Rudolf Wagner-Régeny, Mythological Figures

By Laura Silverberg, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, Columbia University

Written for the concert Music of the Other Germany, performed on Jan 25, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Rudolf Wagner-Régeny (1903–1969) had no strong socialist sympathies and composed little explicitly political music. While his contemporaries Eisler and Dessau voluntarily made their homes in East Germany, Wagner-Régeny’s residence in the GDR resulted from historical circumstance and professional opportunity rather than political conviction. Although he never joined the Nazi party, Wagner-Régeny enjoyed a successful career during the years of National Socialist rule, even accepting an offer to compose new incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace that by Felix Mendelssohn. He was living in the East German city of Mecklenburg at the end of the war, joined the faculty of the East Berlin Musikhochschule in 1949, and was admitted to the East Berlin Akademie der Künste.

Wagner-Régeny’s most significant contributions to East German musical life were pedagogical: nearly all prominent composers of the postwar generation, including Siegfried Matthus, Friedrich Goldmann, Paul-Heinz Dittrich, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Georg Katzer studied with Wagner-Régeny at either the Musichochschule or the Akademie der Künste. When East German cultural bureaucrats and leaders of the Composers’ Union branded the twelve-tone technique as a “formalist” manifestation of western decadence, Wagner-Régeny offered East German students their first lessons in the method. But Wagner-Régeny’s progressive and inspired teaching did not consistently carry into his compositions, which often sound dry and pedantic compared to the music of his students and contemporaries. Paul Dessau once quipped that a sign should hang over Wagner-Régeny’s door reading: “Music, do not come too close!”

Written in 1951, Wagner-Régeny’s Mythological Figures stands apart from his more academic compositions. Although twelve-tone in construction, its clear texture, prominent and memorable melodies, traditional forms, and avoidance of prolonged dissonance result in a work that sounds freshly modern, but not stereotypically twelve-tone. Named for the Italian goddess of the harvest, the first movement, Ceres, takes on an ABA form, in which motivically rich and rhythmically active sections surround a calmer, chorale-like interlude. Borrowing a technique developed by his contemporary Boris Blacher, Wagner-Régeny deployed variable meters in this movement, giving the music a sense of rhythmic drive and unpredictability. The slow second movement, Amphitrite (Greek queen of the sea and wife of Poseidon) consists of three varied statements of a melody based on the twelve-note row, which first appears in the horn and cello, then the oboe and horn, and finally in the trumpet and oboe. The string accompaniment is also derived from the row, but the widely-spaced chords prevent the music from sounding too dissonant. Named for the goddess of nature and fertility, the final movement Diana returns to variable meters and offers a rollicking march with a recurring, dotted-rhythm melody.

After its January 1952 premiere in East Berlin, Mythological Figures quickly disappeared from the East German musical landscape. Until the early 1960s, the GDR had little place for modernist dodecaphony, and few East German publications mention the work. Yet for western critics, Mythological Figures was not modern enough. After hearing the work at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Salzburg in August 1952, Karl Wörner dismissed it as “only light music employing some modern techniques.” Now over half a century old, Wagner-Régeny’s approach to the twelve-tone method demonstrates that postwar composers could find a middle ground between popular accessibility and modernist abstraction.