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.