Friday, April 24, 2015

A Translation of "...allerdings nur als Baß-Stimmführer" a letter from Thomas Bernhard to the Süddeutsche Zeitung

“…admittedly Only as a Principal Bass”
A Letter to the SZ from Thomas Bernhard
regarding His Career as an Opera Singer 1

February 20, 1987

Dear Features Section,

Two or three days ago Mr. Otto F. Beer from Vienna reported that at the so called artists’ house the Vienna State Opera was about to give the world premiere of the opera The Final Edition by Peter Ronnefeld.  Here Mr. Beer is mistaken…The world premiere of this opera took place in 1957 at the Salzburg Regional Theater during the Salzburg Festival, and I myself played the only speaking role in it, although I probably would have sung better than any of the other performers; at that time my bass voice was at the very pinnacle of its development, and that same year I sang at the festival at the Mozarteum in the world premiere of an oratorio by Gnechhi with Teresa Stich-Randall, one of the most famous female singers ever and girlfriend of the then president of the Mozarteum, Paumgartner.  So I believe that in that single year I participated in two world premieres in the setting of the Salzburg Festival.

Probably I did not sing in the premiere of The Final Edition because I had already sung in the Gnecchi oratorio; and in tails no less, an article of clothing that I had never worn before and have never worn since.  And it occurs to me that in that year I also sang in Mozart’s C-minor mass, admittedly only as a principal bass2, but for all that alongside the famous Maria Stader, who was no less famous than she was short and who had to stand on a stool the whole time, because otherwise nobody would have been able to see her at all.

The performance of The Final Edition that is going to be given in Vienna in March is therefore not going to be a world premiere but a repeat performance.  I could have imagined anything in 1957, anything, that is, except that this opera would be performed yet again thirty years later and in horrible old Vienna of all places.

Peter Ronnefeld was one of my best friends during my days as a student at the Mozarteum; in all my life I have never laughed as much with anybody as with Ronnefeld, who had already, by the age of twenty, been Karajan’s second-in-command at the Vienna [State] Opera, where when scarcely more than thirty he conducted the Italian operas, notably Rossini’s--La Cenerentola, etc.—better than the majority of his Italian colleagues.  But more than anything else, Peter Ronnefeld was an utterly and thoroughly excellent piano player, a.k.a. pianist, and he excelled at this profession most of all when he played with Hubertus Böse.  But I personally, apart from laughing more with him than with the majority of other people—who, as everybody knows, are too dull-witted to laugh—spoke a great deal about music with him and the two of us musically helped each other up into the stratosphere, so to speak.

After The Final Edition, Ronnefeld wrote one more opera, entitled The Ant, which was premiered at the so-called German Opera House on the Rhine, in Düsseldorf, I believe.  This opera was utterly and totally driven by jokes that Ronnefeld and I were in the habit of cracking during our breaks from the madness of the Mozarteum, and Mr. Liebeneiner produced it; Mr. Erede, a thoroughly Italian conductor, conducted.  The libretto was authored by Mr. Bletschacher (or Pletschacher?), another good friend of Peter Ronnefeld’s and subsequently the dramaturge at the Vienna [State] Opera.

So at the age of twenty-six Peter Ronnefeld died.  I saw him for the last time about thirty years ago in a train dining car en route to Düsseldorf and indeed to a rehearsal of The Ant.  At the time he was working as the music director (!) of the orchestra in Kiel, and he said to me, as we were spooning up a thickened oxtail soup, just imagine, he said, I’ve been trying to hire Krebs (the best oratorio singer of his day), because I need him for the St. John Passion, and the doctor I saw this morning told me I’d already got him!3  Ronnefeld had a mole surgically removed; he should not have done that, because half a year later he was dead.

A couple of months ago I read that Peter Ronnefeld’s son had also died (in Hamburg) and had also not yet reached thirty.  Who knows whether he did not also have a mole surgically removed like his father.  In any case, the Ronnefelds have died young.  The fact that they were more highly musical than all but a few other central Europeans has been of no use to them.

I am already looking forward to the repeat performance of The Final Edition in Vienna.  At the time of its Salzburg premiere--which could not have been attended more conspicuously by everybody from [Carl] Schuricht and [George] Szell to Boris Blacher and [Gottfried von] Einem and in which I myself ultimately had to figure in the last act as an actor rather than as a judicial act, as specified in the score, and still ended up getting cocooned in the regional theater’s curtain, to the great mirth of the entire stage crew and the tragic detriment of the director, who was all-too unpretentiously surnamed Tuttenberg4—the opera still bore the title of The Echo’s Final Edition.  Why it is now called simply The Final Edition I can hardly know, as I am not privy to the thoughts of Ronnefeld’s descendants or the thoughts of the Vienna State Opera.  I wish the premiere all possible success, because Peter Ronnefeld was an inspired dog; and I extend my greetings to the horrible South Germans, who for all their horribleness afford me an utterly and thoroughly singular species of enjoyment here every single day.

1.       Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur.  Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons.  Herausgegeben von  Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth.  Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles.  Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011), pp. 280-282.  Originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on March 3, 1987.

2.       A principal bass is the lead bass voice in a chorus, not a soloist.  The original German, Baß-Stimmführer [bass voice-leader], is slightly less misleading.

3.      Krebs is not only a surname but also the German word for cancer (and crab, naturally).  Bernhard had already made use of Ronnefeld’s life history in a piece of dialogue assigned to the conductor in The Celebrities: “I had a colleague…we were together at the Academy…[he] conducted La Cenerentola at the age of twenty-two…In Bad Segeberg between Hamburg and Kiel / I ran into my colleague for the first time in years / he was looking for an Evangelist for the Passion / in those days there was literally only a single Evangelist in all of Europe / Helmut Krebs …Just imagine / said my colleague in a perfectly cheerful tone / I’ve been trying to hire Krebs  / and the doctor tells me I’ve already got him.”

4.      A Tuttenberg is (or would be) nothing less ludicrous than a “mountain of tits.”

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Translation of Anneliese Botond's "Schlußbemerkung" to Über Thomas Bernhard

A Final Observation

In 1963 Thomas Bernhard published his first book of prose.  In this novel, Frost, he drafted the blueprint of a system (of a self-contained world) that remained in place in his succeeding books.  With a minimum of exponentials—a spoken discourse [Rede] and an ear (witness) that assimilates it—a maximum field of play (field of tension) is opened up for an unlimitedly monotonous, magnificent, ludicrous, terrifying, fascinating drama, a drama that is always the same and that is of such a universal nature that not merely a single situation, a single place, but even a single sentence (every sentence) a single word (every word) should be capable of expressing it.  Every premiere performance of this drama is a repeat performance; every repeat performance a premiere performance.  This drama is always, perhaps even in its very history of repeat performances, a trial of destruction.  A trial whose origin is conceivably nature.  Nature or the incestuous coupling of antitheses.  Literary criticism, that court of first instance in the reception of contemporary literature, has been confronted with the output of this author for seven years.  Very early on it was torn between two mutually contradictory positions, attraction and irritation.  Approval and disapproval were not without pathos.  Criticism was working with literary criteria and existential categories.  It applied the usual catchphrases touching on thematic concerns and characterizing the author’s temperament. It recognized and accepted that his development consisted in repetition.  The critics all agreed, in various shades of approval, that whether this person was truly modern or not, he certainly could write.

The parallels that were allusively drawn between Bernhard and other writers of the past or present afforded some degree of illumination.  The sole attempt I know of to place his books under a conceptual umbrella—that of the anti-Great Austrian Novel—has misfired.  At a relatively late point, considering that literary criticism has had sociological, psychoanalytical, and linguistic methods and perspectives at its disposal for quite some time, people began to ask whether these books could be come to terms with at all by means of purely literary criteria. 

Thomas Bernhard does not make public pronouncements about his books.  He does not engage in any literary debates.  If the soundless interchange between the author writing his books and the critics writing about his books counts as a dialogue, the dialogue in this case has pursued a course not unlike that pursued by the conversation about the flood and the theatrical performance in Gargoyles.  Doubtlessly literary criticism has a share in this complex process—an enigmatic one even on the level of clear-cut facts—that is termed an author’s “effect.”  Thomas Bernhard was a well-known author before he had a sizable readership and before the attraction or irritation emanating from his books could be substantiated.

It is evident that the younger generation has recently begun to take a more attentive interest in this author, to auscultate his books.  At any rate, thanks partly to the university seminar room, the past year has seen the almost simultaneous and mutually independent emergence of a series of critical works that have provided new starting points and outcomes.  Books like those of Thomas Bernhard, books whose austere architecture is hidden under a semblance of anarchy, are highly susceptible to being misunderstood.  With the utmost lucidity, the individual investigations highlight the systematic character and almost vertiginous consistency of a mode of thought that proceeds integratively rather than discursively [diskursiv].  When read out of context, words like “theater,” “forest,” “dispersal” suddenly become relevant to the whole.  In Bernhard the detail may in fact afford the shortest path to the center.

Thomas Bernhard’s body of work is not yet complete; equally incomplete is the controversy in which he is involved.  The texts collected in this volume delineate a study of this incomplete corpus.  The trial is not yet over.  


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Über Thomas Bernhard.  Herausgegeben von Anneliese Botond [On Thomas Bernhard.  Edited by Anneliese Botond] (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), pp. 139-141.