Musical Expression and the Challenge of Twentieth Century History

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

19th-century Europe witnessed unprecedented social and economic transformations. Among the most lasting (albeit erratic) of these was the expansion of literacy, most noticeable in Europe’s rapidly growing cities. With the spread of literacy came the standardization of orthography, inexpensive books, lending libraries, public libraries and the emergence of journalism—daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and regular periodicals. A myriad of local and regional public spheres took shape, as did a world of public opinion. These in turn spawned movements and ideologies, not only concerning politics and social questions, but matters of taste and value—everything from fashion to religion.

Notably in German-speaking Europe, literacy in music developed rapidly in the wake of the expansion of reading and writing. That this historical development coincided with flowering of musical romanticism was perhaps more than a coincidence. By the 1830s, the musical culture that was taking hold was increasingly bound up with language. A shared musical rhetoric emerged that came to frame conversations and convictions. It was communicated through the medium of the song, opera, and novel forms of instrumental music, from short works for the solo piano expressive of sensibilities to larger scale instrumental works that assumed an illustrative story telling function.

Inevitably music became the object of philosophic speculation. Was music fundamentally different from language and meaningful in a manner that could not be expressed in language? Or was music inherently tied to linguistic meaning, suggesting what ultimately became a widespread assumption of a parallelism between music and language. Enthusiasm for dynamics between music and meaning was timely, for as the public for music increased so too did the belief that music was especially potent psychologically as a means of expression. Music became invested with a power to convey, in its own way, emotions, ideas, and sentiments we normally associate with language but seem unnaturally trapped by speech and reason.

It was this premium on music’s expressiveness, and on the intense intermingling of music with language against which many early 20th century modernist composers rebelled. Romanticism in music had degenerated into a species of vulgar realism. In an effort to reclaim the autonomy of music and rescue it from the status of sonic decoration, composers turned away from the inherited conventions of 19th century musical logic. Modernism rejected the idea that music was expressive of something other than itself, or that music could give voice to love, desire, regret, heroism, loss, solitude, and community.

What propelled this modernist rebellion most of all was the recognition, after the carnage of the First World War, that the clichés of musical romanticism had turned a noble art form into a handmaiden for a culture that much like the language of cheap journalism had succeeded in rendering inhumanity, cruelty, antipathy, and violence aesthetically pleasing.

This concert takes a candid and controversial look at the musical culture which developed during the 19th century and was bequeathed to the 20th. It sets in opposition to one another two master composers from different generations who died at mid-century. Richard Strauss is arguably the most facile and versatile master of musical traditions and musical thinking. There was nothing in musical composition he could not do. At the same time, he was accused by his contemporaries (rivals and admirers alike) of an excess of ironic detachment, a corrosive cynicism born out of his immense facility. Nothing seemed to matter to him. Everything was done for effect and too often his elegantly crafted and astonishingly appealing music descended into kitsch, an empty sentiment entirely different from the anguished profundity of his contemporary, Gustav Mahler.

In Strauss’s long career, only two moments have escaped critical derision: the period before 1911, during which the famous tone poems and Salome and Elektra were composed; and the so called “Indian Summer,” Strauss’s last years during the 1940s. Strauss’s music from the 1920s has long been regarded as tired, empty, and forgettable. Indeed, given Strauss’s collaboration with the Nazi regime, his music from the 1920s and 1930s came to represent the most corrupt and embarrassing (albeit skilled) example of music as an explicitly expressive medium that manipulated rather than elevated its audience.

To challenge this conventional view, this program features Strauss’s perhaps least-respected score, a piece that was excoriated at its premiere and has remained dismissed as a minor if not tasteless and uninspired venture by even the composer’s most ardent defenders. The work, Schlagobers, is a ballet score modeled after Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It was written in the midst of the worst economic circumstances in Central Europe in the 1920s. Strauss’s attempt at lightness, humor, delicacy, and charm fell flat. Nothing could have shed a worse light on Strauss the man and the composer.

But is this judgment fair? Perhaps the virtuosity of musical realism and narration that Strauss reveals in this score, the sensuality of the orchestration and the unabashed rehearsal of clichés and tricks tell a different story, one of fantasy, enthusiasm, delight, magical unreality, and the dream of that brief escape into another sense of time and space that the darkest of times call into being. Perhaps Strauss marshaled all the inherited conventions of musical communication to recapture, briefly, the innocent fleeting childlike beauty of the present moment in a manner unique to only to music. In this spirit, we revisit this score without apology and with admiration for its craftsmanship and possibly its outrageously cloaked and unrestrained idealism. It deserves a new look. Perhaps Schlagobers can take its place alongside The Nutcracker and offer some welcome relief from that overplayed score during Christmastime with a delightful ballet that can enchant children and distract their parents, however briefly.

The other work on today’s program dates from the post-World War II era. The ASO has championed the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann over the past 20 years. I regard him as one of the great masters of the 20th century, whose stature and achievement rival that of Alban Berg and Dmitri Shostakovich. Hartmann inherited an ambition regarding the power of musical expression that sought to link ethics with art. He remained, however, a conservative modernist. Influenced by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg, Hartmann understood his vocation as a composer as one of conscience and opposition to evil. He was committed to the redemption of musical expression and communication from the vulgar, the commonplace and the complicit. His music and his life were cut from one fabric—a fabric of impregnable integrity, humility, and courage in the face of radical evil. If Strauss was the master of ironic detachment and profound philosophic pessimism, Hartmann was the master of truth telling, and unabashed intensity in music marked by the tireless struggle against despair. The work heard today was Hartmann’s last and is an unforgettable masterpiece in the tradition of Mahler and Berg.

The encounter at this concert is therefore with two seemingly incompatible consequences of more than a century of European musical culture. Drawing on the very same traditions of musical form, shared conventions of musical development and sonority and using the same instrument—the modern orchestra—they both in separate ways seek to celebrate the human imagination through the inherent unreality of the musical experience as an antidote to the everyday experience of suffering, fear, and cruelty. In seemingly disparate ways they both sought to inspire us to realize that if human life matters and time is precious, then music matters too.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Gesangsszene

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann is a shining example of the composer as a principled dissident. As Michael H. Kater has observed, “we must continue to accept the hitherto reported version that Hartmann was opposed to the Hitler regime and, together with his family, made it through the Third Reich without having to sell his soul.” Indeed, Hartmann evidenced considerable courage during the years of his “inner resistance” to National Socialism. In 1935, for example, Hartmann attended the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague, at which the Socialist conductor Hermann Scherchen, whom Nazi cultural bureaucrats held in grave suspicion, conducted his overtly political symphonic poem Miserae. Even more daring was the dedication of this score, which reads “To My Friends . . . Dachau 1933/34.” Had the officials of the Reichsmusikkammer discovered this inscription, it would have spelled a virtual death warrant for the composer. As it was, Hartmann’s wife has testified that the German authorities disapproved of his attendance at the festival, which was unauthorized. During the war, Hartmann and his wife, Elisabeth, listened to the BBC, nervous lest their little boy, Richard, might innocently divulge his parent’s resistance to the Reich.

During the Nazi regime, Hartmann paid a steep professional price, as he refused to participate in musical activities in Germany and Austria, so that his music was neither published nor performed. (Indeed, the performance of Miserae was possible only because it was performed in Prague.) Collaborationist colleagues such as Carl Orff and Werner Egk shunned him. In the autumn of 1942, Hartmann studied for a few weeks in Vienna with Anton Webern, but these lessons ended on a sour note due to Webern’s ardent admiration for Hitler. In November, Hartmann sent a telegraph to his wife: “Alien to me. No contact with Webern.” Of this traumatic episode, Elisabeth Hartmann later observed, “Hartmann could not understand the world any more.”

After the war, Hartmann was one of the very few German musicians of stature to have remained uncontaminated by collusion with the Nazis, and was therefore tapped by American authorities as the logical person to reconstruct German musical culture in Bavaria. In the process of organizing concerts in the shattered city of Munich, Hartmann made a point of challenging any lingering revenants of Nazi musical ideology by programming the music of Jewish composers such as Milhaud, Toch, and Copland, whose music had been banned by the Nazis. To this end, he founded Musica Viva, an organization devoted to programming an eclectic and enlightened selection of contemporary music. Not for Hartmann the aloof stance of the postwar serial composers of Darmstadt. In a recent article in The Musical Quarterly, Alexander Rothe has noted, “Hartmann was keenly aware of the dangers involved in an avant-garde movement that was increasingly divorced from other art forms and that denied its cultural inheritance and context within a larger political and social environment.” In other words, Hartmann came down on the side of continuing engagement with a soiled world; having defied a real dictatorship, he was not about to be cowed by aesthetic tyranny.

A moving example of Hartmann’s determination to use music to comment broadly on politics and culture is his final score, the Gesangsszene (“Song Scene”) for baritone and orchestra. Begun in 1961, at the height of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger, this score was left unfinished at the composer’s death two years later; it was premiered on September 12, 1964 by the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom the work was written. For his text, Hartmann chose a German translation of a literally apocalyptic passage from Sodome et Gomorrha, the last play by the French author Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944). Produced during the German occupation of France in 1943, Giraudoux’s Sodome et Gomorrha takes as its subject the impossibility of love in the midst of an endemic societal corruption that leads inexorably to destruction. From the achingly vulnerable opening flute solo, Hartmann traces the agony of a text that speaks of “lice on the head of bald millionaires” and the fiery destruction of the proud and technologically advanced Cities of the Plain: “Es ist ein Ende der Welt!” As the score nears its conclusion, the music suddenly ceases at the moment when death snatched the pen from Hartmann’s hand, so that the last two lines of the text are spoken unaccompanied: the most devastating and true ending possible for this harrowing score.

©2012 Byron Adams
Dr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S.

Richard Strauss, Schlagobers

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

To say that Karl Kraus, the radical Viennese essayist and founder of the satirical journal Die Fackel, disliked Richard Strauss’ ballet Schlagobers, op. 70 (“Whipped Cream”) would be an understatement: “But now even his famous versatility seems to have failed him, and even the Corybantic critics cannot conceal the fact that there has not been a nastier desolation of the spirit even of the ballet or a more thoroughgoing degradation of theater to the level of a preschool than this Schlagobers, in which the droll old master, ever the joker, comes to terms in his own fashion with the social question.” Later in the same essay, Kraus exclaims ironically, “It is just a ‘merry Viennese ballet’ . . . but even if one combines the horrors of the Sansculottes with those of the Bolsheviks, the resulting terror cannot possibly come close to even the mere plot summary of Schlagobers.” In a later article that touches upon Strauss’ ironically narcissistic opera Intermezzo (1924), Kraus summed up his objections forthrightly: “I cannot say, for my part, whether he is a genius of music, I can only say that he isn’t, for I am aware of all the intellectual brilliance of Schlagobers.”

Even Michael Kennedy, surely Strauss’ most indulgent biographer, has to admit that Strauss “inaugurated his sixtieth birthday celebrations by conducting the first performance of Schlagobers in Vienna on 9 May [1924] . . . It was a ghastly flop.” Kennedy speculates on this failure by noting that the ballet, “a gay and witty confection set in confectioner’s shop, with characters like Princess Pralinée, Prince Cocoa, and Mlle Marianne Chartreuse” was “not the dish of whipped cream to set before starving, bankrupt Vienna.” While most of the sharp-penned Viennese music critics loathed Schlagobers with a deadly loathing, the score had a defender in the French novelist Romain Rolland, author of that now indigestible roman fleuve, Jean-Christophe. Rolland enjoyed the music, which he found “highly agreeable,” and darkly suspected the Viennese critics of ulterior motives in their dismissal of Schlagobers: “Strauss has caused too many wounds to self-esteem, even among his adherents. They are taking their revenge.” (One can only imagine the derisive laughter with which Kraus would have greeted this declaration.) Paying a consolatory call on the composer, Rolland recorded Strauss’ reaction: “Haven’t I the right, after all, to write what music I please? I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy. I need it.”

Strauss’ declaration is the key to the critic’s detestation of Schlagobers, for its patent escapism, even frivolity, offended their sense of propriety. Written in the shadow of postwar humiliation during a period of runaway inflation and a darkening political landscape, Schlagobers must have seemed heartless at best. Ironically, as Strauss himself had lost all of his savings after the First World War, Schlagobers may have resulted from his desire to write a “hit” that would generate a much-needed infusion of cash into his bank account. The admittedly slight scenario, written by Strauss himself and curiously reminiscent of the plot of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, concerns a party in which a group of children gorge themselves on sugary delicacies in a Viennese confectionary. At one point, a boy who has greedily stuffed himself with sweets swoons and has a vision of three seductive liquors whose disruptive behavior is pacified ultimately by good German beer. (Strauss’ mother was a member of the famous Pschorr family of brewers and he grew up in a house on the grounds of their famed Munich brewery.)

Even in the midst of the financial and political crises that swirled around him in the 1920s, Strauss remained so disengaged from concerns outside his family circle—not to mention the implications of his own actions—that he included a scene in his ballet during which proletariat cakes waved red banners to the accompaniment of a Revolutionary Polka conducted by Russian matzos. With a sumptuous production and elaborate choreography by Heinrich Kröller, Schlagobers struck exactly the wrong note at its première and the critical opprobrium that initially greeted the score has echoed down to the present day. Although the skillful and brilliant music has its undoubted charms and there is at least one superb waltz, Schlagobers is a disturbing artifact of its creator’s growing indifference to the world around him, an indifference that boded ill for Strauss’ future reputation.

©2012 Byron Adams

Dr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S.