Premiered 4th May 1994
You can ask what a poem means, and sometimes you can get an answer. If you ask the same about music you never get an answer. In an opera the words become music, the answers – if you get them – become ambivalent. The Sinking of the Titanic is something in between. The words and the music give you not one but many answers. The story of this Promethean shipwreck is a true story that has in time been layered over with so many rumors, lies, legends, half-truths and whole truths that it can be used for anything and can mean anything. And already in this respect it is like art.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s poetry collection The Sinking of the Titanic is about something that happened in 1912, as recounted by a poet in 1968, but lost and “reconstructed” by the same poet in 1978. The years are more than just numbers – they speak to us of eras and moods: expectations of a better world, 1912 and 1968; reflection and disillusionment, 1978 (when the poems were written); and what about 1994? Overpopulation, AIDS, the death of the forests, ozone holes, the pollution of nature, genocide, overconsumption, mindless capitalism. And new hopes, perhaps...
The Sinking of the Titanic is a music drama viewed through many portholes, so to speak – a drama that is itself flotsam, shattered pieces of a totality; like the movement of a searchlight over a dimly perceived wreck. Enzensberger’s poems have the subtitle “A comedy”, although their style and form have nothing whatsoever to do with theatre. They make up a kind of logbook, a collection of points of view, sense perceptions, reflections, pieces of wreckage, all of which in some way relate to the myth of the Titanic. The poems, and in an extended form the libretto, include material from the records of the two inquiries after the wreck. The dead speak with their own mouths, and through the poet we, the living, speak along with them.
The story of the ship that sinks does not need to be told yet again. But the story of the catastrophe, the endgame, is new each time. In classical tragedy, ominously, the ‘catastrophe’ is the moment when the curse of the gods falls on the innocently guilty. Back then, catastrophes were a matter for the gods. There was something underlying them, someone behind them. In our own world the catastrophe is just there, nameless and incomprehensible. Where there are ships, there are also icebergs, and we are no longer innocent.
Today the end of all things looks different too: the world no longer goes up in flames, no longer disappears in a deluge. The modern world ends in slow motion. The feeling that there is a possible end to the comedy, that (in Kierkegaard’s image) we “approach the end amidst the general hilarity of wits who think it is a joke” has become the experience of Everyman. Even the crazy feeling that it cannot be otherwise. We ignore all warnings and cannot take our own doom seriously. But who dares say the last word about this, and who would believe the last word anyway? Neither writer nor composer has any key to The Sinking of the Titanic.
The work lies open. It shows forth, it comments, it lives with, it finds, it throws away. There is no particular route, there is quite literally no place in the hall that is better than any other. Everyone sees and hears something that no one else sees and hears just the same way. It is not a story with a beginning and an end. It is not a totality, because there is not one, but many totalities – as many as there are spectators. For in truth, such experiences cannot be shared with anyone. They are like credit cards: strictly personal, not transferable. There is no message, conclusion or moral. It is like beachcombing. What one person considers beautiful or interesting, another walks past without noticing...
The poet, the natural protagonist of the work, is the magnifying-glass through which we see things. This is the poet in the traditional role as a kind of negotiator in our business with life, death and meaning; a representative of all of us – we who must live on with the end – of others and ourselves – reverberating in our heads. And thus a ‘dual person’, a man (who speaks), and a woman (who sings). But the duality is everywhere: a ship and an iceberg, truth and lies, yesterday and today, life and death, soft and hard, human and mechanical, a ‘classical’ string quartet (an image of the brave fiddlers on the ship) and a trio of ‘modern’ electric instruments. But perhaps the iceberg is the real protagonist. Twelve voices – a ‘structure’ of song that encounters the structure in space. Gradually the music of the iceberg fills out the space more and more, swallows up all other music, only to stand alone at the end.
- Karl Aage Rasmussen.