Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated performed on Dec 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert was designed by Richard Strauss, who, at thirty years of age, was already world famous as a composer and the leading exponent of the New German compositional tradition of Liszt and Wagner.

The purpose of recreating a concert from exactly one hundred years ago is to offer contemporary audiences a better sense of the musical culture of the past. In terms of its relationship to music and the live concert, the audience of a century ago was quite different from the one gathered today. Many of the concert-goers in the past played a musical instrument and sang as amateurs. The music of the home, whether popular or so-called serious music, was more closely related to the music of the concert stage. Consequently, there was a far less strained relationship between the past and the present. Audiences expected to hear the new as well as the old. A sense of continuity with the past was sustained despite an evident and even exciting tension between the ambitions of a new generation of composers at the fin de siècle and the aesthetic tastes of an audience that considered itself musically literate and steeped in good taste formed through an intimate engagement with music history.

By 1894 the beginnings of a rift between the tastes of the audience and the claims of modernism were audible. The audience was increasingly wedded to expectations based on past repertoire. The 1980s became the decade of secessionist movements in both the visual arts and music; of closely knit groups of artists and composers bound together by the explicit aspiration to chart new paths. Strauss was clearly a leader in this regard, and the Berlin audience knew that. Following the well-known pattern validated by Richard Wagner, resistance to the new by a supposedly smug middle-class urban audience was itself a badge of honor. At the same time, composers expected that after a reasonable period of time the new would become accepted. In 1894 the key to that process remained the dissemination of new music through the printing of music and its repetition in the home on the piano and within amateur circles. The concert functioned as the indispensable and periodic public showcase. As with the theater and the exhibition of paintings and sculpture, public display would lead to private consumption and the progressive transformation of taste.

On the eve of World War I this pattern broke down in the world of music. Unlike painting and literature, modernism in music after the fin de siècle failed to claim the affection of the audience to the extent new music had during the nineteenth century. Part of the explanation rests in the most striking change in the access to music-through novel technology of sound reproduction-that developed during the twentieth century but was barely predictable in the 1890s.

The most serious difference between today’s audience and that of a century ago is the presence of high quality recorded sound. Most of today’s concert-goers know music through radio, records, and CDs. One can become entirely familiar with the standard repertoire in music without ever attending a concert. Indeed, often concerts are successful because they come on the heels of recordings. Or, as in the case of the three tenors, concerts exist as a prelude to the mass marketing of videos and records.

Consequently, the concert, particularly the orchestral concert, is less striking. The sound heard at any concert has become comparatively banal. We can hear more volume and the same apparent richness of sound at home and in the movie theater daily. In 1894 the orchestral concert presented a welcome, rare, and stirring contrast to the aural environment of daily life. That fact, combined with the different relationship to making music within the audience, made the concert simply more memorable. For that reason, the integration of non-orchestral items was not unusual. It gave the artists a unique chance to perform for an audience. There were no records or CDs one could buy of the same artists performing other repertoire.

What makes today’s event remarkable, therefore, is that most of the repertoire on it has remained relatively unknown. It is either not recorded or, if it is, it’s available on obscure labels. Therefore, the sounds will be as novel today as they were one hundred years ago. One will have to listen, not in comparison to a familiar recording of a well known work, but in response to how the music strikes one for the first time. The two exceptions are the works by Mozart and Wagner.

These exceptions, in part, justify the selection of this particular Berlin Philharmonic concert from the past. The conductor became, after all, one of the great figures in music history and one of the last composers to gain world-wide popularity. Richard Strauss’s musical evolution can be understood, to a great extent, in terms of the creative interplay between the rival aesthetics of Wagner and Mozart that marked Strauss’s development. The young Strauss was nurtured by his father in a love for the classical tradition understood as starting with Mozart and ending with Brahms. At the time of this concert Strauss had gone through a major crisis and shift in his life and work. He had been profoundly influenced by a second father-like mentor, one of Wagner’s disciples, Alexander Ritter. This Wagnerian phase would last until the second decade of the twentieth century. From 1910 on, particularly during his collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Elektra, Strauss turned increasingly back to Mozart and to classical ideas. In 1930 he even made his own version of Idomeneo. Even in the last decade of his work, during the 1940s, Mozart and Wagner remained at the center of Strauss’s concerns. His affection for their work and his search for modes of reconciliation, elaboration, and combination never diminished. If critics point correctly to the Mozartian aspects of Strauss’s last works, one need only to listen to Strauss’s last opera, Die Liebe Der Danae from 1940, to sense the continuing lure of Wagner. The Mozart concert aria Strauss chose was written in 1786, around the time Mozart was working on The Marriage of Figaro. The work was written for Anna Selina Storace, who premiered the role of Susanna. She was, according to Alfred Einstein, “beautiful, attractive, an artist and a finished singer” of whom Constanze might very well have been jealous. The piece was written for Storace and Mozart himself, hence the role assigned to the piano. It is appropriate to note that Strauss himself married an accomplished singer and wrote music for her. The use of music as a language of personal communication evident in the Mozart was a lifelong habit of Strauss.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which premiered in 1868, was not only among Wagner’s most popular and accessible works; it was Wagner’s only attempt at comedy. Strauss’s attraction to the music and character of this Wagnerian drama–including its explicit inclusion of musical aesthetic controversy as a central theme and subject of the drama itself–would be reflected in much of his later work for the theater. during his career as an opera conductor in Berlin, Strauss conducted Die Meistersinger seventy-three times, more than any other Wagner work and more than any work by another composer. This 1894 Berlin concert, therefore, takes on a special significance as a revealing biographical and aesthetic metaphor for the development of Richard Strauss’s career.