It's paradoxical. The heyday of twentieth-century music philosophy is over and done with, but the grand philosophical schemes, dating ultimately from the Enlightenment, have left their traces on our century's music history. Yet the fashionable argot of the 1980s, born of the disintegration of those schemes, is no longer taken seriously. Music criticism, bereft of the historic-ideological props it used to flaunt so self-confidently, now clings to everyday ephemera. Musicology, with a higher opinion of itself than the musicians it is actually meant to comprehend, has undergone on crisis after another in its ivory-tower retreats, intuitively sensing that analysis is incapable of grasping the upheavals of musical composition. And yet, composers have survived - and music has been written.
Or perhaps the paradox works the other way around. Despite analysis, despite all the historical watersheds and those well-reasoned arguments for the "legitimacy" of genres, forms and topics, despite the many government-sponsored or privately funded trends "New Music", there still existed composers who relied on the one thing that has been the defining feature of music since time immemorial: Its incommensurobility with any and all attempts to pigeonhole it into concepts and institutions.
But there is a third paradox as well. However it may have come about, we now face an omnipresent surfeit of social, political and aesthetic options. Today's editorials are haunted by the spectre of the "end of history", a term coined in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama (then deputy director of the US State Department) in the title of an article which, though merely curious today, raised many an eyebrow at the time by prognosticating "centuries of boredom". But still we hear new operas, new symphonies, new string quartets, as though they had survived surreptitiously in the diaspora, hidden in one of the deep wrinkles in Western music history. And it was precisely the string quartet which has always borne, in embryo, the seeds of compositional progress, from Beethoven's remorseless hermeticism to Schönberg's "new shores", from Schubert's espousal of a new concept of time to the achievements of Bartók and Webern. In the later half of our century the principal historical milestones have, perhaps, been set by Lutoslawski's String Quartet of 1964 and Luigi Nono's of 1980. These are works that take no heed whatsoever of normatives approaches to the composer's art, preferring instead to address the compositional problems which originally gave rise to the string quartet tradition: the manipulation of the theme and motif.
We would be fully justified in viewing Beethoven's late quartets, especially his Große Fuge, as the non plus ultra of the art of the string quartet. And this is just what the young composer Michael Denhoff has done. Denhoff's particular affinity for the late works of Beethoven becomes increasingly clear in his more recent scores. Beyond that, the musical universe of Bernd Alois Zimmermann and his notions on the philosophy of time were of crucial importance for the development of Denhoff's own work as a composer, as can be seen in this trenchantly formulated notes and essays on music. The quest for a temporal container, the perceivability of time and the many ways it can be structured, the transcendence of perceivable time, its relation to imaginary musical time and the "aesthetic time" that undergirds its perceivable counterpart: these are the issues taken up by Denhoff's instrumental music as a whole, and by his String Quartet in particular. One might even say that this piece, notwithstanding its advanced musical idiom and its "spherical shape of possibilities" (to paraphrase a term from B. A. Zimmermann), has written out the composer's ambiguous relation to history. In the free act of composition, all means and options are at his disposal. Looming in the background are the great masterpieces of the genre - especially those of Beethoven - and hence the ever-present possibility of failure in his efforts to reformulate the string quartet ideal.
Cyclic connections, formal ideas, thematic constellations: all are part and parcel of the autonomous concept of the string quartet. To quote Denhoff's own words, written on the occasion of the premiere of his Fourth String Quartet by the Auryn Quartet (Bonn, 29 March 1990): In my Fourth Quartet, written in autumn 1988, I have tried to define my relation to this line of tradition (of the string quartet) and to confront the problems it raises and the possible solutions it presents. At the same time, I consider this quartet, which goes far beyond my three previous efforts (of 1973, 1978 and 1982) both in its length and in its radical exploitation of the range of expression, to be a resume of my previous work. By summarizing my experiences and views as a composer it adopts a confessional tone, and yet it is also a declaration of love to this genre, perhaps the most perfect vehicle of the musical thought.
The weighty first movement generates its thematic material from a unisono spreading out from the pitch c#. The components thus presented gradually separate into successive developments sections, forming increasingly dense contrapuntal and polymeric fabrics and textures that derive from and elaborate the forms of the fuge. The prodigious complexity of this vehement and explosive opening movements is counterpoised by its mirror-reflection in the final movernent, whose far-flung perorations conjure up a remote, interiorized intensity. First, the opening of Movement I reappears in a sort of ethereal, slowmotion spectral analysis from which a tender cantabile ensues. Only occasionally is this cantabile disturbed by unexpected and intrusive shatterings of sound. Finally, there emerges a seemingly endless melodic line in which all the players gradually unite. Movements II and IV are governed by a similar relation of opposition and inversion: the utterly withdrawn and introverted expressivity of the second movement, clambering aimlessly about pulsating central pitches, erupts in the fourth movement into music of extreme emotional frenzy. The midpoint of the entire quartet is a short taut Presto bearing the features of a shadowy and breathless scherzo from the world of fairies and hobgoblins.
Thus Michael Denhoff. The conceptual links to the string quartet tradition are obvious enough, as are the common compositional devices. We will therefore dispense with an analysis of the work's details and its constant references to tonal and structural models. The latter even go so for as to include negative formal designs of the sort projected and carried ad absurdum by Mahler's Ninth Symphony with its inverted sequence of movements. Nor, on the whole, does Denhoff's vocal music convey a flattering reflection of reality. instead, it harbours an aesthetic ambivalence that goes beyond pure aesthetics. Many of Denhoffs pieces strangely take cues from the visual arts or refer to works of literature, from Rilke and the French Symbolists via Juan Ramón Jiménez and Guiseppe Ungaretti to Paul Celan. lt would be wrong to call these pieces "settings", instead, particularly his major cycle "Atemwende" after Celan, they transmute artistic expression from one medium to another. The same applies to Denhoff's "Bilder-Vertonungen“ (picture settings) of Goya, Dürer or Kandinsky. lt is these intermediate realms between the arts which he exploits, the expressive possibilities of associations and translations.
Perhaps nowhere is the more in evident than in this cycle of 1987 Traumbuch eines Gefangenen (Dream Book of a Prisoner), after texts by Horst Bienek. The subtitle alone - "oratical scenes" - suggests an historical ambience which underscores the work's scope. For death, torture and imprisonment are part of past and present reality. The prose passages that motivate the interior, imaginary thread of the plot, the increasingly lurid mirages and visions - all are entrusted to a Speaker, who therefore takes on a crucial role in this work, somewhat in the manner of Schönberg's "Survivor from Warsaw". Opposite the Speaker as a sort of mirror is the second narrative ego of the Prisoner, sung by a baritone, and the chorus turns the individual first-person singular into a collective first-person plural.
As in this purely instrumental music, Denhoff makes use of a multifaceted and uncommonly sophisticated device: The central germ-cell of the composition, presented right at the outset in a brief orchestral introduction, is a twelve-note chord consisting of the addition and mirror-reflection of reiterated constellations of intervals, forming an acoustical symbol of life in a prison cell. The material of the piece is derived from this chord, giving rise to spectral bars of sound, swirling timbres and rotating rhythms that generate a Iabyrinth of expressivity in the extreme. In so doing, some of the compositional devices are ruthlessly reduced to a few musical signs (Denhoff). This causes the texture to be compressed into choral unisonos, into the remorselessness of strict linearity, as can be heard in No. 12 where harsh, increasingly jarring blows from the orchestra seem like the hallucinogenic ticking of a super-dimensional clock. Yet for all its economy of means - its juxtaposition of refined instrumental writing and isolated solo lines - the work abounds in convulsive plunges, violent upsurges and heart-rending ligatures. The chaos of creation finds its counterpart in this music. Of its fifteen sections we have selected nos. 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13 and 15.
© 1992 Lothar Mattner (English translation by J. Bradford Robinson)