JMM 3, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, section 3
IN THE ARMS OF LADY DEATH
Musical Signification in Gottfried von Einem’s Opera Jesu Hochzeit (Jesus’ Wedding)
3.1. Music’s Ability to Comment
Music sounds; that much we all know for sure. But can it also paint, tell, or perhaps even – comment? In the course of my interpretation of the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem’s opera Jesu Hochzeit (Jesus’ Wedding) I will be arguing emphatically that it can and does. So before I embark on a discussion of the details, I’d like to reveal the tools of my trade, so to speak.
The manner in which music communicates about any extra-musical issue falls into two categories that can be seen as analogous with those pertinent in the context of painting and poetry, namely, depiction and reference. Depiction by musical means encompasses not only instances of mimicry, but also, and more importantly, the evocation of emotions and feelings. Correspondingly, reference by musical means, just like reference by verbal and pictorial means, relies on cultural and historical conventions. In this context, Leonard Meyer speaks of connotations, which he defines as “those associations which are shared in common by a group of individuals within a culture.” Thus, he continues, “[c]onnotations are the result of the associations made between some aspect of the musical organization and extramusical experience.”
Conventions established between the parties engaging in communication through representation need not, and in fact do not, end with verbal language. The musical language—our primary concern in this study—has developed a highly sophisticated catalogue of signifiers and there is agreement, within our cultural tradition, that they be understood as “pointing towards” non-musical objects. Among the most well-known are
- the semantic interpretation of brief musical units or timbrally distinct utterances as “gestures” on the basis of their kinesthetic shape,
- the figures of musical rhetoric developed in the 15th and 16th centuries,
- the retracing of a visual object (like the Cross) in the pitch outline, and
- the letter-name representation of or allusion to persons—from Bach’s famous pitch signature and those of Schumann, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Berg, etc. to the acrostic bows of reverence to a patron (Schumann’s ABEGG) or a lover (Berg’s HF).
These four basic categories actually constitute intrinsically different ways of music’s “referring to” a non-musical object. Rhetorical figures, while modeled after (verbal) oratory, do not rely on a mediator to be understood by those familiar with them; they function almost like a semantic vocabulary. Gestures need Einfühlung on the part of the individual listener, who perceptively links a certain structure with a kinesthetic image to arrive at an affective connotation. Suggestive pitch contours are (usually clumsy) translations of visual silhouettes and represent an object only insofar as the listener attaches the (metaphoric) concepts of “high” and “low” to what is heard as faster or slower vibration; and letter-name allusions rely on the prior translation of the musically received message into its notational equivalent and its basically arbitrary, though conventionally prescribed alphabetic signifiers in order to be decodable.
Yet even the latter two cases of mediated representation can turn into convention. The listeners’ experience of a correlation between certain musical tropes and implied meanings develops from unexpected recognition via repeated exposure into anticipation, thus establishing a set of conventions that may gradually come to bypass the original mediator, even develop into forms where the mediator is actually inaccessible. Similarly, the Germanic naming of pitches (with B and H as well as the suffix-inflected Fis for F# and Es for Eb) is self-evident neither from the perspective of the Romance-language terms for pitches, which are based on do-re-mi, nor that of the Anglo-Saxon scale lettered A-B-C-D-E-F-G and modified by “sharp” and “flat.” As a consequence, it is a matter of learned conven¬tion, and thus of the “joy of literacy,” if lovers of Western music across language barriers recognize that A- Eb-C-B stands for Arnold SCHoenberg (on the basis of the Germanic spelling of the letters as A–S (Es)–C–H.)
Conversely, composers using musical tropes to represent non-musical objects and concepts employ a great variety of mimetic, descriptive, suggestive, allusive, and symbolic means. Single com¬ponents (motifs or musical formulas) and their syntactic organization, vertical texture and horizontal structure, tonal organization and timbral coloring are entrusted with the task of suggesting depiction. Quotations of pre-existing musical material may add allusive reference and allow for modifications of context, medium, or tonal environment that successfully express defamiliarization or irony. Last but by no means least, countable units—from notes to beats, bars, or sections—invite play with numerical symbols both traditional and innovative. These latter cases move ever further into the realm described by the phrase “the joy of literacy”: not only do such significations remain hidden to the uninitiated, we no longer expect them to be accessible even to insiders through the means of primary sensory perception, but only to skilled readers of the score.
Finally, music is capable of a kind of descriptive effect that Wendy Steiner, writing about the poetry of e.e.cummings and others, refers to as the “embodying of the still-movement paradox.” Even more than language, music can describe so without compromising its intrinsic logic. The reason for this greater flexibility is that music, while resembling verbal texts in that it develops in time, at the same time “paints.” Like the media of visual art, it conveys to its audience the sensual experience of colors and textures, rather than referring to them as language does. Both its range of register and its compositional textures (polyphony above all) create a spatiality to which literary modes can only allude.
3.2. A Scandalous Topic?
What is that force that threatens to sustain eternal antagonism toward him who announces: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life”? (Jn 14:6) One is tempted to retort with the corresponding counter-images: a cul-de-sac, a deceit, and death.
The allegories of antiquity, up to and including Prudentius’ early Christian Psychomachia (published in 405), represent the struggle that the good and the evil forces fight for control over the human soul as a brutal combat. The first music-dramatic realization of the subject matter, Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo virtutem of 1151, confronts a group of virtues, imagined as females, with a single devil, who is male. While the nefarious seducer manages temporarily to win the allegiance of “Anima” (the Soul), he eventually loses against the joint forces of exemplary arguments brought forth against him and what he stands for. Thus he is defeated, though not killed as were his predecessors in cultural history.
A modern allegory is unlikely to reproduce the slaughter of pagan stories; neither will it rely entirely on divinely guided human insight. Especially in the Christian context, the hope that evil may be overcome in this world is more often dramatized as a merging of the opposites—the so-called “Chymic Wedding.” Its goal is no longer the relative and more or less sustainable dominance of the force of good over the force of evil, but the human world’s transition to an entirely different level of spiritual and moral reality. This is the idea that informs the mystery opera Jesu Hochzeit.
It appears half tragic, half comic that an opera on such a topic should have caused the biggest opera scandal of post-WWII times. It is tragic because the more than one thousand written statements of protest that reached the librettist, the composer, and the organizers already during the weeks before the first performance did not stop at personal abuse but included death threats; self-defined “good Christians” prayed that the librettist be lynched, stoned, or burned at the stake. It is tragic also because these responses were directed towards two internationally renowned artists who in no way resembled youthful provocateurs. At the time of the opera’s premiere, arranged as the opening gala of the Vienna Music Festival (Wiener Festwochen) on 18 May, 1980 and broadcast live by both Austrian and German stations, the dramatist Lotte Ingrisch was 50 years old and well-known to the audience after more than 20 performed theater pieces. The composer, 62-year-old Gottfried von Einem, was familiar to the Vienna audience as the winner of numerous prizes and awards; his works had repeatedly been performed to critical acclaim at the Salzburg Music Festival.
The comic side of the scandal is rooted in the protesters’ quite unbelievable lack of information. They had neither read the libretto, nor had their instigators taken the trouble to explain the gist of the operatic story with the help of a synopsis. In the very year of the premiere, the Institute for Theater Studies at the University of Vienna published a documentary volume of more than 400 pages, Pro und Kontra ‘Jesu Hochzeit’. Dokumentation eines Opernskandals [Pro and Contra Jesus’ Wedding: Documentation of an opera scandal]. As can be gleaned from the letters, postcards and arti¬cles from church newsletters that are reprinted in this volume, neither the “outraged Catholics”—thus reads the most frequently repeated anonymous signature—nor the priests who stirred them to shout down the first performance had taken the time to take even a brief look at Ingrisch’s many prior publications. Had they done so, they would have discovered that they were dealing with a modern mystic, a seeker who teaches regular seminars on questions of life and death, a writer whose central con¬cern is the nature of God and whose recurring image is the Chymic Wedding, the fusion of seemingly incompatible opposites. Had the protesters understood any of this, they might have recon¬sid¬ered their allegation that she was motivated either by blasphemous intents or by the base desire to attract media attention. In a reaction to the letters of abuse that was reprinted in the program book for the prem¬iere, Lotte Ingrisch confessed that the hatred unleashed by her libretto was a mystery to her. “How anybody can misconstrue the fusion of love and death as a sexual delinquency escapes me as much as does the requirement that Mary and Joseph speak high German, be free of normal human feelings and above all live as teetotalers. I find it hard to believe that God shares the prejudice of His believers.”
The dramatic figure responsible for all this uproar is a female character who is indeed essential to the understanding of the operatic message. The only one not to have a direct model in Scripture, Ingrisch calls her alternatively “Gevatterin Tod” (godmother Death) and “die Tödin” (a grammatically correct but somewhat awkward feminine derivation of Tod = death). The image and its various names are unfamiliar in the urban centers of the German-speaking world but quite common in rural fairy-tales. It is important to know that we are not to picture a female companion of the male character Death but rather a single and female allegorical incarnation of the negation of life itself. In all Roman and Slavic languages as well as in Hebrew, the word for death is grammatically feminine and thus suggests representation by a female figure. Jesus as the positive force of Life and Light, Love and Truth is thus juxtaposed with the negative force of Lady Death who embodies darkness, hatred, and betrayal. Jesus seeks to overcome her and all that she stands for by uniting himself with her. As in the Song of Songs and the writings of Meister Eckart, Jakob Boehme, St. John of the Cross, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Theresa of Avila and many other mystics, this union of oppo¬sites is imagined as a “sacred wedding” or a “mystic marriage.” Interestingly, the opera comprises many further successful and unsuccessful attempts at seduction beside Jesus’ attempt directed at Lady Death. I will use these as a red thread along which to unravel the dramatic action.
3.3. Seduction after Seduction—to Love, to Hate, to Trust, to Betray
The first of these seductions has just happened when the opera begins. In scene 1, the young girl Mary tells how she has been made pregnant in her sleep. When her bridegroom Joseph protests that he never touched her, she is visibly disturbed and murmurs that in that case, “it must have been the wind”—thus alluding to the Greek word pneuma and through it—in a barely veiled form—to the Holy Spirit. Joseph feels betrayed, but an angel of God appears and confirms that the Lord is indeed the father. Mary and Joseph, dismayed at seeing their hope for a guileless couple’s humble happiness so dramatically thwarted, plead that God choose someone else. When the angel reveals that their son is to redeem the world, Joseph replies with the straightforwardness of a simple but self-respecting artisan: “Thanks a lot, but we’d rather not. The world is already so old and has so far done very well without redemption. At any rate, what follows is never any better.” The angel, insulted by such a lack of human gratitude, unveils a gibbet-cross that, up until now, was hidden under a red cloth, and leaves the young couple alone with this sight. Both concur that what they are seeing is an instrument of execution. Daunted by a premonition, young Mary shudders, feeling assailed by cold and darkness.
Once the first three scenes have thus indirectly introduced the life of Jesus, from his birth as the Son of God to his death on the Cross, the next three scenes bring the protagonists themselves on stage. Lady Death appears initially as a female night watchman. In a contrafactum of a well-known song (still sung today, to the joy of tourists, by the night watchmen in some medieval towns), she warns her listeners that time runs out irrevocably and that they would now soon have to “wed her”:
|Kommt, ihr Leut’, und lasst euch sagen,
eure Stunde hat geschlagen.
Zieht euch ab Fleisch, Haar und Haut,
ich bin eure schöne Braut.
|Come, ye folks, and let me tell you,
The clock has struck your hour.
Peel flesh, hair, and skin from your body,
I am your beautiful bride.
If this seduction by Lady Death as a “beautiful bride” is a mere threat and addressed to an unspecified multitude, the next one, following on its heels, is all too concrete. We see her as the ruler of all who are sick, infirm, and decrepit (here represented by the so-called “mortals,” a chorus of those suffering from all kinds of handicaps and diseases), but such a predictable victory does not satisfy her lust. She embraces nothing with more glee than glowingly healthy youth. And so she chooses Lazarus, a teenager innocent in body and soul. Lifting her black cloak in front of his eyes and exposing herself as a bare skeleton, she causes him to scream in anguish. Then she chases, corners, and finally throttles him. The “mortals,” shaking with fear, submit to this demonstration of power and readily concur that they, too, are creatures of death; they know themselves to have fallen prey to major sins, those of greed and aimless hurry.
At this point, Jesus enters. Offering a view of life that is freed of anxiety and spiritually rich, he heels the “mortals” from their various ailments. Filled with excitement and gratitude they throw away crutches, blind caps and bandages and follow him, while Lady Death, momentarily defeated, ponders revenge.
The next scene presents the attempted seduction involving the allegories of Light and Darkness themselves: Jesus, who describes himself as a “mortal immortal,” and Lady Death, who has reason to believe that she alone will never pass away. She does not understand Jesus when he suggests that she can reach perfection only by gaining mortality, which she will if she fuses lovingly with him. Only the union of complementary aspects can create that oneness that will last beyond time and space, as Jesus explains: “As long as we are separated, man is not one with himself.” None of this interests Lady Death. Her kingdom is the world within time and space. She enjoys her autocratic rule and could not care less for a kingdom “not of this world,” such as the one Jesus hopes to create through his “wedding” with her. And yet, she is so little used to being wooed that she succumbs to the temptation almost against her will and spreads her arms. At the very moment when her fingers first touch his, both are struck as by a flash of lightening and fall into a deep sleep.
This is how Mary and Joseph, now a middle-aged couple, find them. Seeing an extraordinarily hideous woman sleeping beside her son in the flowery meadow, Mary breaks into sobs and laments. Joseph, shuddering at the sight of the spindly boneshaker, feels sick and flees to the comfort of his wine hose.
Jesus is awakened by the dirge Magdalena sings for her dead brother Lazarus. He initially attempts to comfort the grieving girl by explaining that light is imperishable even when it appears shrouded in darkness. But Magdalena cannot yet submit to a perspective which values only the beyond. She feels that the love she owed her younger brother in this life has not yet been fulfilled. Jesus tries to convince her that true love is of an atemporal nature, but then gives in to her sorrow and calls Lazarus back from death. The fusion sought not long ago between the forces that are incompatible in this world seems forgotten. Instead, Life now enters the realm of Death. Jesus is capable of doing so because he alone understands that the human experiences of life and death are like dreams: reflections of inner processes that appear true but do not touch the essence. Predictably, Lady Death does not share this view. She has recently woken up only to discover that the boundaries of her kingdom have been violated. Furious, she threatens revenge. To this end she transforms herself and becomes Judas, so that she may unfold her hatred under the mask of one who allegedly loves Jesus and thus destroy both him and his good tidings.
Her first feat is to take charge of Magdalena. Under the spell of the dark force, the girl forgets the humility she has just recently shown towards him who has called her brother back to life. Now she loudly professes an allegiance to seven evil spirits. These demons demand explicit trespassing of God’s commandments and Jesus’ teachings. To prove her compliance, she intones:
I do not believe in God.
I have nothing but scorn for my parents.
I have often coveted my neighbor’s donkey, servant, and husband.
I defend myself against evil. If my enemy hits me, I hit back.
How can I love my neighbor? I hate, I hate myself.
I am proud. I don’t pray.
And I want to commit adultery with you.
Jesus tries to calm the raving girl and frees himself from her embrace in the most delicate manner imaginable in such a situation: he explains to her that her assumed love for him is nothing but a dream, from which she will now awake. “Just as did Lazarus?” Magdalena asks. As soon as she grasps the connection between death and frenzy, she is rid of the demons that possessed her. Now she longs for greater insight: “Where is the Life?” she asks, “where the Truth, and where the Way?
The same question worries the twelve apostles who have gathered around Jesus. Interestingly, this is the first time in the opera that the public sees them. It almost seems as if it was Lady Death under the mask of Judas who brought them into the play. Jesus replies to their query with words familiar from the gospels: He himself is the Life, the Truth, and the Way; those who believe in him are to follow him in meekness, compassion, love of enemies, generosity, and childlike trust, and surrender the need to judge other human beings. This scene brings about a drastic change: action is replaced by message. So far there had been allegorically defined but immediately comprehensible acts; these now give way to admonitions that, owing to their moral demands and their exclusively verbal representation, must seem intimidating.
As the following scene shows, this change of dramatic mode is significant. Preaching the Sermon on the Mount and conveying his mission to his apostles, Jesus appears exalted; when he rejects his mother (“Woman, what have I to do with you?”), he provokes Judas’ criticism who objects that such behavior does not chime with his lofty words. The arrival of the risen Lazarus, who showers his savior with flowers and gratitude, reignites the apostles’ enthusiasm, and they once again celebrate Jesus as the “King of the Jews.” Mary and Joseph, who witness this scene, feel uneasy. Once more they dare to approach him and ask him to return home with them, but he inverts their wish, answering: “I am going home . . . One of you will betray me.”
In the next group of three scenes (nos. 14-16), Lady Death in the mask of Judas displays all her seductive skills, proving that she is capable of luring humans into her realm through means more refined than strangling. When Jesus pronounces his difficult words about death being contingent upon worldly illusion, Judas lures the other eleven apostles into taking on the form of “animals”. Four of them, in the masks of an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, suggest the evangelist saints Matthew, Marc, Luke, and John; the other seven mutate into a cock, a donkey, a pig, a fox, a ram, a wolf, and a hare—creatures known from fairy-tales to turn truth on its head in the interest of their lusts for pleasure, wealth, and power. Other victims of Judas’ seduction are the formerly disabled, who after their miracle cure had become Jesus’ grateful supporters. By putting on grey masks they betray their true nature as “fickle followers”: people whom anxiety and insecurity has destroyed to the point where they are ready to concur with anyone willing to promise them relief from responsibility for their own doing.
Judas manages to convince all those who are corrupted or corruptible that Jesus’ message cannot only be understood in the way intended by him who appears all too demanding in his claim to convert human attitude, but allows for quite different readings. Jesus protests, exclaiming, “Why have you turned God’s house into a robber’s den? In the end, not one stone will remain on top of the other here. Everything will be destroyed to its roots. Then the Son of Man will come in might and glory surrounded by angels and will judge the world!” In saying this he does not, as in the Bible, chase Israel’s merchants and money-changers from his ancestors’ temple, but rather turn his traitorous apostles from the building of his own good tidings. He does not prophesy the destruction of the old temple (and faith) and an apocalyptic judgment to condemn the unbelievers, but announces the Last Judgment as an annihilation of those Christians who misconstrue his teachings under the influence of darkness. Judas/Lady Death soothes those among Jesus’ followers who feel dismayed by his reproach: “You are chosen to be the rulers of the world. All kingdoms shall bow to you. You will be like God!” Jesus is desperate: he knows that he is being conquered by the force that holds the key to the darkest regions in human hearts. Magdalena, who anoints his feet and confesses in touching earnestness that she, too, cannot live up to his teachings but will never stop trying, remains his only true disciple.
In the opera’s last group of three scenes, Lady Death is franker than ever in her use of seduction and deceit. She has now exchanged the mask of Judas for that of a judge and in this new identity presides over the trial in which she also acts as the main plaintiff against Jesus. The “animals” and the “fickle followers” serve as witnesses, willing but easily manipulated; there is no counsel for the defense. The accusation proceeds in five steps, perhaps symbolically alluding to the five wounds of Christ. Its content is hardly surprising in the eyes of those who, enticed by hatred and dark lusts, intend to take the administration of the Christian message into their own hands much as did Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor:
Jesus of Nazareth, I accuse you of [believing in the] truth.
Jesus of Nazareth, judge of the world, I accuse you of [advocating] mercy.
Jesus of Nazareth, I accuse you of [preaching] love.
Jesus of Nazareth, penitent of the world, I find you guilty of being the Son of God.
Jesus of Nazareth, conqueror of the world, you are sentenced to death.
By now, word has reached Mary and Joseph that their son is allegedly to be crowned king. Half proud, half intimidated they roam the streets of Jerusalem in search of the place where he will ascend to the throne. On their way, they pass a scene in which a man is gruesomely lashed. They feel for the victim but believe not to know him and are about to move on. When they accidentally do recognize Jesus, Mary understands that the angel’s prophecy, communicated even before her son’s birth, is about to come true. Joseph pleads with the “animals” to let him die instead of his son, but they merely allow him to carry the cross. The Lord’s angel confirms that destiny is now being fulfilled and sends Jesus’ parents home. As soon as Jesus has let out his final cry on the Cross, the earth shakes and Lady Death triumphantly welcomes the Light to consummate his wedding with Darkness. The embrace of the two complementary dimensions, which Jesus had sought to perform under the banner of love, thus takes place in the shrill atmosphere of hatred.
The scenes whose content I have just sketched are framed by a prelude and a postlude. Both feature only Magdalena. She appears here as a girl of the 1970s or 1980s, in her hand a guitar as an emblem of the young generation of that time. In this role, she initiates the enactment of this particular version of Jesus’ life story, posing questions that express religious doubts typical for the late 20th century:
Does God exist? Or have we been created by coincidence? And will coincidence extinguish us?
Does God exist? Or are we to change the world as well as coincidence? And are we all alone?
Does God exist? We do not know the answer. But there are many stories about him.
One of them we’ll now play for you. Perhaps it is true.
This opening is significant in several respects. To begin with, it explains the purpose of the enactment, in which Magdalena herself will play a major role—both as a timeless young woman and as an allegorical facet of the biblical Mary Magdalene. The dramatic embodiment serves the search for God, the search for the truth. Moreover, the last sentence of the opening monologue reminds the audience that this is only one of the many stories told about God. Finally, Magdalena blurs the boundaries between the genres of history play and allegory. For what is “truth” in a play that will soon reveal its nature as an interaction between personified moral principles? To be sure, allegories traditionally seek truth as such; they may even have been doing so in a way that is more unconditional than what is possible in dramatizations that wish to maintain a credible resemblance to human fates. But this is hardly the kind of truth theater-goers expect when they are promised a “true story.”
3.4. Allegorical Embodiments
The allegorical dimension is the decisive aspect of this rendering of the well-known story. It is not limited to the drama’s main characters but involves everyone, the individual members of the cast as much as the groups, humans as much as angels. Embodiments are distinguished according to the degree of spiritual evolvement reached by various types of humans, but also according to the abstract principles that influence this spiritual state in many ways. The humans in this play fall into five groups: those who are blind through no fault of their own; those who are deliberately blind because it suits their mental laziness or self-interest; those who seek transcendence; those who have reached perfection in human life; and those who have been resurrected into a second life. Among the abstract principles, “the world” (which plays but a small role in the drama) represents the only entirely tangible realm. Next to it are Life/Light/Love/Truth and Death/Darkness/Hatred/Betrayal. Beyond this central pair of opposites lies the realm of what we imagine to follow death. And finally there is the province that cannot even be imagined, in which Light and Love are all-encompassing and everything is raised to a higher level of its being.
The representatives of the innocently blind encompass all mortals who go through life without a fully alert consciousness (“We live, we don’t know when and why”), but also the simple and natural people of common sense. Mary and Joseph are the individual embodiments of this category. They are the only ones among the dramatis personae who speak dialect, thus owning up to a specific region and class. The reserve they express towards all that is unknown to them—a combination of simplicity, sincere humility and peasant skepticism—is reminiscent of the charm that pervades many airs and tales of popular piety. (When the angel announces that they are chosen, only to warn that nobody can flee from God’s sight, Mary counters: “But we haven’t done him any harm!” while Joseph adds, politely but decisively: “He’s to leave us in peace. Pray tell him so, Mister Angel.”) These unadul¬te¬rat¬ed humans show the greatest degree of development in the course of the opera: the disabled, whom Jesus heals at the beginning and who consequently become his faithful followers, soon yield to another seduction and reveal themselves as fickle—“grey” in the librettist’s terminology insofar they are hardly distinguished from one another and yield with equal lack of self-determination to whoever seems the strongest authority. Mary and Joseph progress through a whole cycle of life experiences. It begins with their paradisiacal youth in scenes 1-3, characterized by willful ignorance. In their middle years, irritation and intolerance predominate (as when Joseph blurts out to Mary in scene 8: “So he is loitering again, your noble son? I’d like to know what he has in his head. Surely not work”). In a third stage, they feel bitter (Mary in scene 12: “My son frequents only strangers. This ungratefulness really hurts a lot. I scold and I hope and I wait and I cry...”). Finally, white-haired and wizened, their under¬standing develops to a point where they can feel affected and be moved to active compassion (Joseph in scene 18: “I am but an old and useless man. Take me. Do with me as you like, but let him go!”)
Among those who long for transcendence are Jesus’ apostles until the moment when they are seduced by Lady Death under the mask of Judas. Later in the drama, the only ones who remain faithful to this role are the four evangelists, who alone appear concerned about the survival of the Christian message. The individual representative of this type is Magdalena. She is the seeker who initiates the play. She progresses through all stages of love. In true philía or brotherly love she understands (scene 9) that she still owes the deceased Lazarus much worldly affection, thus becoming the instrument of his resurrection. Under the influence of the force of darkness she momentarily falls prey to demons, which lure her into a mistaken perception of eros (scene 10). Freed from this obsession, she develops the capacity for agápe, the generous, disinterested, and never failing form of love (scene 16). In the postlude she grasps the significance of the eternally living Jesus as a “love within our hearts” and thereby turns (in Ingrisch’s esoteric understanding of Christendom) into the prototype of the saved soul.
The deliberately blind encompass the seven “animals,” whose number alone suggests their allegiance to the Seven Deadly Sins. Since they are described not so much as creatures obeying mere basic urges, but as human beings who willfully misuse Jesus’ message to turn it into profit, they probably embody the corresponding phenomena within the Church. In the allegory of this opera, the Church thus consists of those who preserve the gospel and those who misconstrue it. The evangelists strive to keep the teaching pure but, as the apostasy scene shows, they appear monotonous in their endless repetition of the same choice of sentences and therefore hardly convincing. Moreover, as witnessed in the trial scene, they react to assaults by extended inertia followed by sudden outbursts of overt brutality. The “animals” are not really interested in Jesus’ message as such, much less in the people who hope to be redeemed by it, but only in the profit they can draw from it, especially by exploiting the faithful people’s fear of sins. The individual representative of the deliberately blind is Judas, unmistakably identified as the human incarnation of the ruler of the realm of darkness and betrayal. Judas, the “animals,” and the “grey followers” become what they are as a result of a transformation: Judas begins his life in this drama in scene 9 when Lady Death dons a mask so as to better undermine Jesus’ mission from the inside; five scenes later, the “animals” and “grey followers” are created under the very eyes of the public. Masking, as we all know, signifies not only make-believe, but implicitly also deliberate untruth.
The “ruler of the realm of darkness” is clearly reminiscent of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night,” another allegorical drama, in which the wise priest Sarastro as the representative of the realm of light epitomizes the qualities of love, tolerance, and reason. The Magic Flute also features a soul—Tamino—who strives toward transcendence and must pass through various stages on a spiritual path. Moreover, the way Sarastro frees Pamina, the young daughter of the Queen of the Night, from her mother’s domination may be regarded as a parallel to the way in which Ingrisch’s Jesus ends his enemy’s power over the innocent lad Lazarus. As recent studies by Jacques Chailley and others demonstrate in great detail, Mozart and Schikaneder in their plot did not intend to present night and darkness as something inherently “bad” to be abolished under the impact of “the good.” Inspired by the ideas of freemasonry, they strove to allegorize the mystic fusion of two complementary world views. The Magic Flute just like Jesus’ Wedding shows a situation in which universal love has deteriorated to rejection of the particular, and love of the particular (blind self-love and motherly love) into hatred of the universally true. Yet there is a major difference: in Mozart’s work, the path across many obstacles has an unequivocal goal, leading from darkness to light. In Einem’s opera, by contrast, the public witnesses an outcome that seems inimical to truth and love. As the five allegations brought forth during the trial summarize much more clearly than any biblical text, Jesus must die precisely because he seeks to bring love and truth, light and spiritual freedom into the world. By the time he assents to his execution, his earthly mission has largely failed since the traitorous majority among his followers has falsified his teaching of meekness and compassion. The union with Lady Death in the sense he had dreamed of it has fallen through; by now it can only be consummated under her conditions, those of hatred and betrayal.
In the end it is Lady Death, once again self-assured and alluring as a “bride,” who announces the imminent realization of the mystic wedding. In her triumph she has apparently forgotten how Jesus described the result of a fusion on a higher plane of mutually exclusive contrasts. When he tried to lure her into such a union in the interest of all humankind, he spoke of a falling into one another, which would abolish the boundaries of the world including time and space. He had called her and him—the only couple capable of bringing this about—“lovers who dethrone themselves.” Lady Death had no interest in imagining such a higher union then, and may be forgetting it to her detriment now.
The public, on the other hand, cannot imagine this beneficent fusion of opposites for the simple reason that our languages have no words for the complementary oneness of light and darkness, of day and night. Whenever we speak of the period of 24 hours simply as “a day,” this compromise is at best helpless, at worst an all-too-quick attempt at downplaying the contribution night makes to the dialec¬tic whole. Much less do we have words for the unity embracing both life and death. Yet it is this unnamable oneness that never ceases to intrigue Lotte Ingrisch and Gottfried von Einem. And that’s where the music comes in, because access to this realm whose essence cannot be grasped with the help of reason and rationally based verbal languages can only be attained through symbolic means.
3.5. Different Views of Order and Purpose
Jesus’ Wedding is replete with such signifiers. Easiest to interpret are those relating to traditional number symbolism. The opera consists of twenty-one segments, nineteen scenes surrounded by prel¬ude and postlude. This is a number that results from the multiplication of the Trinitarian THREE with the figure closely linked to demons and sins, SEVEN. Twenty-one can thus be read as epitomizing an admixture of divine and sinful ingredients, an apt description of what Ingrisch believes to be human nature and its “real world.” (Note that Mozart’s Magic Flute, too, lists twenty-one numbered passages after the overture.) The twenty-one segments in Ingrisch and Einem’s opera fall into two acts: 2 x 7 into the first, 1 x 7 into the second. Duality, which in biblically inspired works refers more often to the dual nature of Jesus as God and Man, seems here to mirror the triumph-in-union of the bright over the dark forces—a triumph that is only implicit, since the visible development within the limits of earthly time suggests otherwise. Act I ends at the moment when Jesus, celebrated by his (at this time still en¬thu¬siastic) followers as “King of the Jews” and thus on the pinnacle of his success in converting human¬kind to his ideals, predicts Judas’ betrayal. Act II traces the unfolding of this betrayal up to Jesus’ death on the Cross, hence the unstoppable takeover of the forces that embody hatred and darkness.
At closer inspection, however, the design of the opera manifests a very different order, which cuts through the apparent division into two acts. This order expresses itself in an astonishing symmetric analogy of the scenes. (The graphic representation in table 1 below is intended to guide the readers’ eyes.) The twenty-one segments are arranged like two wings either side of a central axis, whereby internal supplementation replaces the exchange of right and left that characterizes mirroring processes.
Magdalena’s doubting question in the prelude, Does God exist?, corresponds in the postlude with her intuitive insight into the nature of the continued existence of the eternal Son of God. The skepti¬cism Jesus’ human parents voice in scene 2 in view of God’s plan is answered in the penultimate scene when they witness how Jesus fulfills a destiny that remains beyond their understanding. Their disappointment in scene 8 about his irregular life without wife, children, and gainful work is mirrored in their bitterness over his inner distance to them in the eighth-from-the-last scene. The angel’s annunciation in scene 3 that their son’s awesome destiny is to die on the “gibbet-cross” is matched in the third-from-the-last scene when Jesus is tried and convicted. Lady Death as the greedy bride imposing herself on the young Lazarus in is the counter-image of the Son of God’s selflessly giving bride-of-the-soul, into which the spiritually purified Magdalena has evolved in the corresponding scene towards the end of the work: the former lustfully suffocates him for whom she craves, causing a senseless death; the latter respectfully anoints him who humbly accepts a death both believe essential to the redemption of humankind. The salvation, early in the opera, of death’s subjects through Jesus, the Light, corresponds with the seduction of Jesus’ followers through Judas, the agent of darkness.
Table 1 Symmetry and Symbolism in Lotte Ingrisch and Gottfried von Einem’s Jesu Hochzeit
3.6. Color Coding, Metric Shifting, and Melodic Costumes
Gottfried von Einem, born in Berne, Switzerland in 1918 and since 1945 working in Salzburg and Vienna, spent the first half of his professional life under the influence of his admired teacher Boris Blacher, the second half under that of his indirect mentor, Mozart. The orchestration of Jesus’ Wedding as well as many gestures within its musical language bears witness to the composer’s veneration of his ideal. The opera contains only two timbral features unknown to the classical orchestra. Significantly, both are closely linked to Magdalena. She is thus doubly set apart from the other characters. On the dramatic level, her persona serves as a bridge between the dramatic time and action on the one hand and the spectators and their time on the other. This idea goes back to medieval mystery plays, in which Mary Magdalene was frequently given a similar linking role. On the sonic level, the characteristic sounds accompanying Magdalena’s main entrances identify her as a representative of a generation outside the allegorical plot.
In the prelude and postlude, i.e., during the segments in which she comments on the “play,” her singing is accompanied by an electronically amplified guitar. Conversely, in the scene that serves as the work’s architectonic center, Magdalena appears at the diametrically opposite end of her role spectrum: here she is not outside the staged action but rather “beside herself.” She thrashes about wildly, apparently possessed by the forces of darkness. Her raving is musically embodied in a step dance whose taps fill every rest in her singing, subdivide protracted notes, and often even emphasize individual syllables in Jesus’ interjections. This audible presence of what our culture likes to call “the devil” vanishes only when Jesus, calling her state a dream from which he intends to wake her, breaks the spell.
Magdalena also provides the key to another symbolically used timbre. Her question, Where is the life, the truth, and the way?, is answered by the bass drum. Its sonorous ff beats relate to the short and metallic-sounding noise of the tapping soles as does truth to madness. Einem must have had this or a similar interpretation in mind when he decided to surround each of Jesus’ enunciations in this opera with drums. While the bass drum remains reserved for the central scene, relatives of this timbrally realized “truth” emerge prominently from the orchestra every time Jesus operates in decisive ways. When he first walks on stage in scene 6 in order to announce the imminence of the last judgment (“the doors of hell will be opened, the fetters of time will be loosened, the law will be transformed into love, and the sick will he cured”), his prophecy is laced with extensive passages sounded by triangle, cymbals, and tenor as well as a prominent snare-drum. The same instruments playing the same musical figures are heard in scene 19 when, having been sentenced to death on the cross on account of precisely these promises, he speaks his final words. His Sermon on the Mount in scene 11 is underscored with rhythmic interjections that, dominated by rolls of tambourine and snare-drum, sound even more urgent. All these untuned percussion instruments are heard exclusively in the above-mentioned situations but are lacking, for instance, in naturalistic circumstances like the storm at the beginning of act II, where they would be typical features of the operatic genre. This fact confirms the premise that Einem reserves particular aspects of his compositional palette for symbolic messages.
The composer’s use of musical signifiers can also be shown on the level of the rhythmic-metric organization and with regard to melodic ideas; it is particularly obvious in the harmonic layout. Einem’s rhythm is fairly traditional and easily accessible to listeners accustomed to classical music; his meter often remains constant throughout extensive periods. All the more striking are passages in which jolting events or persisting instability interrupt an apparent serenity. Such interruptions occur most frequently in connection with representatives of the group I have called the “innocently blind.” In scene 1, Jesus’ future parents alternate within measures of equal length between three-four time (Mary) and six-eight time (Joseph)—a subtle metric juxtaposition which they retain throughout almost all their entries in the course of the opera. Metric variance increases with the incongruity of characters engaged in dialogue. After the Lord’s angel has confronted Mary and Joseph in scene 2 in two-two time, their plea that they be spared the divine distinction swings nevertheless in six-eight time even though the angel remains stoically present in the two-two organization of the high woodwinds and low strings. In scene 5, the chorus of the “mortals” writhes with fear after having witnessed healthy young Lazarus being strangled. The singers retreat from the terrible incarnation of death with homophonically stammered assertions of submission which cause the regular four-four beat to congeal into chords of uneven duration: 3/8+3/8+2/8. When Mary and Joseph come upon their son and the skeleton-lady sleeping in the grass in scene 8, they pick up this external sign of desperation, making a rhythmic tottering of 3/4 + 3/4 + 2/4 the basis of an extended musical passage.
Many examples could be given to demonstrate Einem’s play with melodic components. Suffice it here to observe more generally that whereas the composer endows his dramatis personae with motifs that recur in a similar or remotely related form every time the character steps on stage, these are treated like “musical costumes” rather than serving as leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense. A possible exception is Jesus’ four-note figure, which undoubtedly leaves the strongest subliminal impression on listeners. I will therefore restrict my comments to this one case, especially since it allows me to demonstrate in a paradigmatic way what freedom the composer permits in the temporal and spatial sequence of these musical insignia.
Jesus first enters the action in scene 6. Already his very first message—“The kingdom of heaven is near!”—is clad in a figure built from the four pitches F, Ab, G, and E. In the course of the scene he will be singing very few words and half sentences that are not derived from this figure, which recurs altogether eighteen times in his voice. Two additional variants are heard in the treble of the chorus of mortals at the moment when its members turn to the longed-for savior with the words, “We are life’s beaten army.” Jesus himself takes up the melodic figure in scene 9 when he speaks his words of comfort, “Light is imperishable”; imitations of this variant of the figure in horn and violoncello accompany the remainder of his sentence. But lest we imagine simple quotation, it should be pointed out that the four pitches constituting the figure may sound in the form of two subsequent minor thirds, as two minor thirds that are interspersed with one another, or as two minor seconds, with the two halves describing rising, falling, or complementary motions. Einem uses all these possible derivations and clothes them in myriad dissimilar rhythms. Through this means he conveys the impression that an extremely simple musical material is made to build a rich array of phenomena which, though not bound to one another through processes of (serial or otherwise regulated) transformation, all sound in consonance with one another.
The first word uttered by the risen Lazarus in scene 9—the loving call to his sister, “Magdalena!” —imitates Jesus’ four-note figure a semitone lower. Einem’s music thus suggests already here something the verbal text will only specify in scene 13, when Lazarus confesses: “Not I live, but Christ lives within me.” While consoling the desperate, healing the sick, and raising the dead are among the tasks an audience expects from Jesus, other assignments he has to handle in this work are less conscious. Among them is the readiness to accept that hatred directed at his person is an inalienable component of this world’s character. That he has come to terms with this difficult challenge becomes audible when we hear him sing his prophecy at the end of act I, “One among you will betray me,” in two different transpositions of the four-note figure. These two variants are designed with mirror-symmetrically corresponding contours, as if to suggest that hatred and betrayal feature as necessary components in a structure of complementary opposites. His figure sounds slightly distorted only when, in scene 15, he admits to himself and his audience that the “price” for the heaven that his corrupt followers try to sell all too cheaply is his own life.
3.7. Tonal Stations on the Path Toward Salvation
The authors of two earlier essays analyzing the opera’s musical message speculate whether Gottfried von Einem may be realizing his interpretation of the plot’s symbolic content above all by means of a sophisticated system of tonal levels. In order to do full justice to the tonal symbolism by means of which Einem plumbs the depths of the dramatic story, I wish to refine as well as expand upon these observations.
Einem’s music moves through many triads, but these only rarely follow one another in the sequences of traditional diatonic cadences. Much more characteristic are progressions—frequently quite abrupt ones—to unrelated or cross-related chords. The unpredictability of many of the harmonic turns should alert listeners to the fact that tonality in this work is not employed according to rules determined a priori within its own system, but rather in the service of symbolism.
The central axis of the composition’s harmonic universe is G (mostly as G major, rarely as G minor), which can be shown to stand for “the world.” When Lazarus, pursued and threatened by Lady Death, calls out “As long as the world is between you and me, you don’t exist,” the musical backdrop is moored on nine measures of G major; in other circumstances, the same tonality is heard for shorter affirmations. This central axis would hardly deserve a mention were it not set up as the watershed separating two streams of meaning. One of its flanks spawns those tonal centers that, evolving clockwise in the circle of fifths, signify the evolution of humankind’s spiritual dimension. Next to “the world” come the natural human beings—the innocently blind in Ingrisch’s libretto—represented by the tonal coordinate D. The seekers of transcendence dwell on the spiritually slightly higher step of A. They are followed by the perfect man Jesus on E, before the sequences concludes with the resurrected human being epitomized by B. The second stream of signifying tonal centers, tracing the circle of fifths counter-clockwise, begins next to the world’s G with C for life and continues through F for death, Bb for eternity, and Eb for light and love as they exist in a realm of consciousness that encompasses the larger oneness composed of life-and-death.
Table 2 Tonal Symbolism in Gottfried von Einem’s Jesu Hochzeit
Both streams thus trace evolutions that have their point of departure in “the world” and strive toward ideal completion. Let me substantiate this claim with brief observations regarding the endpoints of the two developmental branches. When Jesus says to Lazarus: “I have woken you from death,” the music sounds locked in B major, a chord otherwise seldom heard in this composition but significant in that it is the dominant to Jesus’ E. When Magdalena begins to understand, in the course of the central scene, that Jesus can “wake” her from the dream of her demonic possession just as he had woken her brother from the “dream” of his death, her voice and the accompanying orchestra move to an unambiguous B-major chord for the confirming rhetorical question “Just as Lazarus?” The tonal endpoint on the stream of allegorical perfection similarly defines the conversation between Jesus and the grieving Magdalena. The scene begins with her moving aria of lament:
I have lost my brother and am searching for him everywhere.
Near the animals, near the stars, near the temples and cisterns.
A human being cannot, I trust, be extinguished like a light?
I have lost my brother and am searching for him everywhere.
In the clouds, in the stones, in the tears that we cry.
A human being cannot, I trust, be extinguished like a light?
I have lost my brother and am searching for him everywhere.
I seek him waking, I seek him dreaming,
when the wind rustles in the trees, I believe it is him.
A human being cannot, after all, be extinguished like a light?
In the third stanza of this aria, the orchestral instruments quote from the prelude. The music thus creates a link between Magdalena’s desperation over the loss of her brother and her question whether God does indeed exist. The following quasi-metaphysical dialogue, launched with Jesus’ comforting words regarding the imperishability of light and concluded with his assurance that love will be completed beyond the limits of time, is sustained over the length of its twelve sostenuto measures by an Eb that pulsates in a pedal of multiple octaves. Soon afterwards, when the resurrected youth addresses his first words to his beloved sister, the same pulsation on Eb sounds once again.
When Lady Death swears revenge for Lazarus’ abduction from her realm, she avoids the key that is otherwise characteristic for her utterances, F major. Instead, her seven-measure menace that Jesus will have to pay for this trespass with his life, is dominated by the same note repetitions on Eb, with the difference that their register range now expands more and more until it fills all octaves accessible to orchestral instruments. In this way, Einem’s music reveals what it would be quite impossible to include in the verbal dialogue or the scenic representation: that Lady Death may be more powerful than Jesus on the plane of worldly, temporal life, but has no control in that realm of love which is beyond world and time. The following diagram shows these evolutionary processes in the human-spiritual and the allegorical realms.
Table 3 Evolutionary Processes in Gottfried von Einem’s Jesu Hochzeit
With the help of these tonal symbols, Gottfried von Einem’s music traces the hidden meaning of the story and its characters in often very subtle nuances. I would like to demonstrate this with the help of a few more examples before I offer a close reading of the two long scenes that constitute the centers of each half, scenes 5 and 15.
The passages in which the Lord’s angel intervenes and points to a goal beyond the human experiences of life and death, are all held in Bb major. When the angel first reveals himself to Mary and Joseph in scene 2, the music is quite unequivocally in Bb major, but at his claim that the whole world originate “like a spring from God,” it turns to the unrelated A-major-seventh chord of the longing for transcendence. When the angel admonished Mary with the words, “You, Mary, are to bear His son as Joseph’s wife,” the music moves to D major, i.e. to the sphere of mortal humans’ experience and social organization. Toward the end of the scene, Mary and Joseph attempt once again to persuade the angel that they should be spared the fate for which they have allegedly been chosen, arguing that they wish nothing more than a simple life without any “heavenly” preference. Einem’s score identifies the tonal sphere in which their plea is couched with the accidentals for the angel’s Bb major, but the instruments’ horizontal lines and all chords turn almost exclusively around death’s F. This musical symbol seems to anticipate that only a few measures later, the terrible angel will remove the red cloth of sorrow from the symbolic altar and reveal the gibbet-cross hidden beneath it. The angel’s corre¬sponding exclamation, “Woe to those whom God has chosen!” peaks at the word “God” on the high A, upon which one orchestral voice after the other returns from the chord on F to the earlier A-major-seventh chord. The scene closes with a protracted unison A, thus sounding the triumph of God’s will—or the human longing for a destiny determined by transcendent forces.
Jesus’ first major sermon in scene 6 shows him as the extraordinary human being that he is. Correspondingly, the passage develops above an extended pedal on his tonal signifier E. At every interjection from the mouth of Lady Death, however, the music turns abruptly to F. When Jesus is accused in scene 17 of having striven for something that, in the mind of his persecutors, no mortal being has a right to institute, Lady Death phrases her five-part charge in the tonality of mortals, D minor. Jesus’ first words on the Cross (“My God, my God”), directed to the realm beyond our world, manifest the corresponding symbol not only harmonically, in a chord on A, but underscore its predominant importance also by way of melodic preference for the pitch A. But when his desperate scream reaches the word “forsaken,” the music significantly turns to D minor, thereby confirming what his parents, paralyzed listeners to this cry of anguish, have already understood: that the person dying here, their son, is dying as a human being.
In scene 5, the inexperienced Lazarus is being “seduced” by Lady Death. While the librettist’s words suggest eroticism (“Shall I open my cloak for you?” — “I am ashamed. I never saw a woman.”), the music never touches the realm of the mortals and their this-worldly pleasures with the tonal symbols G and D. Instead, the seduction is musically clad in a superimposition of A-major (the longing for transcendence) with emphatic repetitions of the pitches Bb and Eb —pitches that, in the symbolism Einem has developed for this composition, point to eternity beyond time and space and oneness beyond life and death. Noticing the signifiers in this scene, one wonders whether the composer wanted to encourage the thought that Lazarus’ “seduction” by the embodiment of death had best be understood in a symbolic way, just like Jesus’ mystic wedding: as the fascination felt by a young person of blossoming health toward the mystery of what lies beyond life. Lazarus’ terrified scream at the sight of the skeleton hidden under Lady Death’s black cloak sounds on A. This seems to confirm that the youth’s longing, up to the very moment when he meets death, is for God or a higher truth. Meanwhile, the orchestra dwells on Eb major, the key of the fulfillment beyond life and death. But the scene closes with F. By way of this tonal symbol, Lady Death demonstrates her power over all mortal beings, while her words declare that there is no God.
In scene 15, Judas—Lady Death’s human incarnation—exercises corresponding powers of seduction. His victims are the seven apostles who have been transmuted into “animals,” as well as Jesus’ supporters, who have shown their true color as “grey followers”; his goal is not their immediate demise but their gradual spiritual destruction. He argues convincingly that human beings who fear sin always develop anxiety, and that the officers of righteousness typically nourish this anxiety so as to reap their own rich benefits:
Elend macht die Menschen frommer, was ja Gottes Wille ist.
Wie die Schwalbe macht den Sommer, macht die Angst den besten Christ. [...]
Die Angst ist wie ein Schwein, man kann sie mästen und schlachten.
Vermehrt sich fast von allein. Und der Speck ist nicht zu verachten!
Misery makes people more pious, an outcome that is, after all, in God’s interest.
Just as the swallow makes for summer, so anxiety makes for the best Christian. [...]
Anxiety is like a pig, you can fatten and slaughter it.
It multiplies almost on its own. And the blubber should not be despised.
When singing about this blubber, the apostates use A major of all possible keys, as if they wanted to mock the religious seekers with their easily exploitable longing for transcendence. In the same scene, the four evangelists prophesy how the good tidings of love and truth will be inversed in the course of humankind: “In the name of love they will hate; in the name of poverty they will accumulate riches; in the name of peace they will wage bloody wars. They will ignite stakes in the name of truth and fill dungeons in the name of liberty. In the name of humility they will reign, and in the name of life they will murder.” The key in which all these perversion of Jesus’ teachings reach the audience’s ears alternates between the tonal symbol of the message and that of its human messenger Jesus, i.e., between C and E. The evangelists, who alone seem to remain on Jesus’ side, suggest with their monotonous singing that, while they are determined to keep the teaching alive, they allow it to become dry and unattractive. Prominently interspersed chords on F seem to warn that such ossification must equally lead to death.
Before I conclude, I wish to comment briefly on the segments framing this “play about God.” The prelude is written with the three sharps for A major, the tonal symbol for what I have called “the longing for transcendence.” Interestingly though, neither the tonality as a whole not its central pitch are heard even once during this segment. Einem builds the music for the prologue entirely from only four different pitches: E supplies the pedal that sustains the entire 33-measure passage in the lowest instruments (including the timpani); also, Magdalena temporarily adopts the E for those of her lines that are pronounced in Sprechstimme. When she sings her threefold “Does God exist?”, her voice is locked in an oscillation of D and B. Her guitar, arpeggiating softly in the background, complements the two pitches of the question with an F#, thus redefining them as part of a B-minor triad. Admittedly, one could read this tonal material as E-B-D-F#, i.e., as an incomplete dominant-ninth chord of A major. One could then develop two interpretations for the fact that A major itself—the resolution toward which such a leading-note chord would be heard as striving—never manifests itself. One would hold that while the girl’s question after God’s existence is directed by her longing for transcendence, this longing remains forever unfulfilled in this life. The other reading—which does not have to substitute the first one but could complement it— might focus on the juxtaposition of E with B-D-F# in two separate layers and conclude that Magdalena’s prologue, which in its verbal question as well as it’s A-major key signature seems centered in God, is in truth be about Jesus (E). An approach from this angle sheds light on a detail that is otherwise too easily overlooked and left unquestioned: the fact that the question after God’s existence is answered with a play about Jesus.
In the postlude, the same four-note chord E-B-D-F# is complemented by the two pitches of the A-major chord that were so conspicuously missing in the prelude, A and C#. With the help of this simple symbolic device, Einem makes room for the longing for transcendence precisely at the moment when Magdalena understands better than anybody else what form Jesus’ eternal life will take:
|Sie sagen, er sei gestorben,
sie sagen, es gibt ihn nicht mehr.
Am Kreuz, da wär’ er verdorben,
und der Himmel, der Himmel ist leer.
Ich kann dem Tode nicht glauben!
Gott lässt uns nicht allein.
Vielleicht ging aus den Augen
in unser Herz Er ein?
|They say he has died,
they say he is no more.
He is to have withered on the Cross
and heaven, heaven is said to be empty.
I cannot believe in death!
God does not leave us alone.
Perhaps he left our eyes
to enter into our hearts?
In this song, Magdalena sings about her moving, non-doctrinal faith, before she closes with a philosophical observation quoted from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3:17) This sentence condemns all the usual players of Christendom: the “grey followers,” who are so filled with anxiety that they waver from one authority to another; the “animals,” who invert the teaching in the interest of their own greed and hunger for power; and even the evangelists, who strive for keeping the teaching alive in its word but not in its spirit, presenting it in such as way as to make one believe it dead. Sung without any accompaniment, Magdalena’s sentence voices the attitude of that incarnation of the allegorical anima that, in contrast to all members of institutions fearing for their own survival, is capable of thinking radical freedom.
The opera begins with a seven-part E played in unison; it ends with the interval Eb–Bb sung single-voiced. The point of departure, Gottfried von Einem seems to suggest, is the man Jesus; the goals are eternity beyond time and space as well as the fulfillment of light and love in the ineffable oneness that transcends all we know and understand. Any hope that this world may be overcome rests, Magdalena urges the audience to see, in that Jesus Christ whom the believers experience as the Resurrected One, not in any institutional Church that uses (and often misuses) his name and words.
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