Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Janáček and Mahler in the Digital Concert Hall; Brothers or Others?

Beginning in August 2010, the Berliner Philharmoniker undertook a project that involved the performance of the complete major orchestral works of Gustav Mahler. These events were transmitted over, and archived within, the Digital Concert Hall. This project will come to a close on Saturday with a performance of  Das Lied von der Erde with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and tenor Stuart Skelton as soloists.

Das Lied will be paired with the final scene of the "Cunning Little Vixen" by Janáček. One imagines that this imaginative companion was chosen for its similarities. The brief online notes for the program indicate that the Janáček scene "reveals fascinating parallels to Das Lied von der Erde. Janáček, born like Mahler in what today is an area of the Czech Republic, creates a wonderfully delicate scene in which the Forester ponders life – and in turn bids farewell to youth and beauty."
In an essay called "The Most Nostalgic Opera," from his recent book "Encounters," Milan Kundera argues that Janáček wrote in opposition to romanticism.

To help make his case Kundera focuses on an unexpected moment at the end of the final scene where a frog jumps up onto the woodsman and talks with him. The woodsman believes this to be the same frog that led the vixen to him in the first scene, but time passes quickly for animals; this stuttering frog is the grandson of the frog the huntsman believed him to be.

"Ah, that little frog!" wrote Kundera. "Max Brod did not like him at all. Max Brod—yes, Franz Kafka’s closest friend—he supported Janáček wherever and however he could: he translated his operas into German and opened German theaters to them. The sincerity of his friendship authorized him to let the composer know all his criticisms. The frog must go, he wrote Janáček in a letter, and in place of his stammering, the woodsman should solemnly pronounce the words that will close the opera! And he even suggests what they should be: 'So kehrt alles zurück, alles in ewiger Jugenpracht! (Thus do all things repeat, all with a timeless youthful power.)' ”

"Janáček refused. Brod’s proposal went against all his aesthetic intentions, against the polemic he had waged his whole life long. A polemic that set him in opposition to opera tradition. In opposition to Wagner. In opposition to Smetana. In opposition to the official musicology of his countrymen. In other words, in opposition (to quote René Girard) to 'the romantic lie.' The little disagreement about the frog shows Brod’s incurable romanticism: imagine that weary old woodsman, his arms widespread, head thrown back, singing the glory of eternal youth! This is the romantic lie par excellence, or, to use another term: this is kitsch."

I can't imagine that Kundera would call "Das Lied" Kitsch. But his concept does create the possibility that the works are more others than brothers. I will tune into the Digital Concert Hall on Saturday to hear this event and will write about it here on Sonic Labyrinth. Join me.

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