Forged in the War

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

It has now become commonplace to call the 19th century the “long 19th century,” owing to the fact that its beginning and end are marked not by round years but by events that defined its character and culture. The century is often thought of as beginning in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The Revolution and its aftermath changed not only the perception of monarchical power that stretched back to the middle ages, but the nature of politics and our sense of history. The 19th century came to a close somewhere between 1918, at the end of the First World War, and 1919, the year of the negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference.

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Most Americans, when thinking about the history of the 20th century, focus on World War II as the defining and perhaps most brutal event of the century. The reasons are obvious. For the United States, World War II had fronts in Europe and Asia. It lasted approximately four years. But World War I was, for America, a relatively brief experience: the U.S. entered it only in 1917. American casualties were 117,000, as opposed to 417,000 during the years of fighting in World War II. But for Europeans, it was the First World War that was shocking, traumatic, and transformative, not only because both sides in Europe lost millions (England and France suffered more military deaths than in World War II) and the war delivered an experience of horror and death hitherto unprecedented in history, but also because, as Sigmund Freud noted as early as 1930, it laid the foundation for the next horrific war. For all the pacifism of the 1920’s, World War I was followed by economic instability, the depression, and fascism, lending little hope for a world at peace. World War I also made possible the October Revolution in Russia that brought in communism and ultimately the Soviet Union of Stalin.

If there is a legitimate notion of a “just” war, the Second World War might qualify. The Allies fought against obvious aggressors (Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany) and in at least one case—Nazi Germany—an unambiguously evil regime. Despite the devastating consequences of the Allied nations’ “blind eye” to the dangers Germany posed after 1933, it was soon crystal clear that Nazism was a radical and innovative incarnation of barbarism. The First World War, by contrast, began for reasons that still remain difficult to explain. What could have remained a minor conflict—reprisals for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—exploded because of an intricate web of pacts, treaties, royal family relations, imperial conceits, and economic ambitions that meant little to the ordinary people who ended up doing the fighting and dying. Yet the populations on all sides were initially fired up by patriotic fervor. They embraced a jingoistic rhetoric of honor and glory, defending a constructed sense of national singularity against nebulous threats defined for them by massive propaganda campaigns that even evoked widespread enthusiasm among intellectuals and artists in France, England, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia. In 1914, everyone expected the war to be short. But the glories of God and country rapidly lost their allure in the wake of the senseless destruction experienced in trench warfare. The war led to the “lost generation” and shattered ideals and cultivated hopelessness.

Although today the actual causes of World War I are still the subject of intense debate among historians, the analysis by the victors immediately following the war was revealing. World War I was of course laid at the feet of Germany’s imperial ambitions, and that country was humiliated economically (to the consternation of wiser heads such as John Maynard Keynes). Large parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were formerly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were broken out into nations. Some were more heterogeneous than others, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. But the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination, gave a boost to a triumphant and essentialist nationalism in a reconstituted and independent Poland and a crippled Hungary—stripped, after the Treaty of Trianon, of what most Hungarians regarded as their legitimate territory.

Nationalism thrived, despite the carnage of the war, not only among the victors, but also among the defeated. Europe did not embrace Woodrow Wilson’s vision of international cooperation explicit in the League of Nations. The United States never even joined. Nations new and old in the 1920s internally cultivated political solidarity based on race, ethnic inheritance, religion, myth, and territory. While some celebrated the restoration of identity and autonomy once subsumed by dynastic empires (e.g. Poland), others burned with resentment about lands and resources taken from them. This outcome gave some historians pause, and a new revisionist assessment of the causes became widespread, in which the blame was shared. After World War II, new research shifted the blame back to Germany. But once again, after the fall of communism in the 1990s, historical opinion has shifted back to placing the responsibility on all the major European powers.

Very few foresaw the consequences of the war and its aftermath. Most of the resistance to the war at its start came from the left. From a Marxist point of view, the masses had little to gain and everything to lose from a war that was only about chauvinism and national rivalries. But not surprisingly, among those who were enthusiastic for war were the elites of those ethnic and national groups subordinated by the monarchical imperial political structures that dominated Europe for nearly two centuries before 1914. The minorities in the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire welcomed the war; it gave hope to their nationalist aspirations. For the Jews of Europe, the rise of nationalism after 1848 accentuated anti-Semitism, and the futility of establishing a place of safety and equality in Europe for Jews. The outlook for political and social equality dimmed throughout Europe, from England to Russia, and only seemed to deepen as the century turned. But World War I unexpectedly offered a ray of hope in two contradictory ways: by offering an opportunity for Jews to demonstrate their loyalty to the nations in which they lived, and by lending Jewish nationalism, in the form of Zionism, legitimacy.

Tonight’s concert explores the transformation of European culture that began with the outbreak of World War I. By the 1920s, in addition to a renewed nationalism, an entirely new cultural landscape was visible. The seeds of reaction against Romanticism, already present since the 1890s, blossomed into everything from Dadaism, Constructivism, and atonality. The poetics of Tennyson were displaced with those of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; the novel as perfected by George Eliot was supplanted by the achievement of James Joyce. This massive cultural shift was accelerated and in part inspired by the experience of the war. Indeed it might be said that in cultural terms, the 20th century can be understood as having been forged in the crucible of World War I. That claim holds true for music.

In order to illustrate this argument, tonight’s concert begins with a musical mirror of the power of patriotism among the populations within all the combatant countries. Max Reger’s Eine vaterländische Ouvertüre is no longer played because of its embarrassing political intent. Reger was one of the most celebrated composers at the turn of the century. He displayed an unrivaled mastery of counterpoint. He was considered, alongside Richard Strauss, as the great hope of German music. If Strauss was the heir to Wagner, Reger was viewed as the heir to Brahms. Reger’s complex, lush, and densely scored music has had its fierce partisans, including Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. Yet it has receded undeservedly into the shadows, in part because Reger died suddenly in 1916 and because, as a patriot, Reger was unapologetic concerning his conceit that in music, Germany’s superiority over all other nations and cultures was undisputed.

Following Reger’s overture, Ernest Bloch’s Israel Symphony will be performed. Bloch was by birth a Jew from Geneva, Switzerland. Early in his career he came to the United States, where he taught and wielded enormous influence. Roger Sessions was among his students. Inspired by Wagner, Bloch tried to emulate the Master of Bayreuth’s success in expressing the German spirit through music. Bloch, beginning in 1913 and through the war, sought to write music that would exemplify a shared national identity among Jews. The Israel Symphony was finished just before 1917, when in the context of rising nationalism and plans to rewrite the map of Europe and the Middle East dominated by the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Zionism found its most powerful source of international legitimacy: the Balfour Declaration. Balfour made clear to the world Europe’s intention to support the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The rapid growth of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century throughout Europe in the face of rabid anti-Semitism crystallized during the war. England and other countries had an interest in sending its Jewish population elsewhere, and Jewish national aspirations concurred. These aspirations found their way into Bloch’s music. The Israel Symphony (along with Bloch’s other famous “Jewish” works: Schelomo, Three Jewish Poems, and the later Sacred Service) reveals a synthesis of European compositional traditions and a Jewish national sensibility located in liturgy and folk tradition.

The program then turns to Charles Ives, the eccentric, radical, modernist insurance executive who also was America’s most innovative and iconoclastic compositional voice from the early 20th century. Ives trained with Horatio Parker at Yale, but like Gustav Mahler (who was curious about Ives’s music), Ives developed a musical strategy that allowed him to use fragmentation to create a sort of musical assemblage, creating layers of contrasting sounds that juxtapose past and present and are often evocative of nostalgia and childhood. Inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania, Ives wrote the Second Orchestral Set, a startlingly courageous essay in musical form, one that in its third movement highlights America’s exceptional status and dramatic entrance into a transformative historical event. Ives, a sharp critic of politicians, became a fierce advocate of Liberty Bonds and called on fellow Americans to “fight this war out in a democratic way.”

The concert closes with the Third Symphony of Karol Szymanowski. Szymanowski saw himself as the true successor to Frederic Chopin. Indeed, Szymanowski became the musical voice of the Polish nation that was created after 1918. He became director of the Warsaw Conservatory. Szymanowski helped shape the vibrant modernist culture in independent Poland. Poland had been partitioned in the late 18th century by three monarchies: Germany, Russia, and the Habsburg Empire. The most significant public partisan on behalf of an independent Poland on the eve of World War I was another musician, Ignaz Paderewski. Poland may be the only nation ever to have had a great musician as its president (though Paderewski’s success in politics did not rival that of his musical career).

But it was Szymanowski, not Paderewski, who would define the cultural renaissance of Poland after the war. Szymanowski’s early music reveals the enormous influence of Richard Strauss. But Szymanowski moved on and incorporated into his musical language the sonorities and strategies of Scriabin and Debussy. During the First World War he perfected his own distinctive musical voice. The Third Symphony is one of Szymanowski’s wartime masterpieces (others are Myths and the first Violin Concerto) and reveals a decisive shift in harmonic language and the sense of form from his less well-known but equally impressive Second Symphony. Among those who believed deeply in Szymanowski’s importance and originality as a European composer were his close colleague, the violinist Paul Kochanski, who spent many years teaching in New York; the violinist Roman Totenberg (a younger protégé); and the great pianist (himself an ardent Polish patriot) Artur Rubinstein—all (ironically) highly assimilated Polish Jews.

This concert therefore reveals how politics and art interacted during a period of intense suffering, violence, and change. The First World War ushered in a new era. The effects of that era can still be seen in the politics of Europe today. And its echoes can be heard in the music on this evening’s program.