Music/Popular Culture

The Rest is Noise (2)—How the century started

The 20th century started, musically at least, in Vienna. Actually, much of the century started in Vienna. Not so much the visual arts, because while there was lots going on with the Vienna Secession painters—Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka—and the Wiener Werkstatte Arts and Crafts developments, these didn’t really travel outside of Vienna for some time. But in music, as in medicine, literature, much of science, and much else, Vienna represented the culmination of Europe’s 19th century. It was also, it goes without saying, thoroughly corrupt, a dying empire of multiple nationalities and languages, many of which were straining for independence. It was a house of cards, but one which set the stage for much of the 20th century, both its triumphs and its horrors.

This is especially true for music. Who was working in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century? Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, of course, but the new guard, led by Schoenberg and his star pupils, Berg and Webern, were about to change everything. So this weekend’s events were focused on those composers, but not exclusively. We heard from Strauss this weekend, and will hear from Mahler on Wednesday. South Bank’s The Rest is Noise festival will be devoting a number of weekends over the year to specific topics—The Rise of Nationalism, Berlin, Paris, and so on, a different theme each month—and if this weekend was any indication of how things are going to go, this festival is already a smashing success. Yesterday was packed with people, and if there were fewer today, it can easily be put to the weather, which has made travel in London difficult.

But the events—these were well thought out, and amplified the main concerts over the past two days. The concerts were a treat. On Saturday evening we had a bunch of Strauss, and Sunday two separate concerts—one of solo piano music by Schoenberg, Berg, Janacek and Debussy, and a concert in the evening mostly of Schoenberg, More on these below. What made the weekend hugely interesting were the talks and other events. We were so full up—my brain is just too full at the moment—to stick around this evening for the free showing of Visconti’s Death in Venice. The days were just packed.

The festival started off with Shirley Williams, former MP and lifelong political activist, giving a brief history of the century. She called it the “Century of Violence,” which seems about right. Alex Ross himself followed up, giving the first of what will be a number of one-hour talks over the course of the year. This one—titled “The Big Bang”—refers to the riots that accompanied Strauss’s Salome, which Strauss based on the Oscar Wilde play of several years previously. Needless to say, there was a degree of bafflement about Strauss’s choice of topic at the time, but Strauss at that point was pretty untouchable. Ross’s lecture was great—lots of musical interludes, lots of sensible comments about this or that, all focusing on the musical life of Vienna of the time, and its implications elsewhere—Berlin and Paris in particular. You can find the talk here, actually, along with the Jude Kelly interview discussed below.) But there were lots of riots—to Schoenberg in particular. Because while Strauss and Mahler dominated the musical life of Vienna, and they certainly had their share of hostile audiences at the time, it was Schoenberg who came along and unpended everything.

This is what I’m taking away from the past two days. I’m still a bit hazy about what Schoenberg had in mind. It probably depended on what point in his career you‘re asking about. The 12-tone scale came later than the music we heard this weekend, as did his Los Angeles period. At this point, what’s striking about his music (at least the music played over the past two days) was its lack of narrative. Schoenberg didn’t really think of himself as revolutionary—in fact, he called Strauss the real revolutionary. Schoenberg just saw himself as working in the same tradition as Beethoven. This seems to be to be a bit of a jest, but he was serious. What I don’t know yet, but hope to find out, is why he thought this—what was it about the music he composed that made him think he was just another diligent composer working in an established western tradition?

If the pieces we heard today are any indication, it’s the lack of an overall structure. Well, it’s not to say that the piece isn’t structured—but while Beethoven (and Strauss and Mahler, for that matter) had themes that they would amplify in some way, as you or I could (if alone at home, but not in a concert hall), hum along with, what’s striking about Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, which we heard this evening, is the number of themes within it that seem to bear only a tangential relationship to each other. There are melodies, and lord knows harmonies, but they come and go, and the overall organization seems chaotic. I’m sure it isn’t—by the end of the piece I was thinking that this was pretty neat—it wasn’t melodic as I understand the term, but it had a structure that I could sort of detect. So that’s progress of a sort. It will require a further listening, of course, but we’re in territory where one listening is not only insufficient, it’s clearly not even expected by the composers. This evening’s concert, by the Aurora Orchestra (who all look about 20, including their founder and conductor), also featured Schoenberg in a playful mood, with his adaptation of a Strauss waltz—Johann, not Richard. It was technically a Strauss waltz, yes, but it was also a pretty wry comment on Johann’s essential ordinariness. Schoenberg’s version is a lot more interesting than the original, frankly, and I have no doubt that Schoenberg, never exactly modest, knew that.

Earlier today we had a bit of a treat as well with Karim Said’s performance of solo piano music. Much of this was a pleasant surprise—there was no real dissonance at all, and the Berg Sonata that opened the program (apparently his graduation project while Schoenberg’s student) was a case in point. Again, we had lots of melodic interludes, but they didn’t necessarily connect with each other. More importantly, what we heard was a wide range of emotional contrasts as the piece progressed. In fact, it sounded like Liszt, but Liszt on a really, really interesting day. But it’s clearly a sonata, and you can recognize it as one—the sonata melody is periodically repeated through the piece. Debussy’s piece (Masques) is even more emotional, but this is what we expect from Debussy—a wide range of emotional nuance. What we get with Debussy is an inexhaustible tinkering with harmonies and harmonic shading. I’ve never really been a Debussy fan, but this was a pleasant surprise.

Even more surprising were the Schoenberg pieces. There were two sets, the 3 Klavierstücke from 1909, and the 6 Klavierstücke from 1911, and as sets they show some clear changes in Schoenberg’s style. While the both sets have very jarring harmonic expressions, what I thought most interesting were the number of instances, in both pieces, where Schoenberg lightened up—where what was left out was perhaps as interesting as what was left it. The 1911 pieces, it is true, have no apparent logic, and they’re certainly atonal, much more so than the 1909 pieces. Yet both span a range of emotional possibilities, and both are recognizable as distinct sets of piano pieces. This isn’t noise at all, or bombast—it’s well constructed music, just constructed by a set of rules that you, the listener, have to work to determine. And that’s the rub—with Liszt, it’s all there. With Schoenberg, it isn’t , and you have to work to provide what’s missing. No wonder those 1909 and 1911 audiences weren’t happy. Maybe the best way to approach these pieces is to remember that Schoenberg was also a painter, one whose work was influenced by his friend Kandinsky. Think musical Kandinsky and you’ll be pretty much spot on.

And Saturday night’s program, which got the music going, was a stunner. It was a concert of two halves, I expect by design. The first half was pretty ordinary stuff—Thus Spake Zarathustra, and four songs by Strauss, sung by Finnish Soprano Karita Mattila and American Baritone Thomas Hampson. Everyone yammers on about Zarathustra, and it’s deservedly famous for its “Sunrise” opening, but I always found the rest of it kind of uninspiring. Ditto the songs, although Mattila and Hampson sounded just fine. The second half, on the other hand, was a triumph, and one could glean what it was about Strauss that made Schoenberg call him “revolutionary,” and made Mahler envious. First up was a long song—a song with orchestra, as conductor Jurowsky pointed out—titled Notturno, based on a vaguely erotic poem by the now obscure (but at the time highly regarded) and possibly gay poet Richard Dehmel. What a piece! Strauss wrote several of these orchestral songs, and if this is any indication, they’re stunners. The music was dark, the poem itself even darker, perfectly matched to some dour Germanic sensibility about the dark night of the soul, that sort of thing.

Next up were two selections from Salome—the orchestral Dance of the Seven Veils, and Salome’s dying scene. The former was simply astonishing—Strauss is all over the place, the entire piece seems a bit of rushing about, with random melodies here and there, Strauss fully deploying the orchestra for a range of moods, like a whirling dancer, which is the point, I suppose. What an energetic and unpredictable piece. This was followed by Mattila singing the last scene in the opera, when Salome kisses the mouth of the dead John the Baptist, and her stepfather Herod orders her death. Mattila was perfect, and the singing and acting in this difficult set of arias were like nothing I’ve seen in decades. London audiences are enthusiastic, yes, but they’re also demanding—they’re used to good performances. So standing ovations are generally rare—usually it’s just a couple of Americans standing up. But in this case, it was deserved. It was quite a sight to see the entire audience of the Royal Festival Hall standing and cheering. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, not in fifteen years of concert attendance here. Stunning.

So I’m starting to get Strauss, and I’m starting to get Schoenberg. There will be more Schoenberg this week and next, but if I want more Strauss, I’ll have to seek it elsewhere. Well, that won’t be hard.

In addition to the concerts themselves, there’s all the other stuff. We had Ross’s talk yesterday, and this morning we had an hour of Ross being interviewed by Jude Kelly, the Artistic Director of South bank, whose baby this whole event is. She’s done a bang-up job on all of this, and whatever they pay her isn’t enough. That went very well—she asked interesting questions, and he gave interesting answers. There were several good discussions that emerged, mostly on America—the role, or lack thereof, of black musicians n the classical music world, the avant-guard in America and Europe, the importance of Britten and Elgar in the British musical world, and other points. These things often don’t work, but when you have two knowledgeable and sharp people discussing something interesting, sometimes the results are impressive indeed.

And that doesn’t even include all the side talks. Both Saturday and Sunday afternoons were filled with talks and interviews, some on the longish side, some shorter. Some of the best were part of the BITES—four fifteen minute talks by different people with different backgrounds on different topics all related to Vienna, or the musical and/or cultural and political milieu of the time—the first two decades of the 20th century. So we had short talks on Klimt, Otto Wagner, Suffragettes, Charles Rennie MacKintosh, a performance of some of Rilke’s Duono Elegies, a folksong about Robert Scott, Joseph Hoffman, Emilie Flöge, Ezra Pound…my poor brain. All useful, mostly delightful some inspiring. If this is a sample of what we’re going to get over the course of the year, I’m in for the duration.

I have to say there are several aspects to how all of this is being presented that I quite like. First, we get some commentary. For the Strauss concert last evening, we had both conductor Vladimir Jurowsky and baritone soloist Thomas Hampson talking to the audience while the orchestra was changing between pieces about Strauss, his source materials, his programs, the initial performance, and what was musically interesting about Salome. And today, for the solo piano pieces, before the concert pianist Karim Said, who also looks 20, had a fifteen minute chat with BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch about the pieces, their composers, and what was going on in each piece. During his comments, Said would often use the piano as a teaching assistant to demonstrate his points. This sort of thing is really useful—why don’t we see more of it in general? We hear a lot these days about classical music—that is, the music that’s performed in large concert halls by orchestras and string quartets and touring concert pianists—losing its popular appeal. It was even a discussion point on Sunday between Ross and Kelly. Well, the full houses of this weekend’s concerts probably would have been there had there been no commentary. But it’s that commentary that may ensure some return attendance. (Oh, and by the way, that constant talk these days about young people not attending concerts? That was clearly nonsense this weekend. Future concert programmers take note—if you want a younger audience, program music they’ll want to hear.)

Second, it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the concert program selection—we seem to be getting not just some of the iconic pieces, but also some of the most instructive ones. It wasn’t until I heard the Dance of the Seven Veils that I understood what a transformative figure Richard Strauss was—as Ross says, he is the bridge between the centuries. Schoenberg understood this. But without hearing the piece, these are just words—you need to hear the music, and you need to hear it in the concert hall.

This raises a third point, one that Ross has discussed, both in his book and in his talks on both Saturday and Sunday—the role of the concert hall. This is the institutional encapsulation of what we (using “we” for the culture of the moment) regard as, well, music. But as Ross also points out, this usually lags by about 50-60 years. Sibelius is certainly part of the canon now—but 50 years ago he wasn’t, even in England, where he has always been more popular than on the continent. But all of this may be changing. Certainly electronics will something to do with this, but at this point it’s still a moving target. Plus there’s also the fact that recently-constructed or overhauled concert halls—Los Angeles comes to mind here—are much more suited to the wide range of 20th century music than the traditional Carnegie Hall model. But the issue is there to be addressed—is the concert hall the future of classical music? We’ll see.

So, all in all, a compelling weekend. Lots to think about. More on Wednesday!

The above stamp celebrating Schoenberg was issued by Israel n 1994 as part of a series on Jewish composers.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture