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When the stage becomes the world ...
The Composer Manfred Trojahn

“I am a real theater animal,” Manfred Trojahn once said about himself. Which, in the case of a composer, suggests that he devotes himself above all to opera, where he can create living figures, letting them act and sing. It is thus not surprising that Trojahn has dedicated himself primarily to musical theater over the past thirty years, although he has never neglected instrumental music during that time: after all, his catalog of works includes five full-fledged symphonies, a number of concertos, and a great deal of chamber music. But his special love is opera. Already with his first work for the stage, Enrico, the then forty-two-year-old was able to convince. Many opera houses produced the dramatic comedy, which was premiered in Schwetzingen in 1991. The work today numbers among the most important German-language operas of the past few decades.

Born in 1949 in Cremlingen near Braunschweig, Trojahn decided on a career in music at an early age, studying flute with Karlheinz Zöller and composition with Diether de la Motte at the Hamburg College of Music. He additionally attended courses with György Ligeti. When Trojahn began his compositional career, which was in the 1970s, it was above all serial thinking that informed the world of new music in Central Europe. As far as possible, every parameter of the composition was to be organized in series; a technique propagated after the end of the World War II especially by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. The declared goal was a completely novel musical language, which, if possible, should no longer display any points of contact with tradition. Thus, Stockhausen, for example, at that time equated the situation of composing with the bomb-gutted German cities:
“The cities are erased, and you can start from scratch, without regard to ruins and ‘tasteless’ vestiges” – so his credo.

However, this kind of thinking was completely alien to Trojahn. His musical ideas went in an entirely different direction. “I naturally had a closer relationship to traditional music, since traditional music was around me all the time, so to speak.” Time and again, in his own pieces he dealt with the works of others. If in the case of the First Symphony, composed in 1974, it was the microtonality of György Ligeti that had greatly impressed him as a student, the Second Symphony, published four years later, points to the intensive reception of the music of Gustav Mahler, who was just rediscovered at that time. Finally, in the Five Sea Pictures of 1979 to 1983, Trojahn occupied himself with the works of Jean Sibelius and the little-known Swedish composer Allan Pettersson.

“Contemporary music has said that tradition is dead, it can not interest us anymore,” so Trojahn. “I, on the other hand, am of the opinion that I cannot simply block out of my life something with which I have to live continuously because I hear it every day. Thus, it will also have an influence on the artistic product.” With works such as the early symphonies or also the chamber music work Objet trouvé for flute and harpsichord, Trojahn consciously took a stand against the still predominant serial music of the fathers’ generation. Objet trouvé, for example, was a deliberate provocation. For the piece, a freely developed atonal form modeled on the results of serial techniques, imitates the then prevailing aesthetic and at the same time exposes it. It is telling that leaders of the avant-garde, such as Pierre Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen, did not notice this provocation and encouraged Trojahn to continue on along this supposedly “correct” path. However, the young composer had absolutely no intention of doing so.

For Trojahn, the material and its fashioning were fundamentally subordinate to musical expression. In this he was not alone. Other then young composers of his generation, such as Wolfgang Rihm, Detlev Müller-Siemens, and Hans-Jürgen von Bose, also strove for a musical language again characterized by a stronger subjectivity. That these “young guns” were assigned the label “New Simplicity” by music journalists was however a misunderstanding. For Trojahn’s music, for example, is by no means simple, but on the contrary highly complex. Nevertheless, his works frequently have a tonal reference, whereby above all the C major/c minor chord connection plays an important role time and again. In his catalog of works, one searches in vain for musical experiments or mere experimental setups, as were then in vogue. For him, the autonomous work of art was always the decisive category.

It may seem absurd from today’s perspective, but in the last decades of the past century, one had to decide as a contemporary composer which sphere one wanted to be associated with. If one advocated a supposedly radical concept of progress and followed the “tendency of the material,” as the influential music philosopher Theodor W. Adorno formulated it, then with a bit of luck one could be successful in the important centers of the avant-garde, such as Darmstadt or Donaueschingen, but as a rule one had to be content with a small, highly specialized audience.

If one rejected this as a composer, for the sake of a greater breadth of expression and also to reach a less elite audience, then one had more chances of being played in the opera houses and traditional symphony concerts, but was “persona non grata” in avant-garde circles. Manfred Trojahn decided early on to take the second path. Not least because musical theater had always been particularly close to his heart: “I think that my operas are compatible in that they tell a story. If one takes this path as a composer, one has to accept something that many modern composers look down their noses at – that music can also sometimes be an illustration, that it does not possess complete autonomy. I am a very big fan of Richard Strauss, he taught me more than most of the others.” In his operas, Trojahn trusts in the emotional power of the music and does not rely on the dogmatic wantonness of a deconstruction of the plot and music. This also includes seemingly old-fashioned virtues of craftsmanship such as text comprehensibility. Much the same could be said of his other contributions to vocal music, such as the more than 150 songs he has composed since 2004.

Meanwhile, his operas – aside from Enrico, we mentioned here only Was ihr wollt after William Shakespeare, La grande magia after Eduardo De Filippo, and Orest after Euripides – form a major focus of the contemporary repertoire at home and abroad. Trojahn today numbers among the most important composers of his generation. The Brucknerhaus in Linz already organized “Trojahn Days” in 1996, with chamber music concerts, seminars, and an orchestra concert.

For many decades, the composer has commuted between Germany and France, most recently between Düsseldorf, where he instructed young composers for nearly three decades, and Paris. This existence in two different cultures has also left traces in his works: “Yes, I am actually always moving in a state of in-between. On the one hand, there is the thread that leads from Germany via Austria to Italy, without which I cannot exist. And the other is the French-Mediterranean axis, without which it is also not possible. I just cannot put the two together. There are ensemble pieces, for example those with texts by René Char, that are so different from other pieces by me that when you listen to them, you would hardly suspect that they are by one and the same composer.” Elsewhere Trojahn explains: “Stylistically, there are very large contrasts in my music, which diminishes its recognition value. Aesthetically, however, I remain quite true to myself, even over decades.” The aesthetic category of “clarté,” so central to French music, plays a central role in many of his works. Very French is also the color palette of his orchestral writing, for Trojahn shows himself time and again to be a true sorcerer of sound.

His most recent opera, Eurydice – The Lovers, Blind, which was premiered in Amsterdam in 2022 and honored as the best premiere at the “Oper! Awards,” deals with the Orpheus myth and at the same time calls it into question. This is a subject tailor-made for Trojahn, since in addition to the timeless and always topical themes of love and death, it also provides the possibility of an intellectual and artistic examination of one’s own conduct.
© Martin Demmler, 2023 (translation: Howard Weiner)

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