From the programme book
“He who gives himself has overcome himself.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE and the dramaturgy of Eros … An essay by Arne Stollberg
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The Miracle of Heliane
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Director: Christof Loy
With Sara Jakubiak, Josef Wagner, Brian Jagde, Okka von der Damerau, Derek Welton, Burkhard Ulrich, Gideon Poppe, Andrew Dickinson, Dean Murphy, Thomas Florio, Clemens Bieber, Philipp Jekal, Stephen Bronk, Sandra Hamaoui, Meechot Marrero, Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
From 18 February 2021, 15.00, until 21 February 2021,
as video on Demand
Erich Wolfgang Korngold's THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE is not a work of moderation. From the first measure to the last, a motif of indulgence and excess pervades the score, an insatiable effusion of melodies, luxuriating orchestral tones and sheer sonic ecstasy that scarcely leaves room for restraint or recitativic dialogue. In her review of the Vienna premiere on 29 October 1927, Elsa Bienenfeld described the music as, "[overflowing] the songbook, undulates through the acts, pulls the scenes with it [...]. It imbibes the characters with melodies such that they bristle with song." The course is set at the beginning: from the nucleus of the initial F-sharp major triad unfolds a downright magical chord progression in delicate, at times bitonal mixtures and with oscillating treble movement that continuously reaches upwards, while the bass descends. The acoustic space ruptures ("Lunge out!" reads Korngold's instruction to the conductor) and, with a gesture unmistakably associated with the words of creation, "let there be light", the breakthrough ends in bright E-flat major, majestically illuminated by the entrance of the organ. "Seraphic voices", soprano and alto, are audible "from above", formulating the sacral style through markedly antiquarian, archaic turns before, in E major, they reach the top note of the two-lined B and die away.
An unforgettable opening that defines Korngold's style of excessive opera in its exponentiation of resources, and continuously breaks through it at crucial points in keeping with the main motif, and the text therein, contains the general slogan of the plot itself: "Blessed are those who love. / Those who love shall not die. / And those who have fallen / for love shall rise again." At the end of the third act, when the resurrection of the lovers, Heliane and the stranger, has taken place and both, according to the direction, "[go] to Heaven [...] embracing tightly" while "light and beauty" pour down over the Earth, Korngold reshapes the mystical formula of the beginning into an apotheosis, which adapts the forceful and overwhelming close of Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony for the opera stage: six "fanfare trumpets on stage" blare the first four notes of the motif that the opera begins with, all over a triple forte B major chord sustained by the orchestra, organ as waell as three trumpets and three trombones "behind the scene". An eschatological vision is made into sound, nothing less than the advent of the "new Jerusalem" after the Apocalypse, as prophesised by the Book of Revelation [Rev. 21, 1-2, 24-25]: "Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth; for the first Heaven and the first Earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. / And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. [...] The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the Earth will bring their splendour into it. / On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there." Translated into the stranger's words as addressed to the people in Korngold's opera: "Brother! / Never more will your souls thirst in the darkness: / your sister blesses you! [...] / Go, go into the morning!". An end has been put to the reign of the ruler, evil incarnate, tempter, demon – yet also "lonely, suffering man" [according to Korngold's wife Luzi], in whose theme the transcendent chord progression from the beginning of the opera had morphed into a dissonant convulsion. A "day of unearthly beauty" begins, and the gates to eternity open.
On a smaller scale, it is hard to express in word what Korngold had in mind with his opera, even though the hypertrophy strikes us as rather strange in the modern day. And yet the composer was not at all the rejector of 1920s zeitgeist that one might imagine: the “New Objectivity” school was not the only defining feature of the “Roaring Twenties”. The popularity of pseudo-medieval mystery plays epitomised by works such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Everyman”  and Max Reinhardt’s spectacular production of Karl Vollmoeller’s pantomime “The Miracle”, which premiered in London in 1911 and was revived at the Salzburg Festival in 1925, had hardly dwindled. And even a film like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, released in 1927, the same year as THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE, conceals behind its science-fiction visuals a mystic parable presented in Manichaean structures of darkness and light, one with compelling parallels to Korngold’s opera [Maria in the film can be likened to Heliane, Freder Fredersen to the Stranger and Joh Fredersen to the Ruler]. More than this, however, Korngold had based his opera on a literary work that laid down the dimensions of the piece with utmost clarity and, with its intermeshing of redemption theology and veritable eroticism, had the stuff of scandal. And a scandal of sorts duly ensued, with the director of the Vienna Music Academy, Max Springer, frothing after the Vienna premiere that the work was “guaranteed to offend the feelings of any true Catholic, indeed of any person with a shred of Christian sensibility”. The literary source in question the “musical mystery play” “Die Heilige” [The Saint] by the Austrian poet and dramatist Hans Kaltneker.
It has not been established beyond doubt when exactly, and thanks to whom, Korngold was first introduced to the unpublished play by Kaltneker, who died in 1919 at the tender age of 24. Equally unreliable are the assertions by Luzi and Julius Korngold, wife and father of the composer, that “Die Heilige” had been written specially for Korngold as a response to his opera VIOLANTA, which premiered in 1916 [Korngold and Kaltneker are unlikely to have ever met]. Answering these questions with assurance is not made easier by the fact that the text of Kaltneker’s “Mysterium für Musik” does not seem to have been preserved for posterity – apart from the final scene in the first act, which was printed in the 1927 almanac of the Paul Zsolnay publishing house, doubtless in the run-up to the opera’s first night. The storyline and other isolated stretches of “Die Heilige” can be pieced together from just two Austrian dissertations from 1933 and 1951 respectively, whose authors had evidently been able to read the play in its original form.
One thing we can extrapolate from the above-mentioned sources is that Korngold’s librettist, Hans Müller, a jack of all literary trades who was at home in every genre, trend and stylistic register ranging from expressionist drama [“Der Vampir”, 1923] and operettas [IM WEISSEN RÖSSL, 1930] to farce [“Frischer Wind aus Kanada”, 1934], remained largely faithful to the original. Any modifications or additions were superficial in nature, involving such details as the insertion of subsidiary characters [concierge, messenger, blind sword judge], and did not compromise Kaltneker’s vision. Likewise, Kaltneker’s metaphors, at times affected and often reliant on biblical topoi, were reflected in Müller’s libretto, as far as we can deduce from the few fragments of “Die Heilige” that have survived; at any rate, the metaphors informed his deliberately ornate and somewhat overblown inflection, which – however trivialised it might seem – reliably reproduced the idiom of the original verses.
In co-opting Kaltneker’s lyrical work, Müller and Korngold adopted the author’s own peculiar sexual theology, which Kaltneker had summarised quite drastically in the prologue to another of his “Mysteries”, “Die Schwester” [The Sister], which received its premiere in Vienna’s Renaissancetheater in 1923, some years after the writer’s death: “God wants us to go forth and multiply. Let creation be! Soul runneth over in man’s blood, immortality in his seed!” A remarkable reversal of Christian values is asserting itself here and going straight to the heart of “Die Heilige” and the opera that sprang from it. According to his ethos, virginity and chastity are the actual sins, since they are tantamount to preserving one’s first-person integrity; truly divine love – agape – only comes through utter devotion of the Self to the Other. In their apotheotic closing song Heliane and the Stranger sing the following words: “I did not seek myself, / but I’ve found you - / Now you and I flow in one stream. / He who gives himself / has overcome himself, / and earthly prisons become the vault of heaven.”
Heliane is “saintly” (heilig) precisely because she gifts her body to the Stranger in a gesture of adulterous love, although, paradoxically, her sinful infringement of the seventh Commandment becomes a symbol of how two lovers can only meet in total purity and authenticity outside the laws and conventions of society. We find a key paradigm of this idea in the adulterous, not to say incestuous, relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s RING tetralogy, the epitome of an unconditional and veritably transcendental love and at the same time a monstrous challenge to the social order, as played out in the microcosm of a marriage. With Wagner we already see this state of affairs leading siblings to be idealised as a “saintly couple”, convinced that only they have the right and the duty to beget the free hero, whom Wotan has yearned for as a redeemer figure. Kaltneker, a staunch Wagnerian, fuses this idealistic view of love with the Christian doctrine of salvation, arriving at a decidedly unorthodox concept of religion, which leads in turn to a justifiable interpretation of the scene between Heliane and the Stranger in Act 1 as a sort of Eros-inspired Eucharist. Just as, in the Catholic transubstantiation doctrine, the Host becomes the body of Christ during the Eucharist, so, in the moment of her selfless gesture, Heliane’s body becomes godly love in physical form. The Stranger compares the queen’s body not simply to an altar, with hair streaming down its side like “eternal light”; he also pushes the analogy to its limits: “Your body must be / like God’s shrine, / opened up in the last night of Creation!”
Kaltneker’s “Mystery play” contains the direction that the Queen – unnamed in his original – is to take off her “severe gown”, when the “young prisoner” asks her to; she proceeds to reveal a “thin undershirt, snowy white and translucent, wonderfully emphasising her limbs”. Müller and Korngold follow this scene to the letter, underlaying it with another surge in the “seraphic voices” from the start of the opera: “Blessed are those who love”. But then they go a step further. Even though, after the Stranger asks “Will you do that, / my love, will you / do that for me?”, there is only an oblique reference to “a shudder [running through Heliane’s] disrobed body”, the ostentatious use of the word “naked” and the addition in Müller’s script of an embarrassed “nah” leave us in no doubt that we are dealing with full nudity here, at least in an ideal situation. And a direction at the end of Act 1 drops any vestige of pretence: Heliane faces her husband, the Ruler, after his outrageous remarks, and “only now [does she] become aware that she is naked”. This is fully in keeping with his vision for the work, even though Korngold cannot seriously have imagined that his literal directions would ever be implemented on stage in his lifetime. It is no coincidence that Kaltneker’s “Die Heilige”, as we know from the few surviving fragments, begins with a women’s chorus singing “Between us and men / there has been enmity / from the beginning.” This is a reference to original sin and the curse placed by God on Adam [Gen 3:15]: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman […]”. As we know, this is linked to the feeling of shame, with Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness from each other, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge [Gen 3:7]: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” Heliane’s removal of her clothing is no less than a symbol of her redeeming mankind’s original sin. More than that, since death and mortality were a direct repercussion of the Fall, mankind’s redemption through Heliane’s act also implies a triumph over death, with the end of the opera marking a return to a paradise lost. The name “Heliane”, invented by Müller and Korngold, is an intentional blend of references – an amalgam of ‘Helios’ (the Greek sun god), the ‘Heliades’ (his daughters) and the word ‘Heliand’ as used in an early mediaeval epic poem, circa 830 AD, which is nothing other than the Old Low German form of the word ‘Heiland’, or Redeemer.
The scandalous thing about Kaltneker’s and Müller’s and Korngold’s vision consists in the fact that the physical nudity provides a dimension that is undoubtedly erotically charged – even if “innocent” in an Edenic sense. It introduces a sexual desire that is manifested at the end of Act 2, when Heliane is seized by a kind of necrophiliac impulse and bends over the body of the dead Stranger: “She is right up close. Her breath touches his lips, her eyes reflect in his. Over her snow-white face with its trembling mouth there passes a flicker of unutterable yearning, of crazed desire.” Heliane’s decision to submit to the bier trial is not motivated by a wish to prove her innocence but rather an expression of earthly love rooted primarily in sensual longing – and hence to be dismissed as “sinful” in line with Christian mores. That Heliane herself considers her “crazed desire” to be sinful is evinced in Act 3, when she is about to bring the dead man back to life “in God’s name” but then collapses and confesses in front of everyone: “I cannot, I cannot! / I loved him!! […] / I am not divine, not pure!” Yet it is precisely this declaration that brings about the miracle: “In a sudden burst of fiery light the Stranger rises from the bier.” And from his lips Heliane learns why God has given her the power to work this wonder and why her penitence (“I ham sinful beyond measure”) is based on a false premise: “You’re wrong! / You did not seek yourself in another- / you surrendered your body and spirit: / And so you may approach His presence in purity!” For Kaltneker, this complete and utter gifting of oneself to another person, in a spiritual as well as physical sense, signifies the most consistent renunciation imaginable of any “egoism”, which is taken to be the “antipole [of the man] who was lying on Golgotha” [foreword to “Die Schwester”]. The sex act becomes a religious act by bursting the boundaries of the ego and uniting two people in a love that unites desire and compassion and in so doing approximates the love shown by Jesus – a syncretic concept merging Christian thinking with a Wagnerian “Metaphysics of Sexual Love” [the title of “Fragments of a Letter to Arthur Schopenhauer” written around the time when Wagner was composing TRISTAN, first published in 1886 in the Bayreuther Blätter and reprinted in 1911 in volume 12 of Wagner’s “Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen”, which Kaltneker is certain to have heard of]. That Erich Wolfgang Korngold was fully conscious of the dangerous moral implications of the work he was basing his opera on is evinced by an interview the composer gave to the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, which appeared on 23rd October 1927: Kaltneker “does not distinguish rigidly between the concepts of compassion and desire, or love for one’s neighbour and love of oneself. When Heliane disrobes before the Stranger […], she does it out of compassion and physical passion. When the Stranger chooses death, it is at once sacrifice and death wish, goodness alongside greed.”
The focal point of Korngold’s opera is Heliane’s great aria “I went to him” in Act 2, which she delivers before the tribunal as her way of presenting her case. The lyrics swerve between the defendant’s insistence that despite the nudity she had remained chaste and her contradictory acknowledgement that she does belong to him “in her thoughts”, meaning that she has committed adultery in her mind. In Heliane’s words, she has given in not to the “blood’s desire” but to the wish to “bear the suffering” of the Stranger; yet this is followed by an unambiguous confession: “and in pain I became his”. How is this rendered musically?
After a final, sensual delay ["do not rush!"], the melodic line of the soprano explodes with the word "pains" at the peak note of the two-lined A-sharp, to be sung "in ecstasy" according to the performance direction. It is unquestionable that this is an aestheticisation of sexual climax; the manner in which Korngold lets the music reach this point is too distinctive. Starting at the line “Yet the young man was beautiful" and reaching F-sharp major, the previously markedly restricted melody lunges upward with increasing intensity, descends, and picks up again: an endless tug of war that passes into the orchestra with the eighth motifs played by the strings that are constructed from reduced versions of the vocal motifs. The avoidance of larger intervals that ends shortly before the close with the octave jump at "kill me" – until which moment, steps dominated for extensive periods – the wave movements of the ascending vocal line create a nearly physical intensity: the vocals do not take off at any point per se, but rather wind and stretch upwards. The eruption is half-prepared, half-supressed in self-tormenting glee. Shortly before the culmination of the two-lined A-sharp, Korngold lets his Heliane breathe at an increasingly faster rate [there are four breath marks in six measures]. Legato slurs are avoided, and in their place are accent signs as well as (an immediately halted) accelerando to the words "with him", which exponentiates the alternation between pushing and pulling into painstakingly detailed agogics. The shortness of breath caused by sensual exertion appears to be composed into the vocal facture itself. Stylised sounds could scarcely present more directly what is actually "meant" here: through musical ecstasy, the “sugary Schlager” [Elsa Bienenfeld] embodies what Korngold intended.
“When someone starts to sing, it’s as if he’s throwing off his clothes and showing himself in his natural state. Something so intimate and heavenly lies in the contrast between precisely gauged tones.” – These words of Wilhelm Heinse at the end of the 18th century in his novel “Hildegard von Hohenthal” read like a commentary on Korngold’s opera. The bareness of the voice is classified first and foremost as “heavenly” and related to the purity of a choir of sinless angels. Yet it is telling that in the very first scene the hero of the novel, kapellmeister Lockmann, secretly watches Hildegard as she sings while bathing, “naked, godlike, as beautiful as Venus”. And whenever he hears her singing in the future, his joy at the musical experience has a sexual dimension. For Lockmann, the “nakedness” of her voice is not really chaste even there, where the setting is a religious one. When he hears Gregorio Allegri’s two-choir Miserere in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, “sung by the very best voices”, he pictures the two choirs “intertwined in the act of coitus” – an audacious metaphor to be using in the context of church music but one that harks back to the tradition of ecstatic mysticism and to the fact that Christian faith was sometimes expressed [especially in vocal music] as erotic passion.
This blend of physical nudity and erotic nuance in the singing, coupled with sexuality and religious ecstasy, is key to the dramaturgy and musical profile of THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE. Sumptuous vocal melos becomes the outpouring of a sensuousness in which the music also acts as a purveyor of mystical upswing. Above all, however, something is happening here that Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, considered to be the essence of opera par excellence – that opera should revolve around “senses and singing” and should not shrink from satisfying the audience’s “hunger for visual and aural pleasures” [as Julius Korngold put it in the 1922 preface to his collection of essays entitled “Deutsches Opernschaffen der Gegenwart”]. In the same year Paul Bekker postulated that it would never be possible to “banish Eros in its warmest form of life expression”, namely in flowing, full-throated song, “from opera”. “The more conscious human Eros is of [forming] the core of the action, the more the opera genre has honoured its remit” – a sentence that seems to fit THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE like a glove, even if Bekker the publicist, the great apologist for Franz Schreker, takes a more sceptical view of Korngold’s operatic works.
It is perhaps no exaggeration to describe composition itself, in the sense that Erich Wolfgang Korngold understood it, as an erotic act. As far back as 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche came up with bon mots to the effect that “we’d never have had a Raphael had it not been for a certain overheating in the domain of sex” and “making music is another way of making babies […].” Paul Bekker went further in his above-mentioned essay “Klang und Eros“: “All creation boils down to an act of begetting, not only in a figurative sense but as a veritable act in the natural order of things.” From that perspective, Heliane’s wasting and gifting of herself could be set against the lovely melodies that Korngold dreamed up for her and developed in all their ornate, even fulsome finery, with no thought for the cost of realising it on stage. Musing on a final duet that “fused heavenly and earthly love in an ecstatic blend”, Julius Korngold could not forget “the first time the composer sang and played the music to us: in a reverie, eyes shining, blowing and inhaling, with a spontaneity of expression. As he saw it, the score had come to him in an intense period of inspiration, in quasi-polished form, where no tweaking was needed.” If his father’s memoirs are to be taken as reliable, we can presume that HELIANE and its theology of a creative Eros as an expression of compassionate love were an aesthetic avowal on Korngold’s part, an affirmation whose urgency is felt to this day in the smouldering intensity of the score. “This music, he said, should draw the teeth of all hostilities; he sensed that he had created a great work.”
Arne Stollberg is Professor of Historical Musicology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Director of its Institute of Musicology and Media Studies. His many works on Erich Wolfgang Korngold include the monograph “Durch den Traum zum Leben. Erich Wolfgang Korngolds Oper DIE TOTE STADT” [Through the dream into life. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera THE DEAD CITY, 2003] and his editorship of a collection of essays entitled “Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Wunderkind der Moderne oder letzter Romantiker?” [Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Modernist wunderkind or the last of the Romantics?, 2008].