Interview: Bernhard Lang

Interview: Bernhard Lang

Bernhard Lang's new opera ParZeFool – Der Thumbe Thor will be premiered on 4 June 2017 at the Wiener Festwochen staged by Jonathan Meese and conducted by Simone Young. Find out more about the composition in this interview.

Why Richard Wagner and why Parsifal?

On one hand, I began to concentrate on this subject back in the 1980s. At that time, I was going through a Wagnerian phase, where I worked through his complete works. The terms “Entzeitlichung” (detemporalisation) and “unendliche Melodie” (endless melody), the endless “ins Nichts Hineingehen” (going into nothing) in the music were fundamental and fascinating. I was mainly interested in Parsifal and Tristan. The music of Parsifal in particular is a miracle of harmony. Tristan makes harmonic sense after a certain point but Parsifal poses puzzles which refer to later impressionist harmonies. This totally fascinated me. 

Then came the dawning realisation. Because the more carefully you read Wagner, the closer you get to these nasty things that are hidden in his works, like the tedium and the hostility to humans – all these dimensions which led to the political interpretations later on. In Parsifal they are embedded in this fairy-tale world and not so visible at first glance. You only notice it when you consider the work in more detail and break through the magical surface. Put simply, the Hitler quote “whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner” is not completely unfounded. 

The theme of reinterpreting and rewriting works has been an important theme for me over the last ten years. Parsifal is the crowning glory of this whole series, it is also the longest single piece.

Wagner’s music and lyrics are intimately intertwined. If you change the lyrics, you change the whole dramatization and proportions of the piece.

It is interesting that you mention proportions. I reproduced them exactly as they are in a Pierre-Boulez recording, the remaining proportions are exactly the same as Wagner’s. I only used the technique of ellipsis, simply leaving large parts of the lyrics out, and replacing them with loops of certain lyrics, creating the original version in terms of time using the loops. This was a process, that we – i.e. Jonathan Meese and myself – had already agreed upon in advance, that we would focus on a few key sentences. The looping technique replaces the narrative’s linear nature. This creates a new structure – and this technique really resembles Wagnerian repetition and leitmotif techniques as well as the endless melody. Only someone reading the whole score can understand that the narrative has been reversed and changed. It is an act of subversion, of course, that is clear. I have carried out this subversion with the Wagner lyrics, because I have replaced some individual syllables in them. But for the most part they are the original lyrics.

Wagner’s lyrics are put into context in key areas. For example, the names “Schopen/Hauer” and “Gautama Buddha” are mentioned around the key phrase “Durch Mitleid wissend der reine Tor” (the pure fool, enlightened by compassion) in the 1st act.  

This is a technique inspired by Jonathan Meese. I was in Berlin in his studio in Prenzlauer Berg and saw his images of Parsifal, before I had started to compose. These were large images, energetic eruptions and they all have inscriptions. The inscription contains the comment that then appears in the image and also forms a contrast to what is pictured/visualised. It is a technique, in which ideas, motifs, exclamations and marginal comments appear in the image itself. I have incorporated these comments into the piece as my marginal notes and reassigned them to the choir. “Gautama Buddha” obviously alludes to Wagner’s last drama, Die Sieger, a Buddhism-inspired drama. The notion of redemption, which comes from Schopenhauer and is first interpreted sexually in Tristan, and reinterpreted in the direction of a misconstrued Buddhism, a misunderstood Far-Eastern philosophical experience in Parsifal, leads to similar marginal notes as the Gautama Buddha one. These are all small comments, which are actually very cryptic and remain on a secret level, and almost disappear among the action on the stage. Everything remains under the surface. 

You also made a subtle change to the last words to be sung. Because these are no longer “Erlösung dem Erlöser” (redemption to the redeemer) as in Wagner, but “Erlösung von Erlösern” (redemption from redeemers).

That is exactly the point. I was so proud that I discovered this reversal with Erlösung von Erlösern. But now I realised that it was not entirely my own. Even Nietzsche spoke of “Erlösung vom Erlöser” (redemption from the redeemer) – which is a direct reference to Wagner. It is more abstract for me; it is about general redemption from redeemers. The whole pseudo-religious dimension in this Wagner Opera, which quotes the redeemer, the messiah, is contrasted and that reverses the whole story.  Strictly speaking there is a flawed logic in the whole narrative: The “reine Tor” (pure fool) is the innocent, who stands on the other side of the moral law, just like the fool Nietzsche quotes in Zarathustra. This fool loses his folly and innocence and becomes an official, becomes the King of the Grail Kingdom, who rules everything, where everything is right, and everyone is redeemed. But the synthesis of folly, purity, innocence and transcending the moral law does not really happen any more in Wagner. Parsifal is simply the new Amfortas and then that was it. The whole glorification, singing the praises of the pure fool, suddenly stops. It was important to me to keep the pure fool – in my version he is called the “tumbe Tor” (stupid fool) as a fool right up to the end. This is why even Kundry seduces Parsifal at the end. This is the actual reversal.

Where does your looping technique meet Wagner’s leitmotif technique?

You must understand that I am not looping the leitmotifs. On the contrary, I am looping passages, which are not as central in Wagner’s work. This sentence is a good example: “Fleckenrein, so muss es sein” (spotless, that’s how it must be). This is a passage of Wagner’s lyrics that is not so important. But I chose to loop it. What is the result? It is not a new leitmotif, but the text is suddenly broken up. The choir suddenly exclaims “white stains”, which in turn is a quote from another work. Bringing content in and out of focus plays a role at different levels. There are a variety of ways to deal with this principle of repetition. 

In those three and a half hours I have used everything at my disposal, depending on the situation. The looping technique creates cracks and rifts in the lyrics and plot, and this produces meanings, which have not been observed before. When it works, that is exactly what I am aiming for. I call it "semantic explosion", where you can suddenly interpret new layers and contexts. This can go in all directions. It can be ironic, annoying and threatening, it is hard to predict what will happen. It is like a microscope in time that allows you to look through time and discover things in the music that could not be seen in its previous form. This is the great utopian dream behind these things, looking at old material from a new perspective, which has supposedly already been seen too often. 

The interview was conducted by Barbara Barthelmes.
The interview was first published in the magazine “Immersion” at the Berliner Festspiele.

Jonathan Meese / Bernhard Lang / Simone Young
15., 16. & 18.10.2017
Haus der Berliner Festspiele

ParZeFool - Der Thumbe Thor (2016)
Music theater for voices, choir, ensemble and 2 Jazz musicians
after Richard Wagner‘s Parsifal
UA: Wien (Wiener Festwochen), 04.06.2017
Dauer: 200'

composer profile: Bernhard Lang

photo: Harald Hoffmann