From the Other Side

David Drew completes his account of Ernst Bloch’s Utopia

If the function of music in Bloch’s philosophy is that of parable and metaphor, detour and short-cut, the case against dissociating such excursions from their philosophical base is not inconsiderable. But the 1974 anthology, Zur Philosophie der Musik, was excused from answering it by the personal significance it manifestly had and by the historical one that the Busoni volume enhanced. Moreover it was on every side supported by the Complete Edition and its attendant commentaries.

The new anthology, Essays on the Philosophy of Music,[*] must, for the time being, stand alone. Its latticed structure should, however, offer many points of entry to whatever sections of the Complete Edition may be made available to English readers during the coming years. Like the 1974 anthology, it begins with the ‘Philosophy of Music’ from Geist der Utopie, and ends with a corresponding excerpt from Das Prinzip Hoffnung; between, there is a shorter selection from Bloch’s inter-war writings on musical topics. The essays on The Threepenny Opera, on Stravinsky and on Wagner which immediately and with challenging effect followed the ‘Philosophy of Music’ in the 1974 anthology have not been included, but on historical grounds certainly merit consideration here.

All three essays reflect, from different angles, Bloch’s friendship with the conductor Otto Klemperer. Although their personal acquaintance did not begin until they were introduced to each other by Furtwängler in Berlin in the early 1920s, Klemperer had read and been enthralled by the manuscript of Geist der Utopie as early as 1916 (thanks to his friend and Bloch’s former teacher Georg Simmel). At that stage the manuscript probably still lacked its apostrophes to Marx. By 1924 and the first publication of the essay ‘On the Mathematical and the Dialectical Character of Music’, Bloch had evolved his idiosyncratic version of Marxism, and Klemperer was joyfully fulfilling the first of his major conducting engagements in the Soviet Union. The revolutionary production of Fidelio with which Klemperer opened ‘his’ Kroll Opera in September 1927 was influenced by his theatre-going in Moscow; and it was surely he who was responsible for commissioning from Bloch the introductory essay in the programme book. Later that season Bloch likewise introduced Klemperer’s production of Don Giovanni.

At the Baden-Baden festival of German Chamber Music in May 1927 Klemperer (who was accompanied by his future Dramaturg at the Kroll, Hans Curjel) had been enraptured by Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny, a Songspiel or scenic cantata to texts by Brecht. Bloch was not present at that occasion, but Weill attended the première of Fidelio together with his wife Lotte Lenya, and their friendship with Bloch was consolidated during the following year, after the epoch-making première of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiff-bauerdamm in August. October saw the Kroll première of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, directed by Brecht’s close friend Jacob Geis, designed by Piscator’s discovery Traugott Müller, and conducted by Klemperer. Bloch’s notes on The Soldier’s Tale and on Oedipus Rex (rescued from the previous season’s Stravinsky programme) were the basis of his important later essay, ‘Zeitecho Stravinskij’.

Klemperer’s admiration for The Threepenny Opera led to the commissioning of the suite, Kleine Dreigroschenoper, which he first conducted in January 1929 at one of the Kroll Opera concerts; Bloch’s similar enthusiasm led to his marvellous essay on the ‘Pirate-Jenny’ Song, which he dedicated to Weill and Lenya and published in January 1929. That same month, Klemperer conducted Jürgen Fehling’s radically new production of The Flying Dutchman. No small element in the uproar created by that production in nationalist and proto-Nazi circles was Bloch’s introductory and style-defining essay ‘Rettung Wagners durch Karl May’(Rescue of Wagner through Karl May), which was included in the 1974 anthology under the later title ‘Rettung Wagners durch surrealistische Kolportage’ (Rescueof Wagner through Surrealistic Penny Dreadfuls). Bayreuth, it seemed, was about to be stormed by Peachum and his beggars.

From The Threepenny Opera to The Flying Dutchman would for most musical travellers of the day have been an inordinately long and dangerous journey; for Bloch it was surely no more demanding than the one that had taken him, on numberless youthful occasions, from his family home in the industrial port of Ludwigshafen to the old Palatinate capital of Mannheim on the opposite side of the Rhine. The fairgrounds and circuses and amusement arcades of plebeian Ludwigshafen offered the young Bloch delights far removed from the patrician theatres and libraries of Schiller’s Mannheim. In music as in the other arts his ‘questionable’ taste was a vital part of his own questioning of ‘taste’ and the hierarchies it stood for: but it was equally a part of his quest for the Utopian spirit in whatever guise it might appear. There was no condescension about his tributes to those forms of popular art and Kitsch that reflected a universal truth. The chapter in Das Prinzip Hoffnung concerning fairs and circuses, fairytales and penny dreadfuls, is entitled ‘Bessere Luftschlösser’ (Better Castles m the Air).

Bloch’s passion for aerial and low life excursions was one of his many bonds with Walter Benjamin, the outstanding critical mind among his younger German contemporaries and, like Klemperer, an early admirer of Geist der Utopie. It was surely thanks to Bloch and his essay on Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann – written for the 1930 Kroll Opera production by Brecht’s friend and colleague Ernst Legal – that Benjamin, whose genius was either unresponsive to music or else (in some sense that he never defined) intimidated by it, ventured his only essay on a musical subject – the Offenbach section of his great Karl Kraus study, first published in the programme book for the 1931 Kroll production of La Pèrichole in the Kraus version.

The closure of the Kroll at the end of the 1930-1 season was rightly seen to be representative of a reactionary trend evident at all levels of German culture and society. For Bloch and Benjamin, as for Brecht, there was no hope of reversing the trend unless Marxist theory was put into action, which meant collective and party action. The possible consequences of that for intellectuals who were unwilling or unready to repudiate their heritage of ‘bourgeois’ individualism and morality had already been examined in Brecht’s first indisputable masterpiece for the theatre, Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken), a Lehrstück set to music by Hanns Eisler and first performed in Berlin in the autumn of 1930 under the baton of Karl Rankl (Klemperer’s chorus-master at the Kroll). Functionally ambiguous as it is, Die Massnahme examines Leninist theory and practice in terms that cut straight across the two currents in Marxism characterised by Bloch as ‘cold stream’ and ‘warm stream’. The fact that the ‘measures taken’ are in principle consistent with the new morality of revolution propounded by Lukacs in the post-1918 era has a direct and curious bearing on the debates with Lukacs in which Bloch, Brecht, and Eisler were engaged during the 1930s. But Die Massnahme itself does not figure in Bloch’s writings, and is not even mentioned in his 1938 essay on Brecht, ‘Ein Leninist der Schaubühne’, or its important predecessor, ‘Romane der Wunderlichkeit und montiertes Theatre’, which proceeds from Kafka through Proust and Joyce to the ‘Leninist’ Brecht.

Die Massnahme happened to introduce (and today throws an inquisitorial light upon) an era in which most of the ‘measures taken’ were strictly reactionary. The closure of the Kroll was representative in that a plausible case could be made for it in terms understandable to all. Its effect on the flow of Bloch’s musical writings was immediate: the only musical essay Bloch was to publish during the two years that remained to him in Germany dealt with an opera that Klemperer had taken a close personal interest in – Weill’s Die Bürgschaft.

Bloch’s first major undertaking in exile was Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Heritage of this Time), a collection, or as he preferred to call it, a montage, of those essays and occasional pieces from the Weimar years that needed to be rearranged in the light of the catastrophe of 1933 and used as indications of the building materials required for the tasks of fortification and reconstruction. (In the original 1935 edition music was represented only by the essays on Stravinsky and on The Threepenny Opera, but the enlarged 1959 edition adds the inflammatory ‘Rescue of Wagner through Karl May’). The book established the complex of watchtowers and dug-outs from which Bloch, Brecht, Benjamin and a few others were to conduct their campaign against so-called Socialist Realism in the aftermath of the Comintern-backed ‘International Writers’ Conference for the Defence of Culture’, held in Paris in June 1935.

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[*] David Drew’s two articles will form part of his long introduction to the anthology Essays on the Philosophy of Music which will be published by Cambridge this summer (translated by Peter Palmer, 250 pp., £27.50 and £10.95, August, 0 521 24873 6).