Lehrstück (CD »The Horatians and the Curiatians«)

Bertolt Brecht / Kurt Schwaen: »The Horatians and the Curiatians«. A »Lehrstück« with Music

The Work

(Exerpt from CD booklet)

One thing contains many things: as laconic a comment as it is easy to remember – at the same time a statement full of dialectics. Schooling the mind on the basis of this method, especially on a political and historical level, is the intention of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Lehrstücke’ (plays with a lesson). In Die Horatier und die Kuriatier, the last of the poet’s works for the stage with such a didactic intention, the dialectics of what lies within a ‘thing’ is demonstrated by the Seven ways of using a lance. The lance, as such a weapon, can be used in many different ways – depending on the situation – as a support for a hike through the mountains, as a plumbline, which makes it possible to figure out the depth of a fissure, as a vaulting or balancing pole to name but a few. Nature itself, the sun on its daily course, does not simply surround the action as a removed, ‘neutral’ element. According to the requirements of each situation, it changes the actors’ positions, either in their favor or challenging them.

The practical use of dialectic thought, Brecht’s constant companion, can not only be found in the individual parts of the play, but rather in the whole narrative. And this modifies the historical subject the work is based on considerably. (...)

The Horatians’ victory legitimates itself through the consistency of the action they have taken, not in their moral superiority, which they in fact prove having over the aggressor. Possibly, Brecht was interested in supporting an objective perspective like that when he – in contrast to his first scenic sketch – desisted from giving each individual warrior a name. And so there are no ‘heroes’ among those acting, but rather types, ‘their individualities have been taken away’, in order to incorporate three functions at once: as highest in command, as a troop and as individuals in single combat.

In the case of ‘Die Horatier und die Kuriatier’ the music proves indispensible in order to emphasize the character of the ‘Lehrstück’ as Brecht intended it – of course, a kind of music which does not push itself into the foreground, does not attempt to put in a psychological or an illustrative twist. Its function: accentuating certain dramaturgical points, commenting on what is happening, musically carrying out the thought processes which have been brought to the stage, in other words presenting ‘dialectics’ carried out on a dramatic level. This is a considerable difference to simply setting music to a text, which usually winds up supporting the spoken rhythm of the words. Rather, the most important thing is giving the plot some dynamics so that the course of events, which can only be shown peripherally on stage, become ‘visible’ and there is a time structure enabling the action to become ‘audible’.

From the start, Brecht was aware of this eminently important role the music would play. In a letter from September 1935 to his friend Hanns Eisler, whom he was counting on working with, he wrote,

»The question of music really is not easy this time...The way it presently is, it is hardly possible for everything to be sung. Yet music is necessary everywhere, since the army’s movements must be worked out very precisely.«

»The question of music« was not to be solved to the author’s complete satisfaction until many years later. For although Eisler had already started composing in August of 1935, the project was discontinued due to some mutual discontentment and was never taken up again. And so the piece, which Walter Benjamin after all considered the most »perfect« of Brecht’s ‘Lehrstücke’, was without a heartbeat for quite some time.

Finally, in 1955 Brecht offered his Horatier to Kurt Schwaen, whom he had already learned to esteem on a different occasion. For the composer, who was 45 at the time, working on this was a kind of climax in his brief collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, since the poet died so early on in his life. Reminiscing about those times, Schwaen later was to note:

»I began composing in October (1955). When I had completed a couple of numbers I played them to Brecht. He was obviously pleased. After the first part he said the music was colorful and had some weight to it (and this at the piano, how was he able to hear that?). We spoke about the ‘Seven ways to use a lance’ at length. Using dialectics as our starting point – his favorite topic – he wanted opposing forces to be activated.«

Apparently, Kurt Schwaen hit right on the poet’s ‘musical nerve’, which was confirmed yet again when he played him a tape recording with the Radio Chorus Leipzig under Herbert Kegel. To begin with, the orchestration (only woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano and double-bass) fit Brecht’s ideas and suggestions (he was no friend of violins). Particularly the simple musical diction must have impressed him, a kind of simplicity, however, which encompasses everything if the tonal quality is to be convincing.

Paying attention to each individual note, sensitivity to musical detail, to the intensity, evoking the expressiveness of the most elementary tone sequences or rhythmic figures – that is exactly the specific difficulty of what is considered »simple«, and that is also what poses the special challenge to the interpreter. To put it in a nutshell, in Schwaen’s notes you find what you do in Brecht’s words: namely the ability to present complex connections in concise and precise formulations: having the ability to and taking an almost playful pleasure in finding something like »dialectics« even in the most unassuming context and making it plastic.

We encounter this kind of simplicity or clarity of thought in the musical structure on a number of different levels: no large interval jumps, numerous rhythmic and tonal repetitions, choruses which are sung in unison. Rationalization leads to expressiveness, thus taking on an emotional quality: for instance in the martial tone of the ‘Deployment’, in the elegiac sound of the Horatian and Curiatian women (who interestingly enough sing in unison) or also in the joyous note the final chorus ends on, the victory hymn of the Horatians. Other than that, however, the music does without emotional characterization, making it everything other than ‘opera-like’. Rather, the objective commentary on what is happening is predominant – this, at any rate, is the case in the choruses, since they hardly move away from the diction of the text, they sometimes even act while speaking. But the instrumental interludes, too, are functional, subordinate themselves to the dramaturgy of the piece. In a very prominent part, the Seven ways to use a lance, the most basic »lesson« of the piece is conveyed – namely, that a change in conditions necessitates a change of means – and it finds its direct musical analogy: in the guise of seven variations.

All in all, calling Die Horatier und die Kuriatier a »Lehrstück with music« is the more fitting genre term than »school opera«, which it is also referred to as sometimes. For though latter implies the possibility of performing the piece with children and adolescents, it constricts the scope of the kind of audience the piece is aimed at too much. It also misses the specific role the music is intended to play: since on the one hand it is supposed to be ‘more’ than just stage music, while on the other hand unconditionally serving the concept of epic theater.

Michael Dasche.
Translation: Eva Lipton

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