The Neoclassical Mirror

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Neoclassical Mirror, performed on Nov 21, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As time passes, our perception of past events undergoes revision, and sometimes a discrepancy emerges between the self-conceptions of the notable protagonists of history and our retrospective assessment of their accomplishments. Reputations and aesthetic judgments change dramatically, constantly recasting the significance and value of principal actors in history. Of the composers represented on tonight’s program, two died after World War II in relative obscurity. Respected by their contemporaries, both Leó Weiner and Ernst von Dohnányi ultimately ended their careers in the shadows of their more prominent countrymen, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. But today, Kodály’s achievement has receded into the background, though the music of Bartók has remained central to twentieth-century repertory. Of our three composers, Igor Stravinsky is clearly the best known. But even in his case, his achievements, once thought akin to those of Picasso in their breadth, variety and consistent brilliance, no longer play such an overwhelmingly dominant role in our conception of the history of music in the last century. As time recedes, we discover attributes and achievements we have overlooked. The works of Dohnányi and Weiner constitute striking discoveries.

The irony in observing the changing reputations of these composers rests in the fact that they themselves were obsessed with history and their place within a tradition of musical composition. This concert explores an impulse on the part of many composers from the first half of the twentieth century to come to terms with the legacy left by composers before them, particularly those who dominated the golden age of nineteenth-century romanticism. Neoclassicism is a term often loosely applied to a wide range of artistic strategies. In the first instance, it describes precisely a tendency in musical composition that took hold between the two World Wars. It is thus used here to describe a particular view of history, through which these composers defined their work. Neoclassicism, or the deliberate use of antique models in music that predate romanticism, represented a critical reaction by these composers to their own culture and historical period, and had much broader philosophical implications than one might at first think. In all cases, neoclassicism can be understood as a reaction to modernity. Indeed, the astringent, crystalline clarity of the textures employed by Stravinsky and Weiner mirror a sound ideal characteristic of modernity: direct, non-reverberant, clean and almost reminiscent of the directional focus of a loudspeaker, as opposed to the reverberant acoustic space of a nineteenth-century opera house.

In order to grasp what it was about the nineteenth century that affected them so deeply, we need to confront how that century itself used history. That pattern is most clearly revealed in the example of architecture, for today we can still see how nineteenth-century buildings are often based on styles of design and decoration adapted from Greco-Roman classicism, the baroque and the Renaissance. Late nineteenth-century buildings can look like temples, medieval buildings, or baroque and Renaissance palaces, but they are larger, grander, more opulent. They are triumphs of modern construction technology. And what were the functions of these grand buildings? They were not really temples or palaces, but the banks, houses of parliament, stock exchanges, concert halls, and apartment buildings that line the major boulevards of European and American cities. Antiquity and tradition were used to glorify not the past but the future; to lend a sense of endurance and legitimacy to these monuments that embodied progress and technology. In the nineteenth century, the dominant spirit was one of pride in achievements of science and industry, a conscious sense of living in a “modern” age that was the high point of civilization. The use of historical models was therefore never a matter of slavish imitation, but rather, an appropriation of history into the triumph of modern progress.

In music, the Romantics from the early part of the century, particularly Schumann and Mendelssohn, could admire Beethoven and Bach to the point of obsession, but they always saw themselves as innovators, not imitators. They did not copy from models; they experimented with inherited forms, such as the sonata and symphony. But the most radical assertion of the priority of modernity came with Richard Wagner. His interpretation of Beethoven epitomized the perspective of the second half of the nineteenth century. He expounded a progressive theory of aesthetic development with an almost Hegelian notion of how history and progress interconnect. For him the art of the future, although the necessary result of history, must be greater than the art of the past.

In this way, the idea of progress in commerce and science worked their way into the arts. As a result, new instruments were invented, better pianos were designed, and new acoustical standards were formulated. The music written for the operatic stage and concert hall achieved a comparable monumentality and novelty in scale and sound to the buildings of Paris, London, and Vienna after 1850. A similar scale, innovation, and density are reflected in the rise of giant prose novels such as those by Tolstoy, Eliot, and Gottfried Keller.

This notion of progress involved a distinct shift in aesthetic ambition on the part of composers. In the eighteenth century, beauty and goodness in the ethical sense were thought to be closely related. Moral duty, like art, was not only a matter of form, but explicitly aligned with what was alluring and sublime, making beauty a species of truth. Astonishment as a result of an aesthetic experience could be an act of moral recognition. In the nineteenth century, what was beautiful began to be separated from universal ideals of goodness and truth, and music began to veer away from formalism. Music came to be seen as an instrument of human consciousness, an expression of individual meaning rather than a demonstration of some external truth. Musical communication was powered by intense expressiveness and emotional impact on the listener. Successful music was expected to transport the listener out of the mundane. Music emerged as an instrument of individual and collective subjective consciousness, which is why it could be appropriated by nationalism. Consequently, instrumental music began regularly to suggest an emotionally evocative storyline and to use hyperbolic gestures and spectacle to help engage the listener’s sympathies, much like the larger-than-life cinema of today, which takes a comparable pride in technological progress and innovation. The sheer power and intensity of late nineteenth-century musical emotionalism even influenced Johannes Brahms, who was deeply suspicious of the Wagnerian celebration of the new and the monumental. But all this came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I. Two of the last of these highly charged, epically proportioned compositions were Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which premiered in 1913, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910).

After 1918, the idea of progress seemed implausible. Although Stravinsky never lost his admiration for his great compatriots Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, their musical strategies seemed exhausted and obsolete. Stravinsky and Weiner both felt the nineteenth century had taken the wrong path by making music dependant upon subjective and transitory extramusical frameworks, rather than on the more significant and enduring potential autonomy of art and consciousness. They found themselves attracted to an idea that preceded the Romantic age, an idea that music could be linked to objective notions of beauty and truth, and therefore emancipated from the ephemera of the historical moment. That belief itself was a vibrant response to contemporaneity. Both composers became concerned with the logic of music and its formal implications as an independent system of expression, distinct from any visual or literary narrative. Yet they rejected late nineteenth-century aestheticism with its narcissistic ideology of “art for art’s sake.” Rather, they aspired to the aesthetic values of Haydn and Mozart, who shared the notion that there was some parallel between aesthetics and ethics. Both Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Weiner’s Concertino reflect two twentieth-century neoclassical ambitions. The first was to rehabilitate music’s capacity to speak as music in a formalist sense and to direct the listener away from symbolism or narration. The second was to use an almost miniaturist historical model to puncture the nineteenth century’s artistic hubris.

These two works suggest some irony, and even satirical humor. Both composers reveal an unmistakable originality as they appropriate and adapt the past. In these works they try to fashion artworks adequate to a notion of modernity that is independent of any claim of technological progress. At the same time, there is little doubt that the music mirrors the experience in space and time of modernity, particularly its pace. But novelty and grand scale are not prized for their own sakes. Indeed, the works aptly demonstrate one of the hallmarks of this post-war era of neoclassicism: a reaction of almost ascetic leanness and transparency. These two works emphatically reverse the Wagnerian premise that small forces and pre-Romantic musical forms were obsolete.

There was of course a wide range of reactions against the extremes of romanticism. Weiner and Stravinsky chose to return to what they felt was the source: the Classical and Baroque eras. Others, however, sought a different source entirely; namely, atonalism and radically progressive experimentalism. Edgard Varése, the futurists, George Antheil and Charles Ives are examples. Stravinsky and Weiner were in no way less modern, but they felt they were acting as correctives. But many contemporaries saw them as deeply conservative. Even so, these composers cannot be called reactionary or nostalgic. They did not reject the world after 1918, nor did they idealize the earlier ages. For them, history provided the best means for commenting on the modern world, and for retaining a critical perspective on the spirit of the age. By rejecting the arrogance of the nineteenth century that had led to unprecedented destruction, they sought to chart a new path.

Ernst von Dohnányi, however, represents a different view. His neoclassicism was the result of his steadfast allegiance to the accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Weiner and Stravinsky used sources from classical and baroque music composed before the Romantic era, but Dohnányi saw himself as an exponent of the best of late nineteenth-century music-making—not of a Wagnerian kind, but in the tradition of Brahms. For the young Dohnányi, Brahms was a seminal figure. Dohnányi’s early music is a kind of homage to Brahms and reveals a profound mastery of the Brahmsian tradition. Brahms was as obsessed with history as anyone in the late nineteenth century, but he did not possess the Wagnerian optimism about progress. Brahms was an avid historian of music, and deeply interested in baroque and Renaissance repertoire. He shared with Wagner a strong sense of his own historical contribution, but unlike Wagner he did not believe himself to represent the starting point of a new age. Indeed Brahms felt himself to be the last exponent of a dying tradition of great composition.

Dohnányi was best known in his lifetime not as a composer, but as a pianist and conductor. As a composer, he remains staunchly conservative and rooted in the language of music he learned early in his career. His First Symphony of 1900 is one of the great examples of the Romantic symphony. The work on tonight’s program is written in somewhat the same vein, although composed much later. But it is important to note (and this links him to Stravinsky) that in the context of momentous political and economic changes around him, Dohnányi wrote a work that includes an homage to Bach. However, unlike Stravinsky’s use of Bach, the last movement of Dohnányi’s symphony is more reminiscent of Reger’s use of counterpoint and history, or Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Handel.” Dohnányi’s work is a plea not to reject romanticism, but to retain its significance. Unlike Weiner and Stravinsky, it is not a reinvention of the eighteenth century, but a defense of the late-nineteenth. It is not a work of critical neoclassicism, but an affirmation of continuities with the recent past. Its neoclassism, from the perspective of the mid-1950s when it was completed, expresses itself in the assertion that Brahms was himself a classical model and that all the fashions of the twentieth century—experimentalism, atonality, astringent neoclassicism, and folkloric nationalism—are not the art of the future because they represent superficial distortions of the great compositional traditions of Western concert music.

Unfortunately for Dohnányi, the composition of his Second Symphony occurred at a time when such assertions of continuity and affirmation of late nineteenth-century aesthetics could not be posited without the implication of awkward and difficult political overtones. Unlike those of the other two composers on tonight’s program, Dohnányi’s politics have consistently remained a subject of controversy. Of Weiner’s politics we know very little except that he lived and worked under several regimes, including (like Kodály) the Cold War under communism. He had always been, perhaps primarily, a great teacher. Among his most distinguished pupils was Fritz Reiner, one of the few conductors to perform his work. Stravinsky’s politics are better known. They were marked by anti-communism and later in life, religiosity. But of Dohnányi, unresolved questions abound. While composing the first draft of the Second Symphony, he was living and working in fascist Hungary, even when the dictator Salaszi came to power and when Eichmann, with the assistance of the Hungarians, began to liquidate the Jewish community of Budapest. Dohnányi was seen by many as a collaborator. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he fled to Austria where he encountered suspicion from the Allied Administration that he had been a nazi sympathizer (even though his son had been executed in Germany on suspicion of conspiring against Hitler). If one believes the shockingly pro-fascist and profoundly racist biography by his second wife, Ilona von Dohnányi, A Song of Life (recently reissued by Indiana University Press without any attempt to point out obvious factual errors and misstatements), Dohnányi, unlike Bartók, indeed failed to distinguish between the good and the evil. However, he was not a collaborator even in the sense that Strauss had been. Even through the tainted lens of the repellant perspective of his widow, Ernst von Dohnányi turns out at best to have been a hapless figure, naïvely imperceptive of his current historical moment.

Dohnányi eventually ended up in Florida and was on the brink of a comeback as a pianist at the time of his death. Of all three composers, his life was perhaps the most tragic. His deep attachment to history did not assist him in understanding the events of his own life. In attempting to disengage his music from politics and the characteristics of the moment, he fell headlong into them, perhaps showing quite poignantly the impossibility of ever composing music that is completely without politics. One could argue therefore that although his Symphony was at one time properly considered old-fashioned and nostalgic, it actually comments upon the age in which he lived. Like most forms of nostalgia, its rebellion against the present is among its most powerful and revealing aspects. In this sense the musical language of Dohnányi’s youth, resisted by the composer in his later years, sounds to us perfectly appropriate to express the anguish of his maturity.