Digging Into Winbeck’s Symphonies

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WINBECK: Symphony No. 1, “Tu Solus” / Bavarian Radio Orch.; Bruce Weinberger, t-sax; Bruce Weinberger, cond / live: Munich, April 1985
Symphony No. 2 / ORF Radio Symphony Orch. of Vienna; Dennis Russell Davies, cond / live: Vienna, October 2001
Symphony No. 3, “Grodek” / Christel Borchers, alto; Udo Samel, speaker; Deutsches Symphony Orch., Berlin; Mathias Husmann, cond / studio recording, 1991
Symphony No. 4, “De Profundis” / Christel Borchers, alto; Werner Buchin, countertenor; Günter Binge, bar; Wolf Euba, speaker; Beethoven Orch. Bonn; Dennis Russell Davies, cond / live: Frankfurt, 9/1993
Symphony No. 5, “Jetzt und in der Stunde des Todes” / Deutsches Symphony Orch. Berlin; Davies, cond / live: Berlin, 1/2017 / TyxArt TXA17091

This is the first complete set ever issued of the symphonies of Heinz Winbeck (b. 1946), who came from a working class family. He bought a piano as the result of a settlement from a traffic accident, started working as an organist and choirmaster, then studied composition, piano and conducting at the Richard Strauss Conservatory. The first symphony is aptly described in the accompanying booklet:

When the beginning of Heinz Winbeck’s First Symphony descended upon the listeners at the Donaueschingen Festival on October 19, 1984, a relentless orchestral unison with brutal intervening blows, a nightmare of annihilation, crushing everything, a booming pounding tutti, interrupted by rests nourishing the deceptive hope that the hurricane might be over, only for it to start to rage with renewed strength, again and again, manic, breathless, never ending—that was when the audience experienced not only the prelude to an intense, exciting and uncompromising orchestral work, but also the birth of a great symphonic composer, a composer who revived the old form with inner truthfulness, existential urgency and masterful craftsmanship…

If the quality of these symphonies is in grotesque disproportion to their low public resonance, if…Winbeck’s work “is still waiting for its actual discovery,” then this may also be due to the fact that Winbeck never put his music in the foreground, did not advertise his own cause, and that he stubbornly refused to succumb to the widespread do or die of the New Music industry.

Much of that first movement also struck me as related to minimalism. The opening motif is repeated again and again and again; about the tenth or twelfth time around, a couple of notes are added to the upward-rising figure; but his music clearly rejects the “hypnotic” effect of true minimalism. Winbeck isn’t trying to seduce his listeners into a trance, as for instance Steve Reich and especially Philip Glass try to do. In many ways, I found his music to be an offshoot—either intentionally or accidentally—of the equally driving symphonies of Erwin Schulhoff. Indeed Winbeck, like Schulhoff, eschews atonalism in favor of a modal sense of harmony, and as a former organist I heard in his scoring an approximation of what an organ could do when pushed to its upper limits of volume and sonority. Indeed, once the storm finally passes and we reach the second movement, which follows the first without a break, one can clearly hear an organ in the background, the player sadly unidentified in the booklet.. It is at that moment of quietude that Winbeck finally begins to develop his themes rather than just pounding them relentlessly into the ears and minds of his listeners, though of course he eventually introduces a crescendo that brings some of the earlier relentless pounding back to the fore.

Perhaps one should judge him more by the quiet, eerie third movement, marked “Meno mosso e tranquillo phantastico.” Here, he sounds for all the world like a modern Mahler, creating almost 3-D effects in his full yet transparent orchestration. The harmony in this movement is also closer to Mahler than to Schulhoff; one could almost fool a listener in a blindfold test by playing this music and asking who the composer was. Even I would probably guess Mahler, even though Winbeck does not actually use any Mahlerian themes. He also follows here a Mahler-like pacing and shaping of the music, suddenly switching gears as things become a bit more active though not anywhere near the crushing frenzy of the first movement. (I was happy to learn, in the liner notes, that this symphony was sort of a tribute to Mahler, “a testimony to my close look at and my struggle with Mahler, and also alto to my admiration of him.”)

After a while, as some of the pounding from the first movement returns, we hear a forlorn solo tenor saxophone meandering its melancholy way through the music. Eventually the tenor sax plays faster, more tortured-sounding figures above edgy violin tremolos and in front of the occasionally pounding tympani. This is not music you’re going to hear on your local classical music radio station; it might give their regular listeners cardiac arrest. Yet this storm does pass as we reach the calm of long-held violin notes with no tympani and the tenor sax weaving in and out of the ensemble with another forlorn statement. Towards the end, however, the relentless pounding of the first movement does indeed return to close things out full circle.

The Second Symphony, written in 1986 as a reaction to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and the U.S. airstrikes on Libya’s coastal cities. Winbeck perceived these events as apocalyptic (though, since we and he are still around 33 years later, they weren’t in the long run) and thus tried to capture some of their darkness in his score. In this instance, however, the first movement begins very quietly—again with an organ in the background—with double-time string figures and occasional celesta interjections. Winbeck was also inspired by Hoimar von Ditfurth’s book, Now Let’s Plant an Apple Tree, in which the author predicts the inevitable extinction of mankind. (You can just tell that Winbeck is a pretty jolly guy, right?) As a young man, we learn in the notes, Winbeck had been fascinated by astronomy and even had a large collection of meteorites. Eventually the tempo picks up as we hear repeated fast eighth-note figures in the strings with occasional celesta, brass and tympani interjections along with opposing, swirling figures played by the flutes and clarinets. This movement avoids the minimalist tendencies of the first completely; Winbeck’s themes are developed and expanded upon in interesting ways. Each of its three movements is preceded by a motto from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The first movement, for instance, is subtitled “Death is the resting place of the wanderer, it is the end of all hardship.”

In the second movement we return to a modified version of the pounding first movement of the first symphony, here presented with strongly syncopated motor rhythms, and again the musical development is minimal, its form built around repetitions of the pounding theme with slight modifications as it progresses. Eventually we recede from the sound barrier as he introduces staccato trombone licks around which winds and trumpets play another syncopated theme. The slow third movement contrasts with both of the preceding ones; it is a very soft, slow chorale, described in the booklet as “a wistful swan song to the lost beauty of the world.” If one were to hear this movement apart from the rest of the symphony, one might think that Winbeck was a composer of musical soporifics, even though this movement is not on the same sentimental level of much of late Strauss’ work. Eventually, muted French horns and soft trumpets join the strings in this chorale. Eventually, a soft “heartbeat” is heard in the background, played by a muffled bass drum with occasional snare and cymbal accents. The drums ever-so-slowly become more audible as this section of this long, one-movement work nears its end, eventually dominating at its conclusion.

The third symphony opens with loud, edgy music of a different kind. Here, it is slower and less densely orchestrated and includes a contralto solo set to the poetry of Georg Trakl. Winbeck feels that “Trakl’s poems are already almost music in themselves,” and the one used here is Grodek, his last poem. Seventeen lines long, it is also one of his most enigmatic. I found this English translation of it online at http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/grodek/:

At evening the autumnal forests resound
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, above them the sun
Rolls more darkly by; night enfolds
The dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But in the grassy vale the spilled blood,
Red clouds in which an angry god lives,
Gathers softly, lunar coldness;
All roads lead to black decay.
Beneath the golden boughs of night and stars
The sister’s shadow reels through the silent grove
To greet the ghosts of heroes, their bleeding heads;
And the dark flutes of autumn sound softly in the reeds.
O prouder sorrow! you brazen altars
Today an immense anguish feeds the mind’s hot flame,
The unborn descendants.

Christel Borchers

Christel Borchers

But contralto Christel Borchers does not actually sing Grodek. Rather, she sings lines from other Trakl poems, Sister’s Garden and The Heart. Borchers has an amazingly deep, rich and very expressive voice, delivering Trakl’s lines with a deep feeling of sadness. Much later in the symphony, Grodek is recited by a speaker placed in the center of the orchestra. The poem refers to the violent battle between Austrian and Russian troops in that city near the beginning of World War I, where Trakl was a medical lieutenant in a field hospital caring for the large number of wounded, disfigured people who he could scarcely help. The orchestra was expanded here with the addition of electric organ, saxophone and five additional percussionists including a second tympani player. Borchers repeats certain lines from the poem over and over again as the orchestra alternately explodes and quiets down in turn. Winbeck states that the symphony was meant to create an encounter that never took place in reality between Mahler, Trakl and Alban Berg. Here, the symphony’s four movements are linked, all of them in the same dark, fatalistic mood. Later in the symphony, Incidentally, Trakl did not die of a battle wound as in the case of British poet Wilfred Owen, but of a cocaine overdose. He was only 27 years old. Eventually Borchers screams out two lines, there’s a crescendo with tympani, and the symphony ends.

The fourth symphony, the longest of the five at 81 minutes, is also the most heavily scored. In addition to a full symphony orchestra, it includes vocal soloists, a speaker, 16-part chorus, organ and audiotape, yet much of it is quiet and introspective. It opens with the speaker reciting lines from Trakl’s late prose piece, Offenbarung und Untergang (Revelation and Downfall), described in the booklet as “a text held together only by remnants of narrative structures” which “strings together nightmarish pictures in free association,” these “eerie visions” wandering “through nocturnal spaces” which “prepare the listener for the death theme of the symphony.” The chorus explodes in an atonal chord of anguish, following which the soloists sing serrated musical lines on the words of the Requiem while crackling noises are heard behind them, produced by what sound like sticks or slats hitting one another. Winberg considers this his most personal symphony, but to be honest with you, the unremitting depression of the score and its noise level bothered me quite a bit. I’m all for music that expresses strong emotions, but this is like someone who cries so hard on your shoulder than they break your collarbone. If you feel this much angst, go into a soundproof room and scream it out. Don’t make people who don’t share your pain experience your dark night of the soul. We all have our own demons to bear.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the music isn’t good. György Ligeti’s Requiem is also very well-written and interesting music, but it doesn’t last 81 minutes and there aren’t any pounding tympani in it to drive the point home like a sledgehammer. All I am saying is give peace a chance. Yet there are also some extraordinary quiet passages, more tonal in character, to offset slightly the heavy-handed primal screams in the symphony, such as the “Lux aeterna.” The soloists are also very good, particularly contralto Borchers who returns here from her duty in the Third Symphony. At one point you can hear, quietly in the background, the theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. During the “Lacrimosa,” another quiet movement, the baritone intones the words while softly-scored winds behind him create an ambience that sounds partly influenced by Berlioz and, when they return later playing a different and more modern figure, by Britten. The link to Ligeti’s Requiem can also be heard in the rising chromatic choral passage that comes a bit later. Yet I still have a problem with this Fourth Symphony because it is much more a Requiem and less of a symphony, even insofar as vocal symphonies go.

The Fifth Symphony opens with soft bells and French horns, then a soft undercurrent of tympani followed by high string tremolos. This work is strongly influenced by Bruckner, a composer I particularly detest because he wrote nothing but a succession of endings without context and is, to me, unremittingly boring. German critics criticized this symphony as “backwards-looking” compared to the other four. This may or may not be true; it’s all in the ear of the beholder. I also hear the influence of Mahler even in this work—the opening movement resembles some of the quieter passages in the earlier composer’s Eighth Symphony—and, like the others, it is filled with angst. We suddenly get a brass explosion, aided by strings and his beloved tympani (always the tympani!) which leads into a canon played by the brass against the strings. More Mahler-like sounds then ensue, played by the winds against pizzicato celli and basses. Here, themes and ideas are more juxtaposed than in his earlier symphonies, which creates a less settled space for the listener. The subtitle of this cheery work is “Now and at the hour of our death.”

The liner notes go into great detail about how Winbeck used the final incomplete fugue from Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, how he “does not simply use Bruckner’s theme, but derives his fugue motif from Bruckner’s countersubject…several times the fugue storms straight into a dead end, breaks off, in order to then start a new attempt all the more determined.” This makes the music sound complex and wonderful, but to my ears it is, like Bruckner’s own music, turgid, repetitive and too complex for its own good.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

My general impression of Winbeck as a composer, based solely on these symphonies, is of a solid, intelligent craftsman who, like so many German composers from Max Reger onward, is too hung up on misery, angst and death. Unlike Reger, he is far too much in love with pounding tympani. Quite aside from the opening movement of the first symphony, Winbeck’s constant (and, I would say, often superfluous) use of banging kettledrums doesn’t help his music in many passages and got on my nerves often—but of course, you are free to feel differently. You, like conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who leads three of the five symphonies here and thinks Winberg a transcendent genius, may respond to his head-banging and dour approach more than I did. As for me, I can take a bit of this sort of music but not too much. I prefer modern music that is life-affirming at least half the time or, if it does pursue a path of sadness, doesn’t beat itself on the chest while screaming out “Ah, me!” as Weinberg’s symphonies do.

From a technical standpoint, however, this set is quite admirable. You’d never guess that all but the Third Symphony are live recordings, the first of them from as far back as 1985 when digital sound was still in its childhood. The sonics are spectacular throughout and the playing and singing absolutely first-rate. In that respect, this set is flawless. I would recommend sampling some of Winbeck’s symphonies on YouTube (often different performances, but still the same music) to see if this is a set you would want in your collection.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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