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In your new recording you mostly play music by two little known twelve-note composers, one a pupil of Josef Matthias Hauer, the other a Schoenberg pupil. The works date from the 1920s, but they sound almost diametrically opposed.

Hauer and Schoenberg invented their twelve-note systems independently but almost simultaneously around 1920. Schoenberg’s aimed to avoid tonal sonorities wherever possible, which gives his music its often highly dissonant and acerbic flavour. Things were different with Hauer: octaves are allowed, and tonal harmony is not forbidden; at times, thanks to his employment of triads, it even stands in the foreground. When I started to play Hauer’s piano music I often had to count the notes to see if it really was twelve-note music. Yet Hauer, with his ‘tropes’, mathematically systematised the myriad ways of these twelve notes can be combined and handled them with increasing rigor as his career progressed. Hauer’s sound is thus much more familiar than Schoenberg’s, but his structure is just as rigorous.

As we know, Schoenberg had important and famous disciples. Is there a ‘Hauer school’?

Schoenberg drew special attention after the war – he’d been persecuted and thrown out of the Berlin Academy, a victim of Nazism. Hauer, you might say, was less favoured by history, though he too was blacklisted. Because his music was judged on the basis of verbal reports, he was lumped together with the atonalists, and a symphony of his was displayed in the ‘Degenerate Music’ exhibition. Hauer’s output definitely overshadows Schoenberg’s in purely quantitative terms, and a lot of it still remains unpublished today. For far too long modern music was lopsidedly equated with atonality and dissonance. This overlooks a chapter of the 1920s that has never been properly examined by historians and that many people today are still not aware of.

What people are most likely aware of is the famous question of who came up with the twelve-note technique first – actually a secondary issue ...

True, that goes back to Schoenberg, who said in a letter of 1923 that he was afraid of being considered a Hauer imitator. Schoenberg came later in committing his ideas to paper, and he published them later than Hauer, but of course he gained a much wider hearing.

Could Trepulka be called an orthodox Hauer disciple?

We mustn’t forget that he was in his early twenties when he wrote these pieces, and thus stood at the outset of his artistic evolution. So naturally he was more closely attached to his teacher. On the other hand, in one of his writings Hauer himself claimed in 1923 that Trepulka had already achieved great mastery at the age of twenty, Basically I chose these pieces only because I like them a lot. I think I would have played them even if they weren’t dodecaphonic or didn’t come from the Hauer school.

What we’ve got here is Trepulka’s complete surviving output for piano. Have any other works by him survived?

Yes, there’s a big symphonic poem of 1937, Die Göttliche. It’s dedicated to the ‘divine’ Greta Garbo and was premièred by Vienna Radio at the time. The performance was even recorded. There are also a couple of scores owned by Trepulka’s son Johannes, orchestral and chamber pieces, but nothing for solo piano. In contrast, von Hannenheim wrote huge amounts of music for piano. Only a small part of it survives, pieces written roughly between 1929 and 1932, and thus in a fairly short span of time that can hardly illustrate his artistic evolution.

You’ve just written a big book on von Hannenheim that’s about to be published.

True, but not in the form of a chronological biography. It’s in six long chapters dealing with unknown or imperfectly explained aspects. Thanks to detailed research I can show, for example, that he died shortly after the war and not, as previously assumed, a few months earlier in the Obrawalde euthanasia facility. One chapter deals with the critical year 1932, when he won several major prizes but suffered physical and mental collapse with deliriums and hallucinations. Another discusses the search for his countless lost works. We know that his friends deposited a lot of them in a bank safe because von Hannenheim was always changing residence and probably showed signs of mental illness. I was able to find out which bank it probably was. We can assume that Russian soldiers cleared out the safe when they occupied Berlin and possibly used the material as heating fuel. Another possibility is that the musical manuscripts were carted off to the Soviet Union as war booty; after all, anything stored in a safe must have some value. I’ve written to countless institutes in Russia but never received a positive reply. Conceivably there might still be a suitcase somewhere; after all, stray Bach and Mozart manuscripts still crop up today. We can only hope, though the likelihood isn’t very great.

The piano repertoire, even the 20th century’s, is huge both quantitatively and qualitatively, yet time and again you manage to throw light on its hidden crannies. Are you trying to fill in the blank spaces on the map, or are you searching for previously ignored ‘missing links’?

Something like this can’t be planned in advance. Usually it involves accidental discoveries I make while studying history. Whether I like the discoveries enough to really want to play them is another question. I make that decision as a musician, though here too certain basic priorities apply. The music must have a definite originality, honesty and truthfulness. I wouldn’t want to play the music of a Nazi, for example, even if I liked it, for I couldn’t separate it from the nightmare of history. In that sense, it’s not only the notes that count.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski

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Herbert Henck was born in Treysa, Hessen, in 1948 and studied in Mannheim, Stuttgart and finally in Cologne, where he took a performance degree in 1975. His many publications include a study of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X (1976), Experimentelle Pianistik (1982-92), Fürsprache für Hauer (1998) and the above-mentioned monograph on Norbert von Hannenheim. From 1980 to 1985 he issued the annual periodical Neuland, Ansätze zur Musik der Gegenwart in his own publishing house. He has recorded more than 50 albums as a pianist, almost exclusively 20th-century music. His albums for ECM New Series – works by Barraqué, Cage, Nancarrow, Antheil, Mompou, Otte and Mosolov – have drawn rave reviews from the international press.
In early May 2007 Henck will be awarded a special prize from the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. Due to ill health he has had to cancel all concert engagements since spring 2005.
Further information at www.herbert-henck.de.

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