Editor’s Note: Long considered the most stable region in the world outside of North America, Europe is now wracked by multiple crises. If anything, the U.S. is still not paying enough attention to the decay in the stability of some of our closest allies. It’s easy for Americans and Europeans to criticize one another, and both sides score some fair hits. But increasingly both sides of the Atlantic have a set of problems in common that elites seem unable or unwilling to address. Nicholas M. Gallagher, TAI opera critic and European affairs staff writer, has bravely and selflessly volunteered to undertake a voyage of discovery into darkest Europe, attending the Salzburg and Bayreuth music festivals and places in between, taking the pulse of European high culture and checking in with the occasional cab driver in the highest traditions of American punditry. Throughout this coming week, he’ll be writing a series of essays reflecting both on what he’s seen and on the state of the Atlantic world today. Here’s the first installment:“There is no future. There is no progress.” This has not exactly been the prevailing sentiment in Europe since the Cold War: this was the age of unbounded optimism, in which technocratic know-how, soft power, and the arc of history would bring Europe ever closer together and make it an example to the world. But this is the time of the refugee crisis, Brexit, and populism, with the Mediterranean mired in seemingly permanent economic slumps and Europe’s periphery caught in seemingly permanent war. And on July 31, two eminent, impeccably-credentialed Europeans proclaimed the death of progress at one of the continent’s foremost gatherings, to great applause.The setting was the first Saturday night of the Salzburg Festival, the prestigious celebration of opera, classical concert music, and drama put on every summer in Mozart’s hometown at the edge of the Austrian alps. Péter Esterházy, a novelist and poet with a Continent-wide reputation, had written the libretto for an oratorio that composer and fellow Hungarian Péter Eötvös penned for the Vienna Philharmonic.An oratorio is a concert work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra in which there are characters and drama in the singing, but no costumes and no staged action. This is the same format as, for instance, Handel’s Messiah; usually oratorios treat on religious subjects. Esterházy and Eötvös’s work, entitled Hallelujah: Oratorium Balbulum: Four Fragments, has three characters, plus, of course, a chorus. There is the Narrator, a spoken role, not sung, delivered in commanding tones by German stage actor Peter Simonischek. Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu created the Prophet, who stutters (Balbalum Latin for “stuttering”), while German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion is a drunken angel—she got drunk once with Nietzsche, she explains, and has never been sober since. And the chorus, we are told, is supposed to just be singing “Hallelujah,” but insists on interjecting into the dialogue and throwing its weight around.Very quickly, a problem develops. The prophet is supposed to prophesy, but cannot. He is consumed by self-doubt, and though it is not immediately apparent, he has lost faith, confessing later that “There is no God.” Perhaps it is relativism that has gotten to him, for as he quickly amends that statment, “E-e-everyone has his own God/and wh-wh-what has/my God/to do with yours.” (The text was sung in German; for ease of understanding, here I’m using the official English translation.) Meanwhile, the Angel doesn’t deny God, exactly (“Without God it is difficult to picture our times”), but by her own account is drunk, deeply depressed, and not going to be able to buck the Prophet up effectively. For its part, the Chorus alternates between criticizing or questioning the others and singing musical quotations of “hallelujah” from famous works from Europe’s Golden Ages gone by. The Narrator, who initially proclaims himself to be a redundancy, “an error,” begins to emerge as the dominant force here: he doesn’t sing, but he’s got the most lines, the best jokes, and Simonischek’s stentorian voice. It makes sense that in a work that rhetorically denies the future, the voice of the present takes precedence.Does that mean that Esterhazy and Eötvös feel that European society is being pushed, rudderless, by events? It’s hard to be certain. On the one hand, this is an overtly political text. On the other hand, as with much of modern poetry, it’s deliberately elusive, fragmentary—open for interpretation.But to me, the key to the Oratorio comes in the third and fourth “fragments.” (Esterházy wrote an original libretto about ten times as long—or says he did; it may be a literary device—and Eötvös and he then cut it to the most important parts, four supposed “fragments” which function as its major divisions.) The Prophet has finally worked up enough courage to say something. He stammers out:
The meat soup of culture has become very thin![…] It’s been a long time
ruled the world.CHORUS: Go on…PROPHET: The European
Public opinion does not exist.CHORUS: What?
Normally, we would expect a Prophet to be the voice of God. But at the beginning of Oratorio Balbulum we are told that it is the Angel who is there “for the sake of religious issues.” Who then is the Prophet speaking for? Here and elsewhere, he appears to be a stand-in for Europe’s elite—those who had until recently set so much store in Progress and the Future. The Chorus, on the other hand, represents the populace: able to effectively veto the ideas of others due to their weight (electoral or, here, ability to project vocal volume), but lacking any real, alternative agenda of their own. Of those on stage, they are by far the most self-confident, but often only in the sense that they know what they don’t want.The Chorus is not pleased with the Prophet’s comments. After the Prophet tries to restate them, they interject, “Enough.” “Enough enough enough!” They shout him down. The Narrator proclaims that the third fragment has “tackled” the oratorio’s aim, “to depict the modern era.”It is at this point that it becomes clear that this is not simply a poetic description of political reality: Esterházy and Eötvös are not just stating as a fact that Europe’s populists have a veto on the elites. Rather, the elites have no answers that will suffice to override or persuade them—or perhaps even themselves. The fourth fragment instead opens with a declaration from the Narrator that it will concern silence. “What are we silent about?” the Chorus asks then. The Narrator responds:
Fear. Lack of prospects for the future. The fact that, perhaps for the first time, we have nothing to say about the future.
During the war we waited for the end of the war, after the war for the recovery, after World War I we waited for World War II, after World War II we waited for the end of Communism, meanwhile we had even more poetic thoughts, ’68, love, love, love, all you need is love, after the end of Communism we have no more future.
Nothing remains for us, not even despair any more.
There is no progress. That has frightened us.
We need borders. We erect fences everywhere, we even fence around fences.
Behind the fences is where we are, beyond them… is where we are not.
What is unfamiliar is beautiful, black is beauty, is there anyone here who understands that?
We are frightened, that we do understand.
There was no attempt, either in this moment or in the overall shape of the work, to insist that if the right way, the enlightened way, were adhered to, or a different way had been followed, all would be well. So the old answers don’t work, and Esterházy and Eötvös aren’t proposing new principles or new ways of looking at old ones. We have reached the end of the road: “Nothing remains for us, not even despair any more.” Everything they knew to be right led the Europeans to the current crisis: if it has become clear that this path is not the way to the future, no alternative exists.Central European intellectuals are not exactly known for their sunny disposition; Hungarian poets preach doom and gloom would not have been a headline at any point in the last 150 years. Yet something similar seems to be setting in across the Continent: a gradual realization that the “Welcome Policy,” “ever-closer union,” soft power, the blue model, and other nostrums of the last, hopeful age are not going to lead to utopia, but coupled with a sort of paralyzed refusal, at least among the non-populists, to rethink them. If that’s so, it could mark a big shift. If for elite Europeans the post-national, social-democratic order have been a kind of religion, then we might just be witnessing the start of a nihilist moment. First God was dead; now the secular hopes and theories of progress with which Europeans replaced religion have followed God to the grave.Ironically, recognizing that doubling down on the same old policy solutions—a hallmark of the Merkel years in particular—isn’t working any more is progress. But how much time does Europe have? Other voices, including illiberal populists and fanatical Islamists, have their own visions. In Oratorio Balbulum, the former are onstage, in a veiled form, as the Chorus; the Islamists don’t speak directly, but they cast a shadow in Balbulum as they do in real life.The chorus demands a “Scene” in each fragment, as oratorios must contain action as well as commentary. The story, if it can be called that, that connects three of the four fragments is this: it is September 11, 2001. “Somewhere in Europe,” a government spokesman (sung by the Prophet) is getting dressed for an evening’s talk. He thinks of his wife, who is flying to New York. They had had a crisis in their marriage, but only yesterday, “they didn’t just make it up/no, they fell in love with each other again.” He turns on the TV, and sees a plane—his wife’s plane—approaching the Twin Towers. He turns it off. “I c-c-can’t bear it/now they’re showing horror films in the afternoon.” At that moment, his wife (sung by the Angel) calls the stewardess and orders a tomato juice—”Salt, Pepper?” “Salt, Pepper.” And… that’s it. Twice the oratorio approaches this tragic climax, twice it ends just before it: the last words of the piece are the chorus singing, “salt and pepper/And and and/And.”It is shocking to see 9/11 used as a literary figure, rather than depicted as a historical event. And there can be no doubt that it is being used as a figure: several important details have been changed. None of the planes were heading from Europe or toward New York originally, and the hijackings were messy affairs—the passengers were not unaware that something had gone badly wrong in their final minutes. Yet, while one critic has called these scenes “grotesque,” they are not per se disrespectful, any more than fictionalizing certain parts of Pearl Harbor in From Here to Eternity (novel 1951, film 1953) was. And it does make sense that a writer seeking to reflect on our age would reflect on one of the seminal moments of our age. What makes it truly arresting is what he’s saying with it.For most Americans who remember that terrible day, 9/11 is a unique event. But the Oratorio, perhaps reflecting its European origin, looks at the attack less as a single outrageous event and more as a metaphor for the turning of the tide. Since that date, the West’s problems have steadily deepened, and the ability of our elites to manage the world has seemed to decay. The Oratorio comes to us against a background of crisis and failure: the global financial crisis of 07-08, the euro crisis that followed, and the persistent inability to get back afterward to what we once regarded as normal. There are the terror and refugee crises arising out of the uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable descent of the Middle East into chaos and war. Closer to home, the decay of blue model institutions and practices that once provided both economic security and growth eats into Western self-assurance and breeds skepticism among young people for whom the platitudes of their elders seem unrelated to the problems young people face. With all that, the rise of illiberal populists in the West and beyond poses the kind of challenge to democratic societies not seen since the 1930s.The Oratorio Balbulum feels like an honest and frank look at a deep crisis in the Western world, uttering truths that the transatlantic establishment has at least so far proven unwilling or unable fully to face. That the 9/11 attacks strike Esterházy and Eötvös as the most cohesive and encompassing metaphor for our times is deeply depressing.It is unusual to give pride of place in reviewing a piece of music to its libretto. In large part, this is a tribute to how seamlessly the music fit the spirit and letter of the words that Eötvös helped cull and then set. The music was modern, discordant, with seemingly its only moments of harmony coming in the Hallelujah quotations from times past. If you like that sort of thing, it’s very well done, but even if you usually don’t, in this case you would have to admit that the musical style was uniquely well suited to its subject matter. Stops, starts, nerves, outbursts—all were there in the text, it was all there in the music. Indeed, if you feel that composers have increasingly embraced an obscurist, over-thought, under-felt style that has lost the public and is a pale shadow when contrasted to the fragments of a previous glory that can’t quite be forgotten and can’t quite be emulated… well then what could be more suited?Esterhazy and Eötvös should get credit for being starkly honest, but in the end, that sort of credit can only go so far. The oratorio is named after Notker Balbulus (“Notker the Stammerer”), a monk who was a biographer of Charlemagne and one of the first people to set “Alleleiua” to music—the father of all the Hallelujahs to follow. Beset by a speech impediment and an un-warlike frame, he lived in the midst of the Dark Ages (late 9th-early 10th century), when Europe was barely clinging to life in the wreckage of the Roman Empire. And yet he had the confidence to help with the great rebuilding, and left a lasting musical declaration of faith.The sense of a crisis in European civilization was deepened by the contrast between the Oratorio Balbalum and the other two works on the Philharmonic’s program that night, Johannes Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” and the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony. (The Philharmonic, under the energetic but precise direction of Daniel Harding, was as one would expect, amazing.) The nature of the Brahms piece clearly indicates that the composer was unafraid to wrestle with the great masters who had come before him, confident he still had something worth adding. So did Mahler, and likewise their contemporaries in fields from the arts to statesmanship. But then came the triple tragedy evoked by Esterházy and Eötvös: World War I, World War II, and Communism. Their terrifying shadow dominates all European politics since, and threatens to paralyze those who should lead.I’ll touch more on the World Wars and European thought in the coming week at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, where due to the association the Nazis cultivated with the German romantic composer they loom even more heavily. As to the Communists, Esterházy himself had spent much of his career satirizing, resisting, and interpreting the damage done by them. He died in mid-July, shortly before Oratorio Balbulum premiered, having seen two great eras of European thought—the Cold War and the optimistic age that followed. Did his last work provide a theme for a third, pessimistic one to come?