Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is easy to forget the shock of World War I. The massive slaughter on the Western front and the unprecedented brutality of modern warfare paralleled the purposelessness of the conflict. The chauvinist euphoria with which the war opened was based on the belief that the war would be brief and relatively painless. But as the fighting dragged on, the intransigence of the combatants seemed to grow in direct proportion to the absence of any effective rationalization. The First World War brought the nineteenth century in Europe to an end, and with it died a facile belief in progress and the inevitable triumph of rationality and civility.

The consequences of the war in terms of art helped to inspire a generation to cast off the habits of the past. Tradition lost its prestige precisely because it became associated with the value system which led millions to their deaths in the trenches. If the war was a catastrophe, so was the influenza epidemic of 1918. By the time the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919, the last glimmer of a better future had been extinguished. The great hope for a reconciliation, Woodrow Wilson, came to Europe with the famous “Fourteen Points.” But the terms of the settlement allowed pre-war enmities to fester. Not only was the Austro-Hungarian Empire broken up into smaller nation-states, but the principle of self-determination was only partially upheld. A rabid nationalism took the place of dynastic hegemony. Germany was humiliated beyond reason and held solely responsible for the war.

The German defeat came as a shock to its own citizens. The years 1918 to 1920 were ones of extreme political instability. The new Republic, dominated by the Social democrats, betrayed the extreme Left and projected an implausible compromise between the old Wilhelmine habits and the promise of a socialist order. The established elites of the army and the judiciary remained intact, and what later became known as the Weimar Republic gained a few genuinely loyal adherents. From the Republic’s commencement, a powerful right-wing sentiment flourished, sustained by the legend of the “stab in the back” Traitors inside Germany were responsible for its defeat, not the superior power of the Allies, fueled by the American entrance into the war in 1917.

These historical events provide the background for the music on today’s program. The right-wing reactionary movements of post-war Germany quickly took aim against the avant-garde culture of rebellion encouraged by the immediate post-war years. The First World War contributed to the success of the dada movement in Europe. Artists, writers, and musicians challenged the conceits of continuity, coherence, and meaning as understood by the bourgeois audience of pre-war Europe. Culture, taste, and refinement in an ordinary sense seemed to have little to do with a sense of justice and ethics. One might have liked to believe that progress in the nineteenth century mean not only the spread of education but the raising of standards in aesthetic judgment. One would have liked to think that conventions of morality and ethical judgement were also on some historical road to improvement, along with aesthetic taste. But skepticism and cynicism were appropriate responses to the war, and so to was a distorted Nietzscheanism, a celebration of the ecstatic present moment. Above all, any assertion of privilege on behalf of realism or its equivalent-to some criterion of objective beauty-came under siege. Expressionism was, after all, a vindication of the subjective as the only valid standard. And if art were to have any legitimacy, it had to assist in the radical transvaluation of beliefs, including aesthetic expectations.

Franz Schreker was from the older generation. When the war broke out, he was not a young man. After the war, he moved from Vienna to Berlin, where he had the good fortune of not living to see the full ascendancy of Nazi power. Of Jewish descent, Schreker lost his position as head of the leading conservatory of Berlin shortly before his death. It was during the years before 1933, however, that he built up the conservatory, recruiting everyone from Artur Schnabel to Arnold Schoenberg as teachers. Like Schoenberg, Schreker sided with the new generation of rebels, and was one of its teachers and mentors. The Chamber Symphony was written at a time when it was already clear that the war was senseless and lost. The successor to Franz Joseph, the Emperor Karl, tried unsuccessfully to bring the war to a close. The Habsburg Empire was doomed. It had sealed its fate by deferring to imperial Germany in its foreign polity. As Christopher Hailey, author of a masterful biography of Schreker, points out, there is something retrospective inSchreker’s music. But at the same time, the intimacy and sensuality of the work point as much forward as backward.

Since the late nineteenth century, a rivalry had existed between Berlin and Vienna in terms of art and culture. Many figures, such as Max Reinhardt and Schoenberg played significant roles in both cities. It therefore comes as no surprise that a composer without any links to Vienna, Paul Hindemith, should have taken as the libretto for his opera a text written by that enfant terrible, Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka is best known among music aficionados as the lover of Alma Mahler. When their torrid relationship came to an end, he built a life-size effigy of her, brought it to the opera, and burned it publicly. After Egon Schiele’s death in the influenza epidemic, Oskar Kokoschka became the undisputed leader of the Austrian expressionist movement. His play Murderer, Hope of Women was designed to shock middle-class culture buffs, and so it did. Kokoschka himself was a devoted music-lover, whose instinct for the musical was apparent to Hindemith. The fascination with male and female as polemical categories was a commonplace for the Vienna of 1907; Kokoschka’s views were unexceptional In this regard. Otto Weininger had already published his scathing Sex and Character (and later committed suicide in the house in which Beethoven died). Karl Kraus, whose The Torch served as a bible to Kokoschka and his friends, was obsessed with the character of the feminine. Additionally, Arnold Schoenberg, during this pre-war period, worked on Ewartung and Die glückliche Hand, both of which can be understood as expressionist experiments. The connection between Schoenberg and Kokoschka is particularly interesting, in part because of Schoenberg’s own foray into Expressionist painting during the period in which in which Kokoschka wrote the play upon which Hindemith based his opera.

By the time Kurt Weill finished The Protagonist in 1925, the worst of the immediate post-war era seemed to be over. The visceral instinct to experimentation that dominated the years 1918 to 1921 had given way to a more coherent movement. What is significant about this early work of Weill’s is that it brings together music, text, and theatre in a manner unique to the era before the sound motion picture, as Bryan Gilliam points out. It is an unknown and unfairly undervalued work by a composer whose career is difficult to characterize. In Germany, Weill is known primarily as the composer of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and The Three Penny Opera–an important voice of the Weimar Republic whose works bridged the world of popular music and art music and who represented the essence of pre-Nazi liberal culture. Weill is at the core of the American cliché of Weimar cabaret. Mark Blitzstein’s version of The Three Penny Opera helped to secure Kurt Weill’s appeal to the American Left. However, in the United States, Weill, the son of a cantor, abandoned his association with Brecht and Weimar culture and became a successful composer for Broadway, reinventing himself in the American musical scene, to the dismay of many of his fellow immigrants. The earlier instrumental music of Kurt Weill has now returned to the concert hall: the two symphonies, the cello sonata, the concerto for violin. And slowly, the American Weill is becoming known in Germany. Oddly enough, however, amidst the current Kurt Weill renaissance, The Protagonist has remained in the shadows.

Of the art and culture of the inter-war period, it is the visual that has made the most lasting impression on the general public. German expressionism has acquired canonical status largely in the arenas of film, architecture, and painting. It is hoped that this concert can bring into equal relief the musical achievements of that era. The painters, architects, and filmmakers of the day would themselves be astonished to think that the work of their musical colleagues had been allowed to languish. One can only truly understand post-World War I visual expressionism and architectural modernism (particularly its emphasis on the economy of materials and the absence of ornament)-Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Walter Gropius (and his Bauhaus colleagues), Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang–if one also has the music of Schreker, the young Hindemith, and Kurt Weill in one’s ears.

Murderer, Hope of Women, Op. 12 (1919)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Hindemith’s Mörder, Hoffnung Der Frauen, composed in 1919 and the first of his triptych of one-act operas, belongs to the category known in German as Literaturoper. A substantial work of literature–Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionist play of 1907–is used as a ready-made libretto. (Kurt Weill’s Der Protagonist, like Berg’s Wozzeck and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, is another such Literaturoper.) But an Expressionist play does not guarantee an Expressionist opera, even though Kokoschka’s sententious baffle of the sexes seems literally to cry out for musical stylization.

The snarling semitone with which the onstage brass are instructed to “drown out” the orchestra at the opening obviously symbolizes the irreconcilably dissonant relations between the archetypal “Man” and “Woman.” Yet the work’s musical language in general does not emancipate its dissonances in the way that, say, Schoenberg’s prewar expressionist pieces do. The rich, eclectic idiom is contained within a more or less tonal framework. Nor, unlike Schoenberg’s atonal vocal works, does Hindemith respond in persistent detail to the immediate expressive or representational demands of the text. More symphonic than operatic, Mörder‘s form is similarly quite conventional, divided as it is into four readily distinguishable parts: a thematic exposition with lyrical second group, a development section, a slow movement, and a recapitulation-cum-finale. Such a fusion of a one-movement sonata design with the contrasting characters of the four-movement sonata cycle (called “double-function form” by the musicologist William S. Newman) was a common approach to the large-scale organization of nineteenth-century instrumental writing, especially in the work of Liszt.

Stylistically, Hindemith’s writing betrays a number of other influences, too: Straussian instrumental exuberance, Schrekerian opulence, and Wagnerian lyricism. In fact, the lyrical second thematic group, to the words “Our Woman,” is an obvious allusion to Tristan und Isolde (ironically, perhaps, to the so-called “Motif of Love’s Rest”). If Expressionism in music seismographically extrudes inner emotional turmoil (as in Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung), then Hindemith prefers to stay nearer to the surface, juxtaposing diverse idioms to convey the broader dynamics of the ritualistic tableau.

Such a mixing of styles suggests an almost parodic distance from the expressive tradition on which Hindemith relies. He speaks various musical languages with almost disarming fluency, but none of them is really his own. We may say this only with hindsight, of course, knowing Hindemith the prolific creator of the later well-crafted instrumental music, written in his own distinctive voice.

The premiere, given by Fritz Busch in Stuttgart in 1921, achieved something of a succès de scandale. While a number of critics rightly sensed a composer of enormous talent and promise, negative reactions sufficed to establish Hindemith’s early reputation as a young upstart. It was a bold–if ultimately uncharacteristic–beginning to a remarkable career.

Chamber Symphony (1916)

By Christopher Hailey, President, The Franz Schreker Foundation

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In a letter to Paul Bekker from 22 August 1918, Franz Schreker (1878-1934) wrote of his sometimes “desperate battles” with instrumentation. “One realizes that there should really be many more instruments. I don’t mean more within the categories we have, but new ones. I often hear sounds that can scarcely be realized with existing means.” Klang, or sound, was a central category of Schreker’s creative persona. His visions were timbral, his complex emotional insights captured in the iridescence of his orchestra. It is an orchestra made up not of individual instruments–”nothing,” he once wrote, “is more disturbing to me than, for example, a celesta intruding as such–but a dematerialized array of ever-changing colors. No work better captures this sonic ideal than his Chamber Symphony, written in 1916 in celebration of the centenary of the Vienna Academy and given its premiere there in March 1917. Its shimmering opening, in which first the flute, then the violins float above the aural mists of celesta, harmonium, piano and harp, is music of otherworldly magic. Schreker’s instrumentation refracts thematic ideas through the prism of his orchestra. Lines intertwine, motives move imperceptibly from one instrument to another, transforming a trumpet into a clarinet, wedding the harmonium with a bassoon. And just as thematic ideas give up something of their material autonomy to become immaterial color, formal articulation is blurred through Schreker’s love of mercurial shifts of mood, tempo, and rhythm. The four sections within this single-movement work–an introduction, main movement, adagio, and scherzo–frequently overlap and, with the exception of the scherzo, are all recalled at the end.

By its title and formal aspirations, the Chamber Symphony appears to be one of Schreker’s very few works of “absolute” music, yet one cannot overhear the manifold thematic relationships with his opera Die Gezeichneten or with gestures (especially in the scherzo) related to his pre-war ballet and pantomime scores. More importantly, one finds in the Chamber Symphony motivic vestiges of Schreker’s unfinished opera of 1915, Die tönenden Spharen. That, significantly, is the story of a man who collects sounds.

Schreker’s own reputation as an aural fantast and collector of sounds became a heavy burden in the 1920s. A younger generation that had once pored over his rich and complex scores now embraced music that was lean, angular, and dissonant. Both Hindemith and Weill, for instance, knew and performed Schreker’s music and had gone through their Schreker phase”. But the sweet lures of late Romantic harmony and orchestral color were no match for the purifying flames of Expressionism. Ironically, these forces were transforming Schreker’s own style during the very same years. With his Expressionist opera, Irrelohe, written 1919-22 and given its premiere under Otto Klemperer in 1924, Schreker’s music likewise became leaner and more astringent. The world that had given rise to his Chamber Symphony had vanished and in its place new sounds awaited discovery.

The Protagonist, Op. 14 (1925)

By. Bryan Gilliam, Duke University

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Der Protagonist (1925), Weill’s first significant operatic undertaking, is inseparable from its context of post-Wagnerian operatic reform. Though Wagner had been dead for decades, challenges to the aesthetic world of Bayreuth–in both word and deed–did not take place to any significant degree until the years following the First World War. True, as early as 1911 Busoni had criticized the Wagnerian orchestra for its superficial illustration, for creating a thunderstorm in the opera pit when there is already one on stage. But it was not until the aftermath of World War I that a younger generation of composers mounted an effort toward significant operatic reform. One of the most important of that group was Kurt Weill, whose views were informed by the theories of his mentor Busoni, but unlike Busoni would more effectively put them into practice.

Echoing his teacher, Weill criticized the German operatic orchestra of the Wilhelmine era for absorbing far too much of the action,” which was better served on stage. Such an ensemble, according to Weill, should not merely suggest scenic events but have its own formal and structural integrity. Der Protagonist represents the culmination of a careful step-by-step process whereby Weill first explored the realm of purely instrumental music, then pantomime and ballet, and finally opera. Indeed, such a gesture would always be central to the theatrical world view of Busoni and Weill, the former who, in 1922, envisioned opera that would be little more than “sung pantomime.” That year Weill produced his first theatrical essay, the pantomime Die Zaubernacht (The Magic Night), which, though a piece of children’s theater, was considered by Weill to be his first mature work. Georg Kaiser, author of the play Der Protagonist (1920), was greatly impressed. Indeed, Kaiser and Weill soon collaborated on a pantomime of a larger scale, but the composer grew weary of the “silence of the figures” and decided to take the next step toward actual opera.

The result was the one-act Der Protagonist, a Literaturoper based upon Kaiser’s play of the same name. In both instances, whether musical or spoken theater, the structure centerpiece remained the same: two pantomimes-one comic, the other tragic. The setting is Shakespearean England, where a strolling troupe of players (in a kind of commedia dell’arte style) are asked to play a comedy for the Duke and his court. After a rehearsal, the major-domo announces that the Bishop will be in attendance, and the comedy (based on a light-hearted treatment of marital infidelity) must be transformed into a tragedy. At the end of the second rehearsal (which covers parallel events, though viewed through an expressionistic lens) the Protagonist, unable to break his character as the deceived husband, stabs his own sister when she introduces him to her lover the Young Gentleman.

Comparison with Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, with its juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, is inevitable, but it is only part of a broader revival of commedia dell’arte in the early twentieth century. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) appeared the same year as the original Ariadne, and Busoni’s Arlecchino appeared in 1917. In their various ways, each work sought to offer an alternative to Wagnerian aesthetics. Equally inevitable is the urge to draw parallels with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), but there is a less obvious, yet more potent, connection with Hindemith’s Cardillac (1926), a work that–like Der Protagonist–deals with the theme of artistic obsession, even to the point of self-destruction and violence.

Nonetheless, there is another aspect of an early twentieth-century fascination with pantomime that has often been over-looked, namely the booming popularity of silent film in Germany. Weill recognized great potential for film in the 1920s and would even include a cinematic segment in his next opera, Royal Palace (1926). The filmic aspects of Der Protagonist‘s two pantomimes, especially the second, quasi-expressionistic one with its “Caligari-irrationalism” (according to one commentator) are powerful indeed. One critic who attended the Leipzig premiere of Der Protagonist could not help observing that “we have long witnessed the commercialization of mime; even longer the discovery of the film actor, of which this Protagonist reminds us a bit.”

Behind the Curtain: Submission and Resistance under the Soviet Regime

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The first concert of this season focuses on the dilemmas faced by artists in conditions of extreme “unfreedom” and censorship. The historical situation that we have chosen is the Soviet Union before Perestroika and after the rise of Stalin. This period was the worst era of sustained dictatorship in Soviet history. Two generations of composers are considered today: Nikolai Myaskovsky came of age before the October Revolution, Dmitri Shostakovich and Tikhon Khrennikov were still children–eleven and four years of age–when the Communists took over. Myaskovsky’s evolution and career as a mature composer, therefore, had to take into account the shifting direction of post-revolutionary politics. Audience members who are familiar with the flowering of progressive visual art, theater, film, poetry, and architecture after the revolution may be familiar with the immediate post-revolutionary history in the arts, which encouraged experimentation and modernism. But the flirtation with modernism in the Soviet Union was brief. By the mid-1930s an entirely new and terrifying official aesthetic had evolved. In the full flower of Stalinism, the choices facing artists were not easy. The list of those who died or were tortured because of their independence is tragic. It includes the poets Babel and Mandelstahm. The lives and careers of countless others were destroyed.

Of all the arts, music presented the most complicated case. Unlike painting, theater, film, or literature, music certainly could be regarded as more elusive with respect to the issue of political meaning. But that did not deter the Soviet state apparatus from imposing accepted standards. Nevertheless, the room accorded musicians for the creation of independent meanings, ironies, and ambiguities was far greater than that facing architects, painters, and writers. In the end, instrumental music in particular, which is featured on this program, could be argued to be exclusively about itself. That such a formalist view of music will not hold up under severe scrutiny and was not in favor with the regime does not diminish the inherent capacity of music to better elude strict political control.

When we think of everyday life under the two most brutal dictators of the century, Stalin and Hitler, the tendency has been to think about heroes and heroines–individuals who, in some Hollywood-like fashion, stood up to terror and risked martyrdom and, more often than not, achieved it. Those are the stories we like to tell, even though few of us possess either the character or the courage to act in the same way. Heroes and heroines are and always will be the exceptions. For most of us, the will to survive necessitates a large spectrum of adjustments to realities over which we perceive very little or no control. Most people want to be left alone to pursue their private lives. Others with ambition to achieve something in the public arena quickly encounter the need to compromise–to “play ball,” so to speak–in order to give their own hopes and dreams a chance to become real. Those of us who have lived with the privilege of freedom are often too quick to condemn those who have compromised and have eluded an open conflict with authority–those for whom the thought of terror, death, and the inability to work were far too frightening. But no one can doubt that the consequences of resistance and defiance under Stalin were severe and swift.

In today’s concert we turn to individuals who were not martyrs, dissidents, or resisters. They were artists of stature and achievement. In our simplified view from the outside it is easy to turn any society into a picture with only good and evil participants. To live in the world and to function in any capacity, including that of being an artist, requires varying degrees of grayness and ambiguity.

The two figures on this program who are the most intriguing are Myaskovsky and Shostakovich. Shostakovich is far better known. The Fifteenth Symphony, his last, was written in a time that was perhaps the most awkward for the composer since the debacle surrounding Stalin’s reaction to his Lady Macbeth in the late 1930s. With the explosion of open dissidence in a neo-Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich, a senior and revered figure, allowed his name to be used on the side of the state against individuals such as Andrei Sakharov whose names now have become legendary symbols of the struggle for freedom. But the Shostakovich case is profoundly complicated. He was one of the great examples of how a genius with a nearly unparalleled musical imagination and a profound spirituality struggled to function under totalitarianism. He continued to work, to write, and to exist as a musician. He was at one and the same time part of a “system” and a thorn in its side. The music mirrors the anguish and complexity of his circumstance and speaks on many levels, particularly to posterity. Shostakovich reveals without question the necessity of music as a form of personal expression and as an arena that ultimately can resist and elude political appropriation and domination.

The case of Myaskovsky is less well known but comparable in that a profoundly talented composer struggled to adapt to changing circumstances and survived as a professional. Unlike the other arts, an orchestral composition needs to be heard and put on stage. It cannot exist–as a book or a painting can–without being performed publicly. And the public performance is ultimately controlled by those who command political and economic power. Compromise and collaboration become unavoidable if one wants one’s work to be heard and wants a public in one’s own time.

The case of Tikhon Khrennikov may strike many listeners as the most puzzling and unfamiliar. He did more than cooperate and find a way to survive. He became a leading official of the state. By assuming power, he was responsible for the hated system. In retrospect, there are those who would defend him by saying that under his leadership things were actually better than otherwise might have been the case. From the perspective of this concert, the question in the end is–what kind of music did he write and how does it now fare with audiences when the evil with which he was associated has become historical and is no longer contemporary? If one is unable to approach the music dispassionately, it is interesting to hear what officially sanctioned music sounds like. How does it adapt to our ears? does it evoke its political context or origin?

An obvious example of how official music can end up successfully shedding the skin, so to speak, of its origins is Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. At the end of the day, how does the music of Tikhon Khrennikov strike us, even though he, like many other composers of greater and lesser distinction, can hardly be viewed as having been a saint or an admirable political personality? Music does not always live in harmony, side by side with virtue.

This concert, therefore, is designed to be provocative, in the first instance, as a precis of a very important and grim era in the Soviet Union in which musical life, particularly in a moment of extreme unfreedom, was vital to many, many people. The concert hall was one of the few public gathering spaces marginally independent of rigid control, where personal expression, however camouflaged, was still possible. Second, this concert forces us to think about the relationship among politics, personal ethics, and art. The music should force each of us to look with a differentiated sensibility on the predicament of those who sought to live and function in some plausible way and to continue their vocations as artists in a context that made unreasonable demands and inevitably distorted any natural impulse to distance oneself from radical evil.