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.

Symphony No. 2 in E Major, Op. 40 (1944/56)

By Peter Laki

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

The legendary Hungarian composer-pianist-conductor Ernst von Dohnányi wrote two symphonies, both of which are monumental works of about one hour’s duration. (Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have previously performed the First Symphony, which Mr. Botstein has also recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.) In a way, the two works stand as bookends marking, respectively, the dawn and the twilight of a brilliant career. The D-minor work was written in 1900-01 when Dohnányi was in his early twenties, at a time when the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner were still “new music.” (As a teenager, the composer had received crucial early encouragement from Brahms.) The young Dohnányi handled the symphonic tradition of his elders with an originality that made a deep impression on his younger friend Béla Bartók.

Two world wars and two emigrations later, Dohnányi—now close to eighty—finished the revised version of his second symphony in Tallahassee, Florida. He began the work in Hungary in 1943, and had continued amidst such traumatic events as the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and Dohnányi’s flight from the country in November of the same year. The first and last movements were essentially completed in Hungary, with the middle movements added in Austria. Norman Del Mar and the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in London on November 23, 1948.

But Dohnányi was not entirely satisfied with the composition, and several years later set about revising it. The new version was premiered by Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on March 15, 1957. The date—the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1848—is significant, as is the fact that Dorati was a nephew of Dohnányi’s first wife, Elza Kunwald and thus related to the composer. After the premiere, Dohnányi made one more significant change, rewriting the fifth variation of the last movement, following a discussion with Dorati.

Dohnányi’s style, formed at the end of the nineteenth century, had not changed fundamentally during the sixty-plus years of his composing career. Yet the half-century that had elapsed between the two symphonies may be felt in the harsher harmonies and more extreme emotions of the E-major work. (It does begin and end in E major, but the second movement is in D flat, the third in F, and the finale starts in C minor.) The opening motif is based on the tonally destabilizing tritone interval, and the wide range of keys traversed by the music makes the highest demands on the tonal system, venturing far into a post-Mahlerian musical world.

Similarly to the First Symphony, there are strong thematic connections among the movements of the Second. One of the themes in the first movement functions as a true leitmotif, serving as a central idea in both the slow movement and the finale, and the opening tritone idea returns at the very end of the symphony to provide a sense of unity for the entire gigantic construction.

Yet the brief third movement, titled “Burla,” seems to come from a different world. Its intentionally trivial melodies and blatantly coarse sound bring to mind the scherzos of Shostakovich, whose Tenth Symphony is approximately contemporaneous with the revised version of Dohnányi’s work. The epic sweep of the other movements contrasts sharply with the sarcasm of this “Burla.”

The transition to the finale, which is essentially a set of variations and fugue on J.S. Bach’s sacred song “Komm, süsser Tod” (Come, sweet death), is particularly jarring. This finale, the longest of the symphony’s movements, is the crown of the work—a dramatic buildup culminating in a glorious climax.

In his program notes for the Minneapolis premiere of the revised version, Donald Ferguson quoted a personal letter from Dohnányi, in which the composer explained the work’s philosophical background by a reference to one of the great classics of Hungarian literature, The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madach (1823-1864). This dramatic poem, which comments on human destiny from the day of Creation through a utopian future, contains the famous line, “The goal is death—life is a struggle.” These words were evidently much on the mind of the composer, who had based one of his most substantial works, the oratorio Cantus vitae, on The Tragedy of Man. The essence of life is not to be sought in some higher “goal” but in the process of life itself—a teaching in which Dohnányi, at the end of a life filled with much glory but also plenty of hardship, must have found deep solace and comfort.

Violin Concerto in D Major (1931)

By Maya Pritsker

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

Igor Stravinsky did not like the term “neoclassicism.” “The word is overused. It means nothing at all,” stated the composer in an interview in 1930, a year before his Violin Concerto was written. The term stayed however, and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is considered a fine example of neoclassical style. Though like any great work of art, there is much more to it than any one term can offer.

During the 1920s, Igor Stravinsky continued his quest for an “architecturally” constructed music, devoid of psychological content or descriptiveness, and based on strictly musical technique. In almost every interview during that time he talks about his interest in structure, geometry, and order. “My goal is form,” was his motto.

Where did this aversion to psychological content and open emotionalism come from? Was it the influence of Russian “eurasianism” with its utopian belief in the resurrection of the ancient tribal “accord,” which rejected individual feelings and desires, as opposed to (quoting his talk with Romain Rolland) “decadent” German culture? Was this interest in pure form the result of Stravinsky’s separation from his homeland, which he saw for the last time just a few days before the outbreak of the World War I, thus losing an important cultural ground? Did the desire to “run away from romanticism” come as a natural move of the historical pendulum (or, rather turn on the art spiral), which Stravinsky recognized earlier than other composers? Or was it the result of his natural inclination towards clarity and balance? After all, he grew up in St. Petersburg, where classicism reigned supreme in architecture as well as in other arts and experienced a quasi-revival in Diaghilev’s Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) circle, with which Stravinsky was involved since the late nineteenth century.

No matter what the reasons behind this stylistic development, during the 1920s Stravinsky wrote an impressive chain of compositions in which he explored new possibilities using old principles, forms and procedures; first and foremost, the polyphony of Bach and his predecessors. (The list starts with Pulcinella and includes Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Serenade in A, Oedipus Rex, and Apollon Musagète, among others.) Baroque and classicism became, using Stravinsky’s own words, starting points for his own creative work, and he proved that “the composer can re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction.”

By the year 1929, Stravinsky, who since 1920 had lived in France (after moving there with his wife and three children from Switzerland), was well known in Europe and America, which he first visited in 1925. Around that time, his publisher suggested that the 47 year old composer write a concerto for the violinist Samuel Dushkin, a Polish Jew by origin, a New York student of Leopold Auer and an adopted child of the American composer Blair Fairchild, who eventually paid for the commission. Stravinsky hesitated. He did not play violin himself and did not write violin virtuoso pieces, though in his Histoire du Soldat (1918) he uses a violin solo as an impersonator of the devil. For several years until Oedipus Rex (1927), he even avoided strings in his scores altogether because of a certain suspiciousness he had of the warmth and romantic expressiveness of their sound.

Stravinsky set to work after Paul Hindemith assured him that his lack of experience could only help in creating something original, and Dushkin, who had turned out to be an intelligent and cultural person, expressed eagerness to be on hand to give advice. In December of 1931 Dushkin played the Concerto for the first time. The premiere took place in Berlin with the Berlin Broadcasting Orchestra. Stravinsky conducted. Ten years later, one of Balanchine’s greatest ballets was created using this score, which should not have come as surprise since the music is brilliant instrumental theater, full of gestures, dynamic exchanges, pulsating meters and capricious irregular rhythms. It also contains some of the composer’s most beautiful lyrical music.

The Concerto is laconic: the four contrasting movements last a total of 22 minutes. The movements’ titles – Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio – point to a baroque model, though they were added after the completion of the score as a compass for listeners. However, the composer, as always, does not rely on existing schemes. He listens to demands of his thematic material, follows its own logic and builds unique structures.

The seed for the composition, its “passport” as Stravinsky called it, is a dissonant chord, which opens each movement (and some sections inside) like a call for attention, a signal for a curtain opening. The theater allusion is justified by what follows: Toccata themes pop up as characters in commedia dell’arte and the mood is energetic and bright with a touch of humor and irony. Stravinsky combines baroque melodic “gestures” (such as melismatic figurations or scales) with his signature asymmetrical rhythms. “Horizontal” competition of groups of instruments, typical for the old Concerto Grosso, is spiced up with modern contrasting juxtaposition of distant registers and timbres. Starting the Toccata movement with a loud dissonance, Stravinsky ends it with an unexpected triumphant consonant chord. Sometimes the music – with all of these flitting episodes of different character – seems almost polystilistic. A very modern piece was created out of some old principles.

The Aria I is a two-part polyphonic invention, but its theme, first “sung” by solo violin, is unusually wide in range, and the middle section brings in some dark shadows. However, even this hint of drama is brushed away in the very last bar by a brief, light and “smiling” violin passage.

A sarabande from a Bach suite comes to mind during the first bars of Aria II: expressive violin cantilena floats above a slow succession of chords. The strings, which where used quite economically in previous movements (Stravinsky still preferred the sharp coolness of the winds), dominate here, thus producing one of the rare examples of warmth and melancholy in Stravinsky’s music.

The Capriccio, with its syncopated rhythms, obsessive ostinati and a vivid row of contrasting themes/masks brings back the mood of Toccata, but the blend includes a more evident element of jazz. As one Berlin critic pointed out after the Concerto’s premiere 72 years ago, Stravinsky created an “amusing, incredibly witty music of inspired refinement, music of a thousand touches, and scored as only Stravinsky knows how.”

Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1923)

By Peter Laki

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

Leó Weiner’s career as a composer got off to a brilliant start at the beginning of the twentieth century. His appearance on the scene coincided with the debuts of Bartók and Kodály, but his orientation was different from theirs. His artistic homeland was the world of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, as well as another, perhaps more unlikely favorite: Georges Bizet. Nevertheless, Weiner was open to influences from Hungarian folk music, and found a way of reconciling those influences with his own essentially nineteenth-century outlook. The very specific way in which he had interiorized the romantic tradition made him one of the great chamber-music teachers of the twentieth century. Although not a concert performer himself, he trained generations of performers including Sir Georg Solti, Janos Starker, and many others who credited him with imparting some essential lessons about music and music-making.

The Concertino for Piano has remained a staple in the repertory of many Hungarian pianists, although it is rarely performed outside the country. It was officially dedicated to Ignaz Friedman, the famous Polish virtuoso; but a copy of the two-piano reduction, preserved at the National Library in Budapest, bears a handwritten dedication to Dohnányi—the composer colleague in whom Weiner saw a natural ally, since Dohnányi had also preserved his artistic independence from the new styles of Kodály and Bartók. In fact, it was Dohnányi who played the solo part at the premiere, given at Budapest’s Academy of Music, on March 21, 1926. The same year Friedman performed the work in Stockholm.

The Concertino is in two movements and runs just under twenty minutes in performance. Both movements begin in E minor and end in E major. Weiner ingeniously enriched his basically Chopinesque pianistic idiom by modal turns of a distinctly Hungarian flavor. At first sight, it all seems to be little more than a graceful masquerade, but an early critic felt there was more to the piece: “How much deep, fatefully serious artistic humility lies hidden behind this strainless, superb game; humility towards the material of music, humility toward the laws of harmonies, melodies, rhythms, tone colors and instruments.” And the critic added, “Only he who has devoted his life to searching for the eternal rules of game, who wants to discover the intellectual law of his dreams, desires and passions in the laws of the musical material and nowhere else, can play with the material of music in such a magical manner.”

The second movement is a sparkling rondo with some lyrical episodes and occasional echoes of Hungarian folk music. Its playful tone contrasts effectively with the dreamy romanticism of the first movement.