Against the Avant Garde: Romanticisms of the 1920s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Against the Avant-Garde: Romanticisms of the 1920s, performed on Dec 7, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The act of writing history inevitably forces the historian to simplify and generalize. The object of historical writing seems in part to be the finding of ways to articulate coherence in what appears to be the chaotic occurrence of events that mark the passage of time in human society. We end up speaking of the “roaring twenties,” the “gilded age,” or most perniciously, sections of time with imposed beginnings and endpoints that are distilled through a descriptive characteristic: a Renaissance or an Enlightenment. Some such characterizations survive, but others such as the “Dark Ages,” have now been discarded because they represent an implausible, one-sided simplification of the past.

The reigning generalization about European art and culture after the First World War has, despite variations, remained tied to a focus on the development of new forms of expression in literature, painting, and music. The center of attention regarding the fin de siècle has remained modernism and, particularly after 1918, the call for the rejection of old pre-war traditions of art-making and canons of aesthetic beauty. World War I had exposed the hypocrisy of cultural and social norms (not to speak of the politics) that dominated before 1914. A new art for a new age, reflective of the power of modernity in all its mixture of brash optimism and harsh impersonality rooted in technological progress, was the clarion call of an avant-garde.

Memories, however, are selective. The focus by journalists on a certain group of artists, the preferences of the market place, the dynamics of fashion and fame in the age of mass communication and the propagandistic talents of a few darlings of elite taste-makers can all be adduced to explain how and why some artists, writers, and composers become heralded as emblematic of an historical moment or the prophetic voices of the age. In this sense the 1920s are said to belong to the move to twelve-tone composition by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, to the neoclassic innovations of Stravinsky and his imitators, to the operatic innovations pioneered in Germany by Kurt Weill and his contemporaries, the hard-edged, modernist functionalism of composers like Hindemith and, in their own way, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

At the same time, however, our picture of the past is not only genuinely one-sided, but as a picture, it obliterates anything beyond its bordered field. Reality turns out to be far more complicated. During the 1920s, there was a vibrant musical life involving new composition by composers who were either opposed to or uninterested in modernist developments. These composers include individuals who believed that the claims of the avant-garde were fraudulent because they called for the violation of fundamentally true principles of musical composition and expression. They felt the innovations of the avant-garde were temporary aberrations of passing historical significance. Tradition, they argued, did not have to be jettisoned, and the vocabulary of classicism and romanticism needed only to be adjusted and given new voice. Those unconvinced by the avant-garde did not lack creativity. They were not mere imitators. They were not second-rate. Only some of them were self-styled and polemical conservatives. Yet only those anti-modernists to have earned a place in history have been arch-conservative (Hans Pfitzner is a case in point). Some individuals retained their place because they had already achieved fame when twentieth-century modernism broke on the scene. The most conspicuous example in this category of composer was Richard Strauss. An important figure who held the promise of potentially bridging the modernists and romantic traditions within the framework of tonality (therefore avoiding a radical break with the past) was Max Reger, but he died at a young age in 1916, before the serious and sustained onset of modernism.

Today’s program features three composers who are probably unknown to American audiences. Each was a composer of enormous distinction and originality, requiring no condescension or qualification. But they have been forgotten, because in our penchant for simplification in history they have been deemed out of step with the presumed dominant tendency of an historical epoch. In retrospect, we may in terms of art reconsider the twentieth century. In such a revision, these three composers may find a more prominent and deserved place in our account of the past.

Perhaps the most familiar name is Walter Braunfels. His most famous work, his opera The Birds (1919), is now being revived in Los Angeles. The conventional assessment of Braunfels work and career stems less from the reputation he achieved in his own day and more on the fact that he was one of the composers who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. His half-status allowed him to remain in Germany even though his music was banned. But the damage was done. Braunfels died in 1954. The period right after the war did not provide him a platform to regain his former reputation. His music represented an allegiance to a late-romantic post-Wagnerian tradition, and during the 1920s his orchestral and choral music earned him a place alongside Richard Strauss as a proponent of aesthetic continuity. His music was championed by conductors who favored a more conservative approach to new composition, notably Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth. For Braunfels, the challenge, as his work on today’s program shows, was to create new music by engaging tradition and the past in an overt manner, not by declaring fealty to a progressive ideology that rendered the surface of tradition irrelevant. It needs to be remembered that the most vilified of avant-gardists, Arnold Schoenberg, was himself a radical conservative, who believed that what he was doing was nothing less than restoring the musical principles championed by Mozart and Brahms—precisely the figures whose musical legacy can be discerned in Braunfels’ music. But it is the ethical impulse to investigate the fate of victims that has prompted a resurgence of interest in Braunfels’ music, rather than a generalized curiosity about the anti-modernist strain in the musical life of the 1920s.

This brings us to the context in which to consider the work of Herman Suter. Suter was a Swiss composer known also as a fine conductor and teacher. He was a profoundly self-critical man, which is why so little music of his received formal opus numbers. He was an extremely prominent and leading figure in Swiss musical life. His most famous work was an oratorio on the subject of Francis of Assisi. The oratorio was premiered in 1926 by Wilhelm Furtwängler, just five months before Suter’s death. Most of Suter’s music has drifted into obscurity even in his native Switzerland. One near exception is the Violin Concerto of 1924. The work was written for the legendary violinist Adolf Busch, a member of that remarkable family of anti-fascist, non-Jewish German artists. Adolf Busch was a disciple of Max Reger who exerted a profound influence on American music as a result of his emigration and his promoting of the quartet literature and the culture of chamber music. His legacy remains vital today in the form of the Marlboro Festival, whose guiding spirit was none other than Busch’s son-in-law Rudolf Serkin. Suter’s Violin Concerto is one of many unknown romantic concerti that deserve a regular place in the repertory. The work is intimate, elegant, and supremely beautiful without being derivative. Like much of Suter’s work it takes its inspiration from the composer’s conception of the relation between music and nature. The first movement reflects a dedication to lyricism that suggests the blossoming of the natural world. The second movement suggests the picture of a wanderer in the midst of a storm, and the last movement returns the listener to an open landscape of sunlit optimism. There is something distinctly poetic and noble about this concerto that justifies Suter’s allegiance to the inherent ideals of an earlier romantic artistic tradition.

The last work on this program is a symphony which also owes its existence to a pre-modernist compositional strategy for the orchestral essay: an expressionist appreciation of nature. The Autumn Symphony of Joseph Marx is acknowledged to be the composer’s masterpiece. It is of Mahlerian scope, and shares with Mahler a philosophical and spiritual ambition. Joseph Marx was a powerful figure in Austrian and Viennese musical life, yet his career presents somewhat of a paradox. He was born in 1882 and by the outbreak of World War I, he had risen to prominence primarily as a composer of Lieder. He was a committed man of letters who had studied literature, philosophy, and art at the University of Graz. His penchant for the theoretical and the intellectual led him to assume a post in 1918 as a professor of theory at the Music Academy in Vienna, where he became the rector during the 1920s. As his interest in pedagogy increased—his pupils included the conductor Artur Rodzinski, the pianist Friedrich Wührer among dozens of composers and performers—so did his interest in writing criticism. He became a leading journalist and critic in Vienna during the 1930s. Not surprisingly, his compositional output slowed considerably; most of his music dates from before 1933. Although Marx died in 1964, there is practically no music that dates from the last twenty years of his life. Perhaps his silence as a composer was a reflection of the extent to which his vocabulary seemed entirely out of step with post-World War II trends. The collection of his writings was entitled appropriately Reflections of a Romantic Realist. Nevertheless his music , especially that of the period of the Autumn Symphony, is of commanding quality.

Marx’s career and reputation, like Braunfels’s, suffered from politics—but for precisely opposite reasons. By the time the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938, Marx, who was not Jewish, exemplified the approach to music that the Nazis favored. A Joseph Marx Prize was established by the new regime, and Marx received financial support for his work. The Nazi’s ideologically inspired allegiance to tradition fit well with Marx’s tastes. In 1940 he wrote a quartet “in the classical mode,” and in 1941 he composed a four-movement “old Viennese” serenade for the Vienna Philharmonic to honor its centennial. When the Nazis created a category of officially sanctioned artists, Joseph Marx figured prominently on the list. Unlike his contemporary Franz Schmidt who died before World War II, Marx remained a well-known figure in Nazi Austria.

But there is little evidence that his participation with the Nazis was enthusiastic beyond his role as a recipient of the regime’s largesse. This sets him apart from Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, the musicologist Erich Schenk, and that odd-man-out Nazi sympathizer Anton von Webern. Marx’s prominence in post-war Austria as a teacher and cultural figure can be viewed as less problematic than that of many of his colleagues. He held fast to an aesthetic perspective fashioned at the turn of the century and championed by him long before the rise of Nazism. But as in the case of Richard Strauss, candor about the political dimension of Marx’s career needs to be reconciled with appreciation of his gifts as a composer and the profound and authentic aesthetic commitments he brought to bear. His belief in the power of music and his aesthetic commitments make him more of a fellow traveler with Gustav Mahler (with whom he shared a comparable world view about art and nature). That he lived long enough to enjoy the enthusiasm afforded by Nazi cultural politics should not deter us from revisiting the bulk of his musical output, which was written before the intelligentsia and artistic elite of interwar Austria made their calculated pact with evil.