Ubu Roi in the German concert hall, the Parisian arcades, and the White House

This is the most self-referential piece of classical music ever written – but is it a huge prank, a farcical tale, a parlor game, a final exam, a postmodern primer, a funeral march?

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s orchestral “ballet noir,” Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1962-66), based on Alfred Jarry’s play (1896), consists solely of an eighteen-minute collage of quotations from the history of classical music (from the Renaissance to himself) by somebody who always felt that he was personally responsible for its fate. In fact, the entire history of Kultur may be read backwards starting from this work and returning to its origins in Winckelmann.

To me, this grand example of the compositional method Zimmermann called “pluralism” serves also to illustrate Walter Benjamin’s theocratic hermeneutics in his Arcades Project, namely, composition as sorting out of detritus. It is possible to argue that the piece is trying to salvage the fragments of divine truth/history from the wreckage of idololatric culture. Going a step further than Benjamin, it is taking a flâneur‘s stroll in the grotesque ruins of antique stores, like that of Benjamin’s father, in the Parisian arcades.  At the end (starting at 12:35), in an apocalyptic fury of the fused The Ride of the Valkyries and the March to the Scaffold, we can hear the messianic anticipation in the multiplied repeats of the opening of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX. (Here is the complete version of the work with German-speaking conférencier.)

In an entirely different context, Jarry’s infantile hero, Ubu Roi (“fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil”), has been compared often to Donald Trump for his “grotesqueness,” “vulgarity,” “odd use of language,” “boorishness and malevolence.”  Zimmermann’s macabre burlesque might be also a fitting soundtrack for today’s White House (“or whatever you want to call it“).

April 1, 2018

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