Tränen der Musen

Posted on January 23rd, 2010 by


Track09-Widmann Etude

A fortepiano sits in the castle museum of Maribor, Slovenia. Save for a glowing marquetry case, nothing is left of the colouristic glory that once nestled underneath the lid, the drums and bells have been ripped out. There are no pedals left, they have been chopped off, and the instrument has been reduced to merely a keyboard, strings and ‘action’, the hammers and dampers.

There was nobody in the museum on the day that I visited, apart from the pale ghosts who seemed to float after me from one dim chamber to another. I gingerly stepped over the rope barrier and pressed a key. A fate-filled ‘clang’ filled the half-empty salon, and I fled in a mixture of fear and guilt. Gloom settled over the deserted Schloss, and I was more convinced than before that I was being followed.

That night, Jörg Widmann, Jan-Phillip Schulze and I played in the ‘Golden Hall’ of the Kazinzka Dvorana, housed in a depressing 1970’s municipal block a few blocks away from the haunted Schloss Museum.  This Hall was probably one of the the most acoustically and visually  beautiful small mirrored 19th Century ballroom-salons that I have ever seen. If you stood in it, and listened for long enough, Strauss and Lanner would surely start to echo from the gingerbread and gilt. At the beginning of the Second World War, luckily it was packed up and put into storage.

 This was fortuitous, because, by 1945, after the tides of the partisan struggle had washed back and forth across the town, it was subjected to some of the heaviest aerial bombardment inflicted on any Balkan city. First the allies bombed, and then the Germans, until the town centre had been ground to rubble and nothing was left of the palace which the Golden Ballroom once graced. Stepping out of the hall, you find yourself in a depressingly, ubiquitously Germanic, municipal corridor; scrupulously clean, utterly anonymous. Step back into the glowing hall, and you are once more whirled into the decadent glory of the late, decaying Habsburg Empire. All I needed was the Empress Elisabeth, Sisi, fresh from riding, with ‘Shadow’, her favourite wolfhound at her heels, to dazzle me in addition to the glimmer of a hundred mirrors, the glister of the swinging crystal chandeliers, gold, stucco, cherubs, maenads, cupids, frozen garlands of flowers and fruits, a true architectural ‘Gold and Silver Waltz’. The Merry Widow would have loved it.

 This was a moving place to play Widmann’s ‘Tränen  der Musen.‘ When Jörg first showed the sketches of this piece to me, I was shocked. The whole concept seemed to be nothing but youthful hubris. The piece had been composed, and commissioned, no less, as an in memoriam of the Holocaust, a subject which can bring forth earnestly meant works of offensive triteness from the most gifted of composers. I shiver in memory of a clarinet quartet which I heard in Belgrade, named ‘Auschwitz’. Like much of Jörg’s earlier output, ‘Tränen…’ makes explicit reference to ‘Klezmer’ melodies and dance music; broken ostraka of these tunes, wailing clarinets, impassioned fiddles, inhabiting a landscape of post-nuclear devastation. It all seemed to ‘pat’ to me, just too much the obvious thing to do, but I was unable to express my doubts to the composer at the time; it was obvious that he was enchanted with the project, and, more to the point, felt very deeply about it. It was not until we were playing it together in Maribor that I got over my resistance to the piece, and was forced to accept that Widmann had written a work that says something genuine and necessary about man’s limitless capacity for cruelty and waste. We were playing these keening melodies in an impossibly perfect gilded ballroom, suspended, in aspic, if you like, of a brutal concrete monstrosity, a Tito-esque municipal building, situated in the rebuilt, shadowy echoes of a shattered, bombed city. I was forced to ‘see’ the piece, its sincerity, its layering, as part of these strata, and the next day, walking around the town with my post concert Katzjammer, the piece ‘showed’ me the place.

 I was told that Maribor’s ‘Partisan Museum’, the Muzej Narodne Osvobodite,  of the town would be closed that day, but have learnt that locked doors usually just need to be rattled. On arrival at the exhibit, which is housed in the tattered shell of what must have been, once a beautiful large town house, it was apparently open. I paid the nominal entrance fee to the woman on the door, who, without once looking in my direction, shut up her cubicle and waved me upstairs. The next hour was horrific; case after case described acts of seemingly pointless heroism and the terrible inevitability of retribution; Nazi executions and torture of townsfolk after Partisan raids. The cases were full of artifacts of the various conflicts, faded uniforms, medical kits, primitive weapons, radio sets, sabotage equipment, and transcripts of political trials carried out in snow choked partisan hideaways, amongst the guerilla fighters and activists, as they rooted out informers and political waverers. There were deportations to concentration camps, snow, mud, blood, barbed-wire and, as the horrific climax to the ‘show’ a stained and bullet-torn pine post, which had been used by the Gestapo for executions of townspeople in reprisals for Partisan activities in April 1945. I was horribly drawn to this object, which seemed possessed of a strange and terrible beauty. It is not so often that I am moved to tears by an inanimate object.

 Naturally, I viewed all of this through the linguistic fog that occludes so much when traveling in any country where I do not speak the language, my frustration, from which I can never escape, living in the UK, at seeing the victors of any conflict accord themselves an unquestioned moral imperative, retrospectively. Through all of this, the wail of Jörg’s clarinet, his solo at the beginning of ‘Tränen…‘stalked me. He understands, that music’s power, emotion and philosophy is greatest when it does not judge. It cannot take sides, lecture, hector or manipulate. But in one note, one phrase, a ray of light from a clarinet, it can embody a totality of human tragedy and joy. It was, however, a relief to tear myself out of these terrible rooms, away from these nightmares, and spend a light filled hour sitting by the river Drina on the other side of town.