Music and Beyond

Hans Keller

  • Hanns Eisler: Political Musician by Albrecht Betz, translated by Bill Hopkins
    Cambridge, 326 pp, £25.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 24022 0
  • Music and Political: Collected Writings 1953-81 by Hans Werner Henze, translated by Peter Labanyi
    Faber, 286 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 571 11719 8
  • Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music by Deryck Cooke and Bryan Magee
    Faber, 226 pp, £12.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 571 11795 3

In decades of reviewing, I have never yet received three books which I would spontaneously turn into the subject of a single article. How Eisler and Henze hang together need hardly be explained: but ‘poles apart’ would be a misleading metaphor for them, on the one hand, and Cooke, on the other, for the North Pole and the South Pole have more in common. Amusingly enough, Eisler’s ambivalently beloved teacher Schoenberg lived in the world of Cooke, who, likewise ambivalently and at least theoretically, felt uneasy about the destroyer of tonality.

The relation between Schoenberg and his pupil (though not quite ‘one of the three great pupils of Schoenberg’) was equally amusing, in that their ambivalences towards each other were twins: they regarded each other as admirably gifted, but philosophically naive, out of touch with reality. Schoenberg was naive because he didn’t believe in, or see, hear, music’s sociological determinants and function; Eisler was because he did. In the circumstances, the present writer has to declare his own position at the very outset: he is an inhabitant of Schoenberg’s and Cooke’s world, inasmuch as music stands or falls for him by its intramusical validity. Its sociology makes as much logical (as distinct from rationalised emotional) sense to him as the sociology of mathematics. Not that music can be understood mathematically: like mathematics, it can only be fully understood in its own terms.

But if Eisler and Henze think that ‘art for art’s sake’ is the ineluctable consequence of our position, they are sorely mistaken. Bach’s music, on the one hand, and Eisler’s or Henze’s, on the other, serves its composer’s world view. The two hands, however, are so different from each other that one may doubt whether theirs is the same trunk: great music expresses religious facts – or, if you like, metaphysical truths – which words really can’t; whereas words express political facts which music, let’s face it, can’t. Eisler, his biographer, and Henze, are deluding themselves if they think that without the guiding assistance of conceptual thought, the music of the two would have the remotest definable political significance to any unforewarned recipient.

Let the reader who disagrees with me simply examine his own musical experience – or, if he has none in this field, subject himself to an appropriate experiment: it cannot be too emphatically stressed that the only possible evidence for any discussion on the nature of musical meaning is the subject’s own experience. All other evidence is, unavoidably, sham, in that it is invented. At the current stage of our musical civilisation, it has to be pointed out that apart from one’s own experience of music, the art does not exist.

The irreligious will not, of course, accept the sheer possibility of religious facts – but then you don’t even need to be anti-political in order to realise, not only that a lot of Das Kapital is factless, but that political facts and feelings are inexpressible in music, even though music will happily convey feelings stimulated by political experience. This is where the confusion and basic fallacy lie, and this is why, in spite of everything, both Eisler and Henze have created a lot of wonderful music. And this, finally, is why both books are extremely informative, notwithstanding their delusions, which, as such, constitute, for the wily, part of the information. Betz’s is a biography plus: not only the man but also the composer is described in conscientious and competent detail.

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[*] Such as Alan Walker, who has produced the most work in this field. Another, the Swiss musicographer, Hansjörg Pauli, is one of the interviewers in Henze’s collection: without this personal involvement, I might well have spent a paragraph on his cunning approach.