Night Music

A Tristan und Isolde for our time

Hans Werner Henze in 1963.

FOR PIANIST IGOR LEVIT, music always opens out onto a social context. In 2020, when the pandemic temporarily shut down concert life, he put on a series of hauskonzertes livestreamed from his flat. These were models of what a classical concert could be: intimate, accessible, with an ear to the music of leftist composers such as Cardew, Dessau, and Rzewski alongside canonical repertoire. Levit’s latest release likewise reclaims a strain of dissidence within and against the tradition, pairing pieces by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler with the late Hans Werner Henze’s piano concerto Tristan, a work written in the aftermath of the 1973 coup in Chile and the deaths of the composer’s friends and collaborators, poets Ingeborg Bachmann and W. H. Auden.

A teenager when the Second World War began, Henze saw his father, a provincial schoolteacher, go from being a social liberal to an enthusiastic fascist. “People like you belong in concentration camps,” he said, intuiting his son’s queer inclinations. Having survived the war, Henze found West Germany to be a place of intense “social isolation” as a gay man faced with the threat of imprisonment and public disgrace. Henze and a lover were arrested and interrogated after a complaint from his landlady; a few years later, he attempted suicide and was nursed back to health by, among others, East German socialist composer Paul Dessau, his friend and mentor.

In 1953, Henze moved to Italy where, he thought, he might escape the weight of Germany’s Nazi past. Yet he was keenly aware that former Nazis were still a part of the European establishment. While staying with composer William Walton, Henze encountered another guest: none other than former Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach. In 1965, Bachmann persuaded him to speak for Social Democratic Party leader Willy Brandt’s election campaign in, of all places, the echt-Wagnerian town of Bayreuth. Brandt was duly elected Chancellor, but his rapprochement with right-wing coalition partners and support for the United States was perceived by many radicals as a betrayal. Joining the Socialist League of German Students in 1967, Henze now became an active participant in the New Left. In 1968, he dedicated his cantata Das Floß der Medusa to Che Guevara. Over an hour in length, the work was a bleak portrayal of the sufferings of shipwrecked survivors set adrift during a French imperial mission to Senegal, a subject immortalized in Théodore Géricault’s searing painting a century prior. Like Géricault, Henze and librettist Ernst Schnabel focus on the African soldier, his name given in the official record only as Jean-Charles. Sung on the night by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he provides a voice of moral conscience in a series of dialogues between living and dead. Schnabel’s libretto concludes: “But those who did survive, having learned a lesson from reality, returned to the world again eager to overthrow it.” Ending the piece with the “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” chant on a raft of percussion—as if, he put it, to “lead directly from music into reality”—Henze envisaged that “musicians and audiences can carry on from there and continue the evening singing, discussing, taking action.” Instead, when, at the work’s premiere in Hamburg, students draped Communist banners onstage, the musicians refused to perform, and the evening ended in a frenzy of police violence.

When student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot by a right-wing gunman in 1968, he recuperated at Henze’s Italian villa. Henze himself traveled the following year to Cuba, where he premiered his sixth symphony, took part in the Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest of 1970, and began El Cimmaron, a setting of the memoirs of the former Maroon-turned-Cuban-independence-fighter Esteban Montejo for the extraordinary queer African American baritone William Pearson. Back in Europe, he was encouraged by choreographer John Cranko to begin a piece based around the Tristan and Isolde myth immortalized by Wagner, and enlisted the help of British electronic music pioneer Peter Zinovieff, who’d worked with Delia Derbyshire and influenced Pink Floyd. But the work seemed cursed. In June 1973, Cranko died in a tragic accident. In September, the Allende government was overthrown.

“During the following days and weeks,” Henze recalled, “we received more and more details about the end of the Chilean democracy. The first refugees arrived; we heard directly from Santiago about mass arrests, executions, the death of Neruda and the destruction of his house, burning of his books, the death of Victor Jara under torture. In Rome we took to the streets with thousands of others, joined in solidarity rallies, yet were impotent and helpless.” At the end of the month, Auden died; in October, he was followed by Bachmann. Henze finished Tristan in early November in a state of profound grief.

Igor Levit’s Tristan. Photo: Sony Classical.

The work begins with a solo piano part Henze calls “marmoreal and depersonalized,” a muted contrast to the “incandescent and exclusive quality [of] Wagner’s music.” At the beginning of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a dissonant opening chord scandalously refuses to settle into consonance, but rather opens onto another dissonance—a figure for unfulfilled, forbidden yearning. By contrast, Henze reaches precisely for that which Wagner’s Tristan chord famously avoided, ending his prelude in a sustained A-minor. Having dispensed with this figure for resolution early on, however, the main body of the piece continues in the post-serial language of harmonic ambiguity, with key centers suspended, deflected, and refused.

Alongside Henze’s own music, the piece contains several prominent quotations which both function as “signposts” and interrupt the free flow of the music. In the fourth movement, for instance, the sudden entry of material from Brahms’s First Symphony leads to what Henze calls a series of “burlesque dance pieces”: “tormenting, reeling hallucinations and grotesques . . . which seem distorted as if in a grimace, and barely recognizable.” In Zinovieff’s Putney studio, he, Henze, and their assistant Geoffrey King had prepared the piano with “clothes-pegs, strips of cardboard, drawing-pins and wire” and used “toys, whips, and bells,” marbles and tennis balls on the strings to produce sounds “like far-off explosions.” Most dramatically of all, they had fixed “an old pianola device,” playing Chopin’s funeral march—purportedly inspired by the Polish uprisings of the 1830s—directly onto the piano, creating what Henze called music of “an overpowering hideousness . . . Physical aggression. Clattering, groaning, howling roaring.” The music of the past encroaches—literally—on the present; mourning has turned into a parody of itself, a grotesquerie inspired by Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, an image of which appears on the back cover to the original LP release. At the movement’s climax, an electronically distorted recording of Wagner’s opera meshes with “a terrible scream on the part of the whole of the orchestra.” This scream, Henze writes, is “no longer simply that of Isolde or Tristan, but of the whole suffering world, which seems to burst the bounds of concert music.”

The solo pianist is left to pick up the pieces in an extended epilogue which, with its hanging notes, arpeggios, pauses, cantabile elongations and jagged leaps, is caught somewhere between agitation and calm. Suddenly, the piano drops out: We hear an electronically-amplified heartbeat, and a child’s voice—that of Zinovieff’s son, Kolinka—reads out a passage from the medieval Sir Tristrem, describing Isolde’s death. This fragment enters the work as if from nowhere. Why does Henze put this text in the mouth of a child? Is the heartbeat we hear that of life ebbing out or life continuing? On this precipice the work ends, with everything still up for contestation.

By the early ’80s, the revolutionary moment that had birthed Tristan seemed long past due to a combination of electoral compromise, state repression, and right-wing terror. The revolution promised in 1968 had not taken place. Cuba was beleaguered. Chile remained under Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship. Italy, where Henze was living, endured the years of lead and the historic compromise. In Germany, meanwhile, as Henze wrote in 1981, “the swastikas on walls all over the place are only the backdrop,” his words a necessary reminder that Europe still remained—and remains today—a hypocritical hotbed of deadly racism. In Tristan, the horror at the heart of Europe, its expulsion of outsiders, its murder of love—as well as the violence of European and American colonialism in Chile and elsewhere—becomes the basis for a defiant lament. The music can’t be resolved because the society in which it exists continues, implicitly or explicitly, to perpetuate and to condone fascism. The tainted legacy has not been erased, and the struggle against it is more important than ever.