Austria Zimmermann, Cerha Austrian Ensemble for New Music, Johannes Kalitzke (conductor), University Auditorium, Salzburg, 15.8.2012 (JFL)
B.A.Zimmermann: “Rondo popolare” Die fromme Helene
Cerha: I. Keintate, set to poems by Ernst Kein
If the Kontinente (“Continents”) series still existed, it would be Kontinent Zimmermann in 2012, with a dash of Isthmus Holliger. The Festival this year offers or offered the opportunity to get better acquainted with one of the most important German post-war composers through, roughly in order of importance, Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten, the funereal cantata Ecclesiastic Action, the superb trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, Das Gelb und das Grün, Un “petit rien”, Metamorphose et al., the three Sonatas for solo strings, andDie fromme Helene, set to music as a “Rondo popolare”—a whimsical Entr’acte.
Wilhelm Busch is little known outside German speaking countries, but there he is a household name; Walt Disney, Ambrose Bierce, and Bill Watterson rolled into one; a satirist, the first cartoonist, a humorous poet (also a very fine painter), and responsible for variously hilarious, darkly funny, illustrated stories short (like his most famous, Max & Moritz) and epic (Knopp Triology). In the tradition of German fairy tale gore, the stories end when Busch runs out of characters to kill, often with only an unsympathetic, gleefully moralizing bystander left.
Die fromme Helene is one such story, more adult themed than others, which made it a curious recital to label “Family Concert”. The label most likely only means that the music modern enough that it doesn’t matter if kids squeal in the middle of it. The story, meanwhile, is wonderful, and was wonderfully read by the increasingly ingratiating voice of Horst Maria Merz. The illustrations were projected on the wall which may have led to parents having to explain to their kids why two canaries had their heads pulled from their torsos by two scheming cats, lovingly illustrated by Busch with the bird necks becoming thinner than Angel Hair pasta. Also notable: several violent deaths (choking on a fish bone, being hit over the head by a bottle of cheap wine) and a cat’s tail lit on fire to account for. The adultery and alluded fornication (not illustrated) presumably went right over the little one’s heads; most of it had gone over mine when I voraciously read through all the Busch books as a kid. A sample:
Sound advice for womenfolk:
Aiming for the marriage yoke
Has been, is, shall always be
Entrance to society.
Firstly, it’s the thing to do.
Secondly, you want it too.
Oft, however, it’s not easy,
To find a man who isn’t sleazy.
And while one pines, the goal’s to find
The right distraction for one’s mind.
Helen has absorbed this earful:
Two canaries keep her cheerful.
Chirp and Twerp she’s named this brood,
From her hand, they peck their food.
While oblivious they chat,
Here comes Mitzi – Helen’s cat!
Mitzi has a friend invited:
Tom the Cat is most delighted
To propose a plan of cunning
That would send her mistress running,
But, for Chirp and Twerp, too late!
There they lie: lifeless in the grate.
(Translations from the liner notes, by Alexa and Susan Nieschlag)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music, short interludes after most of the 18 chapters, is very incidental, hardly related to the text and probably “a little number he tossed off recently in the Caribbean”, as Monty Python would say… written as a lark, on an afternoon in the park, scored for six winds, violin and viola. Pointless, you would think, for non-German speakers, but among the pitifully small audience in the University Auditorium contained more Asian visitors than kids.
Musically more gratifying, indeed most gratifying—though not much less dependent on a proper grasp of German—is the 1980’s I. Keintate by Friedrich Cerha (of Lulu-completion fame). Cerha’s music has an unquantifiable Viennese-Luluesque quality to it that you know when you hear it, pulled into thin sheets like strudel-dough, with a lingering romantic, wistful undercurrent. I. Keintate is a multiple play on words, one of which translates smoothly as “Can’tata”. It’s assembled for Chansonnier and instruments (operated by the Austrian Ensemble for New Music, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke), set to short and brilliant, simplistic, disgruntled poems by Ernst Kein in all-out Viennese dialect (well enough emulated by decidedly non-Viennese Horst Maria Merz), and accompanied here with photographs of Viennese working class characters from—perhaps—roughly Vienna from the last turn of the century up to the 80s? Good fun, especially if you are into all things Vienna.
Try your Intermediate German 201 on this one:
miasd ma haum
daun ded ma
fon dem ölend
di höfte seng
und des waa
aa nau gnua.
On I went, for a musical nightcap at the Mozarteum.
Jens F. Laurson