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.

On the way, and almost inevitably, Eisler is being overestimated as ‘one of the great composers of the present century’, who had, in the much-welcomed words of Alois Hába, ‘acquired a type of expression that was independent of Schoenberg’s music and more energetic’. Needless to add, ‘Eisler’s more comprehensible idiom, in its way as logical and as bold as Schoenberg’s, was motivated – even if at first instinctively so – by social considerations.’ Overestimation of substantial art, let me hasten to assert, has never done any harm to such art itself: on the contrary, it usually is a sign of the estimator’s comprehensive understanding of it, for the human mind is so constructed that it tends to overestimate everything with which it is in full sympathy – and which, therefore, it fully understands.

Beyond Eisler, mind you, Betz’s musical understanding is a little more intermittent and boils down, occasionally, to second-hand misunderstandings. When, for instance, he says that ‘there is something academic and at times arbitrary about Schoenberg’s wholesale application of the 12-note method in all its rigour to music of every genre,’ I can guarantee that he has never in his life subjected a single 12-note work of Schoenberg’s to dodecaphonic analysis: not one of them is, dodecaphonically, rigorous. And when he implies, by way of compliment, that Schoenberg’s thought was anti-metaphysical, he does not even realise what Schoenberg’s own committed art was committed to – the metaphysical truths which Jacob’s Ladder or Moses and Aron (Schoenberg’s own re-spelling of the name) hints at verbally, but which both their music and a wordless work like the String Trio define with quasi-mathematical precision.

It is, incidentally, Peter Labanyi, not Bill Hopkins, who rightly translates ‘committed’; Bill Hopkins turns it into the foreign-sounding ‘engaged’. And while both translations seem competent, Labanyi’s is the more natural. But then he could no doubt avail himself of the author’s help – who, on occasion, might even have been able to improve his English, of which Henze has near-perfect command. In no sense, however, can Music and Politics be called a book. For one thing, that is to say, part of it was never written: it isn’t only ‘writings’ that have been ‘collected’, but interviews, too. And for another, Henze is too musical to stick to his extra-musical subject: what his deeply understanding article on Benjamin Britten has to do with politics, for instance, would be difficult to say.

Deeply, rather than widely understanding: ‘you can detect an emphatically non-Continental musical thinking; no trace of the Vienna School, not even of its traditionalistic side.’ (Here I would guess that Peter Labanyi had ‘traditional’, and that Henze, with superfluous accuracy, insisted on ‘traditionalistic’!) The ‘non-Continental musical thinking’ is there, of course, but so is the Viennese School – in the sonata movements of Britten’s Second and Third Quartets, for instance: he would never have dedicated the Third to me if it hadn’t contained, in the opening movement, an utterly unprecedented, masterly challenge to Viennese sonata form – on whose own creative challenges I had held forth.

At his most informative, however, Henze is, of course, about himself, though when he discusses ‘the difficulties of writing political songs which could go beyond or circumvent the achievements of Eisler, Weill and Dessau’, one has to remind him that musically, Dessau can’t conceivably be mentioned in the same breath as the other two; and that, when he, Henze, got ‘beyond’ them, he did so, again, purely musically – simply as a result of richer invention. Eisler, he says, ‘has written songs in a sort of fractured, alienated tonality’ – which could prompt the musical ill-wisher to draw attention to countless fractured and alienated tonalities in Henze’s own work, and never mind the ‘sort of’: the unqualified metaphor is telling enough. Nor are those fractures and alienations necessarily uncommunicative.

The grand illusion which, yes, alienates, estranges, both our exceptionally gifted Marxist composers from real people the reader will note without surprise. In Henze’s words,

I could envisage composing becoming something that all people could do, simply by taking away their inhibitions. I think there is no such thing as an unmusical person. Music would then be something that belongs to all, that is not alien but part of people’s lives. People will no longer be alienated, but will be able to develop; they will be able to open themselves to all the beauties of life.

It is at this point that our believers in scientific materialism abandon scientific evidence altogether: with equal justification, we may await the removal of the inhibitions which cause colour-blindness. I have discussed this very subject with both composers, for many hours – but unfortunately, my teaching experience was not sufficiently comprehensive at that stage in my life to provide me with the available, abundant physiological evidence of innate unmusicality. What I can say with confidence is that their own evidence for the universality of musicality was nil, and that each of them, bitingly logical and critical in other contexts, simply seemed to dream along whenever Marxist hallucinations seized him. Why did they spend such hours with me, anyway? For my part, I talked music, nothing but music, and the whole of conceptually communicable music: quite deliberately, I did not move an inch from my intra-musical position.

‘Conceptually communicable’: I choose my words with care. In Bryan Magee’s otherwise profoundly sensitive and knowledgeable ‘memoir’ of Deryck Cooke, there is a single gravely misleading sentence: ‘As a conceptual thinker, in the academic sense, he was competent but unremarkable, though he kept himself up to scratch by painstaking insistence on professional standards.’ As a conceptual thinker about music, even in the academic sense, Cooke was outstandingly original, capable of conclusive criticism of various academic concepts. Mr Magee seems to forget that all thought about music, if it isn’t expressed by way of functional analysis (my own, ideally wordless method of musical analysis), can only be conveyed conceptually.

It is true, at the same time, that Cooke’s book teems with appreciative remarks about functional analysis, which, however, he himself applied verbally, availing himself of its basic theoretical tenets – with a difference, or what he thought was a difference: ‘To avoid ... misunderstanding, I must stress that the conception of the latter themes of a work being evolved from the initial one is my own; the orthodox view of Hans Keller, the creator of the special technique of Functional Analysis, and his disciples, is that the latter themes are related to the initial one, which is thus not given precedence over the other ones.’ That depends. The views of my pupils[*] are not my problem – whereas I myself think that Cooke has here raised a fundamental problem of unification and integration: in his context (of ‘The Unity of Beethoven’s Late Quartets’), I entirely agree with him, in that chronological precedence equals causal precedence, as it always does in the case of strongly developmental music. Mozart, on the other hand – the most anti-developmental composer within the developmental Austro-German symphonic tradition – is even capable of turning what has seemed the structure’s basic idea into its very opposite – a retrospective summary of all the ideas the structure has evolved.

In what is altogether one of Mozart’s very greatest compositions, for example, the far too little played D major String Quintet, the initial theme of the body of the first movement is an eight-bar sentence, an autonomous period with which, note for note, the movement eventually ends: we can only grant it Cookeian ‘precedence’ over the other themes inasmuch as it contains them, not in that they are ‘evolved’ from it, because you could just as well say that it is evolved from them!

The essay in question is both the most extended and the weightiest in this posthumous collection of diverse writings by the author of that analytic classic, The Language of Music – undertaken by three personal friends, Hazel Smalley and the composers David and Colin Matthews. In North America, that first and most important book of his has proved him what I have described as ‘one of our time’s two or three major analytic intellects’; I am indulging in this self-quotation because the present dust-jacket uses it, in the legitimate hope that ‘the publication of Vindications will help to ensure that, if only after his death, his true stature will eventually be recognised, in Britain as elsewhere.’

What the 32-page essay conclusively demonstrates is the fact that Beethoven’s late quartets ‘may be treated as a single phenomenon’, ‘a self-contained unity, a single continuous act of creation’; it is an objective analytic masterpiece such as Eisler’s or Henze’s fanciful reflections on any music never approach from afar. But why, then, is the book called Vindications? The late Beethoven quartets, surely the metaphysical climax of Western instrumental thought, hardly need vindicating – nor, for that matter, does Wuthering Heights, on whose ‘reading and rereading’ there is a piece, too. Apart from ‘Strauss, Stravinsky and Mozart’, ‘Shakespeare into Music’, ‘The Futility of Music Criticism’, ‘The Future of Musical Language’ and ‘The Future of “The Language of Music” ’, the considerable rest of the book does indeed confine itself to musical vindications – of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Delius, and also ‘The Lennon-McCartney Songs’, a piece which stunned me by drawing detailed attention to my analysis of ‘Strawberry Fields’: so far as I remember, I never wrote a word about the tune, which I only analysed in a broadcast on radio or television. Yours and mine apart, how many minds are there, in this age of background noise, which are capable of total assimilation of the spoken word – to the extent of being able to quote from it in comprehensive analytic detail?

But then there aren’t many who hear the way Cooke did, and Eisler and Henze are not among them: what they hear is indistinguishable from what they want to hear, and want you to hear. Though Henze lives in opposition this side of the Iron Curtain and Eisler died in demi-semi-opposition the other side, many of their aural perceptions are interchangeable, as is many a thought flowing from them – or towards them. That article on the three books which I mentioned at the outset would not, in fact, contain much from me: largely, it would consist of extensive juxtapositions of Eisler’s and Henze’s would-be objective observations, on the one hand, and Cooke’s seemingly subjective, intra-musical analytic insights, on the other. Eisler and Henze always know what lies beyond the music they are talking about: their Marxist sociology has made them omniscient. Cooke, on the other hand, as soon as he approaches music that lies outside his complete understanding, evinces downright scientific caution. For example, he worries a great deal about the meaning of atonal music – especially, of course, Schoenberg’s. It is as ironical as it is depressing that two of our era’s outstanding composers prove incapable of matching the intellectual honesty of one of its ‘mere’ musical analysts.

[*] 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.