Siegfried Matthus, Responso: Konzert für Orchester

By Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

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

The distinguished German composer Siegfried Matthus was born in 1934 in what was then East Prussia. In 1944, fleeing the advancing Russian army, the composer’s family fatefully stopped just one day’s journey short of what would become the West German border. Thus Matthus attended the Hochschule für Musik in East Berlin, where his teachers included Rudolf Wagner-Régeny and Hanns Eisler. (Matthus has hinted that he was not in complete sympathy with Eisler: “I’m just sorry that I had too many complexes when I was a young man to take full advantage of this great teacher.”) The gifted young composer soon assumed the post of composer-in-residence to the Komische Oper Berlin; later, Matthus attracted the attention of Kurt Masur, who became an ardent champion of his music.

One of Matthus’s most celebrated scores is his Responso: Konzert für Orchester, which was premiered on October 27, 1977 by the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. (In Latin, “responso” can mean either an answer or a re-echo.) In this powerful concerto for orchestra, Matthus eschewed abstruse avant-garde aesthetics, reaching out to listeners by erecting a bridge between the past and the present. By using stylistic allusions to past masters and reveling in eclecticism for its own sake, Matthus has created a successful work that can justly be described as “postmodern.”

Near the end of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot writes “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Like Eliot, Matthus assembled a series of stylistic fragments. Matthus drew from a variety of composers, including Stravinsky and J.S. Bach. But, while the modernist poet used stark juxtapositions to create meaning in The Waste Land, the postmodern composer weaves his materials together into a symphonic canvas in which the various references provide both continuity and expressivity.

The first movement, “Ostinato,” commences with an unmistakable reference to the “Danse sacrale” from Stravinksky’s Le sacre du printemps. Unlike Stravinsky’s apocalyptic final cadence, however, “Ostinato” does not end with a wild shriek, but with three low notes played by the contrabassoon. (To quote Eliot, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”) The second movement, “Notturno,” is a tenebrous scherzo that pays ironic homage to the fey woodwinds of Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as to the sonorous horns that pervade Weber’s Der Freischütz. The concerto’s expressive core is surely the Mahlerian adagio, which contains the only actual quotation in the entire score, drawn from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the words, “. . .und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich” (“ . . . and went out and wept bitterly”). The finale of Responso is, like Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a “Ciacona,” consisting of twenty variations upon a repeated ground bass that builds from a quiet beginning to a shattering conclusion.

In a gesture that can only be described as “meta,” Matthus later adapted music drawn from his own postmodern Concerto for Orchestra to create a score for violoncello and orchestra, Adagio and Passacaglia on motifs from “Responso” (1982). Thus Matthus responds to his own response to the past in the same fashion in which he had responded to the past in the first place.