Hermann Nitsch was an Austrian avant-garde painter, composer, and performance artist who worked in experimental and multimedia modes. He was a co-founder of the notorious art movement known as the Viennese Aktionists. With his project Orgien Mysterien Theater (“the Orgiastic Mystery Theater”), Nitsch immersed his audiences in scenes and symbols heavily charged with meaning: religious imagery, crucified bodies, butchered animals, buckets of entrails, and blood (that often coated his performers), enormous tunics, large canvasses, cartloads of paint, enormous brass and percussion orchestras, and even live sex. Though better known for the visual spectacle of his works than the music that accompanies them, Nitsch was a prolific and well-documented composer. He authored nine symphonies and volumes of sonatas for harmonium and church organ, as well as chamber works. Given the visceral presentations of his art and his reputation for assaulting audiences and performers alike, his music — from acoustic to electronic to industrial — played an intensely important role in his “Aktion” experiences. Nitsch was deeply influenced by the Second Viennese School of composers including Arnold Schöenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
The Life You Give: Hermann Nitsch
in celebration of his life in music and art
August 29 at 4pm EST
Nitsch was born in 1938 in Vienna. He received formal artistic instruction and training first as a painter at Wiener Graphische Lehr und Versuchsanstalt in Austria. Already obsessed with the music of the great classical masters, he began composing works for his earliest actions in 1962. After taking part in many happenings with his other Actionist companions — several of which resulted in arrest — he released his first album, Akustisches Abreaktionsspiel to accompany a radio play action; it was recorded by Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Köln, Germany. His own performances on organ, and the scores for his art installations and live actions, were seldom recorded early on. In 1971, he acquired a castle in Prizendorf. (It has since become his home and the host location for the Hermann Nitsch Museum.) His second offering was Requiem Für Meine Frau Beate, issued by Edizioni Morra in 1977. The following year, he released the score for 1974’s Das Berliner Konzert (featuring all of the Aktionists) on Edizioni Lotta Poetica, Studio Morra. Musik Der 60. Aktion, Berlin 1978, Galerie Petersen was released by Dieter Roth’s Verlag. Island: Eine Sinfonie in 10 Sätzen was met alternately with acclaim, confusion, and outrage upon its recorded appearance in 1980; it was followed a few months later by the double-length Das Orgien Mysterien Theater – 5. Sinfonie.
Nitsch’s Aktion activities took him to many different countries, where his work was greeted with shock, outrage, and sometimes protests by animal rights and religious activists. He was often branded a blasphemer and a pornographer, but his work resonated with younger audiences influenced by the art movements of the past and post-punk and avant-garde music. 1984 saw the release of the score for his Musik Der 80. Aktion and the recital Klaviersonate. Nachtstück Für Harmonium. For the remainder of the decade, various symphonies and scores were released, as was as his first recorded organ concert, Orgelkonzert – Das Zürcher Konzert, and a 20-volume retrospective of his harmonium compositions with Die Tiefe Des Alls (Das Harmoniumwerk 1983-1989).
During the ’90s, Nitsch exhibited often in addition to composing. His first premier of 8. Symphony was held at the Museum Für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. Two separate volumes of his score for Musik Der 80. Aktion were released in 1991 and 1995, respectively, by Dom America. In 1996 and 1998, Alga Marghen released scores for Musik Der 60. Aktion, Berlin 1978/Musik Für Rita Nitsch Geburtstag, and Musik Der 66. Aktion. In the late ’90s, Nitsch established a relationship with curator Gary Todd and his Cortical Foundation and its attendant Organ of Corti label that had been releasing early archival works by Terry Riley and other vanguard composers. The realization of Nitsch’s masterwork, 6-Tage-Spiel: Des Origen Mysterien Theaters (“The Six Day Play”) was captured on tape and an eight-disc box of the fifth day’s performance was released to global acclaim in 2000. (Subsequent releases of various selections from other days in the performance also appeared.) A very limited-edition suitcase containing all six days of recordings, a reproduced score, as well as a video from the performance and an exhibition catalog was made available for a short time. The Cortical Foundation also issued four volumes of Nitsch’s collected harmonium works and his eighth symphony before Todd was badly injured in a freak accident, went into a coma, and passed away a few years later. Two more Nitsch recordings were released in 2001: Klaviersonate Für Arnulf Rainer on Welt Am Draht, and Orgelkonzert – Pfarrkirche St. Ulrich Im Greith in a private edition. Sinfonia Punta Campanella in 4 Movimenti was released by Fondazione Morra in 2005. The following year, Nitsch’s own publishing house released a 20-disc box of Das Orgien Mysterien Theater 120. Aktion Das 2-Tage Spiel (the complete score and recordings of a two-day play). The following year, while Nitsch was working at home in Austria and Europe, Edition Kröthenhayn released the retrospective Das Aktionstheater Des Hermann Nitsch Zwischen Herkunft Und Zukunft (“The Action Art of Hermann Nitsch from Past to Present”) in a box, combining music, video, text, and photographs. In 2008 an archival recording of Nitsch performing his drone/minimalist Die Geburt Des Dionysos Christos on the organ at Prinzendorf from 1986 was issued as a triple-LP by Vinyl on Demand. While many critics regarded Nitsch’s obsession with the classical masters with suspicion, he silenced most of them with Peter Jan Marthé on both Nitsch für Anton Bruckner and Anton Bruckner: Symphony Number 9 Reloaded for Preiser Records that same year. Alga Marghen got back into releasing work by Nitsch in 2009 with the six-disc score Musik Der 122. Aktion. The artist’s stature as a composer grew across the classical world — he had long been recognized by numerous musical vanguard movements — when Gramola released Hermann Nitsch: Sinfonie No. 9 “Die Ägyptische” the following year with Nitsch in collaboration with European Philharmonic Orchestra and Peter Jan Marthé. The Dead Mind label released 17.09.2009 Orgelkonzert, Pauluskerk, Tilburg.
In 2015, Nitsch was scheduled for a major Aktion at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City. After an online petition garnered more than 5,000 signatures in protest (because of alleged animal cruelty) the exhibit was suspended. What remained was the score, Sinfonie Für Mexico City, performed by Ensemble, Students of the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, directed by Andrea Cusumano and recorded at Museo ExTeresa Arte Actual. It was issued by Germany’s Tochnit Aleph label. In 2016 and 2017, two different organ concert recordings were released (Berlin 2016 and Orgelkonzert Jesuitenkirche 20.11.2013 from Vienna on Trost), followed by Streichquartett in 4 Sätzen from Tochnit Aleph. In 2018, Trost produced a recording of the score for Orgien Mysterien Theater: Musik der 135. Aktion, Kuba. Tochnit Aleph followed it with the debut recording of the grand-scale Traubenfleisch symphony. It was performed at the Nitsch Museum in Mistelbach on September 2, 2017 by the Klangvereinigung Wien orchestra with a choir formed for the occasion by Cusumano. Nitsch died on April 18, 2022, at the age of 83.
By Thom Jurek / Source: all music