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German Music

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« Reply #45 on: March 13, 2014, 12:53:08 am »

Another Article about Trojahn from

On 22 October, Manfred Trojahn celebrated his 60th birthday. Robert Maschka looks for traces of the “old forms” in Trojahn’s oeuvre, in order to find modernity which reveals itself in all genres of the composer’s copious output.

When Johannes Brahms played his Handel Variations to Richard Wagner in 1864, Wagner is said to have praised his younger rival, saying: “One sees what can still be achieved with the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to handle them.” In today’s context, Wagner’s praise of Brahms sets the tone for the discussion of contemporary composing which oscillates between an avant-garde aesthetic and historically aware interaction with tradition. In particular, that quiet reservation about too great a slavishness to tradition, as is discernible in Wagner’s somewhat patronizing tone, has survived the passage of time. Yet around two generations later it was Arnold Schönberg of all people, the founding father of modern music, who lauded Brahms as a progressive.

Traditions of genre

With Manfred Trojahn, today’s music world has in its midst a composer who, albeit differently from Brahms, is still able to derive something from “the old forms”. And so, Trojahn’s oeuvre can easily be divided into traditional genres, something which can no longer be taken for granted nowadays, though Trojahn, thanks to the almost protean art of adaptation like the all-round composer of the 18th century, has written in almost all of the common musical genres. And yet there is a basic difference between Trojahn and these predecessors: he no longer takes the traditional forms and genres for granted. On the contrary, the historical distance is considered and taken as a theme in the way he conceives his works; this is discussed here in a brief examination of them.

In the music of La Folia for two pianos, composed in 1982, a free, connected section of toccata-like baroque figurative work leads into an epilogue disappearing into the highest extremities, in which the D minor world of the venerable Folia seems to disappear into the irretrievable. Trojahn chose a comparable central idea for Palinsesto, his homage to Schubert composed for string quartet and soprano in 1996. This can be described as a process of recalling Schubert’s Goethe setting Nähe des Geliebten: at first, fragments appear out of ethereal string figurations, as in a palimpsest, followed by the complete final verse of the song. Consequently, the strings fall into a resounding silence, but only the quotation of the Schubertian song epilogue marks the fully recognisable conclusion. Using another approach, Trojahn’s 3rd String Quartet of 1983 moves between different times: on the one hand it can be heard as a homage to Beethoven, in the flexible disposition of the highly taut parts, reacting and communicating with each other, particularly as the very limited motivic material of the four movements is exceptionally pointedly and concisely shaped. On the other hand, Beethoven is not heard in a single note; on the contrary, this is unmistakably an artist of the late 20th century which we hear, as recognised in the structure of the movements leaning towards aphorism, in the harmony and gestural characteristic shape of the sound formulations.

In his most recent symphony to date, the 5th Symphony of 2004, Trojahn again deals with traditional genres in several respects. Thus, with its large orchestral forces, this three-movement work already displays a symphonic approach striving for the monumental, confirmed in the first movement with its dense motivic work. The following Intermezzo, with its shadowy treatment of sound seems like a neo-Romantic character piece in the style of an uneasy piece of night music, whilst the concluding elegy in the peaceful breath of melos conjures up a symphonic image of time which makes the actuality of real time a distant memory.

Determining positions

To formulate a position musically may in any case be something which concerns Trojahn in his composing. In the Requiem of 1983/85, revised in 2003, motivic reference is made to Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles in a carefully considered way. For, like Stravinsky, in his version of the Requiem Trojahn is not striving for a dramatic sound-picture version of the text – comparable with the requiem masses of the Romantic period – instead he is seeking a method of representation which draws the liturgical and sacramental function of the texts into the compositional calculus.

In other words, while Trojahn’s compositions involve determining positions to that which exists, the listener doesn’t hear a strange language, but one which, despite all its novelty, wants to express the seemingly familiar: a comprehensible sound idiom. And such a conscious positioning can even lead to a kind of extension of another composer’s style. As a result, even the uninformed listener to the Three Songs by Lord Tennyson of 1996 would, because of the lyrical characteristic style and the clear structure of the songs, think of the composer to whom they are dedicated, namely Benjamin Britten. In these songs, Trojahn shows that an art of song in the spirit of Britten is still possible today. And likewise his other song settings are, thanks to his ability to put expressivity, sensitivity and subtlety into music, a single refutation of that fashionable view that poetry in music is an outdated artistic expression; this is why Schumann’s Kinderscenen title of “Der Dichter spricht” could be applied to the song composer Trojahn.

Theatre in the opera

What effect does the striving for an historically-conscious stance in his compositions have on Trojahn’s operatic works? As adopting a position and playing a part are related principles, it is scarcely surprising that Trojahn conceives his operas according to the forces available. As a result, he has become a reviver of a type of music theatre of Mozartian or Italian influence, thought of in terms of protagonists. What is more, Trojahn almost submerges himself in each of his stage creations. And through this trick he gives the appearance of precisely not being an omniscient narrator, even if he lets the main characters be swept onto the stage by the roaring wind in the interludes in Was ihr wollt (1998).

Thus Trojahn’s stage characters provide information in an eminently theatrical, vital and eloquent way, which in itself is a mystery and is unsure of itself. As early as Enrico (1991) and Was ihr wollt, but also in the later operas Limonen aus Sizilien (2003) and La Grande Magia (2008) the play within the play, self-projection and with it the role which one performs to another, become metaphors of existence. Stylisation, quotation, allusion and innuendo are here compositional means in the depiction of that lost self assurance which Trojahn’s stage characters, searching for themselves, make into symbols of the modern state. Whilst the composer allows this broken sense of existence characteristic of today’s insecure person to become art, we may recognize why Trojahn, to return to Schönberg’s dictum on Brahms, is a progressive. And as a result, on his 60th birthday, we listen to his rich output, with the result that he becomes even more familiar to us as a person; for along with Brahms, Trojahn, whose music is a tonal language like scarcely anyone else’s of our time, could say of himself: “In my music, I speak.”

Robert Maschka
Translation: Elizabeth Robinson
from [t]akte 2/2009

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