Victorian Secrets

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“It is imperative therefore to convince the German people that its enemies of yesterday and today, the foes of its superiority, will remain its enemies tomorrow—eternal enemies! Let us take a closer look: the Englishman in principle and in practice—the Magna Carta for himself, the noose around their necks for the other nations; his house is his castle, but everybody else’s house is his as well—offers no insight into this arid, depraved breed of mankind. England and true culture are as inimical as venality and probity. There is nothing more loathsome, nothing more nauseating, than the Englishman who, his prey safely in his lair, changes his tune and protests allegiance to humanity, culture, and religion…having only yesterday bitten the hand generously outstretched to him by German scholars…Oh what a miserable toad the Englishman is!…Let the German people be guided by history and what history has to tell us through our superior thinkers, artists, and historians; let them especially learn the lesson of the World War and so construct a true picture of the other nation, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon…then they will discover that these peoples all lack power of creativity at the highest level of genius. Genius is possessedness, demonic nature…No Anglo-Saxon…could ever carry in her womb…a Bach, a Mozart…Of all the nations living on the earth today, the German nation alone possesses true genius…”

These startling words were published in 1921 by Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), the most influential and original music theorist of the twentieth century, in an essay entitled “The Mission of German Genius.” The rest of Schenker’s essay is even more virulent in its attack on the culture and institutions of the non-German western world. The French take the most sustained beating, and Americans are dismissed as being unable to “attain the intellectual and moral ascendancy needed to contribute to the higher goals of mankind.”

The nationalities surrounding Germany, particularly to the east, and the French to the west, were keenly aware of this form of German cultural arrogance before 1914. But there had always been the appearance of greater respect between the Germans and the English if for no other reason than that the royal house in England was of German origin and that Shakespeare had been appropriated as a nearly German classical author. Americans are certainly unaccustomed to viewing England as a peripheral nation in terms of culture. Anglophilia has been a dominant feature of American literary and intellectual traditions. It is also unsettling to realize that Schenker’s views are perilously close to those of the Nazi ideologists of the 1920s and 1930s. The fact that Schenker, an observant member of the Viennese Jewish community, adhered to these views and propagated them indicates how deep-seated the sense of German cultural superiority was and how widely it was internalized, particularly in the field of music. For Schenker and for Schoenberg, German music was universal. All other national traditions were marginal and derivative. Of all the non-German composers Schenker discussed, he found positive words only for select pieces by Chopin and Smetana.

Lest one think that these outrageous polemical views were confined to Germans, one needs to recall that the English and the Americans, until World War I, were themselves enthralled with the idea of German superiority in music and accepted it. American composers and performers routinely traveled to Germany for their training. During the nineteenth century the English also looked to Germany first for musical inspiration. For Edward Elgar (1857-1934), hearing Parsifal and listening to Brahms were seminal experiences. One of the most influential figures in turn-of-the-century English concert life was Hans Richter, Wagner’s disciple and the first Bayreuth conductor. It was England that bestowed honorary degrees on Max Bruch (the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams) and Johannes Brahms. Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) deeply admired not only Richter but Hans von Bülow. Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) had his first success as a composer during his stay in Leipzig as a conservatory student.

In France, the sway of German music focused on two figures: Beethoven in the time of Berlioz, and later in the century, Wagner (after Baudelaire’s embrace of Wagnerian aesthetic). In England, the dominance of German influence can be dated far earlier. Nineteenth-century Britain was captivated by Felix Mendelssohn. He was without question the most beloved composer of the young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert. But even before that, the eighteenth century in England was dominated by the rivalry between the Italian and the German musical influences. Even the Italianate style was partially mediated through Germans like Handel and Haydn.

The irony of all of this is that among the audiences and amateur performances of music in Europe, England possessed perhaps the most lively, extensive and engaged. Music had a central role in English culture as far back as the Regency. There is not a Jane Austen novel in which music does not figure. The English middle classes embraced music education and concert life with an enviable enthusiasm. England developed one of the most extensive and enduring choral traditions. Great works such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah to Dvořák’s Requiem owe their existence to the English public of listeners and vocal amateurs. Even Beethoven toward the end of his life toyed with the idea of moving to London. The great violinist Joseph Joachim toured England regularly with his quartet and regarded his visits among the most satisfying experiences of his career. In contrast to France, the power of the Mendelssohnian tradition and non-Wagnerian music from the late nineteenth century (the more conservative tradition of German composition) flourished in English concert programs and in domestic music-making. Wagner, as Bernard Shaw’s advocacy suggests, had his staunch English admirers, but so did Brahms, for whom the French never felt great enthusiasm.

Given the richness of English music life before 1914, it is fascinating to consider the ongoing perception of the apparent absence of great composers in the many decades that followed the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. Indeed the first Englishman to gain significant international recognition after Purcell was Sir Edward Elgar, and only quite late in his career. Even so, despite the acknowledged greatness of Elgar’s music in the accepted pantheon of great composers, he still occupies a subordinate place. His music is celebrated as the best of fin-de-siècle English music, but still overshadowed by contemporary German parallels.

Therefore with the exception of Elgar, most American audiences remain unfamiliar with the achievements of English musical composition from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is only in the twentieth century with Benjamin Britten that English music regained some of its prominence on the concert and operatic stages. Even Gilbert and Sullivan, who enjoyed phenomenal success in the musical theater, have now been relegated mostly to amateur high-school and college productions. How many are aware that Arthur Sullivan wrote music independently of W.S. Gilbert? Stanford was a close contemporary of Elgar; their relationship was delicate and strained. Stanford’s position in English musical life was extremely powerful, yet none of his music is really present in the repertory. Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is held in high esteem among connoisseurs, but to many his is a name even less known than that of Stanford.

This traditional, condescending assessment of Elgar and his contemporaries suggests a problem of national perception. No matter how good English music may be, it cannot approach the heights of German music. Whether we like it or not, we think more like Schenker than we might wish. But precisely this persistent Schenkerian prejudice gives us an interesting insight into the tradition of British music. Tonight’s program suggests that England was not exempt from the search by composers from most non-German European countries in the late nineteenth century for a distinctive national voice in music. English composers, like their compatriots in other lands, often incorporated what they believed to be distinctly native sources and traditions in their art. In the English case, it was Anglo-Saxon and Irish. Stanford’s “Irish” Symphony is comparable to the symphonies of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. In the effort to construct a distinctly national style, Frank Bridge’s Isabella is akin to the work of his French contemporary Claude Debussy. Elgar’s Sea Pictures can perhaps be set alongside the orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler, who, although German-speaking, understood himself as not essentially German. English music experienced the same impulse as other European musical movements of the time—to try to express in music a distinctive national heritage. In this sense, English music during the later nineteenth century took the same path as its continental counterparts outside of Germany. But in all these efforts, as the music on tonight’s program reveals, the compositional tradition and strategies identified by Schenker as German, left their indelible mark.

However, the English view of English culture—its perception of its national heritage—was exceptional. Consider the other cultural accomplishments in Britain that are contemporaneous with tonight’s works: the innovations of William Morris, John Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites in the visual arts and essays; the outstanding achievements in prose and poetry of Arnold, Browning, Tennyson, Hardy, and Wilde. England was also a dominant economic and imperial force, at the height of its power and conquest even though the rivalry of the French, Germans, and Americans was considerable. As Schenker slyly implied, the English, precisely because of their empire, appropriated everything in the world as their own. What he perceived as the derivative and imitative elements of British culture indicated for him a British impulse of absorption and mastery. Indeed, if Sullivan’s superb treatment of Mendelssohnian and Italianate traditions, or Bridge’s engagement with the Lisztian and post-Lisztian forms of symphonic essays inspired by poetic narratives are an indication, the British were indeed masters. But no British composer more quintessentially represented the British outlook than Elgar, whose work, despite its debt to German influences, reflects an idealized British character and optimism that perhaps never really existed but remains recognizable and resonant.

This certainty and security in Britain’s national identity may seem in the present era of post-colonial critique to express the arrogance often associated with imperialist nations. It has come to typify the popular perception of the Victorians. But in music it also had a related manifestation that suggests a more complicated relation to those cultures that presumed to eclipse British accomplishment. Elgar, for example, held a deep conviction that music was ultimately a universal language beyond national barriers. He may have been strongly influenced by Brahms, but in return he wished to impart the richness of his own heritage to the rest of Europe. Thus he himself commissioned translations of the English texts of Sea Pictures for French and German performances. Much of his greatest music was tied to Anglicanism and invested with considerable patriotism, but like many English contemporaries, he turned the pride of being citizens of the greatest empire on earth, the heirs of the language of Shakespeare, into a blithe embrace of the best of other national cultures and the offering of his own for others. In this respect, British musical culture in its eclecticism finds its real distinction. Unlike the composers literally on the periphery of Germany—the Czechs, the Polish, and even the French—as well as the American composers before the First World War, English composers were not concerned about the stylistic definition of their own identity as British. The political, economic, literary and scientific dominance of Britain made it, in the absence of a home-grown Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, take Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner to itself. Thus alongside British conceit one can sense in these composers a surprising receptiveness to ideas and a desire for exchange that at the time distinguished them from many nationalist composers on the continent. With the fading of the empire, this certainty also faded, resulting in an intense questioning and fear of “foreign influence,” but at least at this moment in time, these Victorians revealed a secure and successful approach to global music-making. The music on tonight’s program may reflect a hierarchy of values in which originality is subsumed by command of craft and refinement. It is well to remember that an allegiance to this credo marked the ambitions and achievements of two of Schenker’s favorites: Haydn and Brahms.