A Very Different Goebbels Ponders World War II

Lincoln Center will present an evening devoted to the work of German avant-garde composer Heiner Goebbels, whose mash-ups of past and future sound worlds have resulted in some of the most provocative music of the present.

“Time is not something where the past is gone and the future hasn’t arrived,” states Heiner Goebbels emphatically. “Everything seems to be there at the same time. So you have to deal with what has been in order to develop things.”

Audiences for Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series will recall Goebbels’s extraordinary Stifter’s Dinge staged at the Park Avenue Armory last season, in which a riveting theatrical narrative inspired by the 19th-century novelist Adalbert Stifter was presented without a single human cast member. But the two works that will be presented as part of Tully Scope on Friday, March 18, 2011—both New York premieres—tell a decidedly more personal story.

The centerpiece Songs of Wars I Have Seen is a highly imaginative re-imagining of an account of the American liberation of France from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II by expatriate American author Gertrude Stein, one of the pioneers of modern literature. During her lifetime, Stein collaborated with Virgil Thomson on two of the most unusual American operas of the 20th century—Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All.

But posthumously she has become an extraordinarily prolific librettist, inspiring one-act operas by Ned Rorem and Meyer Kupferman, experimental pieces by Pascal Dusapin and Petr Kotik, and even Broadway musicals by Stephen Flaherty and the late Reverend Al Carmines. But Goebbels’ take on Wars I Have Seen, his third setting of Gertrude Stein thus far, might be the single most transformative treatment of her prose. According to Heiner Goebbels, his approach to setting the text is “rather like staying in bed and grasping for the book on the night table and then reading it in a dim light.”

In Stein’s typically non-linear book, descriptions of prisoners and bombs are jarringly juxtaposed with seemingly quotidian vignettes about bread, boots, and wrist-watches as well as with ruminations about earlier eras, the American Civil War and the times of Henry VIII and Shakespeare.

“What makes this writing of Gertrude Stein so exciting is she didn’t decide for you what is important or not,” comments Goebbels. “She talks with the same intensity about various personal private things and very heavy political catastrophes. Why does she worry about honey and her boots when she talks about prisoners on a train or bombs on the Italians? Why does she talk about food? It’s exactly what in your privacy you have to deal with. You have to find your way to survive every day in such a situation. And I was so excited by her approach of considering history as constantly repeating and her constant comparisons of what happens in the time of Henry VIII and Shakespeare with her experiences in the Second World War. I thought that it would be very nice to confront that also in a musical way.”

So to convey this simultaneous overlay of multiple strands of time and perspective, Goebbels enlists two ensembles—the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta, specialists in contemporary music—and juxtaposes his own music with music by 17th-century English composer Matthew Locke.

“That was a starting point, but it turned out to be something more complex,” Goebbels coyly explains. “Finally it wasn’t the OAE playing only the old stuff and the London Sinfonietta only playing the new stuff. It was really mixed in another way which I don’t want to give away now.”

Rather than featuring actors or singers to convey Stein’s text, Goebbels has individual members of these two ensembles transmit her words. As a result the typical anonymity of playing in a larger ensemble dissolves.

“All of a sudden you hear a personal voice,” beams the composer. “Musicians, especially those who are virtuosos on their instruments, have done nothing else but rehearsing and performing music and they’re so happy when other tasks show up, when they discover to their surprise and often to my surprise what other competences they have as performers—reading, dancing, singing, acting. I think musicians can do so much more than just play music.”

And indeed to describe what Goebbels does as a creative artist simply as music doesn’t quite encompass the totality of what he is doing. Even works that might nominally be listed in his catalog as concert pieces are really gesamkunstwerke in which theatrical, choreographic, and visual elements play as important a role as melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. In addition, Goebbels considers his role as a creative artist not only to be someone who comes up with new work, but also to be a conduit for preserving traditions and sowing the seeds of social reflection.

“It’s a very important task of music, to keep something which otherwise would get lost, to save something from being forgotten,” reflects Goebbels. “Music can do that very well. It’s not the first sense of being a musician to be a genius or original or an inventor, it’s also a task for music to pass down history and keep it from being forgotten.”

This almost archeological aspect of music is even more pronounced in Goebbels’ astonishing Suite for Sampler and Orchestra, which will open the Tully Scope program. Originally conceived as part of his evening-length performance Surrogate Cities, the Sampler Suite is also an ideal companion piece for Songs of Wars I Have Seen since the opening movement contains extremely rare German recordings of Jewish cantors from the 1920s and 1930s, a tradition that the Nazis had conspired to annihilate.

“These original cantor recordings from the ‘20s and ‘30s, nobody knows them. By this work it was possible at least to make people curious about it and to bring it, like all the other sounds, into the concert space and to the attention of a curious audience.” For Heiner Goebbels confronting the painful legacy he evokes in both the Sampler Suite and in Songs of Wars I Have Seen has an added resonance. Although he was born in the 1950s, a decade after the horrors of the Second World War played out—he even confesses, “My mother complained when I told her my piece is called Wars I Have Seen; she said, ‘But you haven’t seen it’”—he was fated to have the same last name as one of the most notorious leaders of the Nazi regime, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

“I was asked every day of my life until now if I have a relationship with Joseph Goebbels,” the composer admits. “I missed the right point of when to choose an artist’s name; I have to live with it. And it happens that people get confused when using the first name for Joseph Goebbels. People speak about this fascist propaganda minister and they call him Heiner Goebbels. On the one hand, it’s interesting because obviously I was able to give the name another connotation.”

And indeed the aesthetics of Heiner Goebbels are diametrically opposed to the notion of propaganda in any form. “We don’t need any more theater which decides for us what to think,” this Goebbels proclaims in what is almost an aesthetic manifesto. “We need theater or concerts or performing arts which trust in our own option to judge."

Frank J. Oteri
Playbill Arts (US), 16 February 2011