The Tragic Intellectual |


Wolfgang Schreiber, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 27 May 2004

I recall the first encounter with him, thirty years ago at the Avantgarde-Music Festival of Royan, on France's Atlantic coast: The young Englishman Brian Ferneyhough, 31, from Coventry, began to emerge as an outstanding musician of his generation. And that he is -- a modern stylist on the tracks of Schoenberg-Webern-Boulez, who, despite beginnings in postmodernism, is a composer and musical thinker who pursues great density of expression and a blazing constructivism.

Serious, with an expansive intellect and an eloquent compositional craft, this student of Karl Huber in Basel was defending his ideas even then at that hardly overflowing festival of world premieres, but his works commanded immediate attention. The following year, listening to his 45-minute string quartet, this listener excitedly scribbled: "…Startlingly concise feats of harmonization." Then, in 1986, there was an entire concert dedicated to Ferneyhough-the seven-part cycle Carceri d'invenzione (Dungeon of Invention).

And now Brian Ferneyhough in 2004, as opera composer at the Munich Biennial? The conciseness, the precision is unchanged. At the world premiere of his opera Shadowtime -- which is more of a scenic lab experiment dedicated to 20th century intellectual icon Walter Benjamin -- it was only a few measures before the music, resonant with the composer's presence of mind, made absolutely clear that Ferneyhough will not limit his expectations of himself, nor does he intend to restrain his fiery will to artistic expression. A glance at the libretto and the seven sections of the score confirmed it: We are not observing a narrative opera, but we are engaged by a philosophically sound "opera of thought." Indeed, the German Press Agency would proclaim on the following day that the work lacks "sensuality."

Ferneyhough labored five long years, while teaching at the famed Stanford University in California, to complete the seven parts of Shadowtime. His topic is our past: the tragic figure, the way of life, and the conflicting function of the European intellectual of the 20th century as embodied in the German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin. Superficially, the opera is centered on the final moment of Benjamin's life -- it is the year 1940, and as Benjamin flees the Nazis via France and continues on to Spain, heading to the United States, he is stopped at the Spanish border and escapes deportation through suicide. Critical to the opera is what occurs within that moment, in the wide-ranging interplay of characters, texts, symbols, and sounds.

It begins with an outline of the time, the situation of a refugee who looks back on his life. Layers are interlaced: reflective episodes and periods of redemption and release, featuring Benjamin's friend, the religious philosopher Gershom Scholem, and Hölderlin as authorities. With diverse rhythmic formulas and units, the American poet and literary theorist Charles Bernstein has created a libretto of poetic-philosophical language that allowed Ferneyhough something essential: the freely permutational use of texts and contexts.

Out of a Great Mystery

Exemplary of Ferneyhough's approach is the thoughtful character of Benjamin, especially in its prismatic richness of aspects and meanings. Sort of how Gershom Scholem saw him: "What Benjamin said and wrote sounded as if it came out of a great mystery -- his power, however, came from evidence." For two hours, Ferneyhough tracks down mystery and evidence, and it is to this relentless pursuit that the opera owes its darkly hypnotic, dreamy, and puzzling quality.

It would be impossible to briefly describe what takes place in the sounds and images of this work-manifold in the succession of perspectives, in text and meanings, between life and memory, words, sounds, suggestion. The preparation for death follows Benjamin's fictitious descent into the underworld, where his questioning of his contemporaries is set in a concentrated European vocal polyphony so intricate as to be, possibly, without precedent. The "Angel of History," after Paul Klee, plays a central role in the super-elevation of the tragedy. It is the books and their fates, the rituals of memory and death; it is the unfathomable strangeness that appears in word, sound, and projected image.

It is a wonder that the Shadowtime-kaleidoscope conveys any dramatic unity at all. There is the grand, crazily virtuosic piano solo of Part IV (Nicolas Hodges), intended as a vision of Las Vegas as the gate to the netherworld. Luckily there are the purely vocal sections performed by the Ensemble der Neuen Vocalsolisten Stuttgart (Ensemble of New Vocal Soloists Stuttgart). They realize the monstrously elaborate score with extraordinary rhythmic and dynamic precision. And the musicians of the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, under the baton of the sensationally analytical and ambitious Jurjen Hempel, provide optimal clarity and luminosity. The final passages breathe with the beauty of the most complex bel canto style.

That one perceives musical and theatrical unity is largely due to the patient, purposeful direction of Frédéric Fisbach. In witty, animated scenes of Emmanuel Clolus, Fisbach lets caution prevail in the portrayal of a sad "Hero" (played by Ekkehard Abele as the Cipher of Waiting and Faithfulness). The last part ("Stelae for Lost Time") is magnificent -- an extravagantly beautiful movement for voices, a sound and light crescendo of weightless mourning.

Can one say that the passion for thought and the profound musicality of this work obstruct its "sensuality"? Yes, one can. But there is pure artistic fervor here, and it is gripping. If the listener can forget about plots -- like the ones that novels, films, and operas tend to have in order to be understood -- he will embark on a musical adventure of the most artful complexity, freed from all expectation. Even if, as in this production, the matter of conveying the text to the listener still needs work.

In any case, there was much applause in the Prinzregententheater and no howls of protest. After the premiere, Peter Ruzicka compared this piece to Helmut Lachenmann's epic Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern. And rightly so. Brian Ferneyhough's opera is an apex of modern operatic artistry, and the greatest co-production of the Biennial to date. Performances are booked in London, Paris, New York, and at the Ruhrtriennale. A incredible finale for the Munich music theater festival.