Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice re-interpreted

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra joined forces with International Theatre Amsterdam (ITA) and director Ivo van Hove for a re-interpretation of the famous novella Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. David Robertson conducts, Nico Muhly composed new music. The production will premiere on 4 April in Theater Carré in Amsterdam and will get seven runs. Conductor and composer shared their views in a double interview I wrote for the monthly magazine of the RCO.

‘I accepted within a split second when I was asked to write music for Death in Venice’, says Nicol Muhly by phone.’ I am a big fan of Mann and read the novella when I was eighteen, a fantastic book!’ David Robertson turns out to be a great admirer of the German author, too: ‘I have read almost everything from Mann, and I find it fascinating how librettist Ramsey Nasr and Ivo van Hove combine the novella with his life. They do not only tell the story, but also portray Mann in the period when he wrote his story, as a young father, living in Munich. This makes the content less abstract and gives it more personal depth. In this way art becomes a beautiful mirror of life.’

The eternal value of beauty

Robertson praises Van Hove’s approach: ‘Ivo makes it clear that Mann did not just invent something but wrote from a deep inner source, drawing on his own experience. Death in Venice was a way to ward off his own demons.’

This is not to say he thinks Mann may have been latently homosexual. ‘That’s too simple. I think more in terms of the adage of Nietzsche     “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit”. – It’s hard to translate, because it is not about lust, but about the desire that something beautiful has eternal value. This lies at the heart of Von Aschenbach’s fascination for the beautiful boy Tadzio.’.

Muhly admires Van Hove, too: ‘I’ve been following him for years, seen almost all of his Broadway productions. His method is very poetic. In this new production the music forms a kind of parallel counterpoint to the story. Music can express things you cannot grasp in text, it can place something in a different context.’

Familiar and new

‘Compare it to lighting: if you present the same action on stage in a different light, it takes on a different meaning. This role is now fulfilled by music, which can express underlying emotions.’ Robertson fully agrees with Muhly: ‘And it is precisely someone like Nico who perfectly manages to express emotions that remain vague and elusive when you try to convey them in words.’

The production does not only present newly composed music, but also work by contemporaries of Thomas Mann such as Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Arnold Schönberg. Muhly: ‘I think this is a fine combination of the familiar and the new. My music functions as a bridge between the somewhat surrealistic world of memories from the novella and the historical time in which Mann lived.’

No Mahler, no Britten…?

Anyone who says Death in Venice immediately thinks of the film adaptation by Luchino Visconti and the opera by Benjamin Britten. Robertson: ‘I know the opera well, but unfortunately I have never conducted it, and Ivo wants to stay far from associations with Britten. Neither does he refer to the film version with Mahler’s music. I fully support both choices, because either you do Britten’s opera and then you enter that world, or you do something completely different. And if you add Mahler like Visconti did, I think you’re going to play too much on sentiment.’

For Muhly it is a bit more nuanced. In 2018 he and Thomas Bartlett released the CD Peter Pears: Balinese Gamelan Music. The title simultaneously refers to the tenor Peter Pears –  Britten’s lover – and his interest in Indonesian gamelan music. When I mention this, Muhly bursts loose in an enthusiastic argument.

‘I feel very involved with Britten’s music and am currently fascinated by the period in which he started using Balinese and Javanese harmonies. Brilliant how he characterizes Tadzio with this completely different sound world and makes him vanish in the ether as it were. The last five minutes of the opera are both time harmonically stable and unstable, masterly!’

Asian scales

‘In essence, all my music is a dialogue with Britten’, Muhly says. But he stresses he will use no direct quotes: ‘The idiom is naturally in the DNA of this piece. If you link up with music from Thomas Mann’s time, you simply cannot escape that, Claude Debussy was also inspired by Asian scales’.

The influence of the Frenchman can be heard in Death in Venice: Saint-Sébastien, which Muhly places about halfway through the piece. ‘I use similar chords as Debussy in his stage music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien by Gabriele D’Annunzio. These are built on the pentatonic scale, consisting of the five black keys of the piano. That fits in well with the period in which Mann lived, when there was a lot of fear in Europe of infectious diseases from the colonies. By distorting the simple chords of Debussy I have tried to capture the atmosphere of decay in Venice at the time when this city suffered from the plague.’

Endlessly falling

The orchestra is seated on the stage. Robertson: ‘The action takes place in two different spaces. One represents Mann’s residence in Munich, the other the place where Von Aschenbach has his adventures in Venice. The orchestra is a little smaller than usual. This is both a practical solution – a large symphony orchestra takes up too much room – and suits the situation well. The current line-up resembles the salon orchestras that played in Spas and in the Lido in Venice.’

The various compositions are linked to different scenes. Robertson: ‘Sometimes the music illustrates a state of mental torment, at other times it represents the bourgeois background against which the drama takes place.’ A recurring element is Death in Venice: Charon, which runs like a thread through the performance.

Muhly: ‘Charon stands for death and the descent into ever deeper darkness. It is a cycle of 44 chords, each of which returns in a different variation. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes played by wind instruments, sometimes by strings. It is as if you endlessly fall down, which creates a feeling of inevitability.’

Monteverdi and Strauss

Muhly also made an adaptation of the duet ‘Pur ti miro’ from the opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. Robertson: ‘Monteverdi evokes a feeling of nostalgia and desire. But how do you arrange a duet if you only have one singer at your disposal, a countertenor? ‘That’s typically a puzzle Nico likes to get his teeth into’, chuckles Robertson.

‘I made the most obvious choice and gave the second voice to a cor anglais’, Muhly responds. That instrument is closest to the human voice in terms of size and timbre. I have left Monteverdi’s notes intact, but have orchestrated them in such a way that they fit in with the harmonic language of Charon and Debussy. For example, one of the variations lacks a bass line, as if a kind of halo of sounds is created around the voice.

Towards the end, the countertenor sings an arrangement Theo Verbey made of two of Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. Robertson: ‘Again a great choice. This androgynous voice gives these songs a completely different meaning. Just as Ivo van Hove’s direction will make you experience the original story of Death in Venice differently.’

RCO & ITA: Death in Venice
Theater Carré 4-13 April

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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