Hindemith’s opera, planned in the 1930s but composed in the 1950s, is a kind of scientific counterpart to his earlier and better known opera about art, Mathis der Maler. Both deal with a historical figure – astronomer-mathematician Johannes Kepler and artist Mathias Grünewald, respectively – whose work and beliefs put them at odds with the authorities of the day and who symbolised for the composer his own experience with the Nazis.
Kepler (1571-1630) is best remembered for his Laws of Planetary Motion, for his arguments that the physical world is harmonious in its construction and that God’s plan for the universe was based on geometry. Against a background of religious wars – the destructive Thirty Years’ War raged through his last years – and in a world where his own mother was tried for witchcraft, Kepler brought the formerly separate disciplines of physics and astronomy together, appraised the Pythagorian idea of the ‘harmony of the spheres’ and laid the foundations of Newton’s gravitational laws. That Kepler lived and worked for some of the most significant years of his life in Linz itself makes the city the ideal venue for a reappraisal of Hindemith’s long-neglected operatic study of the scientist’s life story. Die Harmonie der Welt was premiered under the composer’s baton in Munich in 1957, but its music and ideas seemed to go over the heads of the assembled press and musical grandees present and only Hindemith’s symphony of the same title – written in 1951 before he began serious work on the opera – has made any headway, largely thanks to the initial support of Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Kepler’s attempt to codify the heavens was mirrored, in a way, by Hindemith’s own musical theories which – less formulaically than Schoenberg – tried to set new interrelationships between all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. The result, in this his penultimate opera, might be termed an enhanced tonality – the ideas sound reassuringly familiar (Hindemith even incorporates melodies from Kepler’s time), but their use explores new tensions and harmonic relationships. While the bulk of the opera treats Kepler and his changing situation with a realist focus, the work culminates in a scene in which, after the scientist’s death, his friends, foes and family members personify the celestial beings themselves in a dramatic apotheosis presented as a mixture of fugue and passacaglia, an exposition of music’s own ‘harmony of the world’ that ends in a blazing E major.
One of Kepler’s many claims to fame is as author of what has been described as the first science-fiction novel, Somnium (Dreams) of 1608. By happy coincidence, Michael Obst’s Die andere Seite is a music-theatre adaptation of one of the classic early works in the genre of fantasy fiction. The original novel, similarly dealing with the concept of a dream world, was written exactly 300 years after Kepler’s, in 1908, by the Austrian Expressionist artist and literary precursor of Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin. The story is told from the viewpoint of ‘The Draftsman’, an unnamed school friend of Patera, a ‘philanthropist’ who has used a financial windfall to create a model society, a Traumreich, or dream kingdom, in an uninhabited area of Asia. Invited to join the community, the friend soon finds that the dream has become a nightmare of oppression, totalitarianism and decay that only ends when a new, American arrival, Herkules Bell, instigates revolution and the kingdom’s destruction.
Obst, 62 this year, is a musician of wide-ranging experience. He was a pupil of and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen, was a founder member of the Ensemble Modern in the 1980s as its pianist, and as a composer has strived to combine electronics alongside traditional instruments. Die andere Seite – his third work for the stage – was written in 2008-9 for the Mainfranken Theatre in Würzburg, Germany, to a libretto by the theatre’s then Intendant, Hermann Schneider, and compresses Kubin’s novel into a drama of 18 scenes, plus prologue and epilogue, lasting about 100 minutes. Its music is dominated by pre-recorded electronic sounds, which become more prevalent as the dream world self-destructs, but Obst also binds things together with the use of an old Armenian mourning chant, to suggest, perhaps, the unstated Asian setting.
Worlds of harmony, dream and sound, then, are set to echo through the Landestheater Linz this spring.
Article sponsored by Landestheater Linz.