19 May 2012

Horst Koegler

Because he spelled his name without an umlaut,
Horst Koegler was widely known as “oe.”

Word has just reached me of the death at age 85 of Horst Koegler, the venerable music and dance critic of many publications, including the Stuttgarter Zeitung, which eulogized him on May 11 as “the man who taught Germany to dance.” Not bad for a guy who was not in fact a choreographer. My association with Horst dates back to 1984, when I began working at the Kurt Weill Foundation and Horst contributed to the Kurt Weill Newsletter; years later, mine was the honor of editing his reviews at Opera News, for which magazine he wrote for six decades.

His English was flawless, but Lys Symonette assured me that as a prose stylist in German, Horst was unrivaled — even better than Brecht, she insisted.* For the Newsletter, Horst submitted his copy in German, sometimes just clipping articles from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and sending them along. Really I think his motivation was not to save time but to give Lys the pleasure of translating him. Every time we got an article from him, she’d labor over it for days, popping out of her office every so often to share with the rest of us some gem of his writing.

As his editor, I found the most obvious hallmark of his English-prose style to be an almost compulsive use of metaphor, especially culinary ones. Going far beyond the usual “creamy” (a word I probably over-use in my own writing), Horst raided the pantry — and the bar — to describe a singer’s voice. The results seldom suggested recipes you might want to try (“Angostura bitters” were a favorite ingredient), but you couldn’t deny that Horst really conveyed the flavor of a sound, and the physical pleasure derived from listening.

And pleasure is really what it was all about for Horst. Looking back on him, I’m most struck by his matchless, irrepressible joy in art. Many critics seem to love music more in principle than in practice, but Horst — like few others — loved performance, as well. This was no theory, this was life itself! You could imagine his waking each day with a bound, because he knew he’d be going to the theater that night.

I didn’t have to imagine his excitement, actually, as I got demonstrations and proof of it in his e-mails, exuberant and chatty and yet ingeniously measured so as never to exhaust the time or the patience of a busy editor. Really only one other critic in my acquaintance could rival Horst’s enthusiasm, and that was another grey eminence, Leighton Kerner, who died in 2006, whom I also met first in my Weill days.

These fellows offer us in the audience a lesson, whether we’re critics or not. Nobody will ever know how many performances Horst and Leighton attended, and yet they never grew bored or cynical. There was always, always something to look forward to: a new composer, a debutant conductor or singer, a provocative staging, or merely the possibility that to them was more like certainty: that, even in the most familiar songs, they would hear something fresh, intriguing, and valuable that they’d never heard before.

While they were unbeatable on matters of performance history, neither man ever sat back and groused about how superior things were “in my day”; you couldn’t imagine them sitting home and playing LPs when they could have been at the theater instead. They sought out and embraced the new.

Horst’s early background was in dramaturgy, and he was fascinated by Robert Wilson’s Ring cycle, for example. He even found merit in the outlandishness of Calixto Bieito — just as Leighton dove into the work of Tan Dun and Kaija Saariaho and who knows how many other contemporary composers. And while in some of these cited instances I might be hard-pressed to agree with their judgments, both men knew how to write about a performance in a way that made me want to hear it, too. Often enough, I’ve sought out that music or that musician, the next time around, on the strength of their recommendations.

Music was a passion for these guys, and I mean that word in the Bach-and-Oberammergau sense as well as in the emotional sense. There was no question of retirement, then, and both men wrote to the end — even when, in Leighton’s case, it became almost physically impossible to do so, and he would dictate his reviews to me. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Horst died before the curtain rose on the performance, a few weeks from now, of what he planned to be his final review for Opera News.

“Now there is a writer!” Lys used to say. “My God! To be able to write like Horst Koegler!” Just to be able to experience music the way that he did would be no small achievement.

The Stuttgarter Zeitung obituary for Horst can be found here. The Opera News obituary, written by F. Paul Driscoll, can be found here. The Weill Foundation has also published an obituary, which can be found here.

*NOTE: Lys found fault with almost everything about Brecht, but even she had to admit that the bastard could write.

PERSONAL NOTE: This is the fourth obituary I’ve written in three days. I would take it as a great courtesy if interesting people would stop dying. Thank you.

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