Cube Calendar Articles from 1993

The Berlin Novembergruppe and its Musicians

by Rainer Peters/Harry Vogt


The Twenties -- known euphemistically as the "Golden Twenties" here [in Germany], and called the "Roaring Twenties" by the Americans -- looking back, it seems as if they took place almost exclusively in Berlin. In the capital of the Weimar Republic, the arts responded particularly promptly and productively to the political, social and economic tensions of the post-war period. Reactions to the collapse of the occidental castle in the air and its "eternal" values, to inflation, bank and stock exchange crashes, unemployment and crises of all kinds were as varied as they were hectic, and ranged from a euphoric mood of awakening to dark premonitions of catastrophe.

"Stir up unrest! Rage! Explode" was the motto of the "First International Dada Fair" in the Berlin of 1920, its aim being to provoke the bourgeoisie and the army. Erwin Piscator produced proletarian theater and Georg Grosz came up before the public prosecutor for his socially critical drawings. In most of the forty cabarets, thanks to Tucholsky, Mehring, Ringelnatz and Brecht, political themes were treated with sharp literary wit. Josephine Baker danced the Charleston and another dancer sang her indignant question: "What are you doing with your knee, dear Hans?"

The theater on Schiffbauerdamm had its triumphal opening with the Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera). Oskar Schlemmer demanded "not cathedrals, but machines for living," and the architects designed film palaces, department stores and blocks of flats for Berlin, or "Langer Lulatsch" (The Beanpole), the city's new radio tower. The metropolis itself took a leading role: In Walter Ruttmann's film Berlin, The Symphony of the City and in Alfred Dblin's successful book Berlin Alexanderplatz. Democracy stood on shaky legs, and the art of the period was aggressively critical. The stick-in-the-muds fought back and defamed artists and left-wing intellectuals as cultural bolshevists, their products as asphalt culture. Tucholsky had already suffered under "Germany" for some time: "The left writes, but the right acts."

This vehement mood of awakening, which also began the decade in the field of music, was represented by musicians such as Hermann Scherchen. He was the instrumentalist, conductor, and from January 1920 onwards, the publisher of the journal Melos, he championed Schnberg as emphatically as he did "workers' music", founded a New Music Society and the Melos Association, in which the newest music of the time was performed.

One association of artists called itself the Novembergruppe after the revolutionary month in 1918 during which the German monarchy fell. "The Novembergruppe is a union of radical artists, radical in their rejection of traditional forms of expression, radical in their application of new means of expression"; these were the brief and concise words which the group used to describe themselves in the catalogue of their first exhibition in Berlin during 1919. The word "radical" played "a great role" in the vocabulary of its members, as a co-founder of the November Group, Karl Jacob Hirsch, later remembered: "The word was used as a matter of course. It was, as it were, a precondition for the existence of the new man, as we wanted him to be..."

The founding of the Novembergruppe took place chiefly on the initiative of visual artists. The inaugural meeting took place on December 3, 1918, and a few days later the first circular letter, containing maxims and more precise declarations of intent, was distributed.

"The future of art and the seriousness of the present moment oblige us -- as revolutionaries of the spirit (expressionists, cubists, futurists) -- to unite and to closely merge." Their demands were for "influence and co-operation" in questions of architecture, in the "new structuring of the art schools," the "alteration of the museums," the "distribution of exhibition space" and "legislation on art." The origins of the group, therefore, were the development of long term perspectives in cultural politics and a firm desire for participation and influence in the construction of a new Germany.

One important characteristic of the group was its undogmatic openmindedness and tolerance in the face of -- at least in name -- different stylistic movements such as: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism. This openness perhaps explains the unusually long existence of the Novembergruppe, which, after nearly fifteen years in existence, was finally dissolved after the "seizure of power" by the Nazis in 1933. Artists as different as Paul Klee, Arthur Segal, Oskar Fischer, Willi Baumeister, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, George Grosz and Otto Dix all exhibited in the Novembergruppe. Intensive contacts with Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau were maintained: Masters of Bauhaus and their pupils were also represented at exhibitions of the Novembergruppe, among them Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Vassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger and Georg Muche. As time passed, the group became open to the other arts. At the general meeting of January 22, 1922, it was decided that literary figures and musicians might also be admitted, as long as they "had a firm grounding in the radical views of art and artists."

From the beginning of 1922 onwards, music evenings were part of the work of the Novembergruppe. The director of the music department was Max Butting, who, together with Heinz Tiessen, was among the first composer members of the group. Later the critic, Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, at that time still a composer and pianist, joined together with Kurt Weill, Vladimir Vogel and Stefan Wolpe, pupils of Busoni, then Hanns Eisler, the sensational American piano player, George Antheil, and Jascha Horenstein and Felix Petyrek, both pupils of Schreker. Stuckenschmidt reported that of course radical progressives were more likely to be welcomed and heard among the musical members of the group than such moderate modern composers as the Busoni pupil, Philipp Jarnach, whose membership Stuckenschmidt at first opposed. Later he yielded and confirmed that Jarnach composed "impressively, if not in a revolutionary way." Stefan Wolpe, on the other hand, the youngest of them all, was classed by Stuckenschmidt as an "extraordinary manifestation. Throwing himself from ecstasy to ecstasy, from extreme to extreme, passionately pondering the material and ideology of his art, he has proved his more than unusual talent in several works, a talent which awaits maturity."

All the contemporaries with a name and reputation are listed in the concert programs: Schnberg, Hindemith, Berg, Stravinsky, Satie, BartÛk, Webern, Malipiero, Ravel, Casella, also Eduard Erdmann and Artur Schnabel, who appeared as composers/pianists, and Toch, Martinu, Kodaly, Krenek, Gruenberg and Schulhoff. Among the interpreters were the famous violinists Rudolf Kolisch and Georg Kulenkampff, as well as the Amar and the Havemann Quartets.

The strategy of organizing the concerts in small halls in Berlin, or even in private flats, was remarkable. It had the advantage that they always appeared to be well-visited, which was always remarked upon by the press. The financing of the concert events was also original. In part, this was done through public costume balls organized by the Novembergruppe, which were very lively goings-on. "The reputation of the first of these events, which was left entirely free of censorship, was such that the pleasure-lovers of the period of inflation flocked to the succeeding ones, so that each time the Novembergruppe was happily able to make a clear profit. The profit was quickly changed into dollars, and thus the running of the exhibitions and concerts was ensured throughout the inflation period." (Butting) And when this money proved inadequate after all, then of course there were other means, within this circle, to reward the musicians: "An appeal to the visual artists meant that drawings, watercolors and small sculptures were put at our disposal, and most of the interpreters were delighted to chose something from among these works as their reward, and in addition, the artists did not stay away from the concerts, for they knew that the interpreters of the music would accept their own works. Thus we always had an audience which showed a lively interest, chiefly made up of artists." (Butting)

Among the compositions which had their Berlin, or even world premiere at concerts of the Novembergruppe were Eisler's first piano sonata, the Compositions for one and two pianos by Vladimir Vogel, Hindemith's second string quartet, Weill's quartet, his Divertimento for small orchestra with male choir and the Sinfonia Sacra. "All this lent the podium of the Novembergruppe reputation and prestige" according to Max Butting in his memoirs. "Since we had to do no more than follow our principle of presenting new works for discussion, a first, important center for new music grew up."

The group, with its pleasure in discussion, had gained the somewhat mixed reputation of a "debating club" at an early stage. The closed sessions, meetings of members, were notorious for the intense discussion which took place, and of course heated arguments arose. The musicians, who normally, as Stuckenschmidt wrote, preferred to "be amongst themselves," had a chance here to exchange views with representatives of the other arts. Isolation and insider-like withdrawal were "impossible right from the start, and that was incomparably important for us as musicians," as Stuckenschmidt remembered. "In the often passionate discussions... the most explosive subject was the situation of modern artists in Soviet Russia..."

Stuckenschmidt had taken over the directorship of the music department in 1926. Under his lead, the "aesthetic radicalism" proclaimed at the outset was emphasized once more; he suggested new projects, for example an evening which was dedicated solely to mechanical music (for the Welte-Steinway grand Piano). The following musical evening, on May 2, 1927, the 19th since the founding of the group, led to a scandal. Here, as Stuckenschmidt formulated, "brutist piano experiments" were presented: sonatas by Wolpe, Hansjrg Dammert and Stuckenschmidt himself, who remembered the evening in the following way: "Among the audience were Artur Schnabel, Hanns Eisler and prominent music critics, led by Adolf Weiþmann. My sonata ended when the piano lid was let fall from ëa moderate height" whilst operating the pedals. This brought the infuriation of the tortured listeners, which could already be felt, to the point of eruption. Whistles and boos vied with the loud applause of the Novembergruppe. It was a true scandal, and the press was outraged, almost to a man, over our experiments. Weiþmann destroyed me with the sentence: ëI used to have quite a liking for him." Fritz von Nemitz, who is actually an art critic, likened my final effect with the slamming of a dustbin lid."

The falling piano lid was a highly symbolic conclusion to the concert series of the Novembergruppe: Stuckenschmidt soon left Berlin for Prague, in order to take on an important position as a critic there. Musicians such as Eisler, Wolpe and Weill committed themselves elsewhere and turned their attention increasingly to political aims and tasks.

(From "Von Berlin nach New York" program notes, West German Radio, Cologne 1988. Translated by Lucinda Rennison.)

The New Pocket Opera

A new and exciting opera company will have its launching performances Dec. 8, 9, 10, and 11 at the Court Theater. The Pocket Opera Company of the University of Chicago will present the world premiere of a new opera by John Eaton, internationally acclaimed composer of 9 operas and professor of composition at the University of Chicago. Let's Get This Show on the Road: An Alternative Version of Genesis will be coupled with the Chicago stage premiere of Eaton's highly successful Peer Gynt.

The participants in the Pocket Opera will be the members of the renowned New York New Music Ensemble, consisting of Jean Kopperud, clarinets, Jayn Rosenfeld, flutes, Linda Quan, violins, Michael Finkel, violoncellos, James Winn, piano, and James Baker, percussion; soprano Lauren Miller, mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, tenor Harold Broch and baritone Jeffrey Morrisey; and Pieter Snapper, who will perform electronic music on the new Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboards. The operas will be conducted by Cliff Colnot and directed by Michael Phillips. Lighting design will be done by Stephen Quandt. Finally, the set, prop, and costume elements of the world premiere are to be made by Eugene Walter, a prize winning designer as well as internationally known poet. Mr. Walter, who wrote the libretto of Let's Get This Show on the Road, has published ten volumes of poetry, served as editor of the Paris Revue as well as Botteghe Oscure, was a contributor and participant in several Fellini movies, and still found time to write the Time-Life Southern Cookbook. (He will give a reading of his poetry in Chicago during the week of the performances.)

Let's Get This Show on the Road takes six moments from the book of Genesis -- chaos, light, the rise and fall of Lucifer, the creation and fall of mankind, the first murder, and Noah's Ark -- and recreates them in actions and commentaries set to music. In the actions, the instrumentalists are asked to assume the personae of some of the characters in the play. They should wear parts of costumes and masks to identify them as such. They may be asked to whisper, speak normally, recite, shout, or sing in various ways; and, on occasion, dance.. The flutist plays "Light"(God), Ms. Noah (on alto flute), and a giraffe; the clarinettist is Lucifer, the Serpent (on bass clarinet), and a giraffe; the violinist is Eve (She begins sinning when the Serpent hands her an electric violin with an Apple sticker on it.) and a monkey; the cellist is Adam (He begins sinning and playing the amplified cello when he covers his private parts with a big Mac -- an Apple sticker won't do!) and a monkey; the pianist plays Abel and a unicorn; the percussionist hammers the inside of the piano as Cain and is a unicorn; the synthesist is both a hen and a rooster. In the commentaries and interruptions they simply accompany the singers.

The singers have roles in all three parts of the drama, sometimes, in the actions, sharing a part with an instrumentalist. The commentaries usually are confrontations between the singers in their various roles -- eg., the first one pits Lucifer against the God-Trio.

Similarly, in Peer Gynt, written especially for the New York New Music Ensemble, a collection of ten theatrical fragments are based on some essential actions chosen freely from the play by Ibsen, in which the instrumentalists are asked to assume the personae of some of the characters in the play. They should wear parts of costumes and masks to identify them as such. They may be asked to whisper, speak normally, recite, shout, or sing in various ways; and, on occasion, dance. Many of the actions of the play and piece take place as part of lies, fantasies, dreams, and other imaginings. Not for nothing was Ibsen a favorite writer of Freud and Joyce.

The Pocket Opera of the University of Chicago grew out of a dream that composer John Eaton has had for many years of a new kind of opera company:

Instead of a large, uninvolved orchestra, a small group of instrumentalists should not only play for, but also take part in the action. There should also be an excellent vocal quartet, trained not only in traditional operatic singing, but also conversant with contemporary and vernacular vocalism from throughout the world. For more expansive accompaniment, the full range of electronic music should be opened up in real-time. The actions should not require sets or elaborate stage mechanisms, both of these being replaced by the use of projections and kinetic lighting techniques. Costumes and props should consist only of suggestive elements.

With no cumbersome sets or an orchestra to move, after its premieres in a traditional theater, the Pocket Opera could hop into a van and appear in any museum space, theater, college or high school auditorium, or cultural center that would have it. Thus, a true democratization of opera would be effected.

Events in John Eaton's career in 1992 proved a stimulus to the realization of this dream. The first of these was the development of the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard and its first appearance in concert in the spring of 1992. Eaton and synthesizer builder Robert Moog were engaged for nearly 20 years in the development of these keyboards, which impart a degree of human nuance and spontaneity to electronic music heretofore not possible.

The second stimulus for the formation of this opera company was the successful performances in May and June of 1992 of Eaton's Peer Gynt. Commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble, perhaps the premiere performance group for new music in the country. Peer Gynt is a collection of ten theatrical fragments based on some essential actions, chosen freely from the play by Ibsen. The instrumentalists are asked to assume the personae of some of the characters in the play. They wear parts of costumes and masks to identify them as such. They are asked to whisper, speak normally, recite, shout, or sing in various non-operatic ways; and, on occasion, dance -- in general, they have themselves a good romp. Whatever they do besides play their instruments seems to be a natural outgrowth of what they are playing.

The Music Department of the University of Chicago enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed Eaton's venture in the fall of 1992 and the Contemporary Chamber Players invited the fledgling company to present its premiere performances in December of 1993 as the first event of its 30th anniversary season.

The Pocket Opera Company of the University of Chicago will endeavor to develop and present exciting new kinds of music theater. It will reach out to as large an audience as possible with as small a company as is practical. Among its more specific objectives are:

1) to give excellent performances of whatever pieces it undertakes;

2) to introduce audiences to new musical possibilities -- to unfamiliar sounds and vocal/instrumental/electronic combinations and techniques -- in a most engaging fashion and with the added stimulus to appreciation by the public of being connected with dramatic performances;

3) to contribute to the development of non-traditional audiences for contemporary music, especially youth with limited access to cultural programming, through outreach to schools and communal organizations;

4) to involve the instrumentalists in the action in such a way that what they do in addition to performing their instruments in traditional and non-traditional ways-- eg., singing, dancing, acting -- seems to be a natural extension of what they are playing;

5) to replace the large traditional operatic orchestral accompanying forces with new electronic music controllers, sensitive to human nuance, such as the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboards;

6) to work with new possibilities of lighting and sound reinforcement whenever these enhance the action;

7) to eventually commission new works by composers which are especially written within the scope of the company;

8) to design productions so that they can be toured and easily performed in non-traditional spaces.

So, the Pocket Opera Company of the University of Chicago will be performing two very new compositions based on well-known texts with an exceptionally versatile group of instrumentalists and singers cum actors. Such performance, fresh, vital, and accessible, have the potential to win audiences unfamiliar with or uncertain about opera. This combination of the newest music, the finest performance values, and the most diverse audiences addresses the mission of the new company.