HK Gruber

Bregenz Festival 2014: HK Gruber in Conversation: Tales from the Vienna Woods

HK Gruber
© Bregenzer Festspiele /

Ödön von Horváth’s best known work, Tales from the Vienna Woods, takes its title from the charming – some would say sickly sweet – waltz by Johann Strauss the younger (1868). The ‘Volksstück’ or ‘people’s play’ was written in 1931, and is one of several brilliantly caustic satires in which Horváth set out to expose the venal underbelly of the interwar petite-bourgeois in Vienna and beyond. That he succeeded is clear from the way in which he was hounded by the Nazis, whose grim rise to power Horváth continued to document throughout the 1930s until his absurd and premature death on the Champs-Élysées in 1938, killed by a falling branch during a storm.

The continuing universal relevance and power of Horváth’s writing has been acknowledged by many (in the German-speaking world at least) – but it was stage director and librettist Michael Sturminger who noted its particular resonance with the musical and socio-aesthetic world of the celebrated Viennese composer HK ‘Nali’ Gruber. And it was Sturminger who persuaded Gruber to turn the play into an opera; a project made possible by an ensuing commission from the Bregenz Festival under Intendant David Pountney.

Gruber is familiar to UK audiences in many musical guises, including as a conductor, since his appointment to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009. He first shot to public attention with the 1978 première of his ‘pan-demonium’, Frankenstein!!; a blackly comic setting of children’s poems by the Viennese surrealist H.C. Artmann for chansonnier and large ensemble. A highly charismatic narrator, singer and performer himself, Gruber’s art is characterised by an idiosyncratic combination of the serious with the popular. His music is largely tonal and has clear roots in Stravinsky and Berg among other composers (from Eisler and Krenek to Blacher and Milhaud), but also in jazz, Viennese folk idioms and 1920s cabaret, deployed to often acerbically witty effect.

Of course, Gruber is also associated with the music of Kurt Weill, who set texts of searing political and social criticism by Horváth’s close contemporary Bertolt Brecht, such as the well-known Threepenny Opera. Brecht acknowledged the influence of Horváth’s work upon his own, whilst the writer and critic Erich Kästner reportedly hailed Tales from the Vienna Woods as a ‘Viennese Volksstück against the Viennese Volksstück’; a play written for ordinary people about ordinary lives but having far more than local significance, and stripped of any illusion of neighbourly, folksy warmth or sentimentality.

The world première of Gruber’s opera Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales from the Vienna Woods) was given to great acclaim at the Bregenz Festival on July 23 this summer, as part of a celebration of his work under the theme ‘Bittersweet Vienna’. Ahead of a weekend devoted to further opera performances and concerts of his music, and before I had seen his new opera, Gruber spoke with me about Horváth, Brecht and the background to the piece. He explained how important it was to him to remain true to the playwright’s incorporation of incidental music in the text – and, in particular, to Horváth’s highly deliberate, musically charged use of language.


HK Gruber
Tales from the Vienna Woods 2014
© Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster

Steph Power: Here in the UK, unlike in Austria perhaps, Horváth is not so well known as Brecht, despite being arguably just as brilliant and significant a playwright. Like many of his plays, the one you have taken for your opera libretto, Tales from the Vienna Woods, is all about illusion and self deception; it’s a very biting satire on people who choose to go unconscious rather than be awake to what’s happening in the world around them. But Horváth wasn’t born in Austria. How did he come to write about ‘bittersweet Vienna’?

HK Gruber: Horváth was born in Croatia, in the city of Fiume [now Rijeka] in the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He came to Vienna via Budapest and only began to write in German when he was twenty. ‘Hochdeutsch’ as we call it.

High German?

Yes, High German. And he could speak this language with great virtuosity. In Tales from the Vienna Woods he stipulates that the actors should not speak in dialect despite the play being set in the suburbs – in the 8th District of Vienna – and not in high society.

So, it’s set amongst the new, lower-middle class?

That’s it, the middle class. And although Horváth writes in High German, you can hear the shadows of that dialect in his language – how he does this is artistic genius! It allows me as a composer a place where I can jump in with my music. When Tales from the Vienna Woods was premièred in ’31 in Berlin it was a big success and immediately the Nazis began to threaten Horváth. After Hitler took power in ’33, he went to Austria and then, after the Anschluss in ’38,  he went to Paris – he was on the list of ‘degenerate artists’.

I can see why the Nazis would have been threatened by this play!

Yes! By the way, Horváth knew Brecht and he was a fan of the Threepenny Opera. He must have heard the première in ’28, because in his sketch book for the Tales you can see – I have this sketchbook in my composing house in Rosenberg – some sketches for a play with songs, like Dreigroschenoper [Threepenny Opera], called Tales from the Vienna Woods. And he had Weill in mind to write the songs. Later he obviously changed his mind and wrote this theatre piece instead, which became his most successful. There is much similarity between Brecht and Horváth because they were both writing critically about society. But Brecht is more the ideologue – he more or less always comes from the Marxist point of view, whereas Horváth comes from the humanistic.

But Horváth is very pessimistic.

Of course, yes – they could be brothers! But there is an interesting difference between Brecht and Horváth, especially in Tales from the Vienna Woods if you compare it with Brecht pieces: that is the element of touch – touching – Berührungen [literally ‘points of contact’]. There are moments when the audience really bursts into tears.

It’s tragic as well as comic isn’t it?

Yes! We have a lot of buffo elements in this piece but finally it’s very tragic and there are moments in the piece where you cannot stop yourself crying. For me it’s like Berg’s Wozzeck.

That’s interesting. Can you say more?

In Wozzeck, the combination of text and music also creates this effect and you cannot guard yourself against the emotion, it just comes. So this is a special gift of Horváth’s. Brecht can do it but for him it’s not so easy. Brecht writes fleisch und blut [flesh and blood] pieces, yes – like Puntila [Mr Puntila and his Hired Hand Matti – probably the only of Brecht’s plays to be describable as a ‘people’s play’ in the Horváthian sense]. But it is mostly analytical writing. Horváth is also very analytical but he uses language differently. Not only in the Tales but in all his pieces, he plays with sentences that are ready-made.

A kind of pre-fabricated language, with clichés?

Yes. So the sentences people exchange are not their own – instead they use ready-made phrases which create a kind of fake conversation. There is a statement by Horváth at the front of the play about stupidity – you probably know it?

‘There is nothing that gives one a sense of infinity as much as stupidity’ – or words to that effect.

This statement tells us everything!

It surely does! I’d be fascinated to hear how you work with this language element as a composer. There is a clear sense of emotional estrangement in the play and yet, through a corresponding literal estrangement of language, Horváth opens the door to reveal what’s being hidden. And he writes lots of silences and pauses too, where that moment of revealing can resound. How do you approach that musically?

These silent passages are very interesting because he uses them very often – on each page! In the 3rd Act for instance, he writes ‘pause’ and, later, ‘silence’ and then ‘big silence’ . It has a double function. The first function of course is a kind of echo: to allow the audience to absorb and think about an open-ended conversation that is full of associations. But the silences also have a musical function! I use all of them – they are integrated within the score and there is not a single one which I did not consider, short or long. In my music the silences are not just a fermata but are rhythmically notated, because I don’t want the orchestra to lose the pulse.

I can see you would want to maintain that focus. But it’s part of the theatre too from what you’re saying – the music and the text together?

Yes – for the pulse always to be there. For me this is very interesting because I know many conductors who do not have a lot of respect for silence! They will slow down or speed up through a silence because there is ‘nothing’ happening! But for me this ‘nothing’ is more important than the music!

That makes sense generally – but with this Horváth text I can see it could be crucial!

This is where Horváth and I have some meeting points already. He comes from the drama and I recognise that he means music! And there are many musical elements in the piece anyway because he asks for specific quotations; he says now I want to have Blue Danube; now I want to hear Tales from the Vienna Woods; Viennese folk music and marches and so on. I never use the quotations precisely, I just make allusions. You hear a few notes or perhaps the most stupid thing from the Danube [sings in a falsetto] – plip-plip … plop-plop – so you don’t have to say any more. Everybody knows what it is. It’s a link to his statement about stupidity of course!

Of course, yes! In the score, do you synchronise these quotations – or the music generally – with the stage action?

With the Strauss waltz Tales from the Vienna Woods, Horváth says in his stage instruction it should sound as if it is played by a young lady off-stage on the piano – probably her window is open and we hear her playing. I wrote it so we have the impression that she is practising; she really tries hard to get it right and she makes rhythmical mistakes, phrasing mistakes – you know [sings]: da dee, da dee, da da … daaa. So it’s all integrated. In the Third Act the girl is so angry about her mistakes that she slams the lid of the piano – bang! [bashes on the table] – and it’s synchronised with an effect on the stage so we have a slapstick moment; Alfred comes back to Valerie and she is so surprised that she suddenly says [falsetto] – ‘Ahh!’ – which is synchronised with the smash of the piano lid. So Horváth’s musical elements are used.

For me it is still Horváth who is the composer of the opera because his words are already music for me. When I began to work on this piece I read his text aloud and listened to the language melody and just wrote the rhythms, the prosody, in real time. So many times in the opera you hear the text in real time as if the singers are speaking it like actors. The only difference is that I wrote the pitch, so what I did in fact was a kind of Dialogrische [generic dialogue] which is now printed – it cannot be changed  – yes, it’s fixed forever!

For me Dialogrische in an opera is also very important because if the dialogue is not organised very well, opera is for me a very old-fashioned medium. But we also have arias in the opera for which I used Horváth’s words in various ways; doubled them, repeated them, made it longer. We have a lot of ensembles. That’s the difference between Schauspiel [stage play] and opera. In Schauspiel, if three people are speaking at once it’s a problem. But in opera we call it ensemble! We can have five, six, seven people all singing at once and you can use that to help create a climax. So I used Horváth’s text for all these things – but I always had the impression that Horváth himself dictated the melodies to me.

So your musical lines, phrasing and instrumentation and so on are all guided very closely by the text, by Horváth’s dialogue structures?

Yes. My first statement when we began to work with the singers was – and I’m convinced no composer before has said this to them!: ‘Sing wrong notes – if you fail it’s no problem. But don’t miss a word; bring each word into the sound, give each its onomatopoeic quality, because we owe everything to Horváth. He is the main figure, not the composer.’ I just bring a new colour to the piece; a kind of musical ambience which, as we all hoped, is a help for the piece. Now, after the première and the second performance last Sunday I have the impression that everything worked. The dream is fulfilled – the majority of the audience and the reviewers got it, and if there is a minority, I ignore it [laughs heartily]!

That sounds fair enough!

By the way, I do not read any reviews. Not the good ones and not the bad ones – I just get some news, it’s much better. The only review I recognised so far was the Financial Times and there was just one sentence: she wrote something like, this piece is directly opposite to Falstaff in my career. And I thought oh, I always thought Wozzeck, but Falstaff, that is also a good idea.

So you mean you’ve travelled opposite to Verdi in the sense of coming now to tragi-comedy with Tales from the Vienna Woods having composed comedies previously, whereas Verdi came to tragi-comedy with Falstaff after a lifetime of writing tragedies?

Yes – I think, God it fits also with my age, yes?! I’m now 71 and Verdi, when he wrote Falstaff, was much, much older. So probably one day I could reach my Falstaff level! So the Financial Times has brought me to this idea, which might be a good idea to follow. She has inspired me!

Well, that’s part of what reviews should do I think – that should be part of their function, to inspire!

When Michael Sturminger first created this idea I was not sure that his prophecy would ever be fulfilled: he came to me at the celebration of the première of my opera Der Herr Nordwind (Mr Northwind) in Zürich in 2005 and said, ‘your next opera will be Tales from the Vienna Woods!’ I said, no no I don’t think so, but step by step he gave me literature and information, and so I became more and more convinced that I must make this opera. And now many people are telling me that they have the impression that it has always been an opera!

I must say I can’t imagine a composer better suited than you to set this play! But maybe it’s actually a good sign in the creative process – to immediately say ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’?

Well, I first said to Sturminger, Horváth does not need a composer. But that was because I was not informed about him, and that his language was very near to music in fact. So Sturminger began to write his libretto before he knew that I would do it, because he wanted to convince me!

So what happened then? How did he convince you?

One year later, in 2006, I was composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival, and in the very first concert, with the BBC Symphony, we did Frankenstein!! After the concert Boosey people came to me backstage [Gruber’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes] and in front of them somebody I could not recognise because he was nearly hidden – I had the impression he came on his knees! And then he came near and I saw, oh God that’s David Pountney! He said to me, Nali we must meet in Vienna very soon. So in September we met and he said to me, you must write an opera buffa for us, you are the only one who could do it – probably he was impressed by Frankenstein!! as it’s a very funny piece!

And I said to him, couldn’t we find also something tragic, for instance Tales from the Vienna Woods?  No no he said, it should be a living writer. So years went by and we discussed many possibilities – we even had some ideas to co-operate with Monty Python. If they had written something I probably could not have resisted! But that didn’t happen and in 2010 David called me and said, Nali in fact this is the best idea, Tales from the Vienna Woods, just do it. Then I called Michael Sturminger and he came back to me five minutes later and said, here’s the 1st Act, here’s the 2nd Act, and here’s the beginning of the 3rd!

So Michael Sturminger had already virtually completed the libretto, regardless!

Yes! He has directed the piece many times before, so he knew it. I didn’t know the piece word by word but I just read the libretto and thought, aha! It has a line and it’s a story. So I said, ok let’s do this and I began. It was a long journey because I composed without a compass, I just followed Horváth’s ideas. Horváth was my compass in fact. I forgot all the ‘laws’ which are existing for composers who are writing so-called ‘new music’ – I forgot all the dictators who say you have to do this, you have to do that, you have to write in this style or that style: my style is my style. I found out, I am the system. My ears and my Unterbewusstsein [subconscious mind] is telling me what I have to do, and there is nobody else who can dictate to me.

So I think now I have discovered a full freedom as a composer – and this is good for me because my next project is a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax – for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebeow, the London Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic! And I thought, when I return to Rosenberg, ok tomorrow I will just begin to compose and my ear will tell me in which direction it will go. I will throw away the compass again and use the freedom and forget all the dictators – you know who they are!

Yes I do! – and isn’t that just what Horváth’s writing is about, not allowing dictatorship?!

Yes! You know, all of these dictators have forgotten that stupidity is waiting for them around each corner [laughs heartily]! And Fascismus – because what they are telling us mostly is a kind of fascistic idea. For instance, I have full respect for Schoenberg and I have learnt a lot from him but there is one sentence I cannot forgive him. He once said, when he discovered his 12-note technique:  ‘I have made an invention which makes sure that German music will dominate the world for the next hundred years’!

I know that sentence – that sentiment – horribly well!

This is a complete fascistic idea! Dominate anybody – why? And this is a Viennese Jew who said that! It’s very tragic and comic at the same time, so it’s a tragi-comedy. And it tells me, don’t touch any school! So: Second Viennese School, First Viennese School, Third Viennese School – no, absolute no! [Gruber was for a time – and sometimes still is – associated with a so-called ‘Third Viennese School’, along with the composers Kurt Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan and violinist Ernst Kovacic – co-founders of the then ‘MOB-art & tone-ART’ ensemble in the late ‘60s].

So – musical freedom, no more no less?

And musical intelligence. This is a condition.

With every note counting, but in its own way and with its own expression?

Yes! – which means of course you have to develop a technique; without technique you cannot compose! So while you write, you develop techniques, but they are not there to dominate the composer, to take his freedom. When I compose I mostly recognise, aha! – here is a system. Ok, so I use that system for as long as I can, and then there comes a moment when I say, oh it’s time to change the system, let’s do something else.

That is freedom!

Illustration of HK Gruber by Dean Lewis

Background image © Bregenzer Festspiele /

With thanks to Wales Arts International for their generous support.