Cancelled premiere of "The Raft of the Medusa" on 9 December...
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On the "Medusa Scandal" in Hamburg in 1968

In his autobiography, Hans Werner Henze remembers the circumstances of the cancelled premiere of his oratorio "The Raft of the Medusa" on 9 December 1968 in Hamburg.

I can only describe the fateful evening of the Medusa premiere as I experienced it: from the dual perspective of author and conductor. It is no trouble for me to do so, even if it is unpleasant to have to remember those terrible days in Hamburg once again. By the way, I have never spoken or written about this affair, at worst I have been forced to say a few abbreviated sentences about it here or there, but that was all. At the time, Ernst Schnabel wrote a booklet about the scandal in which you can read how the affair looked to him. For me, of course, it looked somewhat different than it did for him, because I was not only attacked in my innermost being as a composer and my aesthetics were called into question, but I was also the responsible conductor of the evening.

My memory is dominated by the terrible feeling of being alone. In those days I felt as if I were separate from the rest of the human world, not belonging to any of its groupings. There we are in the wings, Charles Regnier (as Charon), Edda Moser (Madame La Mort), Dieter (the mulatto Jean-Charles) and I, ready to perform, but no one comes for us - and it is already a few minutes past eight. Through a crack in the wall we can see that something is wrong out there in the hall. People are standing around. Ticket problems? In the front row there are Liebermann, Ustinov, Solti, the radio director and his programme directors, the Dessaus, Schnabels. We don't understand what's going on. (Later we learned that there were detectives in the hall looking for rebellious-looking guys - my claque, or my critics?) Since no one comes to ask us to the podium, the four of us decide to just perform: It could be that the power of the music or the musicians is enough to clear the mess. So we set off, the soloists in front, who therefore don't notice a gentleman in grey stopping me and saying: "If you don't remove the red flag that has just been mounted on the podium, you will be responsible for the consequences. Indeed, someone has just attached a red rag to my podium. There it is hanging now!

Immediately I realise the importance for my whole life and for my future as a human being and artist of responding to this obvious provocation, however ridiculous it may be, without making any mistakes. So I reply to the gentleman who introduces himself as Puttfarcken, an employee of the public broadcasting corporation, that I have no intention of complying with his request, and I move on. I could also have said: I have been appointed to conduct, not to look after the room. I enter the podium, ask the audience to be quiet, it does indeed become quiet in the hall, and I prepare the prelude for the first orchestral entry. Then I hear a chorus, first pianissimo, then clearer and louder. Where is it coming from? It comes - I can't believe my ears - from our podium: ladies and gentlemen of the RIAS Chamber Choir from Berlin, the dear people with whom I have often made music peacefully, chanting in unison: "The flag away! The flag away!" I look at them and wait, they look at me and continue chanting. I look at the Fidi: What to do? Shrugging - finally we signal to each other by glances that it is probably better to leave the podium again. The RIAS masters also leave the podium.

A heated discussion breaks out backstage. The ladies and gentlemen say they love me, but under the red flag, the one in Berlin on the Brandenburg Gate - no, they couldn't do that. I say, there would also blow one on the Hamburg and Berlin-Schöneberg town halls, but that's something else, I suppose. Fischer-Dieskau says to me excitedly: This was the last time I let you put me off the scent. Frightened, I forget to ask which was the last time but one? And what did he mean? What scent? But it doesn't come to that, because now Mrs Moser interrupts us and embraces me fiercely, exclaiming: Whatever happens, I will remain faithful to you! All this happens in a matter of seconds in our artist's room, while outside the assault by the riot police is already beginning, who are suddenly there simply because they have been stationed in an adjacent room from the beginning, ready for action, with truncheon and shield and plastic sheeting. Thus, the organiser had expected disturbances and had called for police protection as a precaution! But why did the police actually go into action?

Returning to the podium, from which the orchestra is now moving away, I find Charon's microphone and use it to protest against the police intervention, but it is snatched away from me by a cop before I have finished my first sentence. At the front entrance, various groups of socialist thinkers beat each other up. Great confusion, brutal use of force, arrests. Ernst Schnabel, after all former director of the NDR, is thrown through a glass door by a cop and ends up in jail, wounded with shards of glass, for resisting state authority. He had tried to stop the bludgeoners. The red flag was torn to pieces. What I didn't notice that evening and only saw later in a newspaper photo was another poster attached to the conductor's desk, on which someone had painted the noun "revolutionary" and a question mark. What was meant by this and what happened to the paper, however, is completely beyond my knowledge. After the failed concert, people had dispersed, distraught. It was still early in the evening. Paul Dessau and Georg Solti were discussing politics in the concert hall, music and society in the hotel. I was sitting with Hamburg acquaintances (in chic Pöseldorf, in the same street where old friends from musical life lived - they were at home, I saw the light on at their place, I knew they knew where I was, but no one was kind enough to call over or come over), with Ernesto Schnabel, who had in the meantime been released by the lawyer Groenewold and was covered in bandages and plasters, his girlfriend, the sinister Sissi Plessen, some Hamburg acquaintances and the Berlin friends Gastón, Amendt and a high school student called Rainer Esche who was a fan of Lenny Bernstein and the revolution.

They all talked excitedly to each other, but no one really knew what they wanted to say or should say. As for myself, I only remember my silent composure, a personal kind of Zen, which, as we know, can also make it easier to bear physical pain: It's not me who's being tortured. I was more worried about Fausto, who had been badly affected by the whole thing and who, unfortunately, had once again been strengthened in the distrust of Germans that he had been taught at home. He cried. The next morning, as soon as it was light, he drove non-stop along the motorways, only filling up twice, without getting out of the car, without eating or drinking, all the way to Italy. He didn't even want to pee on German soil.

Hans Werner Henze: Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten: Autobiographische Mitteilungen 1926–1995, Frankfurt (Fischer) 1996, pp 292-295. Translated by M. Kerstan

see also

Publications
List of Works
[Translate to Englisch:]

Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten [2016]

Autobiographische Mitteilungen 1926–1995
Hans Werner Henze
Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten [2016]

Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten

Autobiographische Mitteilungen 1926 - 1995
Hans Werner Henze
Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten

The Raft of the “Medusa” (Das Floß der Medusa)

Oratorio
1968 1990 Vocal pieces
The Raft of the “Medusa” (Das Floß der Medusa)

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