Zender: 33 Veraenderungen ueber 33 Veraenderungen
A "composed interpretation" of Beethoven's Diabelli variations
Zender’s second „Composed Interpretation“
My interpretation of Schubert’s „Winterreise“ has at times been misunderstood. On the one
hand, the idea arose that such a variation ought to be nostalgic; some traditionalists, on the other hand, understood it as violation of the original. Neither of these is correct, for my interpretation lies exactly on the centre line between these two possibilities. ... I was keen to give this balancing another go. Nietzsche said something like: The relation between the old and the new is always such that the new will destroy the old. There is just one possibility to avoid this: a „fearless hovering“ above the abyss of history. This hovering between the styles we are familiar with implies a particular stimulus, which is able to trigger new experiences, not only for the composer, but also for the listener.
An Interview with Hans Zender
Hans Zender, who will celebrate his 75th birthday this year, has cooperated closely with the Ensemble Modern from its very beginnings. During the late 1970s, Hans Zender directed the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and gave essential impetus for the foundation of the Ensemble Modern; in 1993, he initiated the series of concerts and discussions ›Happy New Ears‹. The world premiere of his composed interpretation of Schubert’s “Winterreise” was performed by the Ensemble Modern in the same year. Working, varying and reacting to existing works of the past are among the many compositional approaches of Hans Zender. In the past he has used works by Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy as his starting point. Now, Hans Zender has embarked on Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” for his new work, “33 Veränderungen über 33 Veränderungen” (33 Variations on 33 Variations). Roland Diry (RD) talked to Hans Zender (HZ) about his work on Beethoven’s last grand piano piece and most extensive set of variations.
RD: When we met last August, you told me that you had had the idea of »working« the ›Diabelli Variations‹ even earlier. And you started off with the idea not to write for an orchestra but for an ensemble instead. How did you approach the work and what was it like, looking into it, dealing with it?
HZ: I think there have been more composers who have toyed with the idea of orchestrating or developing this unconventional piece in some way or other. For my whole life I have not dared to, because on the one hand the piece seems ideally suitable, but on the other it is already modern to such a degree that you ask yourself: What can be formulated in a more »modern« manner in this piece? Finally, basically because of the persistent inquiries of the Ensemble Modern, I started to reconsider the project. I had to overcome huge inhibitions to begin with, but then I got started and immediately enjoyed working on it and all of a sudden a couple of variations were finished.
RD: … And what exactly was the particular hurdle you had to overcome?
HZ: Of course it is the fundamental question of every composed interpretation: How can I move sensibly between the greatest possible proximity to the original and a completely new formulation. There are so many ways that can go wrong. You could »violate« or even destroy the original, but you could also remain so entranced by it that nothing substantially new has any chance of developing. A balance has to be achieved between the two poles of interpretation: own authorship and the reappearance of a grand old piece of music. You try to do justice to the text and simultaneously to insert your own individuality. My interpretation of Schubert’s “Winterreise” has at times been misunderstood. On the one hand, the idea arose that such a variation ought to be nostalgic and refer back to the original; some traditionalists, on the other hand, understood it as destruction or violation of the original. Neither of these is correct, for my interpretation lies exactly on the centre line between these two possibilities. The challenge posed by Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” is at least as big as the one by Schubert.
RD: What was it in particular in Beethoven’s composition that prompted you to meet this challenge all the same?
HZ: I don’t think there is really one clear answer to that question because there is always something irrational about it. I was keen to give this balancing act another go. Nietzsche said something like: The relation between the old and the new is always such that the new will destroy the old. There is just one possibility to avoid this: a »fearless hovering« above the abyss of history. This »hovering« between the styles we are familiar with implies a particular stimulus, which is able to trigger new experiences, not only for the composer but also for the listener.
RD: How did you approach the “Diabelli Variations”?
HZ: I occupied myself very intensively with the piece by playing it on the piano for a long time. I discovered many things that have complemented and changed my view of Beethoven. In particular, I was astonished at the fact that Beethoven had himself already posed “the question of authorship” in this piece. When Beethoven wrote the “Diabelli Variations”, he had already presented a huge oeuvre and shaped a whole epoch, the “Age of Subjectivism”. In this late work Beethoven seems not only to fulfil subjectivism but even to overcome it by creating not one but 33 worlds in these 33 variations. There are manifold reminiscences of the Baroque era and previews of Romanticism. It is like juggling on the precipice of the destruction of the whole. The composing ego discovers that it is in itself a multiplicity and not a unity. In this way Beethoven already musically addresses an issue at the beginning of the 19th century, that is usually associated with the 20th century, in the literature of James Joyce or Luigi Pirandello, for example. It is a modern problem statement that is conceivable only with modern psychoanalysis. Beethoven anticipated all this, and of course it is exciting to adopt or continue it in one way or the other. I made a clear decision not to change the character of the variations. The “Veränderung über die Veränderung” (variation on variation) can only be of structural nature, i.e. in harmony or rhythm. Some of the variations are very close to the original, others are far away from it and a third category ranges midway; I was happy to discover a tone row in the waltz of the “Diabelli Variations” (more precisely: one half of a tone row that makes an entire tone row when mirrored). This was – so to speak – an “objet trouvé”, which helped me to find an inner order.
RD: Did your experiences from playing the piece have an impact on the composition?
HZ: One question the performer has to ask himself is whether he wants the variations to be arranged in groups, and if so which ones he wants to combine. I tried to structure the work into three sections by certain bell signs: from the beginning up to the 11th variation, from then on to the 22nd and then through to the end, with the fugue serving as an »outer end« and where the incredibly beautiful last variation is meant to be the “alternative close” of a second, »inner« process of the piece. The 20th variation occupies a prominent position insofar as I have formed a kind of “step out of time” at the point of the “divine proportion” in relation to the whole piece.
RD: When writing the score did you imagine how certain piano players would interpret the Beethoven piece and did this influence your work?
HZ: I am mainly familiar with the “Diabelli Variations” played by Alfred Brendel. Without him I would not have become so familiar with the piece. It was he who brought it to life for me in the first place, but this also comes from my long-standing familiarity with the style of tradition that Brendel embodies. During my school years I was lucky enough to see Edwin Fischer, Brendel’s teacher, as well as Gieseking and Furtwängler. Nevertheless, there is no simple way of defining it. Working on a written interpretation means of course
a variation, not a reproduction of aesthetic experience.
RD: Another point I’m interested in is whether the idea of the composed interpretation progresses as you yourself develop?
HZ: There’s always a single answer for a single piece. You have to listen very carefully to the composer you want to continue and give an individual answer.
RD: My last question is about the choice of instruments…
HZ: …I just took the Ensemble Modern and added an accordion. The piano is virtually excluded from the instrumentation, but not completely, for in the very last variation a piano player performs from the wings. It is a sound from afar, from the depths of history which encounters the changes on the podium in the shape of the Ensemble – the symbol for the present. And there it is, the Ensemble Modern – is there anything more vivid?
(from: Ensemble Modern Newsletter No. 34, 2011)
„33 Veränderungen über 33 Veränderungen“ – Ein Gespräch mit Hans Zender / An Interview with Hans Zender, in: Ensemble Modern Newsletter Nr. 34 (2011), S. 12-19
Happy New Ears – Utopie jenseits der Stilsicherheit. Hans Zender im Gespräch mit Lydia Jeschke, in: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 172 (2011), Heft 6, S. 10-13