastoral prelude, for strings and organ, is in "the style of Bach," harkening back to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, evoking images of shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. In the other movements, the vocal soloists take turns representing different characters from the Christmas story. In the Ninth movement the melody from the prelude comes back. The final movement is a hymn of praise of all creation in the presence of God. Saint-Saëns' study of the choral music of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Berlioz had a great influence on the work.

13. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (1892)
This ballet, based on a story by the German author E.T.A. Hoffman, is primarily performed during the Christmas season, as the story is set on Christmas Day and features a Christmas party and the exchange of presents - the protagonist Clara receives as a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of an ugly little man from her godfather, the councilman and magician Drosselmeier. In her dream this nutcracker will come alive as a handsome prince and lead her to his fairyland. I watched this ballet yesterday again after a long time and must say that it very well captures the Christmas atmosphere (or perhaps our idea of the ideal Christmas atmosphere has been influenced by this ballet). It is very popular, major American ballet companies are said to generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker alone.

[Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622]

14. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
A choral piece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp (no orchestra!), written for Christmas. There are eleven movements; the texts are in Middle English. The piece was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, going from the United States to England. Originally conceived as a series of unrelated songs, it was later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon "Hodie Christus natus est," heard at the beginning and the end. The first movement is sung by the sopranos alone. The second movement is an upbeat and festive piece intended to welcome the audience as guests coming to celebrate the holiday. The next few songs are about the child Jesus. The 7th movement consists of a harp solo, creating a sense of angelic bliss. Movement 8 has an interesting echoing effect. After a Deo Gracias, the last movement mirrors the first one, this time by exiting the stage.

15. Arthur Honegger, Une Cantate de Noël (1953)
This was the last work by Swiss composer Honegger. The cantata, for mixed chorus, baritone solo, children's chorus, organ and orchestra, is in three parts. The first part describes the chaos in the world before the advent of the Messiah ("De Profundis"). The second part consists of a potpourri of melodies of famous Christmas songs, as Silent Night, etc. The third part is a solemn chorus (Laudate Dominum) ending in a finale by the orchestra which again takes up the dissonances from the beginning of the cantata.

16. John Adams, El Niño (2000)
A two-hour opera-oratorio for five soloists, large adult chorus, children's chorus and sizable orchestra by the American Minimal composer John Adams. It retells the Christmas story, with the first half focusing on Mary's thoughts before giving birth in Bethlehem, and the second half covering the aftermath of the birth, Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the early life of Jesus. But Adams presents his material in an unconventional way. Mostly avoiding Biblical texts, he sets the Magnificat, extracts from the Apocrypha, a medieval carol, a mystery play, and several poems by Latin American women authors. His switch to a female, non-European perspective brings unusual nuances to the familiar story. Another aspect is that Adams mirrors the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod (see No 10, Berlioz, above) with an account of a massacre in Mexico City in 1968. A nativity with a sharp contemporary twist.



December 16, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (5): Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die tote Stadt (1920)

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is the last of the great fin-de-siecle Viennese operas, first performed in 1920 in Vienna and Hamburg. The city in the title refers not to Vienna, but to Bruges in Belgium, as the libretto written by Korngold with his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, was based on a major (but now forgotten) novel by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach (1855-98). This book, entitled Bruges-la-Morte, is a melancholic story about an obsessive love over the grave: a man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife, with tragic results (note that the same idea was later taken up in the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock!).

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

Bruges-La-Morte is the iconic Symbolist novel. The movement in poetry, music and the visual arts, developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, centered on the idea that the truth in art could only be represented indirectly (thus discarding Realism and Naturalism). This could be done by writing in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, thus endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. It is an art which is elusive and shuns direct utterance. It seeks half-tones rather than strong colors. But it is also characterized by a certain mysticism and a preoccupation with death, with swans and lilies, and an obsession with woman's hair (as in the Symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, where Mélisande's abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure, is fetishized). The same hair fetish occurs in Die tote Stadt (see below).

The initial setting is the same in both novel and opera. The main character is Hugues (called Paul in the opera), a young widower who, distraught at his wife's death several years before, has moved to Bruges. Bruges (in Flemish: Brugge), once the major trading city of Belgium (and today a bright tourist attraction), in the 19th century had become a dead town, dreaming of the past amid the mystic peace of its churches and cloisters, and for Hugues/Paul the desolate cityscape with its dark and stagnant canals symbolizes his own mood. There he sits brooding among the relics of his beloved dead wife (called Marie in the opera) – her clothes, her letters and portraits, and most importantly, a length of her long blond hair kept almost religiously in a crystal casket.

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

In this way, he has erected an altar of sorrow and remembrance to his wife. Hugues/Paul has no occupation and rarely leaves the house. His only activity is a daily walk through the deserted and dusky streets of the old town, under the shadows of the ancient walls, listening to the bells of the many churches, often longing himself for death, hoping to meet his beloved in a new life beyond the grave. It is a situation halfway between reality and dream. The memory of his wife monopolizes his every thought and deed. In fact, he is in the thralls of a morbid and unwholesome cult.

But then chance brings an ambulant opera troupe to the city, among whose members is a dancer named Jane Scott (Marietta in the opera), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, especially as regards her long, yellow-gold hair. Hugues/Paul seeks contact with the dancer and is surprised to discover that even her voice is similar to that of his deceased wife. Confused, he transfers the feelings for his dead wife to the new Jane/Marietta, and dreams to renew an ideal union. He imagines that the dancer has been brought to him by the intervention of supernatural forces.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, as performed in 1921]

Here novel and opera libretto part company. In the novel, Hugues courts Jane and is briefly happy, although his romance with her is in fact scandalous (in the 19th c. operatic dancing girls were virtually prostitutes). She becomes his kept mistress, and he rents a room in the suburbs for her where he pays daily visits; he also has her give up her profession. But of course, no two people are similar and Hugues soon discovers that the character of the new woman is very different from that of his deceased partner: for one thing, being who she is, she is far coarser. She mocks him when he asks her to wear his dead wife's dresses, as these have become too old-fashioned. His infatuation also has become the scandal of the town and sets numerous tongues wagging. The final scene plays out in Hugues' house. An annual religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood, will make the rounds of Bruges and also pass by Hugues' windows, so Jane begs to be allowed to visit his house to watch the event. Jane comes for the first time to his house, and is interested in the portrait of his wife (“She looks like me”), without realizing what she is seeing. When finally she dares touch the precious coil of hair, just when the procession is passing, and jokingly winds it around her neck, Hugues in a frenzy strangles her.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, 2015 Graz]

Perhaps because the novel was considered too scandalous for bourgeois sensibilities, in the opera the relation between Jane/Marietta and Hugues/Paul is presented as a vision, a dream brought about by Paul's ecstatic mood upon seeing a woman who looks like his dead wife. Although in his dream he sees her true character as she appears surrounded by her many lovers, she still manages to fascinate her weak admirer, conquering him with a beautiful Lute Song. When she later visits his home, full of the relics of his dead wife, she wants him to embrace her just at the moment when the religious procession (as in the novel) passes by. Paul is appalled at her lack of piety. Next Marietta snatches up the relic, the golden strand of the dead woman's hair, winds it around her neck, and begins to dance. Frantic with rage as Marietta desecrates what he holds most sacred, Paul flings himself upon her and strangles her with the strand of hair. Here the vision ends. Paul wakes up only to see Marietta stand in front of him - in reality, she has only now for the first time arrived at his house - but he sends her away as the vision has cured him of his infatuation. He even decides to leave Bruges, the dead city.

The opera consists of beautiful, elusive music and is the supreme masterwork of the then only 23-year old composer. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold wrote orchestral music, piano music and chamber works, besides songs and operas.

Die tote Stadt was a great hit, and it made a triumphal tour around the world – until the Nazis forbade it as Jewish music, while the immediate postwar generations were only interested in twelve-tone music. The lavish Straussian music brings out the tension between sexual desire and ideal aspiration, decay and death, and shifts from gloomy orchestral interludes to high-soaring song.

Forced out of Austria by the rise of Nazism, in 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music (which includes a beautiful Violin Concerto) was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest, and Die tote Stadt is also again staged in opera houses today.

The opera Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold is available on DVD (Dynamic) with Stefan Vinke as Paul and Solveig Kringelborn as Marietta/Marie, the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice with Eliahu Inbal as conductor and choreography by Pierre Luigi Pizzi.


December 12, 2016

Best European Novels (2): Germany & Switzerland

Although earlier novels exist, such as the picaresque Thirty Year War novel Simpliccimus, the German novel only really gets under way with Weimar giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who, although in the first place poet and playwright, also wrote three important novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), an epistolary novel about an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795), the first German Bildungsroman (novel of self-cultivation); and Elective Affinities (1809), which will be treated below.


Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was also in the first place a playwright; he wrote one novel, Michael Kohlhaas, but also a number of intriguing short stories, of which I include the somewhat strange and uncanny The Marquise of O... below.

The fantastic stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) were very influential during the whole 19th c., being adapted into such ballets as Coppelia and The Nutknacker, as well as Schumann's piano work Kreisleriana. Hoffmann was one of the major authors of the Romantic movement. The Sandman is a short story that not only introduces the horrific titular character, but also brings a woman who is in reality an automatic doll on stage. It was one of the core texts studied by Freud in his essay "The Uncanny."


The 19th c. saw few novel writers in Germany, in contrast to France and England; most of 19th c. Germany fiction was truly the territory of the novella and the short story with such authors as Tieck, Von Chamisso, Von Droste-Hülshoff, Von Eichendorff, Mörike, and others. They were not pure realists as Flaubert, but wrote in a romantic style that has been called "poetic realism." I have below selected Theodor Storm (1817-1888) and his novella The Rider on the White Horse as an example. Usually considered as Storm's masterpiece among his in total 50 novellas, through its setting on the North German coast it sets the stage for the battle of man versus nature - the dykes and the sea -, while creating an unnerving, superstitious atmosphere with the haunted white horse and its ghostly rider.


Germany's greatest 19th c. novelist who brings Germany at long last into the European realistic tradition was Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Born in Prussia, Fontane was a journalist (and for many years correspondent in London) and drama critic, who only at age 57 wrote his first novel. His in total 15 novels are mostly about modern life and are characterized by ironic humor and fluent dialogues. It is regrettable that from this major European author almost no English translations are available. Besides Effi Briest treated below, major works are Irretrievable (like Effi Briest, about a failed marriage), On Tangled Paths and Der Stechlin.


Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was without a doubt Germany's greatest novelist of all time. His ironic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual, as well as his analysis and critique of the European and German soul. Three of his novels, Buddenbrooks (about the decline of a merchant family in Lübeck over the course of four generations), The Magic Mountain (about a Swiss sanatorium as a microcosm of the ideological conflicts and discontents of contemporary European civilization) and Doctor Faustus (the story of composer Adrian Leverkühn and the corruption of German culture in the years before and during WWII) have been included in "The Ten Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century" as selected by 99 authors, critics and scholars. One of his many novellas, Death in Venice, became extra famous through the excellent film by Luchino Visconti. In 1929 Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Another Nobel Prize winner was Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), who, although a very respected author in Germany, achieved world fame only after his death as his books were taken up by the 1960s counterculture (hippie) movement. This was in particular with such novels as Siddharta, with its quest-for-enlightenment theme, or Narcissus and Goldmund. The "magic theatre" sequences in Steppenwolf were interpreted by some as drug-induced psychedelia, although Hesse never used substances. His last work, a dystopian novel called The Glass Bead Game was arguably his best. All his novels explore the individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.


Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific author and important representative of Modernism in Germany. He is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (see below). Despite the canonic status of that work, Döblin can be called an under-recognized author; although his work has received increasing critical attention in Germany over the last few decades, he is little known in the English language area and too few of his novels have been translated. (Berlin Alexanderplatz is currently unavailable in book form in English).

Anna Seghers (1900-1983) was famous for depicting the moral experience of the Second World War as her major theme. As she was Jewish, she emigrated in 1934, and after the war returned to what soon became East Germany, where she received many prizes for her work. Besides The Seventh Cross, another important novel was Transit Visa, about Jewish people trying to escape Fascist Europe.


Günter Grass (1927-2015) was the greatest German novelist of the postwar period, and another German Nobel Prize winner. Grass is best known for The Tin Drum (see below), a key text in European magic realism. His works often have a left-wing political dimension; in his fiction he also often returned to the Danzig of his youth. The Nobel prize committee praised him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history." Other important works are Cat and Mouse, The Flounder (about the roles of and struggle between men and women, from the Stone Age to the present time) and Crabwalk.


Christa Wolf (1929-2011) was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany and was instrumental in establishing a distinct literary voice for that part of Germany. She also experimented with prose styles. Besides her best known work, The Search for Christa T. (see below), she is also known for Kassandra, a reinterpretation the battle of Troy as a war for economic power and a shift from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society, and Kein Ort. Nirgends about the fictional meeting of the German poet Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode.

Uwe Johnson (1934-1984) was a member of Gruppe 47 and, together with Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass, is counted as one of the three greatest authors of the generation that started to write immediately after WWII. His early work is often about the division of Germany. He uses a difficult and discontinuous style, with sudden shifts of time and perspective. His magnum opus is the tetralogy Jahrestage (1971, 1972, 1973, 1984). Use Johnson is virtually unknown outside Germany.


That is not the case with Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), as he is another German Nobel Prize winner and has been translated in more than 30 languages (all the same, it is difficult to find an English translation of his work today). Many of his novels and stories describe individuals struggling to sustain themselves against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions, and profound economic and social transition. Sometimes his protagonists are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or other public institutions. His best-known works are Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959), And Never Said a Word (1953), The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971) and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974, see below). While his early novels usually treat WWII, his later work draws a grim picture of postwar German society.

Peter Weiss (1916-1982) earned his reputation as the proponent of an avant-garde type of meticulously descriptive writing, and as an exponent of autobiographical prose. As a politically engaged dramatist, he gained international success with his play Marat/Sade. Weiss' magnum opus was the novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, called the "most important German-language work of the 70s and 80s." He was also active as a painter and experimental filmmaker. Again, an author who today is almost completely unknown outside Germany.

Happily, that cannot be said about W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), who lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. Sebald came late to literature and is especially known for his four postmodern prose fictions: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages.

When we look at German-language Swiss literature, we have to mention four authors. Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854) was a pastor and novelist about the Swiss countryside; he is especially remembered for his nightmarish, allegorical novella The Black Spider (see below).


Gottfried Keller (1819–1890) is best known for his novel Green Henry as well as the short stories collected in The People of Seldwyla. Although he is one of the most popular narrators of literary realism in the late 19th century, nothing of his oeuvre is in print in a modern English translation.


That is different for the Modernist Robert Walser (1878-1956), who has received some welcome attention in recent years. Walser has been called "the missing link between Kleist and Kafka." He was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and even forgotten, until he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His work has influenced contemporary authors as Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek and W.G. Sebald. Representative novels are Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe and Jakob von Gunten.


The best postwar author from Switzerland, and one of the most important writers of the German language sphere, was Max Frisch (1911-1991), whose works are shot through with irony and who focused on problems of identity, individuality, and responsibility. He was also active as an important playwright and practiced the diary as a literary genre. His major novels are Stiller (1954, I'm Not Stiller - see below); Homo Faber (1957 - about an engineer whose rational ideology is shocked by wildly unpredictable events after crash-landing in the Mexican desert); Montauk (1975); and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979, Man in the Holocene - a chillingly beautiful portrait of a man who, surrounded by nature's erosion in the Swiss mountains, suffers from loss of memory due to senility).

The best German novels are:

1. Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O... (1808)
A disturbing novella about a young widow who one day finds herself pregnant without having a clue as to how that could have happened, and advertises in the newspaper for the father of the child to present himself for marriage - this all to the dismay of her highly respectable family! The man who appears is a Russian count, who during an attack at the citadel of her father, saved her from a gang of Russian soldiers... She can't believe it... [tr. Penguin Classics]

2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Elective Affinities (1809)
An elusive book: even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to explain it - was the great author in this tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even misunderstood as a metaphorical argument for the chemical origin of love (as in the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances in preference to others)! Written in a detached, even august tone (the principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how strong their feelings) and composed with well-balanced care, the novel itself is an expression of Weimar Classicism, a movement inspired by the humanistic, classical art of Greece and Rome, of which Goethe was the foremost proponent. [tr. Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics]

3. E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman (1816)
Based on the mythical character who kindly puts children to sleep by sprinkling magical sand onto their eyes. Hoffmann turned this on its head by making the Sandman into a sinister character. According to Nathanael's (the protagonist) nurse, he throws sand in the eyes of children who will not go to sleep, so that the eyes fall out and can be collected by the Sandman. The protagonist of the story grows to associate this nightmarish creature with the sinister figure of his father's alchemist associate Coppelius, who may be responsible for the sudden death of the father. Later in the story Coppelius reappears in the guise of Coppola, an Italian trader in lenses. He has a collaborator called Spallanzini, with whom he has built the lifelike automaton Olimpia - the doll is passed off as Spallanzini's daughter and Nathanael falls in love with her - with a terrible result. [tr. Penguin Classics]

4. Theodor Storm, The Rider on the White Horse (1888)
The life story of an ambitious and intelligent young dyke master, who wants to make various improvements to his dyke, not only for safety but also to win new land. The backward villagers, however, obstruct his efforts and in this unenlightened universe, a great man pays with his life for his pride and creativity - a very pessimistic conclusion, were it not that his achievement - the new dike - survives his death. The dyke master, in the meantime, has in death merged into the legend of a rider on a haunted white horse, galloping along the dyke through night and fog. [tr. New York Review Books]

5. Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest (1896)
The novel of an impossible marriage that ends in failure: 17-year old Effi Briest is paired by her parents with 38-year old Baron Geert von Instetten, who of all things had been the unsuccessful suitor of the mother! This is all the more wrong as Effi is not only still a child, but also has a childish character. When her stiff, strict and humorless husband is away, Effi has a fling with a Major who is visiting the desolate coastal town. She herself forgets about this short infatuation, but when her husband six years laters find her letters to the Major, he kicks his wife out of the house and kills the Major in a duel! As a "fallen woman," Effi even looses her child to her husband, and her parents avoid her for the social stain attached to her. In the end, German society with its petrified moral concepts, will crush her life. [tr. Penguin Classics]

6. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901)
The saga of four generations of a merchants' family from Lübeck (based on Mann's own family history), which inevitably declines as younger generations are more interested in art than in business. The exploration of decadence in the novel reflects the influence of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. The Buddenbrooks of successive generations experience a gradual decline of their finances and family ideals, finding happiness increasingly elusive as values change and old hierarchies are challenged by Germany's rapid industrialization. Germany's most enduringly popular classical novel, an intimate portrait of 19th-century German bourgeois life. [tr. Vintage International]

7. Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1927)
Combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, the novel was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes and it reflects a spiritual crisis of the author through the portrayal of the protagonist's split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression. As a journalist, Harry Haller is critical about developments in Germany during the interbellum, but he is also a wolf of the steppes who hates human sentiment. Via various magic-realistic events Harry realizes that he is not a being with only two sides, black and white, but that he, like all human beings, combines hundreds of persons and characters in himself. [tr. Penguin Modern Classics]

8. Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
The story of a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, who is drawn into the underworld after his release from prison. Biderkopf has to deal with misery, lack of opportunities, crime and the imminent Nazism typical for Germany during the 1920s. When his criminal mentor murders the prostitute whom Biberkopf has been relying on, he realizes that he will be unable to extricate himself from his environment. Berlin Alexanderplatz is known for its Modernist use of montage, being told from multiple points of view, and using sound effects, newspaper articles, songs and speeches to propel the plot forward. Was included among the top ten German novels in the poll mentioned above. Also made into a great television series by German director Reiner Werner Fassbinder. [tr. Kindle edition via Amazon, no print available]

9. Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross (1939)
The novel is set in 1936 and describes the escape of seven prisoners from a concentration camp. It was soon translated and inspired a Hollywood film in 1944. The Seventh Cross was one of the very few depictions of Nazi concentration camps, in either literature or the cinema, available during the war itself. [tr. Verba Mundi Books]

10. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)
The novel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in Dantzig. Although his brain is already completely developed at birth, through sheer force of will he stops growing from his third year, which enables him to observe the world from the perspective of a child, without having to participate in it (or take responsibility). This maniacal drumming midget can also shatter glass with his voice and drum grownups into a trance. When the war breaks out Oskar pretends to be insane, so that he is not responsible for the terrible things that happen. The novel is strongly political in nature, but there are also elements of magic realism. Initially considered as blasphemous and pornographic, the bawdy, earthly but also serious novel is now a solid part of the canon and considered as one of the top ten German novels. [tr. Mariner Books]

11. Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T. (1968)
When Christa T. dies, her grieving friend tries to prevent her from disappearing into oblivion by recreating the life of this very individualistic woman based on the letters and diaries she has left behind. The narrator's / author's way of searching for who Christa T. was, turns also into a way of thinking about herself. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

12. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries - from the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (1970-83)
Only the first volume of this large novel was ever translated and you are lucky if you can still find it. In this magnum opus Johnson tells via diary entries about the present life of a German single mother in Manhattan, Gesine Cresspahl, who has fled from East Germany, intermingled with her memories about her childhood during the Weimar Rebublic, Nazism and the beginning of the Cold War. [tr. Mariner Books]

13. Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974)
From a literary point of view this is not Böll's greatest novel, but it is his most famous, also thanks to the film by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. The story is told as a documentary, a confidential report to the reader on the basis of sources, about the panicked political climate over Red Army Faction terrorism in the 1970s, fanned by the tabloid press. The main character, Katharina Blum, is an innocent housekeeper whose life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter who depicts her as a Communist, an atheist and a whore, and a police investigation when the man with whom she has just fallen in love turns out to be wanted by the police as a terrorist suspect. A strong condemnation of the misrepresentation of facts which has stolen the honor of Katharina Blum (something happening daily in our "postfact" present).  [tr. Penguin Classics]

14. Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-81)
So far only volume 1 has been published in English of this huge 3-volume novel. It is a historical novel that dramatizes anti-fascist resistance from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to the end of WWII. The protagonists are young working-class students who seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss's novel. The novel includes extended meditations on paintings, sculpture, and literature. [tr. Duke Univ Pr]

15. W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
The Emigrants consists of four short biographical narratives and forms the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four "displaced persons;" it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page. [tr. Vintage Classics]

The best Swiss novels are:

1. Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider (1842)
Gotthelf's best known work, an allegorical tale about a monster spider that devastates a Swiss valley community - first as the result of a pact with the devil born out of need, and a second time due to the moral decay that releases the monster from its prison again. The story is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Gottfried Keller, Green Henry (1855 / 1879)
Green Henry is one of the most important "novels of self-cultivation" in the German language, the life of Heinrich Lee from childhood through his first romantic encounters, his fledgling attempts at becoming a painter in Munich, and his eventual installation as a chancery clerk. The story gets its name from the color that Heinrich liked to wear. Unfortunately, there is no modern English translation of this book. [tr. Overlook Books]

3. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten (1909)
The narrator, Jakob von Gunten, is a young man who runs away from home and decides to spend the rest of his life serving others. To this end, he enrolls at the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants, but once there, he receives very little education, except learning humility. Walser based the novel on his own experiences: after arriving in Berlin in 1905 he attended a school for servants and later worked as a butler. Jakob von Gunten has something of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, but he is also like Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.'s demonically obstructive assistants in The Castle by Franz Kafka (who very much liked Walser's writings). [tr. New York Review Books]

4. Max Frisch, I'm Not Stiller (1954)
A novel about the question of identity. The narrator, travelling on an American passport with the name White, is arrested on arrival in Switzerland and accused of being the missing Swiss sculptor "Stiller." He persistently denies, but visiting friends and acquaintances also identify him as Stiller - even Stiller's wife! Later the reader will discover that White and Stiller are in fact one and the same person. [tr. Mariner Books]


[This post incorporates some phrases from Wikipedia about the various authors and novels. All images also from Wikipedia.]

December 6, 2016

"The Other Side" by Alfred Kubin (Book Review)

In my overview of the Austrian novel, I forgot to include one very interesting book, The Other Side by Alfred Kubin, a great example of European fantastic fiction.

One day, the anonymous narrator of the story receives a surprising visitor, who has come to give him the following message: "Claus Patera, absolute master of the Dream Kingdom, has sent me as his agent, to invite you to move to his country." As Claus Patera was an old school friend of the narrator, he accepts the invitation and travels with his wife to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Kingdom, which is situated somewhere deep in central Asia. But the dream is soon the become a nightmare... this is not a Shangri-la story.

When this decadent, expressionist novel, with the German title Die andere Seite, appeared, it was greeted enthusiastically by Expressionist and Surrealistic artists, not least of all by Kafka himself.

The author Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was a Symbolist and Expressionist graphic artist, who wrote this fantastic novel set in an oppressive imaginary land - his only literary work - in 1908. Born in Litoměřice, in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kubin studied painting in Munich, where he became interested in the prints of Max Klinger. In 1911, he joined the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group. He is known for his dark, spectral fantasies, often grouped into thematic series of drawings; he also illustrated books by Poe, Hoffman and Dostoevsky - illustrations he originally made for The Golem by Gustav Meyrink were in fact used for The Other Side. Kubin was also a life-long friend of Paul Klee.

[Dolmen by Alfred Kubin, c. 1902]

Kubin started his career just when Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it is clear he made a careful study of dreams himself. His black-and-white drawings have been called "a guide into the shadowy corners of the unconscious." The same is true for The Other Side, where the Dream Kingdom becomes the setting for a hallucinatory vision of a society founded on instinct over reason. The novel culminates in a dizzyingly surrealistic apocalypse. What started as a utopia, soon becomes a dystopia and then a terrible cataclysm - the narrator is the only one who escapes to tell the tale.

Kubin wrote this novel in only twelve weeks, working day and night, when he suffered from a blockage to draw. Finishing the novel left him with new confidence as an artist.

There is little plot in the novel, although it starts out as an adventure story; the main element is the description of the dream city Pearl and its collapse.

The city of Pearl is protected by a great surrounding wall. The whole town consists of old houses, transported here from all over the world, and filled with antique furniture. The inhabitants also dress in the clothes of a previous generation. All have been summoned here by Patera because of some psychological quirk, such as hysteria, or a mania for gambling, or a physical peculiarity such as a hunchback or a huge nose.

There is no sun in this grey city, but only a filtered twilight. The narrator finds employment as illustrator to a newspaper, but fails to contact his school friend Patera, who hides behind an impenetrable bureaucracy, as the ruler in Kafka's The Castle. His rule is challenged by a newcomer, an energetic American millionaire, Hercules Bell, and finally the struggle between these two factions will take down the city in blood and nightmare. The narrator - whose wife has died miserably - barely escapes with his life.

How should we read The Other Side? There are various possibilities:

- As a satire on the Austro-Hungarian state: for example, the description of the city as wholly consisting of antiquarian buildings and objects could be seen as a critique of a country that is severely behind the times. Interestingly, the ruler, Claus Patera, rules his country via the dreams of the people, and via hypnotism. The name Patera = Pater = Father suggests authoritarianism and also Austro-Hungary was governed by an emperor who was a father-figure and who was getting more and more antiquarian with his advancing high age. Kubin's description of the absurd bureaucracy is reminiscent of Kafka's in The Trial and The Castle, two novels also inspired by nightmarish elements in the Habsburg state.

- As a satire on reactionary, idealist utopianism evident in German thought in the early 20th c. Everybody in the dream-realm is under a sort of irrational spell, but it is not easy to see what that spell exactly is.

- The novel also contains a satire on American capitalism, in the figure of the above-mentioned Hercules Bell, who challenges Patera with industrialization and modernization, but who also brings insecurity, deracination and destruction.

[Alfred Kubin in 1904]

Although written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel is filled with an atmosphere of gloom, doom and threat. Kubin aptly uses dream symbols and dream situations, such as the scene of a blind mare galloping along a tunnel in the dark, threatening the narrator. The Other Side is a wild ride, filled with memorable visions.

The culmination of the novel is a great literary feat, an apocalypse with plagues of insects, mountains of corpses and orgies in the street. The houses literally decay and fall apart, the city is overrun by all sorts of wildlife, dissolving into the primal and decadent. In the end Patera and Bell merge into a terrible double monster, that then gradually dissolves. Kubin was not for nothing in the first place a painter and we see here echoes of such art works as Pieter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. It all ends with a downpour of filth, entrails, body parts and carcasses of beasts and men.


December 1, 2016

Best European Novels (1): Austria

For a start, we should clearly delineate the Austrian novel, on the one hand because most Austrian literature has been written in German so that it is often considered as "(pan-)German literature" (in the same way that Irish literature is often amalgamated with English literature), and on the other hand because Austria today only is the rump state of what until the end of WWI used to be a large multicultural empire that encompassed many different nationalities, leading to such discussions as whether Kafka is a Czech or Austrian writer. So here we go with our definition: the "Austrian novel" refers to German novels written in the Austrian Empire (created in 1804 out of the realms of the Habsburgs), its successor (since 1867) the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the present-day federal Republic of Austria, with its various predecessors (since 1919).


In contrast to classical music, the most important art form Vienna knew, the novel flourished relatively late in Austria and there are only few important 19th c. authors. The greatest of them is without a doubt Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868), who was the last representative of Biedermeier culture, but with a twist, for his novels and stories also have a weirdness and uncanniness that undermines small-bourgeois morality. Stifter influenced Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald and it is time more of his novels are translated into English, besides Rock Crystal introduced below, also such works as Der Nachsommer or Das alte Siegel.

The fin-de-siecle saw a great flowering of culture in Vienna and at this time literature, too, finally came into its own. For starters, from this period we have two important writers who were born in Prague and about whose "nationality" many discussions rage. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), who traveled all over Europe and died in Switzerland, was in the first place a writer of intensely lyrical verse, but he also wrote one great novel: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a semi-autobiographical story written in an Expressionist style.


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) needs no further introduction, except perhaps why I consider him as an Austrian writer: Kafka was born in Prague in a Jewish family at the time that Bohemia was part of the multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire; he spoke and wrote in German. In other words, he was part of the German-speaking, Austro-Hungarian culture in Prague (about 10% of the population), not of the Czech population. Below, I have selected his novella The Metamorphosis as this is a perfectly chiseled work, even finer than his novels.


Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) has been introduced in several other posts in this blog (his short stories, his novel The Road into the Open) and is again an author who deserves to be much better known in English. In his stories and plays he shows great psycho-sexual insight, applying his colleague-doctor Freud's insights about dreams and the subconscious in his stories. Schnitzler was also one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness techniques, so that he could demonstrate what went on in that subconscious. Below I have selected his novella Dream Story which is a perfectly balanced work, but I also would like to call attention to such stories as Fräulein Else (a stream of consciousness story about a young woman who is sexually blackmailed when her family suddenly falls into poverty) and Doctor Graesler (who is afraid to marry a strong-willed woman although she can help him set up his own sanatorium), as well as the above-mentioned novel, which gives a wonderful panorama of Viennese society in the fin-de-siecle.

To the circle of Schnitzler also belonged the journalist Karl Kraus and playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal - the last one wrote a famous short story, "The Lord Chandos Letter," in which he voices the fin-de-siecle crisis of language, as a medium no longer suitable to give expression to the human experience.


In interbellum Austria (now the small country of today) literature continues strong and we find several giants, in the first place Robert Musil (1880-1942), the writer of the influential modernist novel The Man without Qualities (unfinished, the third volume was published posthumously). The novel, set just before WWI, is a detached commentary on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an event satirized with heavy irony. Musil is also known for his much earlier Bildungsroman, The Confusions of Young Torless, in which we see a prefiguring of Fascism among orderly pupils who shamelessly abuse a classmate by night.


Another giant is Hermann Broch (1886-1951), whose The Sleepwalkers consists of three linked novels which portray different cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values (see below). Another great novel is the difficult The Death of Virgil, which in a hallucinatory way reenacts the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil. It ends with the conclusion that poetry is immoral in an age of decline.


While Musil labored in obscurity, Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was that rare combination, both a great and a popular author, who became especially famous after publishing his novel Job. His greatest novel is, without a doubt, The Radetzky March (see below), which reflects the glory and (especially) fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the fate of the Trotta family. In the 1930s his work became increasingly filled with melancholic nostalgia for the lost imperial state, which had given a true home to many central Europeans, especially Jews. Roth himself became a wanderer, trekking from hotel to hotel, addicted to alcohol. He finally died in Paris after finishing his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker about the epiphany of an alcoholic vagrant.

Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was born in Bulgaria, but he lived most of his life in Austria and Switzerland (although he finally became a British citizen). His chosen language was German. He wrote only one novel, Auto-da-Fe (see below), written and set in Vienna in 1935, and is further known for a trilogy of autobiographical memoirs of his childhood, and for Crowds and Power, a study of crowd behavior as it manifests itself in human activities ranging from mob violence to religious congregations. Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power."


Vienna-born Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most popular European authors of the interbellum. His novels, stories, plays and carefully researched biographies (Zweig in fact wrote more non-fiction than fiction) were translated in countless languages. He is also known for his interesting memoir, The World of Yesterday. His only novel, Beware of Pity, is discussed below. Zweig also wrote opera libretti for Richard Strauss (as did the above-mentioned Hoffmansthal).

The period after the war is colored by Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Peter Handke (1945), and Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek (1946), who, besides novelists, are also important playwrights.



Thomas Bernhard is Austria's greatest postwar author, known for his dislike of his own country - he attacked the Austrian state as "Catholic-National-Socialist." His work typically features long monologues or rants about the state of the world and it also deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection. Bernhard wrote 13 novels and 3 novellas. Important titles are Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, The Loser and Wood Cutters.


Peter Handke was an enfant terrible and member of the avant-garde group Gruppe 47. He also wrote plays in which the actors do nothing but insult the public. His novels are more traditional. His best work is The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (see below), almost a psychiatric case study about anxiety. Other novels are Short Letter, Long Farewell, The Left-handed Woman and Repetition. Handke has also written many film scripts and is known for his collaboration with the well-known German director Wim Wenders.

Elfriede Jelinek, too, is a controversial author who has been accused of providing "hysterical portraits of Austrian perversity." She is a communist and feminist; female sexuality, sexual abuse, and the battle of the sexes are prominent topics in her work. Her most approachable novel is The Piano Teacher, which was filmed by Michael Haneke (see below); other typical titles are Lust and Greed. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."

The best Austrian novels (and novellas) are (in historical order):

1. Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal (1845)
Mythical story about two children from an Alpine village who get lost in the mountain snow, becoming trapped among the rock crystals of a frozen glacier. With majestic descriptions of nature and a beautiful epiphany, when at night the snow clears and they find themselves looking from the heart of the void at a discharge of electric flashes in the sky. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)
This book, written and set in Paris, consists of 71 fragmentary notes, almost individual prose poems. We are inside the fragmented consciousness of a would-be poet who is trying to create art out of his impressions of a hostile city. Rilke addresses existential themes, such as the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and anxiety and alienation in the face of an increasingly scientific and industrial world. Rilke was also influenced by Nietzsche. [tr. Penguin]

3. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
A perfect absurdist novella about iron "German" discipline (even after he wakes up as an insect, Gregor still worries he will be late for his office) and propriety (the family is ashamed of insect Gregor, as if he had a terrible illness), as well as appalling cruelty, not only from the hands of the father, but also Gregor's "dear sister." [tr. Penguin]

4. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (1925)
A doctor and his wife, seemingly happy in a harmonious marriage, are both tormented by unfulfilled desires and dreams, leading to alienation and a crisis. The doctor, Fridolin, has a nightly adventure which symbolizes a voyage of discovery into his own psyche. In the end, he realizes the danger of the subconscious for his relation with his wife, and strives to overcome it.  [tr. Penguin]

5. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (1930-43)
Monumental novel of more than 1,700 pages in three volumes - and even then, unfinished. A "story of ideas," and at the same time a very ironical view of Austrian society just before WWI. Officially, the novel is set in the capital of a fictitious European country named "Kakanien," a name derived from the German abbreviation K und K ("kaiserlich und königlich" or "Imperial and Royal“) for Austria. Musil remarks about Kakanien: "By its constitution it was liberal, but the system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen." Introduces many bizarre characters from Viennese life. [tr. Vintage]

6. Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (1931-32)
Hermann Broch's novel, The Sleepwalkers, is one of the most remarkable works of modern times. It follows the transformation of Central Europe from its last fin-de-siècle glory to its post-World War I decline. The first part of this epic trilogy is about a neurotic army officer (set in 1888); the second about a disgruntled bookkeeper and would-be political assassin (set in 1903); and the final part tells the story of an opportunistic war-deserter (set in 1918). Each of the three parts is written in a different style to reflect the different plots: from a gentle parody of Fontane in the first volume through modernistic, essayistic segments in the last part. A prophetic portrait of a world tormented by loss of faith, morals and reason. [tr. Vintage]

7. Josef Roth, Radetzky March (1932)
The rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. See my extensive review. [tr. Overlook Books]

8. Elias Canetti, Auto-de-Fe (1935)
Called Die Blendung in German (“Bedazzlement”), this 550 page thick novel was published in 1935 in Vienna, Canetti’s hometown at the time. It is one of the central novels of the first half of the 20th century, with Ulysses and novels by Kafka, Proust, Musil, and Mann. It is an apt allegory for the conflict between the lonely, reflective mind and reality. Sinologue Kien is only interested in his books and leads a secluded life. The world is lodged in his head, and his head is not interested in the world outside, which he grotesquely and routinely misinterprets. When in a moment of insanity he marries his housekeeper, he is faced with the chaos of “normal” life — with tragic consequences, resulting in a terrible struggle that will be fought with all means available. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux / The Harvill Press]

9. Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity (1939)
As a fiction author, Stefan Zweig is best known for his melancholy short stories; this is the only novel he published. A young lieutenant stationed before WWI at the edge of the large Austro-Hungarian empire, is invited to the home of a wealthy local landowner. There he makes the painful mistake of asking the crippled daughter for a dance. Gradually, pity and guilt will implicate him in a well-meaning scheme, where he promises to marry her when she is recovered (hoping that this will motivate her to take a certain treatment). But tragedy follows when he denies the engagement in public. [tr. New York Review books]

10. Peter Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970)
A modern classic that portrays the self-destruction of a murderer in ways that recall Camus' The Stranger. The mental breakdown of a soccer goalkeeper / construction worker who wanders aimlessly around a sleepy Austrian border town after murdering, almost unthinkingly, a female movie cashier. Handke's fractured language deftly mirrors the disintegrating state of mind of the protagonist. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

11. Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher (1983)
Erika Kohut, a piano teacher in her late thirties who teaches at the Vienna Conservatory and still lives in an apartment with her very controlling mother, finds an outlet for her repressed sexuality in voyeurism and sadomasochism. Then one of her students, a handsome seventeen-year-old, becomes enamored with her and sets out to seduce her. Jelinek's very sarcastic look at the relation between the sexes as a mirror of society finally leads to perversity and violence. Haneke's film, with a wonderful performance by Isabelle Huppert is faithful to the book; only Erika's seducer is constructed in a more friendly way than in the much more sardonic novel. [tr. Grove Press]

12. Thomas Bernhard, Wood Cutters (1984)
The narrator has been invited to an "artistic dinner" for a famous actor and sitting in a wing-backed chair apart from the other guests, sipping champagne, in one long torrential rant he dismantles the hollow pretentiousness and cruelty at the heart of the Austrian bourgeoisie. Bleak, but also comically nihilistic. Possible Bernhard's best performance. Bernhard has been called "the missing link between Kafka, Beckett, Michel Houellebecq and Lars von Trier," and a great practitioner of the literature of alienation and self-contempt. [tr. Vintage]

October 30, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (4): Alexander Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg (1922)

We saw in our previous post that Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) had ordered an opera libretto about "the tragedy of the ugly man" from his colleague Franz Schreker, but that Schreker became so fascinated by the story that in the end wrote his own music for it. Zemlinsky's interest in this this topic stemmed from the fact that he had enjoyed a passionate love affair with his pupil Alma Schindler, which - perhaps because it was never consummated - had been a two-year long emotional roller-coaster. But in 1902 Zemlinsky experienced the most shattering set-back of his life when Alma, who was to have been his Muse, decided against him and in favor of marriage to the famous (and twenty years older) Gustav Mahler, now calling her former lover "a comical figure, a caricature, chinless and short, with bulging eyes." But for many years they would move in the same circles in Vienna and instead of becoming his muse, Alma Mahler would haunt Zemlinsky's music like a bad dream, starting with his death-obsessed symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid).

[Alexander Zemlinsky]

Next, Zemlinsky's unfulfilled longing resurfaced even stronger in another work, an opera he wrote after a verse drama by Oscar Wilde: Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy). Like Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, this opera is set in Renaissance Italy. Completed in 1916, it brings a love triangle on stage between a Florentine cloth merchant, Simone, who upon his return home from a business trip finds his young wife Bianca entertaining the handsome nobleman Guido. Simone suspects he has interrupted an affair, but as he has actually not caught the lovers doing anything wrong (although there is a peculiar atmosphere), he edges on Guido by treating him as a customer for his precious fabrics and ornaments (which he sells him at an exorbitant price), forcing Guido and Bianca all the time to maintain a pretence of propriety. In other words, Simone is a clever, manipulative man with a sadistic streak that reveals itself in the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the lovers. When Simone leaves the room for a moment, Bianca and Guido quickly embrace and Bianca urges her lover to kill her husband. Simone comes back and now a duel with swords begins between the two men. Against expectation, Simone kills Guido and, in another surprising twist, Bianca finds her love for her husband rekindled by his martial exploits - even at the expense of her lover! Husband and wife reunite in a passionate embrace over the lover's dead body. "Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" she asks, to which he responds, "Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?" One could call this a rather extreme way to bring fire back into a stale marriage!

[Alma Schindler]

In this short opera, Zemlinsky was in fact pointing at two triangular love affairs among people close to him. The first one was Alma Mahler's infidelity with the architect Walter Gropius, not long before Mahler's death - Zemlinsky had lost his youthful love to Mahler, but as Mahler was also his sponsor and friend, he strongly took Mahler's side. The other one involved an affair of his sister, who was married to Arnold Schoenberg - her lover committed suicide after the relationship failed and she returned to her husband.

The Florentine Tragedy, however, was just a step up towards Zemlinsky's final "denouncement," his own story of "the ugly man," in the form of The Dwarf, another opera based on a story by Oscar Wilde. The Dwarf derives its power from the fact that it was a masochistic self-portrait of the composer, who was regarded as physically repellent not only by Alma Mahler as we saw above, but also by his family and friends. The tragic opera is about the cruel treatment of a repulsive but tender-hearted creature. This dwarf, in a cage, is presented to the Infanta of Spain, among many other wonderful presents, on her 18th birthday. The dwarf, who has no idea how ugly he is, is entranced by the beauty of the young Spanish princess. She plays along with him in a deliberately cruel way, even when her companions warn her not to go too far. The dwarf sings her a song of love, imagining himself as a brave knight. She toys with him and gives him a present of a white rose. Then she leaves him. Left on his own, the Dwarf accidentally uncovers a mirror and for the first time sees his own reflection, realizing how ugly he is - his new sense of self-awareness destroys his sense of self-worth (a case where "Know Thyself" is not beneficial; perhaps we sometimes need our illusions in order to survive?). In great agitation, the Dwarf tries to obtain a kiss from the Infanta, but she spurns him, telling him he is a monster. His heart broken, the Dwarf dies clutching the white rose. The Infante, from her side, lets it be known that next time she wants a better toy, one without a heart, and returns to her dancing.

The music is characterized by a wonderful flow of glorious melody. The Infanta and her companions are depicted in unemotional, neoclassical music, while the music for the Dwarf is of course the emotional heart of the opera, with soft violins and chromatic harmony. As a theater work, The Dwarf is second to none of its contemporaries. It is dramatically taut and well-balanced, words and music are excellently wed. The orchestration is as brilliant and imaginative as anything by Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler. Deformity, dangerous femininity and social alienation were of course common fin de siècle themes. And in its excessive self-abnegation, The Dwarf may have served as the final theatrical cure of Zemlinsky's obsession with Alma Schindler - who although she didn't become his official "Muse," still inspired much of his best music!

The Dwarf is a story of innocence destroyed, of impossible longing and desire for unobtainable love. The music is full of fin de siècle decadence, glittering sensuality and seductive charm. But like our previous composer, Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky suffered the misfortune of being pushed to the margins of musical history because he fell between two stools: for his conservative contemporaries he was too advanced, for the postwar radicals he was not advanced enough - and for fifteen years in between, his music was forbidden by the Nazis.

Zemlinsky was a typical product of the multiculturalism of the Habsburg Empire: his father was Slovakian, his mother came from a Sarajevo Bosnian-Jewish family. Zemlinsky trained at the Vienna conservatory and opera dominated his career both as a composer and conductor. In that last capacity, his star rose under the patronage of Gustav Mahler; after Mahler's death, Zemlinsky moved to Prague, where he was to remain for the next 16 years. These were his most happy years, when he also wrote the present two operas. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he lost his official posts and in 1938 fled to the United States, where he died in 1942, a forgotten and ill man. (Zemlinsky also wrote wonderful string quartets, see Best String Quartets Part 4).

Happily, the last 30 years have seen a re-assessment of Zemlinsky's lush fin de siècle music, including his operatic output. Although stage productions are rare, both The Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf have returned to opera houses and are often staged together as they neatly make up a full evening program.

Previous operas in this series:
Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
Franz Schreker, The Branded (1918)

September 24, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (3): Die Gezeichneten (The Branded) by Franz Schreker (1918)

3. Franz Schreker, Die Gezeichneten (The Branded, 1918)
With its potent mix of love, violence and deformity, and a lush score, Die Gezeichneten is a typical opera from fin-de-siècle Vienna. Its composer, Franz Schreker (1878-1934), was a genius opera composer and libretto writer and it was in that last capacity that his fellow composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, asked him to write an opera libretto on the theme of "the tragedy of the ugly man."

Zemlinsky had a special reason to ask for this material, for he carried a love trauma with him: in 1900, Zemlinsky had fallen passionately in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, who initially reciprocated his feelings, but then suddenly broke off the relationship to marry famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, within only two months of making his acquaintance. Zemlinsky's unappealing physical appearance and lack of success both seemed to play a role here, so he suffered a double psychological hurt. Rather tactless, Alma Mahler had called him a "hideous dwarf, chinless and toothless and always smelling of the coffee house." This humiliation festered on and led to the request for a libretto on the theme of masculine ugliness versus feminine beauty.

Schreker duly set to work, even though the request seemed a bit strange, but he became increasingly interested in tackling the musical setting for this weird story himself. Zemlinsky proved sympathetic to Schreker's wish (he would later write a new libretto himself called The Dwarf - see my next opera post) and renounced the project. And so Franz Schreker came to write Die Gezeichneten, an opulent work in which he contrasted outer deformity with inner beauty.

[Franz Schreker (Photo Wikipedia)]

The title contains an ambiguity in German: "zeichnen" means "to draw" but also "to mark out," so "Die Gezeichneten" refers both to those who model for artists and those who are marked out, or branded, by fate.

The story is set in 16th c. Genoa. The hunchbacked, crippled aristocrat Alviano Salvago (the man branded by fate) craves beauty as a compensation for his physical defects. On a small island near the coast he has created a park-like paradise of his imagination, a sort of Elysium (it reminded me of the story by Edogawa Ranpo called "The Strange Tale of Panorama Island"). But he doesn't set foot there himself, afraid to profane it with his ugliness. He wants to donate this island to the citizens of Genoa, but his aristocratic friends try to dissuade him. Unknown to Salvago, they secretly use an underground grotto on the island for orgies with young women abducted from prominent Genoan families, whom they abuse and even murder. Their leader, Count Vitellozzo Tamare, has let his eye fall on Carlotta Nardi, the beautiful daughter of the mayor, who is an accomplished painter; she also suffers from a weak heart and fears that excitement will kill her (making her another person branded by fate). Carlotta rejects Tamare, and instead approaches Salvago. She is fascinated by the ugly cripple and wants to "draw his soul," giving rise to confused feelings on his side, especially when she faints in his arms when her weak heart plays up. But after she has painted Salvago, she looses interest in him, even though she has promised to marry him...

In the last act Salvago has finally opened his island paradise to the citizens of Genoa, who are all visiting, awed by the beautiful things they see. Carlotta evades Salvago and wanders off alone on the island, right into the arms of the masked playboy Tamare, who entices her to the secret grotto. Salvago desperately seeks her, and finally discovers the underground cave, followed by the other visitors to the island. There he finds Carlotta, lying senseless on a bed (the excitement caused by Tamare's lovemaking has broken her weak heart), while Tamare boasts of his conquering abilities. Salvago stabs him to death. Carlotta awakens, Salvago rushes full of hope to her side, but with her dying breath she calls out Tamare's name. Salvago descends into insanity as the curtain falls.

This opera, written during WWI, has been called symbolic for a disintegrating society and the disorientation of modern man - something we perhaps are seeing again today. Die Gezeichneten is an extraordinary work, with extremely unsettling music that rarely lets one sense a genuine resolution of the constant dissonances.

It seems that the libretto also contains various cunning portraits of fin-de-siècle personalities - a painting incorporated in the libretto for example resembles one of Arnold Schoenberg's pictures (Schoenberg was also active as a painter).

Franz Schreker, who looked a little like Gustav Mahler, was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner. His first success had been “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound,” 1912), an opera set in the present-day about an ambitious young composer who in his search for the highest art neglects the woman who loves him, so that she descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Lulu later in Berg's opera. Unfortunately, Schreker had also been born at the wrong time, living exactly at the fracture of two periods: in his youth, Mahler ruled supreme, when he turned forty Mahler had been replaced by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Although in the 1920s Schreker's operas were staged in all major Austrian and German theaters, by the time of his death he was almost forgotten. One additional reason was that his music was forbidden by the Nazis, as Schreker was partly Jewish - one of the many careers broken by the hate politics of 20th c. Europe. But his lush and decadent music had also gone out of fashion - in the 1920s, a new trend for neo-classical and more businesslike music broke through, as well as for jazz elements in classical music. Schreker was almost forgotten and for many years only the orchestral preludes to his operas could sometimes be heard. Happily, today a full revival is underway, bringing Schreker's operas again successfully to the stage after a hiatus of many decades.

Recording watched and listened to: Kent Nagano (conductor) and Nikolaus Lehnhoff (production) with Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, and Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta), Robert Brubaker (Salvago), Wolfgang Schone (Lodovico), Michael Volle (Graf Tamare) and Robert Hale (Herzog Adorno) on Euroarts (DVD). In the first two acts, the singers crawl over the surface of a gigantic broken statue, lying amid Salzburg's Felsenreitschule stage. In Act III, in the island scenes, Lehnhoff shows us an orgy as from Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut.” This production is done in high style and vividly brings Schreker's world to life. To emphasize Salvago's difference from others, in this production he first wears women's clothes; when he has won the heart of Carlotta, he starts dressing as a man, but then she has no interest in him anymore.