Proms 2013: Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (UK Première)

by 5:4

There is, it seems to me, a distinct sense of double-edged sword to the territorial (as opposed to world) premières that feature in each year’s Proms. It’s encouraging, of course, that such fascinating works are introduced to British audiences, but many’s the time one can’t help wondering why on earth they took so long to get here. Last year’s most glaring example was Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which took 35 years to be heard here, while the UK première at last night’s Prom, Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, entered the world at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1980. Nonetheless, it was most definitely worth the wait.

Both aspects of the title are, as one would expect from Lachenmann, far from obvious. As far as the ‘tanzsuite’ (dance suite) is concerned, the work is structured in five broad parts that contain numerous smaller sections (18 in total), many of which are named after well-known dances, although their characters as well as the points where they begin and end are often tough to discern. The ‘Deutschlandlied’, Germany’s national anthem—better known by its original opening line, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”—is even harder to make out, the famous melody barely recognisable at any point in the work. Composed by Joseph Haydn and incorporated into his ‘Emperor’ quartet, Lachenmann has perhaps acknowledged these origins by composing Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied for string quartet and orchestra. For this first UK performance, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott, was joined by the Arditti Quartet.

The first part comprises five sections, the Preamble of which presents a very clear idea of what’s to come. The quartet concern themselves with isolated plucked notes, scratches and a drawn-out almost inaudible kind of whispering. The orchestra establishes its credentials with the opposite, a clusterfuck chord, but in its wake they assume a demeanour that’s equally unfathomable. The curiosity of sounds and timbres they create, in which it’s hard to pinpoint both where sounds are coming from and what exactly is making them, continues through an aspirated Waltz and an aerated March, only getting assertive in the concluding Transition where there’s a sense of something beginning to loom. The orchestra assumes command at the start of part two (~8:30), nominally a Siciliano but not recognisable as such for several more minutes. What is increasingly apparent, though, is a pulse, beneath the anguished chords and blunt, isolated notes that make up the rather brutal surface. Far from sounding disjointed, however, Lachenmann manages to join the dots, so to speak, turning them into a kind of pointillist klangfarbenmelodie. A small-scale climax dissolves the texture into the most skeletal Siciliano you’ll ever hear, its basic dotted rhythm tapped out on the body of a piano. Through the subsequent Capriccio, Lachenmann moves away from percussive impetus but by the time it leads into the ‘Valse Lente’ (slow waltz), the underlying pulse, now beginning to drag, acts like a metronome, the orchestra clustering around each beat.

Gradually the pulse ebbs away, and there’s the impression of an orchestra resetting their instruments for something more intensive. The third part (~17:09) initially toughens up but its opening Transition swiftly dissipates into almost inaudible rhythms, the quartet barely touching their strings. Lachenmann begins his Gigue with sudden loud chords, leading to the first fast-moving material in the piece, extremely rapid figurations and arpeggios that also hint at something familiar within. It’s led by the quartet but the orchestra abruptly takes off, expanding this material in a dense tutti that sees the quartet and orchestra become one entity. Wooden percussion kick off the Tarantella that seamlessly follows, the quartet shifting to more opaque material as the pulse intensifies, becoming hammered out. All this momentum is cancelled out by a single triangle stroke, ushering in part four (~23:53), the most vividly blasted and withered of them all. Nominally a Polka bookended by twin Arias, the first is utterly incoherent, offering pitched material but with no idea what to do with it; the Polka is even more wasted, articulated by croaks and groans from seemingly everywhere, all pitch content erased from the music. Effectively, the piece (literally) grinds to a stop, leaving the second Aria stuck in a halting rut with no real momentum.

It does better than the first at formulating convincing fragments of melody, however, and this continues into the start of the fifth and final part (~28:14), which sounds more than before like music pieced together from fragments and relics. A Galop literally stops the moment it’s started, leading to an oblique episode in which something familiar—perhaps the Deutschlandlied; it’s hard to tell—almost emerges through the convoluted surface tension. But it, too, is lost as the Galop finally finds its feet and romps off, only to break down moments later. There’s still the sense of a quick pulse, driving things without being heard, but it ultimately proves irrelevant and the music collapses. The lengthy closing Aria begins with little more than remote tremolandi and extremely high piccolo squawks, but it develops a glistening, semi-static sheen, from which the upper strings start to move as one. There’s the makings of a final stab at assertion, but by now everything is burning out, resulting in a plethora of anonymous, indifferent points of sound. It concludes above a transparent tremolo, snorting and snuffling to an inscrutable end.

This is easily one of the most astonishing works to have been heard at the Proms in recent years. It’s no less astonishing to note that Helmut Lachenmann’s music has never before been featured at the Proms; yet while Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied may have taken 33 years to arrive, one can’t deny the simple fact that hearing Lachenmann’s incredible, ground-breaking language in this context is something that can only be wildly and ungrudgingly celebrated. The extended applause that followed last night’s performance demonstrated conclusively that British audiences welcome—indeed relish—the opportunity to hear music as unfamiliar and iconoclastic as this. It, and we, deserve much more.


Helmut Lachenmann - Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
  • Loved it! (67%, 28 Votes)
  • Liked it (17%, 7 Votes)
  • Meh (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Disliked it (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Hated it! (12%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 42

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I was up in the gallery for this performance, so I had a good view of the people who left during it: I don’t think the piece was actually that warmly received at all. One woman in the circle decided to walk out five minutes before the end: as my friend commented to me, how odd for someone to take thirty minutes to decide they couldn’t abide any more of a thirty-five minute piece.

I found the Lachenmann interesting, but don’t doubt that it suffered from the RAH’s acoustics. Strange that the Southbank Centre haven’t organised a performance of it before now.


P.S. The ‘extended applause’ was because Lachenmann himself took rather a while to thank lots of people on the stage and no doubt many people in the audience felt it would have been impolite to stop applauding while the composer was on the stage. As soon as he went off, everyone stopped.

[…] on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas Adès‘ […]


according to the score, the deutschlandlied is heard at bar 610 (the very beginning of the 5th section, about 25:30 into the arditti recording) but is probably clearest to make out starting about 0:50 into the galop where it floats above the texture (in very slow note values) in the extreme high register of the piano. the words are written underneath the piano and percussion parts in this section, which actually continues until the very end although the melody subsequently becomes undistinguishable due to being passed to the cymbals.

the way the deutschlandlied takes over the texture seems intended to be a parody of triumphant nationalistic endings (in the same way that a “dance suite” with all the notes taken out can be seen as parodying of a lot of prewar german music, eisler and weill and hindemith and etc), but the methodical fragmentation & deconstruction of everything suggests that something is being criticised—what, exactly, it’s very hard to tell, perhaps a particular cultural or artistic attitude of its time.


So glad that Lachenmann got 67% of the popular vote! If only more voters were on the timbre side of the isle.

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