Music Reading Poetry – Hans Zender’s Musical Reception of Hölderlin

Håvard Enge
PhD, University of Oslo, 2011
Can music read poetry? This question is fundamental to understanding the relationship between poetry and music. In his dissertation, Håvard Enge argues that it can, and he is particularly interested in how music is able to read poetry without imitating it in the traditional way. Transferring Walter Benjamin’s translation theory to this intermedial context, Enge explores how a musical composition can respond to the “way of meaning” in a poem instead of trying to imitate “what is meant.” One of his main theses is that a musical reading of a poem can exhibit features that are associated with 20th century literary criticism, such as the investigation of the materiality and play of the signifiers.
In order to concretize these ideas, Enge explores music’s role in the reception history of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems. He argues that Adorno’s reading signaled a fundamental shift from a focus on the semantic content of the poems to an interest in their acutely unfinished linguistic form. Enge finds an analogous shift among composers, from expressing the “meaning and mood” of Hölderlin’s poems musically to taking their fragmentary articulation as a cue for musical experimentation.
The cycle Hölderlin lesen by the German composer Hans Zender (b. 1936) realizes these possibilities in a particularly interesting manner. Zender, whose musical poetics portray the act of composition as a form of reading, makes vivid intertextual connections to literature theory and philosophy, and to the literary Hölderlin reception. In Enge’s analyses of Zender’s two first Hölderlin works, he discovers echoes of Hölderlin’s complication of the act of articulation. By being attentive to the “way of meaning” in Hölderlin’s poems, Zender’s musical readings transform the texts into something radically new. Thus, Zender’s Hölderlin compositions demonstrate that music not only can read poetry, but that it is able to read poetry in productive and critical ways.