Bauhaus Bach

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

Modernism in the arts during the 20th century can be said to have had two distinct (albeit related) and contradictory impulses: first, rejection, resistance, and rebellion on the part of the younger generation, born after 1860, directed at a perceived arrogance and smugness regarding the state of culture and the arts in Europe during the late 19th century—a sense of triumphant superiority buttressed by the startling progress of industry, science, and technology, and the development of cities and a prosperous urban middle class; and second, at the same time, a pervasive pessimism about the standards of contemporary culture, the absence of normative principles, the detachment of ethics from aesthetics, and a sense of decline and subservience to commerce and fashion. This required a change in the foundations and forms of art and the restoration of perceived true and genuine standards of ethics and aesthetics characteristic of a classical past, ones that advanced the good and the beautiful.

Friedrich Nietzsche and August Strindberg became identified as expressive of the first impulse. Matthew Arnold was among the first to articulate the second impulse, only to be followed by many lesser imitators who decried the philistinism of modern times.

In music, the rejectionist modernist challenge to the musical practices of the 19th century can be located in Debussy, Mahler, and the early Schoenberg, and in the Stravinsky of the 1913 The Rite of Spring. The heyday of the modernist rebellion was at the turn of the 19th century, before 1914. In the chaos and disillusionment that followed World War I, in the face of apparent political and moral bankruptcy, this rejectionist strain in aesthetic modernism, particularly in painting and literature, flourished. It is visible most clearly in the eccentric and radical character of Dada and Surrealism. Yet at the same time, already before 1914 there was a call to “return to Mozart.” This restorative impulse in modernism gained momentum after 1918 and had its strongest impact in an ascetic formalism that was particularly dominant in music and architecture.

Music and architecture have been long considered kindred art forms, particularly during the 19th century. Friedrich Schelling famously dubbed architecture “petrified” or “frozen” music. However, in no era would this be more evident, in practice as well as theory, than in the 20th century. No doubt, the connection between the visual and the musical was made more plausible by the post-Wagnerian enthusiasm for the integration of all of the arts, as well as the practical encounter between visual symbolism in design and sonority in music in the construction of halls for music—a burgeoning business between 1870 and 1914. Architecture’s link to music rested in part on the fascination with connections among sight, color, and sound—pioneered by composers Scriabin, Ciurlionis, and Schoenberg, and advocated by the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), one of the founders of the Bauhaus. With respect to architecture, it was held that there was a perceived special common debt, shared by music, to formal structures that shape the subjective experience of space and time, including proportion and perspective. Both architecture and music, in their formal realizations, deal directly with indispensable structural elements, variation and repetition.

The connection between 20th-century modernist movements in the visual arts—particularly (but not exclusively) architecture and design—and music was most impressive in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus—both a school and movement—flourished in Weimar, Germany from 1919 to 1933, when it was shut down by the new Nazi regime. Started first in Weimar and then transferred to Dessau (until 1932), the Bauhaus was led, for most of its life, by architects: first Walter Gropius (1883–1969; Alma Mahler’s second husband) and then Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The artists associated with the Bauhaus included Paul Klee (1879–1940), an avid musician with a passion for Bach; Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943), who shared an interest in music and theatre; Kandinsky, once a close friend of Schoenberg’s who even tried his hand at composition and considered music a model for non-objective painting; and last but not least Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956).

As Barbara Haskell, the curator of this fall’s brilliant and long-overdue retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum (with which this concert is linked) has noted, Feininger was sent by his father to Germany from New York to study music. Feininger’s parents were both musicians. His father, a violinist and teacher, also composed music that came to the attention of Franz Liszt. The musical traditions of the Feininger family were continued even though Lyonel abandoned music as a career. Lyonel’s son Lawrence became one of the leading musicologists of the post-World War II era. Just as Schoenberg painted and took lessons (fatefully) from Richard Gerstl (1883–1908), the brilliant Austrian expressionist painter who took his life when his affair with Schoenberg’s wife ended, Feininger throughout his adult life continued to dabble in music. Schoenberg had one major period when he produced most of his paintings, the decade before 1914. Feininger had a comparable short span when he composed. It took place during his years at the Bauhaus.

For many visual artists and architects in the 1920s (including Klee), the composer who best exemplified the musical—music’s formal logic, its autonomy, its abstract nature, its pure aesthetic economy, its resistance to kitsch and sentimentality, its stature as representative of some normative criteria of beauty and the “classical”—was J.S. Bach. Bach’s command of counterpoint and polyphony—witnessed by his many astonishing forays in the fugue—rendered him not only the greatest composer of all time, but an historic aesthetic model for an “objective” modernism. The international style of architecture abjured the dishonesty of facades, decoration, and ornament. It called for a disciplined honesty about the materials of construction and a visible and transparent synthesis of form and function. Klee and Feininger emulated Bach in their paintings. Feininger’s obsession with Bach led him to try his hand at writing fugues.

Schoenberg’s development, during the early 1920s, of a new method of composition with twelve tones, specific to each piece but standard to all works, was designed to replace tonal relationships between individual pitches. This would therefore emancipate music from its dependence on learned inherited traditional links between music and expression and emotion. This was a radical effort to restore a classical purity to the art of music Schoenberg believed flourished in the age of Mozart and Haydn, the classical era.

This explicit anti-romantic strategy paralleled modern architecture’s effort to distance itself from 19th-century historicism in design. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Bauhaus. Bauhaus furniture designs emulated the sleek elegance and simplicity of the early 19th-century Biedermeier era just as Schoenberg, with new materials, sought to spark a renewal of the pre-Romantic 18th-century ideals of musical thinking and composition.

The widespread neo-classical restorative impulse of the 1920s fueled and sustained a resurgence of public interest in Bach. There was no more poignant an example of this 20th-century Bach revival than Wolfgang Graeser’s remarkable edition of Bach’s last and uncompleted work, The Art of Fugue, which Graeser also orchestrated. His orchestration was performed in Bach’s own Thomaskirche at the 1928 Bach festival in Leipzig. That performance left an indelible impression on Alban Berg, who wrote enthusiastically to his wife about the event. Graeser, a brilliant and multi-talented Swiss artist and scholar in his early 20s, committed suicide shortly thereafter. His orchestration was largely forgotten, except for the loyalty shown it by the great conductor Hermann Scherchen.

For his edition, Graeser chose to add a Bach organ chorale prelude, following the example set by Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. The chorale prelude was finished by the blind J. S. Bach shortly before his death, and was the last completed work by the composer. Graeser included it in his performing edition so that The Art of Fugue, left unfinished, would not trail off.

As Stephen Hinton points out, Bach revivals have not been rare. The most notable ones were exactly a century apart. The earlier one, in which Mendelssohn played a pivotal role, occurred in the 1820s in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The later one, the Bach revival that frames this program, took place in the aftermath of World War I. In point of fact, Bach was never really forgotten. Bach’s music may have disappeared for periods of time from public performance, but composers after Bach, from Bach’s sons and Mozart to Webern and Boulez, studied his works. Composers have consistently been in awe of Bach’s command of the materials of music, and the purity of form in his compositions.

Indeed, Bach’s profundity and emotional power—whether audible in original form or in modernized orchestrations—derive from the rigorous discipline and intensity of the musical logic he employed. Music, in Bach’s hands, became a sacred art, the highest expression of the divinity in human nature—the imaginative capacity to create a true aesthetic realm emancipated from the compromises of everyday existence. No wonder that in moments when human nature reveals its darkest side, its uncanny attraction to violence, cruelty, and death, all camouflaged by the use of rhetoric and language and the use of reason and argument to justify war and destruction, artists have turned to Bach for inspiration.