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Composer Hermann Nitsch, the best known representative of Viennese Actionism, has died.

The international art world was shocked to learn of the death of Austrian action artist, painter and composer Hermann Nitsch on Easter Monday. Nitsch was one of the most controversial and influential artists of recent decades. Along with Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Günter Brus and Otto Muehl, his name has been associated with that group of artists known as the Viennese Actionists – which never existed as such a group: it was simply the spatio-temporal coincidence of a series of Austrian artists with similar concerns – who can nevertheless be considered the most wildly radical and provocative artists of the 20th century, creators of an oeuvre that delved into the depths of the human condition, bringing to light the most irritating and disturbing aspects of our nature.
Born in Vienna on 29 August 1938, between 1953 and 1958 he attended the Höhere Graphische Bundes-Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (HGBLuVA), Austria’s leading educational institution for graphic design research. There, inspired by the discovery of American action painting and French Tachism, he began to investigate his own work, with his first drawings revolving around religious themes and works from the history of art, from El Greco to Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci.
In Hermann Nitsch’s art, the aim is to celebrate existence, life in all its intensity, from birth to death. For this purpose he chose the action format, heir to Dadaism, the performance concept of Allan Kaprow, the theatre of cruelty of Antonin Artaud and the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina. He is also heir to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”, a term created by Wagner to explain his operas), which he developed into performances lasting up to six days.

Orgien Mysterien Theater

Despite his enormous and varied oeuvre, it has been obscured by a single artistic-theatrical spectacle, entitled Orgien-Mysterien-Theater, a work that he developed and complexified throughout his life and which can be roughly summarised as a blasphemous blood bacchanal symbolising the crucifixion of Christ and in which several taboos of the biemensensant Western society were broken: nudity, religion, ritual animal sacrifice (cows and lambs, on which both the performers and the audience were fed). He explained to his audience that his performances were his way of taking on first-hand “everything that seems negative, disgusting, perverse and obscene, the lust and the resulting sacrificial hysteria, to spare YOU the contamination and shame that comes with descending to the extreme”. Controversial to the extreme, Nitsch was arrested on several occasions for moral outrage and several of his shows were shut down or cancelled outright. As an example, suffice it to recall that Austrian President Thomas Klestil refused to inaugurate a Nitsch show at the 1992 World Exposition in Seville.
Orgien-Mysterien-Theater has been staged nearly two hundred times since the 1960s – its first precedent being the successive versions of his Malaktion, in which he drew on French tachism to splatter white walls with red paint and blood – and exercised a hypnotic power, for better and for worse, over the public like almost no other work of art has been able to do.

Nitsch wanted to appeal, almost synaesthetically, to all the senses and devoted much of his energies to musical composition, with which he accompanied his shows and exhibitions. On his website you can read a few sentences of his in which he explains that “the essentially new dimension of my theatre is the overcoming of role-playing by staging real events. Real events automatically demand Gesamtkunstwerk; they must be experienced tangibly through the five senses: they can be tasted, smelled, heard, seen and touched”. As a ritual, Orgien-Mysterien-Theater involved a process of purification and for this to be fully experienced and effective, it needed intensity and duration and, above all, a “being there”, which meant being really involved, participating. The vehemence of the feelings triggered by these themes, some aspects of which are, after all, taboo or buried, becomes the focus of attention.

Hermann Nitsch: The composer

His musical approach is situated in the realm of drone and noise. He himself defined it as Lärmmusik (“noise music”). And from the pure noise of his first actions he moved on to the creation of drone symphonies: masses of sound in which the different instrumental groups are superimposed. The most complex of his musical creations was created precisely for the Orgien Mysterien Theater, which was created in the 1960s and has been held annually since 1971 in Prinzendorf Castle, which he bought that year. Although decades in the making, his first “full” six-day performance did not take place until 1998, and for that occasion he composed a score for five orchestras (strings, winds and brass, percussion and an electronic music section and trombones), together with three choral groups (up to a total of ninety voices), two string quartets, a musical procession and several brass bands. On this occasion, the show even included the appearance of a military tank.
The living rituals of the astonishing work took place in every part of the property: in the castle building itself, in the stables, in the basement, in the endless underground passages, in the castle courtyard, in the orchard, in the large castle park – enclosed by a wall – and even outside, in the surrounding area.
Huge swathes of the score are made up of sections from the various ensembles, interspersed with interludes of cosmic organ drones, Gregorian chant, cacophony of church bells, birdsong and farmyard noises, and even an anti-aircraft siren. In addition to the influence of Wagner and Scriabin, which Nitsch has always admitted, the artist and musician acknowledged that his fascination with noise stemmed from his childhood memories of the bombing of Vienna during the Second World War: the drone of enemy aircraft engines sounded menacing and strangely exhilarating.
The different levels of the Orgien Mysterien Theater‘s music sometimes run parallel and synchronously, sometimes in combination with folk music from Lower Austria, the region in which Prinzendorf is based. A characteristic of his compositions, apart from the noise, is the high volume at which it is played: while the percussion orchestra makes its noise, the folk music continues to play, and the symphony orchestra begins its accumulation of sound; when the noise orchestra is suddenly interrupted, the music coming from a violin stands as if it were alone in space. Despite what one might think, his compositions are easily interpretable, even by simple amateurs, which is entirely intentional, in order to facilitate, if necessary, the intervention of the audience. In 2003 the record company Forced Exposure released a complete edition of the music from that show, Die Musik 6-Tage-Spiels, in a box set of 51 CDs, now out of print.

From classical music to noise music

“My first influence was classical music,” Nitsch has explained on occasion, “and then the powerful Second Viennese School. When I started making music, that Webernian dialect was everywhere, an accent that is great with Webern and some others, but also unbearable with many others. But then I took a completely different path, which looked for the roots of music in the scream, in dynamics and noise”. The scream existed, for Nitsch, “before the word: when a person is so excited that he or she can no longer find words. And the scream is also an expression of his pain or happiness”.
Knowing the main intention and aim of Hermann Nitsch’s art, one can understand his music. The slow accumulation of orgiastic states of sound and intoxication, the intensification of the planes of sound and noise, the sudden tearing apart: all this arises from the celebration of existence in all its beauty, as well as its abysses, with the help of the ritual and mythological in his art, and therein lies also much of the connection with the music and intention of Alexander Scriabin, Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner. The latter’s eagerness to revive the old theatre in Bayreuth, with operatic performances over several nights to perform the complete Ring of the Nibelung, is clearly related in Nitsch’s Dionysian “opera”. The recently deceased artist saw himself as a Gesamtkunstwerker who unites various arts in a celebration, with the difference to Wagner of staging what the Viennese actor described as “real events”: “When you gut an animal, you have everything: you smell, you see the blood, the intestines, and you hear, above all, because with me there is always music involved. All the senses are provoked and violently addressed”.
However, Nitsch’s musical work goes far beyond the Orgien Mysterien Theater. The real starting point to begin talking about the Hermann Nitsch composer took place on 1 June 1977, when he performed in the church of Santa Lucia in Bologna one of his most intense works, the Requiem Für Meine Frau Beate, dedicated to the memory of his wife, Beate Nitsch, who had died in a traffic accident a few months earlier. Her loss was an absolute trauma for the artist. Before the Bologna action, Hermann Nitsch’s music consisted basically of a wall of noise: the musicians could play whatever they wanted and the only instruction was to play as loud as possible. Only the duration, the starting point and the noise level of each instrument were set. With the Requiem…, by contrast, Nitsch began to devise longer tone groups, especially for the wind instruments. The perfect acoustics of the church, with its extraordinary organ, which struck Nitsch with its intensity and power, suggested a new direction in the music, which would eventually comprise nine symphonies, most notably his enormous Eighth Symphony, composed in 1990, at the age of 52. For it, in addition to a symphony orchestra, the work required a brass orchestra, an organ, a choir and a noise orchestra, noise being understood as a collection of intonarumori in the style of those invented by Luigi Russolo: whistles, rattles and brass. However, despite being considered a follower of Bruckner and Scriabin, Nitsch shows no interest in the exposition and development of traditional symphonic forms. Instead, his huge blocks of sound have more in common with the monumental early orchestral works of Ligeti, Xenakis and Penderecki. Huge, dissonant clusters abound, while the percussion pounds as if trying to bring down a building, as in those 52 bombings Vienna suffered in the composer’s childhood.

His last major composition was the Sinfonie Für Mexico City, premiered at the Museo Ex Teresa Arte Actual in Mexico City on 27 February 2015. It was to accompany an extensive retrospective of the artist at the Museo Jumex, which was eventually cancelled “due to the delicate political and social climate in Mexico”. Performed by an orchestra of forty musicians, with a string section of eighteen, the Symphony for Mexico City is not tied to a specific action, but is driven by the same monomaniacal yearning for a state of sublime transcendence. The work brings up a quote from 1995, in which Nitsch spoke of wanting to provoke “that great state in which one gets goose bumps, when painfully unfathomable shudders of happiness run through one with pleasure in pain, when one listens to Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, attends a Greek tragedy or reads Hölderlin”. The best way to help listeners reach this state is to shake them into submission with high-pitched, massive harmonic drones, driven by melodramatic changes of direction and bursts of pounding percussion to sustained climaxes so cacophonous and bombastic that they verge on hysteria. Interspersed, there are quieter passages offering temporary respite, and a series of disconcertingly romantic interludes of strings and wind instrument trills.
Nitsch’s musical oeuvre has not followed the traditional recording path of that industry, but has developed along the art gallery channel, with very restricted limited editions (sometimes as few as fifteen copies) and at very high prices. However, to discover the overwhelming compositional dimension of Hermann Nitsch, I highly recommend following his trail through the references of the Soundohm website.

Hermann Nitsch: The director

In addition to his work as a composer and creator of his own shows, Nitsch has also had an important career as a stage director and set designer for other opera productions. In February 1995, he premiered Hérodiade at the Vienna State Opera with Plácido Domingo as Jean in the male lead role in Jules Massenet’s opera. In 2000, Nitsch also conducted one of the versions of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, premiered at the Festspielhaus St. Pölten. Finally, in 2021 Nitsch was involved in an abridged version of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, in which excerpts from all four Wagnerian operas were performed as part of the Bayreuth Festival. The most complete part was The Valkyrie, the second opera of the tetralogy, in which Nitsch led his troupe of performers to create a live pictorial action performed by spraying paint.

© Photograph by Daniel Feyerl downloaded from the Hermann Nitsch website.