For Christmas Day i’m bringing my Advent Calendar to a close with one of the most wonderfully perverse orchestral works i’ve heard in recent years, Helmut Lachenmann‘s Marche Fatale. It began life as a piece for solo piano, premièred in 2017, and the orchestral version followed a year later (plus an ensemble version in 2020). Being someone whose musical passions are long-steeped in the music of Mahler – a composer who never went out of his way to incorporate marches into his symphonies and then subject them to all manner of embellishment and grotesquerie – i feel exceptionally comfortable in the company of Marche Fatale. Furthermore, anyone with even a slight awareness of Lachenmann’s fearless, irreverent musical language won’t find it remotely strange that a work like this should have come from his pen.
In his programme note, Lachenmann talks about banality, humour, and a resolve “to take the “absurd” seriously – perhaps bitterly seriously – as a debunking emblem of our civilization that is standing on the brink”. First of all, i’m not at all convinced that a piece like this wants, needs or benefits from a programme note at all. But more importantly, considering Lachenmann’s well-established musical attitude, i wonder whether the best thing to do with that quasi-(pseudo-?)programme note is to turn it on its ostensible head, and “take the “serious” absurdly”. Mahler’s marches become highly nuanced and emotionally-charged due to their broader narrative context; they’re never an end in themselves, but part of a much larger and more complex symphonic argument. Marche Fatale stands alone, and as such it speaks as a cross between an uproariously insane romp and a total travesty; any emotional subtext will, i suspect, say more about the listener and their outlook than the music itself.
Apropos: there’s an overt carnival atmosphere to the main march theme, to the point that it’s not far removed from circus music. Brass oom-pahs are everywhere; the bass drum pounds with the finesse and subtlety of a percussionist on their first day. In short, the orchestra is enthusiastic to a (very literal) fault; as a consequence the shift into a more lyrical episode is made via a downright messy transition, and the strings’ subsequent earnestness is articulated as a rising arpeggio that pushes itself way too far, becoming ridiculously high and shrill (with echoes of Pat Metheny’s equally mad ‘Forward March’).
It’s clear from this contrasting sequence that the sections of the orchestra have very mixed feelings about what they want to be doing. The percussion would like to stay boisterous (they don’t seem to know how to do anything else), and this general inconsistency of mood makes the lyricism untenable: for a time it’s as if we were jump-cutting between several different orchestrations of the piece. When the main march returns it’s held up by plunky and slithery asides, whereupon things get combative again, the oom-pahists coming to blows with the lyricalists.
Rather than resolve the fight, Lachenmann instead transforms the piece into a music box, though that only makes things worse: in response to such delicacy, all sections of the orchestra each roughly shove their way forward, leading to an overblown crescendo climaxing (if that’s the right word) in a prolonged contrabassoon fart. The conclusion could hardly be more of a mess: the main march gets going as a hobbled shadow of its former self, lolloping round and round over clumsy rhythms like a stuck record, whereupon there’s the promise of a Hollywood big ending, but this tilts sideways into glamorous romanticism (still no agreement about direction) before the whole things just collapses completely.
This performance of Marche Fatale was given in April 2019 by the German National Youth Orchestra conducted by Ingo Metzmacher.
Marche fatale is an incautiously daring escapade that may annoy the fans of my compositions more than my earlier works, many of which have prevailed only after scandals at their world premieres. My Marche fatale has, though, little stylistically to do with my previous compositional path; it presents itself without restraint, if not as a regression, then still as a recourse to those empty phrases to which modern civilization still clings in its daily “utility” music, whereas music in the 20th and 21st centuries has long since advanced to new, unfamiliar soundscapes and expressive possibilities.
The key term is “banality.” As creators we despise it, we try to avoid it – though we are not safe from the cheap banal even within new aesthetic achievements.
Many composers have incidentally accepted the banal. Mozart wrote “Ein musikalischer Spaß” [A Musical Jape], a deliberately “amateurishly miscarried” sextet. Beethoven’s “Bagatellen” op. 119 were rejected by the publisher on the grounds that “few will believe that this minor work is by the famous Beethoven.” Mauricio Kagel wrote, tongue in cheek, so to speak, “Märsche, um den Sieg zu verfehlen” [Marches for being Unvictorious], Ligeti wrote “Hungarian Rock;” in his “Circus Polka” Stravinsky quoted and distorted the famous, all too popular Schubert military march, composed at the time for piano duet.
I myself do not know, though, whether I ought to rank my Marche fatale alongside these examples: I accept the humor in daily life, the more so as this daily life for some of us is not otherwise to be borne. In music, I mistrust it, considering myself all the closer to the profounder idea of cheerfulness having little to do with humor.
However: Isn’t a march with its compelling claim to a collectively martial or festive mood absurd, a priori? Is it even “music” at all? Can one march and at the same time listen?
Eventually, I resolved to take the “absurd” seriously – perhaps bitterly seriously – as a debunking emblem of our civilization that is standing on the brink. The way – seemingly unstoppable – into the black hole of all debilitating demons: “that can become serene.” My old request of myself and my music-creating surroundings is to write a “non-music,” whence the familiar concept of music is repeatedly re-defined anew and differently, so that “derailed” here – perhaps? – in a treacherous way, the concert hall becomes the place of mind-opening adventures instead of a refuge in illusory security. How could that happen? The rest is – thinking.