Packaging Expressionist Despair:
The 1978 Munich Staatsoper’s Program Brochure for Aribert Reimann's Lear

Par Peter Christensen
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010


Lear composed by Aribert Reimann's (1936-), staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), and conducted by Gerd Albrecht, had its successfulpremiere at the Bayerischer Staatsoper in Munich on 9 July 1978. It was accompanied by a long program booklet compiled by Klaus Schultz, Dramaturg of the Frankurt Opera, to help secure the opera’s success. The brochure is a fascinating attempt to guide German audiences into a harshly expressionistic production and to put behind them the Shakespeare that they have learned from the famous translations made during the Romantic period. Although there is no overall explanation of the booklet’s mix of reprinted critical essays, reproductions of art works, and poems, with effort the reader can understand the booklet as a well conceived whole. For the production, the currently unfashionable translation of King Lear made by Johann Joachim Eschenburg in 1775 was used. Also included were illustrations by Henry Fuseli, William Blake, and Alfred Böcklin; writings by Joseph von Eichendorff and August Strindberg; and poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, and Georg Heym. Together these materials justify the bleakness of Reimann’s vision. His opera ends after Lear’s last speech mourning the dead Cordelia, thus without the resolution that Shakespeare’s text provides.

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1As interesting as Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear is, the program booklet compiled by Klaus Schultz–Dramaturg of the Frankfurt Opera–that appeared with its premiere is just as fascinating. What looks at first like an eclectic potpourri of reprinted critical essays, reproductions of art works, and poems, combined with twentieth-century photographs and background materials on the opera for the triumphant 1978 Munich premiere, reveals itself after research as part of a well conceived whole. The brochure, in line with the opera’s music, promotes a larger-than-life expressionistic King Lear of despair and guides audiences away from a Romantic-realist King Lear of hope1. The brochure does not explain the rationale for such individual production choices but rather indirectly justifies the entire production by asking readers to get their bearings by looking at a variety of texts and pictures which will show that Reimann’s Lear is not a cranky or anomalous reaction to Shakespeare’s tragedy but rather an exemplar of a way of responding to Shakespeare that has deep roots since the 18th century, especially in artists ands writers from Germany and other German-speaking countries. Reimann and his collaborators found in the large, generalized gestures of classicism rather than the individualized psychology of Romantic realism a link to the expressionism of the 20th century of which his own music is a historically late example.

2The harshness of the expressionistic music and aura of Lear is immediately noticeable. For example, Kerstin Piribauer writes, “The central theme of the material for Reimann lay in a total solitude in which the brutality and dubiety of life is exposed2”. She claims, “Reimann’s musical concept, his intrusion into metaphysical space unequivocally exceeds Shakespeare’s intentions in the religious sphere3”. As for the music, J. L. Perez de Aretaga states that in Lear, Reimann’s “propensity for shrill sounds reaches its climax4”.

3In the brochure critics as diverse as Eschenburg, Eichendorff, and Strindberg are martialed with the artists Fuseli, Blake, and Bőcklin, as well as the poets Rilke, Celan, and Heym to justify an anti-poetical, bleak interpretation/adaptation of Shakespeare. Although I do not claim that the brochure is a work of art in itself, it is unusual because of the high demands that it makes on the audience. The 36-page libretto, which one would expect to find near the beginning, comes only at the center, 48 pages into the brochure, after these essays, poem and pictures. It is followed by another 48 pages. Included in the back are a short essay on the libretto by librettist Claus H. Henneberg, and two longer essays, one by the composer Aribert Reimann, and one by musicologist Jűrgen Maehder. Schultz’s brochure allows the materials before the libretto to justify the new opera.

4Klaus Schultz for the Bayerischer Staatsoper of Munich makes an appeal to the authority of essayists, artists, and poets from the past rather than the present. He preempts disapproval of the opera on the grounds of undue attachment to past traditions by presenting an alternative past to which the reader should be sympathetic. We will first provide some background information on the reception of Reimann’s opera, then move on to a discussion of the materials from the late 18th and early 19th century, and finally analyze the 20th century writers who featured in the brochure.


5Reimann's (1936-) Lear, staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988) and conducted by Gerd Albrecht, premiered at the Bayerischer Staatsoper in Munich on 9 July 1978. It was subsequently produced in Dűsseldorf (1978), Mannheim (1981), San Francisco (1981), Nűrnberg (1982), Paris (1982), and East Berlin (1983). The set design was the subject of much discussion, since there was only a single set, representing the outdoors. Lighting was used to create the effect of indoor scenes. Ponnelle's production was televised in 1982. The Munich world premiere was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon on three long-playing records, and boxed with the brochure. Lear. It continues to be performed in Europe, particularly Germany, but it has passed out of sight in the U. S.  Despite the success of the opera, it has received very little critical attention for such a major work from a prolific and distinguished composer.

6This lack of scholarly interest may indicate that the context for the opera is not apparent, and that one indeed needs to read the program brochure in order to understand the background premises for the composition and production. Reviews and other source materials about the various productions of Lear around the world were collected by the person who edited the program brochure, Klaus Shultz, in his volume, Aribert Reimanns Lear: Weg einer neuen Oper / Aribert Reimann’s Lear : The Path of a New Opera (1984).  Kurt Honolka, in his review of the production for the Stuttgarter Nachrichten for 11 July 1978, collected in Schultz’s anthology, remarks that the style was “one of late High Expressionism with certain archaic gestures5”. The archaic gestures remind one of the illustrations in the brochure by Henry Fuseli, who drew upon gestured, stylized English acting for his illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays.

7In addition, there is a collection of essays on Reimann’s career, Komponistenportrait Aribert Reimann / Portrait of the Composer Aribert Reimann edited by E. Weingarten (1988). The production of Reimannn’s Lear was not analyzed in detail until 1994 in an unpublished dissertation by Gwendolyn Ann Overland. Furthermore, the music in Lear was not studied until the appearance of Wolfgang Burde’s Aribert Reimann: Leben und Werk / Aribert Reimann: Life and Work in 2005 (of which pages 270-301 are devoted to a musical analysis of Lear). In this first monograph entirely devoted to Reimann, Burde finds Lear to be in the same category as great operatic adaptations as Strauss’s Salome and Berg’s Wozzeck. In addition, Burde analyses Reimann’s six other operas, also based on noted theatrical works: Ein Traumspiel / A Dream Play (1965), after Strindberg; Melusine (1971), after Yvan Gall; Die Gespenstersonate / The Ghost Sonata (1984), after Strindberg; Troädes / The Trojan Women (1986), after Euripides; Das Schloss / The Castle (1992), after Kafka; and Bernarda Albas Haus / The House of Bernarda Alba (2000), after García Lorca.

8Jűrgen Maehder, in the essay which follows in the brochure, “Aribert Reimann’s Lear: Anmerkungen zu einigen Strukturproblemen der Literaturoper” / “Aribert Reimann’s Lear: Comments to some Structural Problems of the Literary Opera”, states that in 19th century Romantic opera the use of Szenentypen / scene types was so strong that it narrowed what one could do in an adaptation of King Lear6. The acceptable musical palette was already there for the “Wahnsinnsszene” / “Mad Scene7”. Reimann escapes this ossified tradition through the Sprechstimme of Schőnberg and Berg. Indeed, the opera’s musical idiom is that of these two composers. Yet detractors of Reimann could argue that the Second Vienna School is by now outdated. Thus a further indirect defense of Lear was needed, one which could connect expressionism to a pre-Romantic Shakespearean tradition of stylized gestures.

9Poets such as Celan, Rillke, and Heym provided that connection. Reimann writes in his essay at the back of the brochure,“Errinerungen und Vision und was daraus entstehen kann: Notizen zu Lear” / “Memories and vision and what can develop from them: Notes on Lear”, that it was while working on the song cycle of Paul Celan poems from Atemwende / Breathturn, which premiered in 1971, that he decided to go through with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s suggestion of 1968 that he write an opera based on King Lear8. Indeed, the brochure for Lear harkens back to writers for whom Reimann has a particular fascination. Earlier in his career he had set poems by Rilke, Eichendorff, and Celan to music, as well as three sonnets by Shakespeare (for baritone and piano) in 1964.

10The chief detractor of Lear is Gary Schmidgall, who prefers new operas to be based on contemporary texts and who finds Lear to be a gross oversimplification of Shakespeare’s tragedy.In Literature as Opera, published one year before the premiere, Schmidgall writes,

Still, I believe contemporary opera is failing us when it ignores the literary creations of our own time. I am concerned to find out–and only time will tell–whether the current impasse between music and literature is a fact of modern artistic life to which we must become accustomed or a phenomenon that will pass and lead to a brighter future9.

11Given such skepticism, it is not surprising that a brochure for a new opera should in some way make a case for the validity of the enterprise of adapting Shakespeare once again to music drama.

12In the chapter “Two Lears” from Shakespeare and Opera (1990), Schmidgall is very negative about Claus Henneberg’s libretto for Reimann’s Lear based on J. J. Eschenburg’s translation, and he is partially unhappy with Reimann’s music. He feels that Henneberg’s libretto is colorless and makes no attempt to capture Shakespeare’s poetry. It loses the “play of ideas and philosophical/moral abstractions10”. According to him, the interplay of themes and images, such as blindness and the storm, is lost; there is not enough differentiation among the voices and there is no attempt to achieve any sense of variety of locale11.


13Now let us move on in our next section to the 18th and 19th century materials in the brochure. Perhaps the most important of them is Claus Henneberg’s libretto, printed on pea green paper in the center of the brochure.In “Zum Libretto” / “On the Libretto,” in the brochure, Henneberg writes that the 1775 translation of King Lear by Johann Joachim Eschenburg (1743-1820) which he used as his starting text is “harder, clearer”12 and more theatrical than the famous translation by Wolf-Heinrich, Graf von Baudassin (1789-1878) for the Schlegel-Tieck edition in blank verse made famous in the Romantic Era in Germany. In an interview with Klaus Schultz in Aribert Reimann’s Lear, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle comments that he also found Eschenburg’s translation admirable, as it helped him avoid sentimentality: “Yes, the choice of the linguistically somewhat brittle but very powerful translation by Eschenburg was very important: it also seems to me more faithful to the original than the romantic version by Baudassin13”.

14Eschenburg actually played a significant role in German culture. He published his translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays in 1775. It was the first time, that all the plays were translated into German, and he worked from the twenty-two plays that C.M. Wieland had already done, including Wieland’s 1763 King Lear14. The great theatrical producer at Hamburg, Friedrich Ludwig Schrőder adapted Eschenburg’s work for his performances, which reintroduced Shakespeare to Germany. Simon Williams says that in 1778 Schrőder’s staging of King Lear, despite its many excisions, had at least one good point:

 […] majesty, that in conventional heroic tragedy was elevated above the dirt of common life, is here seen in direct contact with it, seen indeed through the eyes of the least privileged, if not the least articulate, stratum of society.  In this way, the isolation in which Gottsched claimed eminent dramatic heroes should exist was challenged, as was the uniformity of dramatic mode such an isolation implied15.

15It would seem that Schröder understood what seems obvious to us today – that King Lear has a social dimension to it. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 film of the play is one production seen by many people in which this dimension is stressed.

16The selection from Eschenburg’s essay, “Űber Leben und Tod des Kőnigs Lear” / “On the Life and Death of King Lear” (10-12, 14, 16-18, 20-22), taken from Shakespeare’s Schauspiele, in the second edition includes a translation of“Die Ballade von Kőnig Lear und seinen drei Tőchter” / “The Ballad of King Lear and His Three Daughters16. It can be found in Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry17 but it was known earlier to Samuel Johnson and others. The ballad is detached from the place in Eschenburg’s essay where it originally appeared in German translation and placed before the essay, as the first literary item in the brochure. Itis given such a prominent place to gear the audience not to seek in Lear an opera trying to relay or reproduce great poetry. The ballad guides us away from the nineteenth-century Romantic-realist tradition that Reimann and Henneberg wish to avoid. The ballad is particularly flat verbally, as one can see in the stanza about Cordelia’s death (stanza 22 of 23): “Yet, scarcely had he heard of the early death of Cordelia, who only perished in her fervor for his well-being, than he sank down, robbed of all his strength, onto her breast, and died on that breast of her, which once beat so full of love, so worthy18” (lines 169-76).

17The selection from Eschenburg begins the series of statements about the cruelty in King Lear that guide us toward an acceptance of the fact that the opera ends with the death of Lear as he laments Cordelia. Eschenburg includes seven paragraphs (17-20) from Samuel Johnson’s 1765 edition of Shakespeare and one very long one from the William Warburton-Alexander Pope 1747 edition. The selection includes the passage in which Johnson asks himself if he will ever have the strength to reread the scene of Cordelia’s death19. On Gloucester’s eyes, we read Johnson’s comment in German translation, “But I am not able to apologize with equal plausibility [as is the case with the cruelty of Lear’s elder daughters] for the extrusion of Gloucester’s eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity20”. Johnson says that Shakespeare only incidentally enforces the moral that crimes do lead to more crimes and terminate in ruin. Rather, he lets Cordelia perish, contrary to the “natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles21”.

18The importance of the Wieland–Eschenburg–Schrőder pre-Romantic tradition is clarified by the inclusion of six engravings made in 1808 by the Henschel Brothers in Berlin of August Wilhelm Iffland as Lear, which are placed just after the libretto. Iffland was not particularly known for Shakespearean roles except for Shylock and Lear (Willliams 135). He was the most celebrated actor in Germany after Schrőder’s retirement, in 1799. After several years at Mannheim, he became director of the Berlin court theater and kept this post until his death in 1815. No pictures of actors from the Romantic-Realist period follow those of Iffland in the brochure.

19The engravings of Iffland are contemporary with the later works of the Zürich-born Swiss-German artist, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), several of whose pictures are included in the brochure. His illustrations in various media depict Lear’s rejection of Cordelia (1.2), Lear before Cornwall and Regan (2.2), the heath scenes with Lear and Edgar (3.4), Lear being discovered by Cordelia’s agents (4.5), Lear’s reunion with Cordelia (4.6), and her death (5.3). Thus Fuseli’s illustrations are arranged in the order of scene progression. The first of these works by Fuseli, one depicting Lear’s rejection of Cordelia, appears as one of the three large plates for King Lear included in the 100 large-plate Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, printed by W. Bulmer for John and Josiah Boydell and G. and W. Nichol in London in 180222. Fuseli was an important contributor to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. The three Boydell plates for King Lear are these from the second of the two volumes: XXXVIII Lear’s Palace, (Fuseli), XXXIX, Part of a Heath with a Hovel (Benjamin West), and XL, A camp near Dover (Joseph Bray). Fuseli did eight paintings out of the 100 illustrations in these two volumes: Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (two), Macbeth, Tempest, 2 Henry IV, Henry V, and Hamlet. A. E. Santaniello in his preface to the 1968 reproduction of the prints writes that the project engaged Reynolds, Ramsey, West, and other pre-Romantic English painters. The Gallery lasted from 1789 to 180523. For T. S. R. Boase, Fuseli was “the most puzzling figure in the whole business.” His “bizarre violence is Germanic in feeling.” Boase in the 1940s found these illustrations to be “theatrical” in the “very unfavorable sense” of the word, since such grand gestures were out of fashion24.

20Fuseli, influenced by Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry and later by Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in his aphorisms and lectures developed a theory of three categories of artistic scenes: historical, dramatic, and epic. The lowest level is “historical” painting (factual and informative literal narratives). The second is “dramatic, “in which an interaction of equals takes place (pathos). The highest, or “epic”, scene is one in which “a mortal confronts a supernatural force (sublimity)”25. Schultz has chosen for the brochure art works of the second category (as compared to, say, Macbeth epic confronting witches): Lear with Edgar, and also, Lear with the dead Cordelia.

21Fuseli was a friend of William Blake (1757-1827), whose “Lear and Cordelia in Prison” is also reproduced. It is a sketch (in the Tate) dating from about 178226, four years before Blake’s first illuminated book, and two years after he first exhibited to the Royal Academy. Fuseli, who returned from Italy to London in 1779 after almost a decade there, also began to exhibit at the Royal Academy at this time. Blake is probably better known in relation to Shakespeare for engraving Fuseli’s Queen Catherine’s Dream (1805) and for his own six watercolors of 1806 and 1809 for a re-edition of the 1632 Second Folio with thirty-six illustrations27. Thus the choice of this little known sketch reinforces the similarity with Fuseli.

22Corlette Walker notes that beginning in the 1780s, Blake, Fuseli, Romney and others illustrated King Lear and Macbeth in particular from Shakespeare’s plays along with Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno because of the “almost mythical qualities” of these figures.

In the French tradition of the exemplum virtutis, the edifying self-sacrificing deaths of Socrates and other antique heroes are shown to be good for society.  In Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques Louis David in the year 1789, as the French Revolution began, suggests that any extreme of self-sacrifice for the hero is necessary, even the killing of one’s own sons if society is to be preserved.  This terrible sense of duty, this suffering in noble silence which was implicit in the French ideal, was almost in direct contrast to the violent confrontation of a Satan, the direct and open suffering of a Lear or a Job or the rebellion of an Orc28.

23For Walker, King Lear and Macbeth are “great rebels,” and in the illustrations of their careers “fate and Deity are the protagonists, not Society, and these enormous imperfect figures, each with a fatal flaw that is their undoing, lift the moral confrontation from one of ethical and moral choice to that of tragedy and myth29”. According to Walker, Fuseli’s Shakespeare’s designs are, in part, with their “exaggerated gesture and expression”, a reflection of the “exaggerated, not to say violent, acting of Kemble and Mrs. Siddons30”. Fuseli had also picked up the use of gesture from the monuments that he studied in Italy in the 1770s and passed this language of gesture along to Blake, particularly the “monstrari digito31”.

24The small selection on Shakespeare (12-15) from Joseph Eichendorff’s Zur Geschichte des Dramas (1854) / Toward the History of Drama is not particularly Romantic in inspiration despite the author’s association with that school. Here he makes a concession to classicism in discussing the nature of the universal and the particular as the two “Primary Types of Poetry” / “Hauptarten des Dichtens”:

The one type, moving from the general to the specific, seeks the earthly expression for the completed idea, while the other aspires toward the eternal and the true, moving from the specific earthly appearance to its deeper meaning.   The first is called artistic poetry and the second is called natural poetry. Only one distinction is visible, however, if we do not understand them in their manipulation but rather only in the final product32.

25Rather than justify the attention to the particular, as one might expect of a Romantic-period writer, Eichendorff allows the legitimacy of the concentration on the idealizing and the general, such as we find in the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, contemporary of Fuseli. The received gestural language which ultimately leads to expressionism is thus subtly defended through the excerpt by Eichendorff.


26Turning now in our last section to the 20th century selections, we see that the selections suggest Lear as a figure in extremis. The selection from August Strindberg is more related to Eschenburg’s quotation from Samuel Johnson than to the ideas of Eichendorff. In this selection, actually a small part of the Fourth Letter to the Intimate Theater (1908), Strindberg stresses how horrible and deeply felt the events of King Lear are and speculates that they must have come out of Shakespeare’s personal experiences, perhaps of his marriage and family life. No Keatsian negative capability here! Strindberg remarks that he had always found the first scene in which Lear does evil to Cordelia absurd (as had Goethe), but then he realized that Lear is already “abnormally demanding / “abnorm verlangt33”. Lear is “a man who gets mad about nothing and everything34”. Strindberg remarks that when a man first doubts the gods, he starts to blaspheme.

27The idea of Lear at the brink of human life’s meaning is continued with the selection of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, and Georg Heym. These are not poets generally associated with Shakespeare. Rilke knew little about Shakespeare until early in 1913, when he wrote one poem, “The spirit Ariel” / “Der Geist Ariel”based on his reading of The Tempest35. It is not included in the four selected here, all of which are taken from the uncollected poetry of the later part of his career. Two of the Rilke poems are from 1913, “Bestűrtz mich, Musik, mit rhythischen Zűrnen” (30) and ‘Tränen, Tränen, die aus mir brechen” (30). The others are from 1924 and 1926, respectively, “Mausoleum” (31) and “Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne” (32). All four have been translated by Edward Snow in his Uncollected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, a bilingual edition under the titles “Assault me, music, with rhythmic fury!”, “Tears, tears, that break out of me”, “Mausoleum”, and “Come you last thing, which I acknowledge36”. The fourth poem is the last entry in his pocket book, and was written in mid-December 1926 just before his death later that month.

28On 27 February 1912, Rilke wrote to Alfred Walter von Heymel:

I scarcely know Shakespeare, have scarcely any prospect of ever learning English, that whole enormous world will probably remain remote to me---: But up to now I probably owe to your Edward II the strongest sense of its strong existence; that is how I expected Shakespeare to be, I see now, and was surprised, from the little I then read in Schlegel’s translation, not to find him like that.  Here in this play of Marlowe’s is the taste of which I had a foretaste; I read it with a great readiness and was amazed to what moral authority the figure of the unhappy king grows, that is amorphous misery, misery in pieces, broken from a mountain range of misery, misfortune hard and sterile and sharp at every edge37.

29Rilke is disappointed in the translation from the Schlegel-Tieck edition, that is, the Baudissin translation. He must find the real Shakespeare elsewhere, like Reimann–in this case, in a friend’s translation of Marlowe’s Edward II.

30The four Rilke poems touching on misery are about the loss of love and can be read in conjunction with the Fuseli illustrations of Cordelia and Lear at the end of the play, whereas those by Celan and Heym can be related to the illustrations for the heath scenes from the middle of the play. Unlike Heym’s “Arabeske” Rilke’s four poems here are only indirectly about King Lear. In fact, only the third even mentions a king. In Rilke’s first poem, “Bestűrtz mich, Musik, mit rhythmischen Zűrnen” / “Assault me, music, with rhythmic fury!”, we can extrapolate from the closing lines Lear’s loss of Cordelia if we wish to do so:

Why do you long for the unknown loved one’s withheld face?–

Has your craving not breath to blast echoing storms,

From that angel’s trumpet who announces the world’s judgment:

Then she too des not exist, is nowhere, will not be born,

She whose absence you parchingly endure …38

31Cordelia is the loved one unknown because misunderstood, and whose absence the speaker must endure like a thirst. In the second poem from 1913, the poet asks a great Moor to be the bearer of his heart (“Träger / meines Herzens”), for he has some unnamed grief which this old man (“Alter’), in cradling him, can help him endure. The Moor dissolves in the image of the old man. In the third poem, the king seems to have lost the smile of the gentle girl, whom he loved. The last poem expresses the suffering of one who has innocently found himself on the tangled pyre of suffering–“Completely pure, entirely without plan, from the future I climbed/ to the tumultuous stake of suffering39”.

32As we move from Rilke to Celan and then to Heym, the image of King Lear becomes clearer in our minds. In the Celan poems the expressions of rage and pain seem less connected to the loss of any individual than to a sudden illumination of the horror of the world. Celan, although he published translations in the 1960s of 21 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is not particularly known for his connection with Shakespeare. Each of the four poems, all between ten and thirteen lines long in irregular forms, are taken from the cryptic volumes of poetry from his later years: “Kőnigswut” from Atemwende (1967) / “King’s Rage” from Breathturn, “Die Wahrheit” from Fadensonnen (1968) / “The Truth” from Threadsuns, “Die rűckwärtsgesprochenen” from Lichtzwang (1970) / “The Backwards-Spoken” from Light-Compulsion, and “Zur Nachtordnung” from Schneepart / “To Night’s Order” from Snow-Part40. The first and fourth poems are translated in John Felstiner’s bilingual edition, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan41.

33The last two of the Celan poems mention a king, who can be related to Lear, whereas the first two do not. The first poem, “Kőnigswut” / “King’s Rage”, with its image of the “erblűhenden Nein” (line 10) may relate to Lear’s nihilistic feelings. In the second, with the lines, “The bearded soul, hail-/ eyed white gravel-/ stutterer” / “Seelenbärtiger, hagel-/ äugiger Weisskies-/ stotterer” (lines 10-12).Celan expressionistically attaches the soul to a beard, hail to an eye, and white gravel to a stutterer. Whether the poem was mean to evoke Lear or not, the stutterer could be the King of the next two poems. In the first of these two the backwards spoken names remind us of Lear’s blasphemies on the heath, and we think of the name of God anagrammatized as in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. In the third poem, the King’s rage and prayers are like stallions that clatter up the “Bible mountains.” The King’s rage and his prayers that go up in smoke in “Kőnigswut” suggest Lear’s madness on the heath.

34This image of Lear on the heath during the storm also appealed to Georg Heym (1887-1912), who wrote down lines from the play in a notebook entry for 11 November 1911: “If the spirit is free, / Then the body feels sweet, The storm in the spirit / Robs my senses of any feeling42”.

35Heym’s “Arabeske43” is a poem of seven four-line stanzas, some rhymed ABBA and the rest ABAB. If we except the morgue poem entitled “Ophelia44”, it appears to be the only specifically Shakespearean poem, despite the vagueness of its title, by this noted Expressionistic poet. He wrote this poem in April 1911, several months before he drowned in an ice-skating accident. It was written too late to appear in Der ewige Tag/ The Eternal Day (1911), the one volume published during his short lifetime45. In the poem, Lear is never mentioned by name, but he is the man who has lost three daughters. Wearing a fool’s cap, he has been driven out into the solitude of heaven. The expressionistic landscape parallels Lear’s mental state. Whereas the description of the storm can be extrapolated from the play, the addition of a lion crying out in the dead forest is the most striking of Heym’s interpolations. The penultimate stanza reads:

An evil animal screeches in the dead forest.

A marvelous lion. And its coat

Shines forth yellow. A flash. And for a long way resounds

The loud thunder garishly through the clouds. (lines 21-24) (44) 46

36At the end of the poem the evening star disappears, as if in anticipation of Lear’s coming death. The storm is a dominant element in this poem. Because of its stormy sky suggesting the heath scene, a painting Ebene mit Gewitterhimmel / Plain with Stormy Sky (1846)47 by the Swiss-born and German-trained Arnold Bőcklin (1827-1931) is included four pages later.

37Just before Heym’s “Arabeske” we find the photographs; a full page for Bismark, a page of four pictures of John D. Rockefeller, then a full-page photo each for Churchill, Adenauer, De Gaulle, and Krushchev. No explanation is attached, but they prepare us for the world of Heym’s animal screeching in the dead forest of so much of 20th century history. The figures also may also represent transience. Churchill, Adenauer, De Gaulle, and Krushchev had passed from the scene by 1978. These men made an impact on the world, and now they too have faded into the nothingness of death that ends the opera.

38In conclusion, we have seen that Schultz’s brochure offers a bleak, expressionistic Lear of large gestures to its audience. It channels the anxiety that this horrific ending will not be accepted by the audience and so presents essayistic material, illustrations, and poems that indirectly lead the audience to accept this conclusion to the opera as the fitting one, without any final words of consolation from Edgar or Albany. Reimann’s opera ends without the resolution that Shakespeare’s text provides. Reimann’s Lear dies, thus ending the play directly after his last speech mourning the dead Cordelia: “No! No! No more life! / You will not return / Never. Never. Never. Never. Never. / Do you see this? Look at her! / Look, her lips… / Look here–look…” (Lear loses his voice. He dies.)48. There is no sense that life has to begin again despite what has been suffered.

39At this point a question for further research presents itself. Does the music at the end offer a counter-balance of some sort to the horror of Lear’s death over Cordelia’s body? Staging Lear poses a special case here, as the tragedy is poised on the limits of human experience.

40Peter Kivy writes in Osman’s Rage (1988) that

 […] opera as drama (being a species of drama as [Joseph] Kerman [in Opera as Drama] quite rightly concludes), can only give the imperfect resolution of which drama is capable, whereas when an opera can rewardingly be viewed as drama-made-music it can approach very closely to that complete syntactical resolution that only music can give49.

41Perhaps the most obvious well-known example of this dichotomy is in the ending of Richard Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s text. Here the music gives what Kivy calls the syntactical resolution absent from Salome’s deranged song of triumph and Herod’s order for her death. Reimann’s Lear, in my view, does not fit this pattern, however. Instead, the opera-as-drama overpowers the drama-made-music. However, musicologists may feel differently, and I hope that the context provided in this essay will lead to a closer investigation of the relationship of words and music in this much neglected work.


ANDREE, Rolf, Arnold Bocklin, 1827-1901: An Exhibition Organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Pro-Helvetia Foundation of Switzerland, Hayward Gallery, London, 20 May- 27 June 1971,London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1971.

BLUNT, Anthony, The Art of William Blake, New York, Columbia University Press, 1959.

BOASE, T. S. R., “Illustrations of Shakespeare’s Plays in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 10 (1947), p. 83-108.

BURDE, Wolfgang, Aribert Reimann: Leben und Werk, Mainz, Schott, 2005.

CELAN, Paul, Gessamelte Werke, 5 vols, Eds. Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp, 1983.

CELAN, Paul, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan,Trans. John Felstiner, New York, Norton, 2001.

EICHENDORFF, Joseph von, “Zur Geschichte des Dramas”, in Klauss-Dieter Krabiel (ed.), Schriften zur Literatur, Munich, Winkler Verlag, 1970, p. 379-527, especially 423-27.

HENNEBERG, Claus H., “Gedanken zur Beziehung zwischen Literatur und Oper am Beispiel von Aribert Reimann Lear”, in Jens Malte Fischer(ed.) Oper und Operntext, Heidelberg, C. Winter Verlag, 1985, p. 261-69.

HEYM, Georg, Dichtungen und Schriften, Ed. Karl Ludwig Schneider, 6 vols., Hamburg, Heinrich Ellermann Verlag, 1960-1968.

HONOLKA, Kurt, “Review of Lear”, in Klaus Schultz (ed.), Aribert Reimanns "Lear": Weg einer neuen Oper, Munich, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984, p. 102-04.

KERMAN, Joseph, Opera As Drama, Rev. ed., Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988.

KIVY, Peter, Osman’s Rage: Philosophical Reflections on Opera, Drama, and Text, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988.

LISTER, Raymond, The Paintings of William Blake, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

MELH, Dieter, “King Lear als Oper: Zur Aribert Reimanns Lear”, Anglistentag 1980 Giessen:Tagungsbeiträge und Berichte im Aufträge des Vorstandes, Grossen-Linden, Hoffmann, 1981, p. 101-15.

OVERLAND, Gwendolyn-Ann, “Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and His Design and Direction of Aribert Reimann's Opera, Lear”, DAI May 1995, 55:11, 3354A-55A DAI No. DA9509862, University of California, 1994.

PASCAL, Roy, Shakespeare in Germany, 1740-1815, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1937.

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PONNELLE, Jean-Pierre, “Mythische Stoffe als Katalysatoren aktueller Probleme”, p. 93-101.

PRIBAUER, Kerstin, “Gesamtkunswerk der Genenwart: Das Musiktheater Aribert Reimanns”,Das Ochester 47.11 (1999), p. 18-22.

REIMANN, Aribert, Lear [sound recording]: Oper in zwei Teilen nach William Shakespeare;

eingerichtet von Claus H. Henneberg / [Musik von] Aribert Reimann. Program notes and synopsis in German by Henneberg with English translation ([8] p., ill.) and program booklet in German of the first production (July 9, 1978) compiled and edited by Klaus Schultz, which includes the German libretto (95, [36] p., ill.) laid in. Helga Dernesch, Colette Lorand, Julia Varady, sopranos; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; supporting soloists; Bayerischer Staatsopernchor; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Gerd Albrecht, conductor. West Germany: Deutsche Grammophon, 1979.

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SANTANIELLO, A. E. (ed.), The Boydell Shakespeare Prints, New York, Blom, 1968.

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WARNER, Janet A, Blake and the Language of Art, Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984.

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1  Claus H. Henneberg, in an essay in the 1985 collection Oper und Operntext, states that the French intellectuals of Weber’s time found in Der Freischűtz their hopes for a music that captured horror and the marvelous, whereas for Goethe and Nietzsche it seemed banal (1985; 262). The situation of the Second Vienna School of composition might conceivably draw a similar reaction today in the opera hall today.

2  My translation of“Die zentrale Thematik des Stoffes lag für Reimann in einer totalen Einsamkeit, in der er der Brutalität und Fragwürdigheit allen Lebens ausgesetzt sei”, Kerstin Piribauer, “Gesamtkunswerk der Genenwart: Das Musiktheater Aribert Reimanns”,Das Ochester, 47.11 (1999), p. 20.

3  “Reimanns musikalishes Konzept, sein Eindringen in den metaphysischen Raum geht eindeutig über Shakespeares Intentionen im religiösen Bereich hinaus”, ibid., p. 20.

4  J. L. Perez de Aretaga, “Dossier Aribert Reimann”,  Scherzo: Revista de Música 19 (Jan. 2004), p. 117.

5  Kurt Honolka, “Review of Lear”, Aribert Reimanns "Lear": Weg einer neuen Oper, ed. Klaus Schultz, Munich, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984, p. 103-104.

6  Jűrgen Maehder, “Aribert Reimann’s Lear: Anmerkungen zu einigen Strukturproblemen der Literaturoper”, see p. 61-73.

7  Ibid., p. 62.

8 . Aribert Reimann, Errinerungen und Vision und was daraus entstehen kann: Notizen zu Lear”, p. 51-60.

9  Gary Schmidgall, Literature as Opera, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 369.

10  Gary Schmidgall, “Two Lears”, in Shakespeare and Opera, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 254.

11  Ibid., p. 255, 257.

12  My translation of härter, klarer”, Claus Henneberg, “Zum Libretto”, p. 50.

13  My translation of “Ja, die Wahl der sprachlich etwas sprőden aber sehr kraftvollen Űbersetzung von Eschenburg war sehr wichtig; sie scheint mir dem Original gegenűber auch treuer zu sein als die romantische von Baudissin”, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, “Interview with Klaus Schultz”,Aribert Reimann’s Lear, p. 95.

14  See Simon Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 52.

15  Ibid., p. 84.

16  P. 6-8.

17  Thomas Percy, “King Leir and His Three Daughters”, in Reliques of Ancient Poetry, 3 vols, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, London, Allen & Unwin, 1927, vol. 1, p. 231-237.

18  My translation of Doch hatt’er kaum Kordelia’s / So frűhen Tod vernommen, / Die nur aus Eifer fűr sein Wohl / Im treffen umgekommen, / So sank er, aller Kraft beraubt. / An ihren Busen nieder, / Und starb an ihre Brust, die einst /So liebreich schlug, so bieder!”, p. 8

19  Samuel Johnson, in“King Lear”, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, introduction by Bertrand H. Bronson, Vols 7 & 8 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1968, vol. 8, p. 704.

20  Ibid., p. 703.

21  Ibid., p. 704.

22  The illustrations are as follows: “Lear verstősst Cordelia [Lear casts out Cordelia] (1, 1) (1774) (13), Lear verstősst Cordelia (1, 1) (1785/90) (15),“Edgar sich wahnsinnig stellend, tritt auf den vom Narren und Kent gestűtzten Lear zu [Edgar, pretending to be mad, approaches Lear, who is supported by the Fool and Kent] (III, 4) (1815), (22), “Edgar sich wahnsinnig stellend, tritt auf den vom Narren und Kent gestűtzten Lear zu (III, 4) (Feder, laviert) [pen, washed] (1772) (25), “Kőnig Lear” (III, 4) (Ől auf Leinwand [oil on canvas] (1772-1790) (29), “Lear, von den Abgesandten Cordelias entdeckt (IV, 5) (1800-1810) (33), “Lear erwacht, findet Cordelia an seinem Lager” [The awakened Lear finds Cordelia in his camp] (IV, 6) (1784) (45), “Lear und die tote Cordelia” [Lear and the dead Cordelia] (V,3) (1780/90) (Bleistift und Feder) [pencil and pen] (46), and “Lear und die tote Cordelia” (V, 3) (1774/78) (feder, getőnt) [pen, toned] (47).

23  A.. E. Santaniello (ed.), The Boydell Shakespeare Prints, New York, Blom, 1968, p. 5.

24  T. S. R. Boase, “Illustrations of Shakespeare’s Plays in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 10 (1947), p. 103.

25 Ronald Paulson, Book and Painting: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible: Literary Texts and the Emergence of English Painting, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1982, p. 129.

26  Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake, New York, Columbia University Press, 1959, p. 10.

27  Raymond Lister, The Paintings of William Blake, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 110, 112.

28  Corlette Walker, “William Blake in the Art of His Time”, in William Blake in the Art of His Time, Santa Barbara, CA, University of California, Santa Barbara Art Galleries, 1976, p. 10.

29  Ibid., p. 14.

30  Ibid., p. 63

31  Ibid., p. 62.

32 Joseph Eichendorff, “Zur Geschichte des Dramas“, in Klaus Dieter Krabiel (ed.), Schriften zur Literatur, Munich, Winkler Verlag, 1970, p. 24. My translation of “Die eine von Allgemeinen nach dem Besonderen gerichtet, für die fertige Idee den irdischen Ausdruck suchend, während die andere vom Besonderen der irdischen Erscheinung nach deren tieferer Bedeutung, nach dem Ewigen und Wahren emporstrebt.  Man hat die erste Kunstpoesie, die andere Naturpoesie genannt.  Beider Unterschied aber ist, wenn wir sie nicht nach ihrer Manipulation, sondern in ihrem Endresultat fassen, nur ein scheinbar”.

33  August Strindberg, Open Letters to the Intimate Theater, Trans.Walter Johnson, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1966, p. 27.

34 Ibid. My translation of “ist ein Mann, der bőse um nichts wird, und um alles”.

35  Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems, Selected and trans by Edward Snow, Bilingual Ed., New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. 40-41.

36 Ibid., p. 70-71, 78-79, 206-07, 250-251.

37  Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters, Volume 2: 1910-1926, Trans. Jane Bernard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton, New York, Norton, 1948, p. 61.

38  Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems, Selected and trans by Edward Snow, Bilingual Ed., New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. 71. Snow’s translation of “Was ersehnst du der fremden Geliebten verhaltenes Antlitz? – / Hat deine Sehnsucht nicht Atem, aus der Posaune des Engels, / Der das Weltgericht anbricht, tőnnende Stűrme zu stossen: / Oh, sie ist sie auch nicht, nirgends, wird  nicht geboren, Die du verdorrend entbehrst...”.

39 Ibid., p. 250, lines 9-10. Snow’s translation of “Ganz rein, ganz planlos frei von Zukunft stieg / ich auf der Leidens wirren Scheitererhaufen”

40  Paul Celan, Gessamelte Werke, 5 vols, Eds. Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, Frankfurt-am-Main, Suhrkamp, 1983, vol 2, p. 81, 138, 312, 357 [respectively on the opera brochure pages 37, 34, 36, 35].

41  Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Trans. John Felstiner, New York, Norton, 2001, 266, 338.

42  Georg Heym, Dichtungen und Schriften, Ed. Karl Ludwig Schneider, 6 vols., Hamburg, Heinrich Ellermann Verlag, 1960-1968, vol. 3, p. 172. My translation of Ist frei der Geist, / Dann fűhlt der Kőrper zart, Der  Sturm im Geist / Raubt meinen Sinner jegliches Gefűhl. See Lear iii, 4.

43  Ibid., p. 144

44  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 160-162.

45  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 257-258.

46 Ibid., p. 44, lines 21-24. “Ein bőses Tier schreit in dem toten Wald, / Ein fabelhafter Lőwe. Und sein Fell / Scheint gelb hervor. Ein Blitz. Und weithin hallt / Der laute Donner durch die Wolken grell”.

47  Rolf Andree, Arnold Bocklin, 1827-1901: An Exhibition Organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Pro-Helvetia Foundation of Switzerland, Hayward Gallery, London, 20 May- 27 June 1971, London, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1971, p. 16.

48  “Nein, nein! Kein Leben mehr! / Du kehrst nie zurűck. / Niemals, niemals, niemals, niemals, niemals. / Seht ihr dies? Seht sie an! / Seht, ihre Lippen. . . / Seht hier—seht…” (Lear versagt die Stimme. Er stirbt).

49  Peter Kivy, Osman’s Rage: Philosophical Reflections on Opera, Drama, and Text, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 282.

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Par Peter Christensen, «Packaging Expressionist Despair:
The 1978 Munich Staatsoper’s Program Brochure for Aribert Reimann's Lear», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], IV. Réécritures opératiques, N°1 - 2007, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 30/04/2010, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Peter Christensen

Peter G. Christensen is Associate Professor of English at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he teaches Shakespeare, English literature to 1800, science fiction and fantasy literature, religion in literature, and Australian and African literature. He received his Ph. D. at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1979. He has published, "Love's Labour's Lost: Branagh's Revitalization of the Fairy Tale Musical" in SRASP (Shakespeare and Renaissance Association Sel ...