The State of Modern Music

Modern music? Who doesn’t care who?

Vienna’s musical life is full of contradictions when it comes to musical “progress”: the State Opera plays Mahler, the Chamber Opera Milhaud, and Xenakis sounds on Karlsplatz.

In an almost stormy movement, Viennese music lovers are experiencing what musical modernism is all about – whether in the Staatsoper or the Arnold Schönberg Center, in the Musikverein or on the square in front of the Karlskirche. One can also draw connections to the fine arts, for the master Schönberg, who was so pioneering in the renewal of music in that epoch, was also a progressive painter: In the Albertina you can still see works by the artists of the “Blaue Reiter” until 29 May, who accepted Schönberg as one of their own.

Richard Gerstl is even said to have exclaimed in view of Schönberg’s designs: “Now I have learned from you how to paint! Maybe it is the somewhat exaggerated portrayal by the Viennese multi-talent who does not suffer from inferiority complexes. But the fact remains that Schönberg was a key figure not only as a composer, but also as a creative head in general. This, apropos Blauer Reiter, Franz Marc wrote to August Macke as early as 1909, alluding to the newly founded “Neue Künstlervereinigung” after a concert experience: “Schönberg seems, like the association, convinced of the inexorable dissolution of European art and harmony laws.

The development of the years after 1900, which has been irritating for many observers to this day, cannot be summed up more precisely. The invisible threads that connected seemingly irreconcilable positions can only be really recognized from a temporal distance. Biographical details underpin them with remarkable consistency.

Schönberg’s sponsor was Mahler. Arnold Schönberg knew that little money could be made with the music he made. Fine arts seemed more lucrative. In view of the obvious dual talent, sales exhibitions could offer a way out. One day in the Hugo Heller art salon, four of Schönberg’s paintings actually went over the counter. The buyer remained anonymous. Anton von Webern, Schönberg’s pupil, was a bearer of secrets and one day revealed to his teacher who the patron had been: Gustav Mahler.

The great symphonist and court opera director, who did not view the activities of the “Viennese School” uncritically, but with benevolence, had given the younger colleague financial support in this way. Ideally, he himself was in desperate need of support, for his music was not much better written at the time than that of the bold innovators.

Mahler was present when the world premiere of Schönberg’s Second String Quartet triggered a concert scandal: it was precisely with this work that the composer transcends the boundaries of the major and minor range into the world of free tonality – and, unusually enough in a quartet, lets a soprano sing Stefan George’s words: “I feel air from other planets”.

Some people in Vienna in 1908 did not want to breathe that air – and protested. And that was during the performance, so that the musicians of the Rosé Quartet and the court opera singer Marie Gutheil-Schoder threatened to get out of time several times. “You don’t have to hiss”, Gustav Mahler ruled one of the rioters at the time. “I also hiss in your symphonies,” it came back snottily.

Mahler was regarded by his audiences at the time, as was Richard Strauss with his tone poems and operas of the “Salome” and “Elektra” format – as an avant-garde, as a “modernist” at any rate.

Mahler, the “Modern”. When the State Opera commemorates the 100th anniversary of his death with a performance of his last completed symphony, the Ninth, on 18 May, then perhaps one can also try during the philharmonic performance to spot the many barren passages between the deathly major chants of this work, which are reduced to the edge of the tonal skeleton. Mahler, the master of the enormously inflated, late-romantic large-scale form, speaks to us as an innovator in the sense of the innovative tendencies that Schönberg and his students propagated at the same time: “They came to the sound world of Schönberg’s orchestral pieces op. 16 in the same year as the posthumously launched Ninth Mahler, 1912, for its premiere – it is only a small step. The orchestral pieces op. 6 by Alban Berg, written shortly afterwards, paraphrase – in the new, “atonal” (much better: free-tonal) environment – the essential characteristics of Mahler’s music; until the acceptance of symbolic instrumental offsets such as the “great hammer”, which Mahler had used in his Sixth Symphony.

In a completely different context at that time, music for “hitting it off” was the motto of artists who, as “citizens’ fright”, turned against the established cultural industry and a rich consumer base that wanted nothing to do with innovation. “Don’t think long about whether you should hit the key with your fourth or sixth finger. Think of the piano as an interesting kind of drum kit and act accordingly.” In 1922, the young Paul Hindemith, Germany’s supreme rebel, gave this advice to the players of his “piano suite”.

The musical consciousness – also parallel with art movements of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity) – feeds itself from completely different sources. If it was possible to discern an exaggeration of musical romanticism from Mahler to Schönberg to Berg – “indulge in sounds, then you’re right, conductors,” even Anton von Webern advises the interpreters of his late, seemingly “rationalistic” twelve-tone compositions, then composers like Hindemith (in Germany), Béla Bartók (in Hungary) or the Russian Igor Stravinsky (in exile in the West) consciously take anti-Romantic paths, each for himself, but all against the exuberance of feeling that one thought was most evident in the music of a composer: Richard Wagner.

Anti-German sounds. For many, anti-Wagner also meant anti-German, especially when the first of the two gigantic war catastrophes struck the world in 1914. How – incomprehensible to us today in retrospect – the mental weight distributions looked at that time is best illustrated by the sentence Schönberg spoke after postulating his “method of composition with twelve tones only related to one another”: According to the composer, it would “secure the dominance of German music for the next 100 years”.

It is a mockery of history when, after 1945, Alban Berg’s pupil and Schönberg’s great apologist, Theodor W. Adorno, as a true linguistic berserker against everything in Schönberg’s sense, called non-Germans to account.

For decades, the official New Music did not include anything that was not subordinated to the doctrine of Schönberg’s succession.

At that time, the public had long since been indifferent to what contemporary composers did, what was allowed or forbidden by pioneers like Adorno. And unlike in the fine arts, where over the years the most aggressive signals of non-adaptation – such as “Schüttbilder” – mutated into symbols of conformity, into statesmanship, New Music remained in the ghetto.

Dream of the end of the systems. Beyond the “Viennese School”, which had advanced via adornment to become the leading art form, some tones had made themselves heard between the wars, which later generations of composers could – and still can – open up completely different paths. It is significant when a German composer, Wolfgang Rihm, speaks at the end of the seventies of a “utopian state”, of “being able to compose without a system”. The dream of freedom to be able to express oneself artistically beyond all dogmas and regulations was still regarded as utopia at the time, because a good part of recent music history was deliberately ignored – as before 1945 by dictatorial regimes, and afterwards by self-chosen aesthetic regulations. Adorno, who liked to lead freedom on his lips, preached the unfreedom.

It should seem as if nothing had happened beyond “German music” in the sense described above. Writings such as the “Philosophy of New Music” wiped away everything that Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Prokofieff or Shostakovich, but above all the French, Debussy and Ravel, Satie and later Milhaud or Poulenc, had achieved, eloquently but in truth with a single gesture of the hand.

French music succeeded in Europe in the 20th century, which the American music seemed to take for granted: the reconciliation between the apparently irreconcilable elements of entertainment and bitter seriousness. Arnold Schönberg wished that his “melodies would be whistling on the street” – and perhaps he really believed that this wish could come true.

To this day, George Gershwin’s music is still whistled, although its texture is no less “modern”, no less contemporary, but quite different from everything that Schönberg, who is a friend of his, has produced.

Music of propellers and sirens. The harmonization of sound and image, the introduction of a concert to a “performance” by a composer driven by the beat of George Antheil, who in 1926 in Paris combined mechanical pianos, aircraft propellers, sirens, xylophones and electric bells to form his “Ballet Mechanique”, about which people in France smiled, in America raged – but only a quarter of a century later enthused about a cultural-historical act.