Goebbels: Landscape with Distant Relatives (Landschaft
mit entfernten Verwandten/Paysages avac parents éloignés).
David Bennent (voice), Georg Nigl (baritone), Ensemble
Modern and Deutscher Kammerchor conducted by Franck
Original stage production by Grand Théâtre
Live-recording October 2004,
Théâtre des Armandiers, Nanterre, Paris.
ECM New Series 1811 476 5838 • 80' •
to Heiner Goebbels' website
to ECM Records website
Is this an opera? The German composer Heiner Goebbels
(1952) - not related to Hitler's propaganda minister
Joseph Goebbels - says it is, but only in a ‘formal
sense’. That said, it clearly steps outside all
the conventions we associate with the genre. Moreover,
it makes for quite spectacular music theatre even when
confined to audio and rapidly moves to completely engulf
the listener. “The acoustic part of it has a life
of its own”, claims Goebbels, and rightly so!
In the theatre, the piece runs to about two and a half
hours of music and stage action from each and every
participant: from speaker to singer to individual members
of the very small orchestra. The musicians not only
play their instruments, but also dance or act on stage
as well. This not only causes a lot of heavy traffic
between orchestral pit and stage but also substantially
contributes to the feverish exhilaration of the piece.
This is very much poly-stylistic in sound and appearance,
with intriguing pastiches of pop, rock, jazz, classical
and world music, ravishing images and sculptures, awkward
public meeting-places and ponderous nineteenth-century
salons. Along the way we get spectacular shifts from
small talk to grand projection, from brilliantly sketched
light gestures and pinpoint sounds to heavy ominous
drama. A switch is instantly turned and there we are,
out of the bright and light-hearted into a musical ambush.
I agree with Goebbels that the acoustic part of the
piece has it own life. Even so, this is the kind of
stage production that would strongly benefit from a
DVD recording. Both music and words are telling, but
the listener is deprived of the images and actions that
make it ‘all happen’. Solely judged by ear,
the piece might sound incoherent, strongly fragmented,
chaotic even. The added scenery and actions on stage
make it what it really is: an opera of imagery, or even
an image breaker. You need to see the building to understand
and appreciate its consummate architecture.
The entire work, built layer upon layer, does not contain
any visual or aural focal resting point. There is no
centre, as with the fascinating paintings by Nicolas
Poussin (1594-1665) who is one of the posthumous ‘contributors’
to Goebbels’ ‘Landscape’. In Poussin’s
masterly painted projections the whole perspective remains
flawlessly intact, either watched close-up or from a
distance. The distance at which the painting is observed
does not change its original perspective, by diffusion.
His paintings reflect the great arts of the Renaissance,
but in a quite extraordinary way, by revealing distant
people, houses, trees or other objects in unprecedented
detail, as if they were close to the observer. One may
be gruesomely killed in the foreground; others in the
background are enjoying bathing or fishing. They do
not seem to notice the gruesome events or if they do
they might not even care.
Poussin: “The painting shows the extreme paradox
of figurative tragedy in the foreground against softy
and peaceful friendliness in the background.”
Leonardo da Vinci: “The left part of your painting
makes me curious about the right one.” This ‘fictive
dialogue of the dead’ is part of Goebbels’
overwhelming ‘Landscape’ – a work
dominated by so many contrasting, even confusing, paradoxes
that leave the audience either lost or provide food
Here are the work’s 27 chapters:
1. Il y a des jours (intro - instrumental)
2. Non sta (Giordano Bruno)
3. The sirens (Gertrude Stein)
4. Ove è dunque (Bruno)
5. Les inachevés
6. Tanz der Derwische - Emplie de (Henri Michaux)
7. In the 19th century (Stein)
8. Triumphal march (T.S. Eliot)
9. Homme-bomme (Michaux)
10. Schlachtenbeschreibung (Leonardo da Vinci)
11. Well anyway (Stein)
12. Did it really happen? (Stein)
13. Kehna hi kya (Mehboob)
14. Et c’est toujours (Michaux)
15. Il y a des jours (Michaux)
16. La fronde à hommes (Michaux)
17. Just like that (Stein)
18. Bild der Städte
19. Ich leugne nicht die Unterscheidung (Bruno)
20. Krieg der Städte
21. On the road (Stein)
22. And we said goodbye
23. On the radio (Stein)
24. Different nations (Stein)
25. Out where the West begins (Arthur Chapman) - Train
26. Je ne voyage plus (Michaux) - Freight train (traditional)
27. Principes (Nicolas Poussin)
All the music is by Heiner Goebbels except Kehna
hi kya (which is by Allah Rakha Rahman) and Out
where the West Begins, by Estelle Philleo.
One of the work’s many great moments is the ‘Triumphal
March’, in which mocking dark sounds, vehement
singing and shouting create the appropriate ‘musical
atmosphere’ for T.S. Eliot’s poem Coriolan
(1931). These great lines resound:
Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’
Over the paving.
And the flags. And the trumpets. And so many eagles.
How many? Count them. And such a press of people.
We hardly knew ourselves that day, or knew the City.
This is the way to the temple, and we so many crowding
So many waiting, how many waiting? What did it matter,
on such a day?
Are they coming? No, not yet. You can see some eagles.
And hear the trumpets.
Here they come. Is he coming?
We can wait with our stools and sausages.
What comes first? Can you see? Tell us, it is
5,800,000 rifles and carbines,
102,000 machine guns,
28,000 trench mortars,
53,000 field and heavy guns,
I cannot tell how many projectiles, mines and fuses,
24,000 aeroplane engines,
50,000 ammunition wagons,
now 55,000 army wagons,
11,000 field kitchens,
1,150 field bakeries.
What a time that took. Will it be he now? No,
Those are the golf club Captains, these the Scouts,
And now societé gymnastique de Poissy
And now come the Mayor and the Liverymen. Look
There is he now: look:
There is no interrogation in his eyes
Or in the hands, quiet over the horse’s neck,
And the eyes watchful, waiting, perceiving, indifferent.
Now they go up to the temple, Then the sacrifice.
Now come the virgins bearing urns, urns containing
Dust of dust, and now
Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’
Over the paving.
That is all we could see. But how many eagles! and how
(And Easter Sunday, we didn’t get to the country,
So we took young Cyril to church. And they rang a bell
And he said right out loud, crumpets.)
Don’t throw away that sausage,
It’ll come in handy. He’s artful. Please,
Give us a light?
Et les soldats faisaient la haie? ILS LA FAISAENT.
From here to Schlachtenbeschreibung or How
to describe a battle is a small step. Leonardo da
Vinci’s manual tells us how to paint a battlefield:
the images of extreme violence and atrocities which
can never be properly measured. He believes the simple
answer is in using the appropriate colours: “You
will paint the ruddy faces of the warriors … and
paint the pale faces of those who surrendered …”
Yes, it is about war and devastation, presented in a
most disturbing fashion. It juxtaposes the sixteenth
century’s political turmoil and its ancient armament
against the twentieth-century equivalent with its unprecedented
extermination machinery. The two ‘landscapes’
seem to be quite different yet their nature is the same.
Gertrude Stein offers a variety of perspectives on the
subject in her famous book Wars I have seen (1945),
a prime example of avant-garde styling. While dealing
with the vast philosophical issues of political conflict
and war Stein’s approach is light as a feather:
as if two neighbours are talking to each other over
Goebbels: “This allows readers to discover their
own focus, and my music does the same.”
Here are a few fragments from Stein’s Wars
I have seen:
Did it really happen?
Did it really happen, oh yes, she said, it does happen
and it did happen. Well so life goes on, we had just
been reading Shakespeare Richard the Third, and the
things they say there do sound just like that, so why
not, anything is so if the country makes it so, and
a century makes it so when it is so, just like that
[…] History does repeat itself, I have often thought
that that was the really soothing thing that history
does. The one thing that is sure and certain is that
history does not teach, that is to say, it always says
let it be a lesson to you but is it? Not at all. Not
at all because circumstances always alter cases and
so although history does repeat itself it is only because
the repetition is soothing that anyone believes it,
nobody nobody wants to learn either by their own or
anybody else’s experience, nobody does, no they
say they do but no nobody does. Yes nobody does.
Just like that
We spend our Friday afternoons with friends reading
Shakespeare, we have read Julius Caesar, and Macbeth
and now Richard the Third and what is so terrifying
is that it is all just like what is happening now. Macbeth
seeing ghosts well don’t they, is not Mussolini
seeing the ghost of his son-in-law, of course he is
you can see him seeing the ghost of his son-in-law,
his last speech showed that he did, and any of them,
take the kings in Shakespeare there is no reason to
why they all kill each other all the time, it is not
like orderly wars when you meet and fight, but it is
all just violence and there is no object to be attained,
no glory to be won, just like Henry the Sixth and Richard
the Third and Macbeth just like that, just like that,
very terrible and just like that.
Medieval means, that life and place and the crops you
plant and your wife and children, all are uncertain.
They can be driven away or taken away, or burned away,
or left behind, that is what it is to be mediaeval.
And now and here 1943, it is just like that (…)
Philosophical murmuring in a light way, but at the same
token it really goes to the heart of all matters. This
is the mirror, this is our life. It is not amusing.
On the contrary, it is, again, most disturbing. Conflict
and war are our alter ego, in all times. No wonder that
Goebbels was so deeply affected by what happened on
September 11. He might therefore have felt it necessary
to include the Dance of the Darvesh (or Derwisj). Darvesh
literally means ‘from door to door’, resembling
the begging monks and other members of the strictly
aesthetic and religious Sufi movement, living in poverty
and sobriety, distant from material possessions, practitioners
of the soul searching and inner mystical dimensions
of the Islam, but at the same time source of wisdom,
poetry, enlightenment, medicine and poetry. Goebbels
confronts us with colliding cultures and philosophies,
his associative imagination crosses unknown borders,
along the diffuse lines of hell and sentiment. We hear
some Indian film themes (including a Hindu love song),
stylishly and typically Bollywood, as we follow the
path to Hollywood, with its westerns, country and western
music and camp fires all included (in Out where the
The very end of ‘Landscape’ is most telling:
Freight Train, a traditional song:
Freight train, freight train going’ so fast.
Freight train, freight train going’ so fast.
Please, don’t tell what train I’m on,
so they won’t know where I’m gone.
When I die, Lord, please bury me deep,
Way down on old Chestnut Street,
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes a-rolling by.
Freight train, freight train (…)
When I am dead and in my grave
No more good times here I’ll crave,
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all that I’m gone to sleep.
This rather soft image might in fact release another
and more sinister one: of freight trains travelling
through Europe taking the Jews to the extermination
camps, most of the victims oblivious to what was going
to happen to them. Another example of what each and
every audience should do: think, think, think!
Goebbels’ thought-provoking ‘Landscape’
carries several distinctive main themes. There is the
ambiguity residing in art and in daily life and their
dispersed intersections. Then there is the very nature
of political clashes and their teeth-baring implications
on the battlefield. Aren’t we all, going back
in time, distant relatives? This hypnotic and fascinating
music either precedes or follows the great variety of
images, it stays with you from start to finish. This
is thanks to Goebbels’ moulding, stretching or
compressing of his material into these amazingly accurate
sketches. It is as if we are strolling through this
museum with its tableaux alternating the horrifying
and the beautiful. Goebbels’ Pictures at an exhibition
is filled with life and death, expressed through historical
events telling us that they do not really differ from
today’s events. All is highly fragmented. Any
sense of sequential chronology is wilfully missing;
there are holes and missing links – just like
life. This is neither the kind of logically laid out
‘summary of events’ we may find in most
history books, nor is it very likely that the piece
can be fruitfully performed without his own ‘intrusions’
as producer and director.
He finished the score in Geneva, in October 2002, most
of it having been written that summer. But a lot of
it was still to be worked out at some later stage, a
process which began at the first rehearsals in December.
The ‘Landscape’ as an ongoing workshop.
Finally it as a ‘work model’, leaving its
performers with ‘about ten percent improvisation’.
In that sense the work is never to be finished.
This is reactionary, and in part, even offensive music
theatre. It defies traditional taste or preferences.
The images, texts, sounds and stage actions are provocative
– just as they should be. This CD – without
those stage images, but with clearly audible stage actions
- does not change that at all. As Goebbels has said,
the audio aspect has a life of its own. Indeed, there
is plenty to reflect upon. This is, in no small part
due to the magnitude of what is said, chanted and played,
in a wide range of forms. What we hear is a tremendous
outburst of creativity that seems to make this inconceivable
aural spectacle indestructible. This is definitely not
some kind of instant curiosity that was unearthed during
the performance. Instead we hear a well-prepared masterpiece
with a magical touch. This production is as committed
as one could possibly imagine, with the audience clearly
gripped by the stage and pit dynamics. If there is ’about
10 percent improvisation’ (the score tells it
for sure), it is unquestionably not probability-based.
It should – and does - emerge from the musical
and stage action itself. This is a most prodigious and
unsettling performance, uncompromisingly direct and
emotionally highly charged. Each and every person involved
seems entirely under the skin of the music. It is nothing
short of exceptional. Even condensed into sound only
this is an experience not to be missed.