Why is Walter Benjamin starring in another opera?

Why is Walter Benjamin starring in another opera?


norman lebrecht

June 05, 2018

The German-Jewish philologist and philosopher who committed suicide at Port-Bou on the Franco-Spanish border in September 1940 is the hero of a new opera, Benjamin, which has just opened at Hamburg.

Peter Ruzicka’s work is by no means the first on the subject.

Two years ago, the philosopher Régis Dubray and composer Michel Tabachnik presented Benjamin, Dernière Nuit in Lyon. It sank without trace.

The British composer Brian Ferneyhough created Shadowtime in 2005 on the same theme, and the same outcome.

And Elliott Sharp put on a Benjamin opera in 2014 in Brooklyn. It stayed in Brooklyn, apparently.

It’s hard to fathom the connection between Benjamin’s lexical precision and the excesses of opera, let alone the contrast between his essentially dull life and the requirements of drama.

But composers just keep trying.

Has anyone seen the new Ruzicka yet?


  • william osborne says:

    Haven’t seen the opera. Wish I could, but Hamburg is on the opposite end of Germany. In a very positive review, the Bavarian (State) Radio explains why Benjamin is a suitable topic for opera:

    “Walter Benjamin, who focused his keenly analytical view of the untimely, the painful, and the forgotten, and on war, anti-Semitism and utopias, is predestined like no other to cause pity and dismay, because in his work he put his finger to the wounds of German history.”

    (Walter Ben­jamin, dessen scharf analytischer Blick auf das Unzeitige, Leidvolle, Vergessene gerichtet war, auf Krieg, Antisemitismus und Utopien, ist wie kein Anderer prädestiniert, Mitleid und Betrof­fenheit auszulösen, weil er in seinem Werk den Finger an die Wunden deutscher Geschichte legte.)

    It’s the usual tale of Klage, Erinnerung und Erlösung (Guilt, Memory, and Salvation) that is the daily bread of the German Staatstheater — as I guess it should be. And Ruzicka could not be more closely connected to the Staatstheater aesthetic world. I hope the opera will make it somewhere down south where I can see it, even it that isn’t so likely.

    There is no word in English for how Germans can idiomatically color the term Klage. Instead of just being guilt, or an indictment, it has tones of an existential condition implying fate — sin and tragedy as a human condition– and perhaps at times a kind of accusation of God himself. Benjamin’s fateful life is tailor made for that role, and especially suited to the way German Staatstheater so often formalizes Lutheran concepts of guilt, remorse, and atonement.

    • william osborne says:

      And I suspect all of this will be suitably accompanied by large orchestral forces sustaining long, dense,highly dissonant clusters punctuated by fateful banging on percussion. It’s all become rather predictable, but there’s something to the idea that harmonious beauty after Auschwitz is not just bad taste, but a plain lie.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It may be helpful to remember that ‘harmonious beauty’ has nothing to do with Auschwitz. The postwar sonic aesthetic quickly became a fig leaf for lack of musical talent, so that younger generations of sonic artists, who have no experience with war and holocaust, can sport their incompetence as moral superiority. This lie is the real one. The best reaction to WW II atrocities was not adding even more ugliness and nihilism to the world, but the tired sigh of atonement which are the Vier Letzte Lieder of ‘collaborator’ R Strauss.

      • David R Osborne says:

        Gee William, even Adorno himself back-tracked on that one.

      • william osborne says:

        Yes, Adorno recanted, but his idea still sticks with us. We can’t seem shake it. This could be an argument for “poetry” after Auschwitz (re Adorno.)


        Or is there something wrong there?

        If the Holocaust cannot be aestheticized, that would include with ugly music. Was Adorno wrong because humans can take aesthetic pleasure in unspeakable horror? Whatever the answer, in our panopticon of a world with photographic media everywhere instantly blasted into our faces via video screens, the traffic in pain is ubiquitous. And most profitable.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Adorno seems to have had some serious problems with his brain. Sentences coming-out twisted, reflecting twisted thoughts. Maybe that was the result of his disappointment in the nazis – in the early thirties he wrote with some enthusasm about the regime, and after having emigrated to America, he landed extensive scorn upon the country that offered him hospitality and freedom.

          Should Bach have composed more in the minor, after the 30years war which ruined half of the German lands with miilions of civilian deaths? Should Beethoven have written more laments and funeral marches instead of the Eroica, given the victims of the French revolution and the Napoleonic threats? Are Lex Six in the French twenties morally reprehensible because of their joyful music, after WW I? Etc. etc…. it is all twisted and neurotic thinking.

          In the thirties a Parisian café discussion took place among musicians, including Ravel. One of them claimed that in an ugly time, art should express its ugliness. Upon which Ravel asked; ‘Why does an ugly time need expression? ‘ It seems to me that this settles the matter.

        • David R Osborne says:

          No, nothing wrong there at all. Being a film composer is often torture, because you are so often forced to set aside your own creative voice in order to comply to the directors requirements. We may never know how good Williams, or for that matter a composer such as Nino Rota, might have been, if they hadn’t spent so much of their creative energy on hack work.

          On the other hand of course, they really had nowhere else to go. Those two (and perhaps a few others) having been born with a rare and wonderful gift for melodic invention at a time when the direction of serious music was controlled by people who had none.

          But getting back to our mate Theador, you make a really interesting point there. It’s always assumed the “poetry after Auschwitz” quote referred to beautiful art, because of course the author favoured the ugly stuff. But there is nothing in the quote to suggests that that is the case. On the other hand, I haven’t heard of Adorno ever disputing the popular interpretation.

  • charles-clark maxwell says:

    I saw the Ferneyhough at the Colliseum, London and found it incomprehensible.

  • steven holloway says:

    I’m trying very hard to imagine someone who was central to ‘Weimar Culture’ and whose life has in the past 60 years been studied by so many scholars the number is difficult to determine could be deemed to have led a dull life. Well, if you say so…. Readers may best see how dull it was by reading Eiland and Jennings’ monumental biography of Benjamin published in 2014 by Harvard UP. I thought that superb work a country mile from being dull, so we have a wee paradox.

  • anon says:

    Composers used to write operas for the people.

    Then academics highjacked composing and composers started composing for each other: “Look how smart I am”

    • Doug says:

      And….”look at the new Marxist revolutionary I found! Isn’t he adorable?!”

      • David R Osborne says:

        Great argument Doug. with intellectual discourse of that standard, the future is indeed in good hands.

    • Hilary says:

      “then academics hijacked composing”
      Really?! …what a bizzare generalisation.
      Even with my relatively cursory knowledge of the new music scene that’s not my sense of things at all. I concede that Ferneyhough’s “Shadowtime” was an abstruse affair but also in 2005 the Coliseum hosted Gerald Barry’s “Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” which was anything but academic.

      • David R Osborne says:

        Oh Hilary, “bizarre generalisation” “not my sense of things at all”. Care to put some meat on those bones? How about starting with: I believe classical music is not controlled by the academic profession, in the interests of the academic profession, because…

      • David R Osborne says:

        “Gerald Barry studied music at University College Dublin, at Amsterdam with Peter Schat, at Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel and at Vienna with Friedrich Cerha. He taught at University College Cork from 1982 to 1986.”

        I could be wrong, but doesn’t that sound a little, well, academic?

        • Hilary says:

          “I could be wrong”
          If I may be so bold to say, you probably are.
          Of all the many charges that I’ve heard made against Gerald Barry ( his music tends to polarise), academic isn’t one of them, and it seems odd/lazy to second guess a composer on the basis of their teachers.

          • David R Osborne says:

            Hilary I am not trying to second guess him on anything. I’m merely pointing out that he has a blue blood academic pedigree. He does have some interesting ideas, but from the work of his that I have heard, alongside the way he discusses that work in interviews, there can be absolutely no doubt. He is of that world!

  • JoBe says:

    Dull life maybe, but a tragic death certainly.

  • Andrea says:

    Tabachnik opera in Lyon was quite good, with a bizarre mix of styles, from lithurgical shofar playing to cabaret music, and the staging was excellent .

  • John Borstlap says:

    The video is hilarious. The marketing tekst totally over-the-top pretension, hammering it in that every prop and idea that could possibly be found has been put into the production, without concern for its comprehensibility, and drenched in moralistic promises – ‘good for you!’ – to make sure the audience will think it will get a real treat on ‘seriousness’ and ‘political correctness’.

    For people who know who Ruzicka is, the effect of all this effort is, however, completely destroyed by the pop music underlining the cultural promises – he is one of those sonic artists upholding postwar ‘Nachkriegsschuldbewältigungsmusik’ where aural chaos and aggressive ugliness ensures that both composer and audience are on the moral right side of history.

    For innocent people, they will think that they will get a nice hip music underlining historic heroism. They will be in for quite a shock – and maybe that was the very intention of the makers of this promotion video, a perverse trick to get the hall full, lock the doors, and let historic guilt complexes do their work during a couple of hours in morally uplifting but musically and emotionally pulverizing suffering.

    Too harsh? Too partisan? Inappropriate because of not having heard/seen the production? Not impressed by Benjamin’s greatness and thus a priori unfairly unimpressed by the opera?

    Here is some Ruzicka stuff, to make sure the composer cannot possibly be associated with the terrible prewar decadence with nazis who loved classical music:




    We know of nazi brutes who killed Jews by day and wept in the evening at a Schubert song recital. But with this type of ‘music’ nobody needs to kill anyone to be able to weep at the performance. It is even more likely that people, who entered the opera house in a culturally-wellmeaning mood, discover to their consternation that on leaving the building they feel in a mood to inflict brutish violence upon innocent passers-by.

    A couple of years ago I attended a concert where Ruzicka conducted one of his orchestral philosophical exercises. Before he began his own piece, he turned around and gave a full lecture upon his work, to make sure the audience was already impressed beforehand and utterly convinced of the depth of his imagination, thereby isolating every listener, during the performance, in his/her cultural insecurity – ‘I hear nothing of anything that was promised – I must be stupid and unmusical – I better applaud politely and keep my mouth shut about it’.

    • David R Osborne says:


      Oh how I love German composite nouns! Oh, and how tragically true it is.

  • David Nordell says:

    It’s a great pity that we didn’t have this whole.discussion at the Jerusalem Academy’s board meeting this week, perhaps because you weren’t there. But, especially in view of John Borstlap’s comments, I think we should arrange to have a public debate about this very important subject at next year’s meeting. I think I also know who would be ideal speakers.

  • Jonathan Norton says:

    The facts in this article are wrong, and it seems intentionally misleading.

    First of all, the author writes, “Brian Ferneyhough created Shadowtime in 2005”, when the piece was premiered in 2004, in Germany. The author says that the piece “sank without a trace”, even though the link that he posts was written for the occasion of its 2005 *re*-staging by the English National Opera. Hmm… being picked up by the ENO. Yes, that sounds like sinking without a trace.

    Next, I must address claims of Benjamin’s “dull life.” I think that it will suffice to say that fleeing from fascist Europe as a Jewish refugee in 1940 does not suddenly become “boring” because the refugee is a writer. I think this is also a story that is pertinent today, given the migration crisis and rise of the right. This might be the reason that there are so many commissions for operas, not only about Walter Benjamin, but specifically about his death. It is interesting, isn’t it? Even if, like Norman Lebrecht, that rubs you the wrong way.

    I must say that I am *not* particularly a fan of *any* of the operas mentioned, but still I had to speak out against what I see as *ahem* “inaccurate” writing.

  • Ron says:

    Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication