Der Struwwelpeter, or Shock-Headed Peter

A Conversation with the Fliegende Volksbühne and members of Ensemble Modern

It is one of the most famous ideas to have originated in Frankfurt am Main, known and passionately discussed worldwide: the collection of short stories written and illustrated by the physician Heinrich Hoffmann for his son in the mid-19th century entitled ›Struwwelpeter‹ (or ›Shock-Headed Peter‹ to English-language audiences), featuring the violent and humorous adventures of Fidgety Philipp, Little Paula, Johnny Look-In-the-Air, Konrad the Thumb-Sucker. Even today, and not only in teacher training courses, there are heated discussions about the author’s pedagogical methods and the intentions inferred from the images and verses. Still, the entertaining stories about ignorance, disobedience, instruction and punishment are highly popular, as evidenced by numerous adaptations and parodies. The Struwwelpeter Museum, which recently moved to the newly constructed historical centre of Frankfurt, also demonstrates the lasting fascination of the collection of stories. Together with the Fliegende Volksbühne and its central pillar Michael Quast, Ensemble Modern takes a fresh look at the material and its miniatures, opening the new performance venue of the Fliegende Volksbühne on Großer Hirschgraben on January 24, 2020 with the world premiere of ›Der Struwwelpeter‹. Ensemble Modern members Uwe Dierksen, Christian Hommel and Hermann Kretzschmar are currently writing their own, philosophical and bizarre pieces, to be performed by their own ensemble as well as Michael Quast and Sabine Fischmann of the Fliegende Volksbühne. Christian Fausch, the Artistic Manager of Ensemble Modern, spoke to all of them about their relationship with Struwwelpeter and the transformation of the material into an evening of musical theatre.

Fausch: Michael Quast, the idea of a joint production has been around a long time. How did it come about?

Quast: The idea is almost as old as the Fliegende Volksbühne itself, more than ten years. Even then, I wanted to form a network with other Frankfurt-based artists. I also liked the combination of Ensemble Modern and these popular stories. I think that this allows us to reach very different groups, enabling us to confront them with art forms they would not seek out on their own.

Fausch: What is your relation with ›Der Struwwelpeter‹?

Quast: I have known the figure from my earliest childhood, and I am intrigued by its complexity. I like the immediacy, but also the depth of interpretation and presentation which the material offers.

Fausch: The new music scene does not exactly have a reputation for popular culture. How do you, as members of Ensemble Modern, react to this?

Dierksen: That is exactly where the interesting friction is! On the one hand, we inhaled tradition through our training and education; on the other, our daily works brings us to the compositional front line. I am a great fan of good entertainment. I use musical means which can be understood immediately and intuitively, creating a level of trust. And while developing this receptive process, I can also use stylistic means which are less familiar and form a counterpoint.

Hommel: It is worth explaining in this context that Uwe Dierksen and Hermann Kretzschmar have spent years working on this »mission impossible«, the combination of entertaining and serious music. Therefore, it is nothing new for the Ensemble, but a project which puts these forces to good use.

Kretzschmar: It has to be said that Ensemble Modern has always presented highly diverse styles, often diverging from the orthodoxy of new music. The novel element today is that the styles and their structural rules vary more frequently, especially in a piece like this one.

Fausch: The Fliegende Volksbühne and Ensemble Modern are two institutions which both like to explore and push boundaries. The Fliegende Volksbühne has long developed a dimension of folk theatre all its own. And Ensemble Modern is one of the most tradition-steeped new music ensembles, but has never worn blinders of any kind.

Dierksen: Today this seems to go without saying. But in the 1980s and 1990s, we were criticized harshly for this: that we seem to do everything but the kitchen sink. In our opinion, however, that was merely keeping a consciously open mind, open in all directions.

Fausch: ›Der Struwwelpeter‹ is currently undergoing a renaissance, despite the fact that the book hardly conforms to pedagogics endorsed today.

Kretzschmar: The same is true for most fairy-tales and legends.

Quast: In Frankfurt’s new historical centre, the Struwwelpeter Museum has just opened. If you talk to its director, Beate Zekorn von Bebenburg, the Struwwelpeter stories seem to be a big hit with children today. They re-enact them with great enthusiasm; for example the children take great pleasure in »cutting off« each other’s thumbs. In his time, Hoffmann was a reformer. And that translates well to our own days. To me, Struwwelpeter is real dynamite; he is a revolutionary.

Fausch: Revolutionary?

Quast: Yes, he defies convention, balks at it, sets out to provoke. This element is featured in all the stories, for example the one about the hare who grabs the hunter’s musket, or the one about Flying Robert, who goes out during a storm and flies away. They are all stories of catastrophes. There are dead bodies, the world is upside down, the animal pursues the hunter, not the other way around. There are many aspects which are about resistance. Struwwelpeter is rock’ n’ roll. I think that children today recognize those elements.

Fischmann: All children experience phases in which they test their boundaries, or cross the lines. Struwwelpeter talks about what we dare not think or speak. Worries and fears which children, or parents too, sometimes feel abandoned with.

Hommel: Here, all the questions virulent today are asked. In Hoffmann’s story, Johnny Look-in-the-Air looks after the swallows, which is why he stumbles into the River Main. Today, everyone stares at their smartphone. The anorexia of Soup-Kaspar, the violence of Wicked Frederick: each story is highly topical and can be applied to our own time.

Fausch: How do you go about adapting it into a theatrical piece? Do you work with the existing texts, or are they modified or rewritten?

Quast: All three. The three composers use any form they enjoy or consider appropriate. The first point of departure is the original text, but then you play with the text.

Fischmann: The text is like a projection screen for adults and children.

Fausch: How did you composers divide the stories between you?

Hommel: I wanted to do Little Paula with the Matches. I thought there was a strong connection with ›Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern‹ by Helmut Lachenmann, whose music I absolutely adore.

Kretzschmar: I did not have any special preferences, but I definitely wanted to playfully change the text in at least one number. Some of the original phrases still ring in our ears – so it doesn’t do any harm to vary the text, even in a spirit of criticism. In my childhood, I imagined these texts as emanating from a fantasy world, especially because of the old-fashioned illustrations; such alteration of the text might go in that direction.

Dierksen: I made my choice rather towards the end (laughs). That’s how I ended up with the first two texts. To me, the first association with the texts was absolute horror, for as a child these stories gave me the impression that everything in life must necessarily go wrong. That inspired me to take the blurb, where it says that if children behave well, Christ Child comes to them – that wagging finger – and give it a literal reading, setting it to a kind of medieval horror music.

Fischmann: I felt similar when the stories were read to me as a child.

Quast: I never took them that seriously.

Kretzschmar: Me neither ...

Dierksen: But that presupposes that you are capable of abstraction. And there are many children who lack that ability.

Fausch: As a composer, how do you treat this material which is determined by the drawings to such an extent? How do you manage to create a graphic quality without being illustrative? Or is it okay to be illustrative?

Dierksen: The drawings are radical. They make no allowances whatsoever, are highly restrictive. There is nothing playful or coded here ...

Fausch: Meaning no nuances, no meta-level.

Dierksen: I take that as a challenge to evoke equally strong images in my music, so that in the end a story gets told which is only assembled in the listeners’ heads.

Hommel: I am currently extracting the particularly bold aspects, which creates funny situations. I think that both children and adults will enjoy that. My role model, to a certain extent, is Friedrich Karl Waechter’s humour, who played this game masterfully in the 1970s in his ›Anti-Struwwelpeter‹. At the same time, I want to include a kind of portrait of Frankfurt from the romantic era to our present day.

Kretzschmar: I am not afraid of being illustrative; I would call it differently, for example: a coincidence between text and music which may often cause surprise and amusement; in our case it is even a coincidence of text, music and stage.

Fausch: Michael Quast and Sabine Fischmann, normally you decide yourselves which music to use for your productions ...

Quast: Yes, and the same is true here, just combined with an adventure.

Fischmann: I think it’s great to work with three composers on one piece!

Fausch: While you were composing, you did not exchange notes or views. Now the composers have presented their pieces to you. How do you continue working with these finished compositions from here?

Fischmann: We meet with each of the composers and delve into these pieces. There will be areas where we are free and can contribute our ideas. Later, we will work on the staging with the director Matthias Faltz, and that may lead to quite different developments, depending on the situation, which might in turn influence the music. However, there are also concrete suggestions and wishes from the composers which we try to fulfil.

Dierksen: For example, we met yesterday, and at one point I had the feeling that the text was too concrete for my liking. Together, we decided to solve the problem through pantomime, instead of telling the story one-to-one.

Fischmann: Yes, the music evoked such strong images in me and Matthias Faltz that we all had the feeling that the text was just doubling it.

Dierksen: This collaboration has worked well, right from the start. I tend to think mostly in music and often ignore words, since they always have something concrete about them. For example, I imagined the wild hunting scene as an epilogue. What would the music sound like if I were the little hare, telling the story of the hunter?

Fischmann: This gives us a chance to do something that goes beyond the drawings.

Fausch: So how can one connect these individual movements, creating a dramaturgical arc? Which order are the stories presented in?

Hommel: The order is flexible. We are developing the dramaturgy of the whole over the course of time. The nice thing is that it is not one monolithic work of art, but that one could isolate certain scenes for various target or age groups.

Fausch: When you were composing, did you think of Michael Quast’s and Sabine Fischmann’s personalities? And about writing for your own Ensemble Modern colleagues?

Dierksen: It helps me to know who is playing. It is also important in singing that you have the same ideas; for example, when the score says »unintelligible«, that means that words may also become instruments in a semantic sense, that one can deconstruct them.

Kretzschmar: I would like to keep some text issues open and let them develop in rehearsals. I am also curious about purely musical parts, without text, and the possibilities arising from these »intermezzo situations«.

Fausch: Can you say something about the stage sets and the staging?

Quast: We will think about the staging when the pieces are finished. The stage designer Carsten Wolff is currently working on the sets. The challenge is this: what visual possibilities are there on a stage which is already filled quite well by the ensemble of musicians? Perhaps there will be a central aisle, a ramp or a stairway giving us opportunities to play. One thing Carsten Wolff certainly has is open space above the stage (laughs).

Fausch: We are fortunate in that building delays have now made ›Der Struwwelpeter‹ the opening premiere of your new performance venue. What do you wish and hope for from this new house? What does it mean for your work?

Quast: It is extremely meaningful! It is a quantum leap when an independent company can open its own theatre. And I think it is wonderful that our joint production is the opening premiere, because it is ground-breaking: the Frankfurt connection, the collaboration of several artists from Frankfurt, who are doing something contemporary with old material. Programmatically, that means we can open this new theatre with a grand flourish – a theatre that wants to reach all the citizens of Frankfurt.

Fausch: Thank you all for this conversation, and here’s wishing you productive work on ›Der Struwwelpeter‹.