Fin de Siècle

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As we confront the fin de siécle of the twentieth century with the hope and apprehension that often marks our self-consciousness about changing units of time, it is perfectly reasonable that we would want to reflect on the beginning of the current century, to learn what we can from our predecessors’ similar experience, to seek connection with them and so define our own place in history. Only after World War II did the beginning of the twentieth century become sufficiently removed to be made into an object of increasing historical and cultural fascination which, when selectively retold, can help to explain our own times. In Mahler’s music, for example, those elements have been emphasized which seem to suggest the seeds of modernity and a critical commentary on the claims of nineteenth-century romanticism. Mahler has come to embody the tortured loss of innocence about progress and reason with which we associate this century. Few in the early 1900s might have predicted that Mahler would emerge even as one of the most popular composers in the late twentieth century, let alone as a voice of modern angst. Mahler’s iconographic appeal has been triumphant among both general audiences and a very ambitious (if somewhat pretentious) school of intellectuals. At one time we thought that there was too much focus on Beethoven. We may now be approaching a similar phase with Mahler.

But in the years after the post-1960s Mahler craze, our fin-de-siécle penchant for historical reflection has initiated a reawakening of interest in his contemporaries–particularly Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, both of whom are represented in this program. Chronologically, these composers are more colleagues of Arnold Schoenberg than of Mahler. Furthermore, unlike Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky managed to excel in the field of opera. Both composers were crucial to the evolution of opera in the years between Parsifal (1882) and Wozzeck (1925). Schreker died in 1934 and Zemlinsky less than a decade later (1942, in relative obscurity in Larchmont, New York). Their posthumous careers, however, were not helped by either of the two opposing phenomena of the early twentieth century which so influenced the course of modern musical art: Nazi aesthetics and anti-Semitism on the one hand, and the mid-century dominance of Schoenberg and Stravinsky as pillars of “authentic” modern music, on the other.

Indeed, the aesthetic world which shaped these three composers was not the radical novelty and chaos and turbulence of post-1918 Europe. In this sense, despite their closer temporal proximity to Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schreker aesthetically belong alongside Mahler. But it is also space as well at time which binds these three great figures together. All three were profoundly influenced by the city of Vienna, in which they all studied. Zemlinsky was among the most successful students of composition to come out of the Vienna Conservatory. Early in his career, he won extravagant praise and quickly became the elder statesman of the post-Brahms generation of Vienna. He taught Alma Mahler (with whom he had an affair), and Arnold Schoenberg (whose brother-in-law he would later become). After World War I, Zemlinsky was extremely active as a conductor in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. But in the 1920s, his music seemed out of step and therefore fell out of fashion. Franz Schreker, who among other things, premiered Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, became an important teacher in Berlin in the 1920s. His music too experienced some decline in popularity in the 1920s. In Schreker’s case, the early operas of Hindemith, the success of Kurt Weill, and of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck also lent Schreker’s music the aura of being reflective of a pre-World War I aesthetic. But whatever stylistic characterization one wishes to make, these two were great and prolific composers. Through the efforts of Christopher Hailey, Schreker’s modern biographer, and Antony Beaumont–and in the arena of performance, James Conlon–the music of these composers is finally getting a wider distribution.

Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schreker help us to understand the world of fin-de-siécle Vienna in a new and more complicated way. Vienna has long stood in the popular imagination as a center of elegant, insulated culture–the epitome of fanciful visions of European refinement lost after two world wars. Among scholars, fin-de-siécle Vienna has been generally characterized as a city whose people sensed impending doom, a culture “in decline” caught between conservative thinkers who fiercely resisted the coming firestorm of modernism and seminal innovators including Freud and Wittgenstein. But more recent revisions of Viennese history have suggested that, contrary to popular myth-making, modernism was embraced by many: Mahler was lionized in Vienna and extremely successful there. The important break with the tastes of the Viennese audience really occurred with Opp. 9 and 10 of Schoenberg (1907-8). But even in the case of Schoenberg, as the 1913 premiere of Gurrelieder points out, he too enjoyed success in that city. And if we long for the myth of the lost, bittersweet elegance of Viennese society, we might want also to acknowledge how deeply tainted it was by the ubiquitous anti-Semitism which all of these composers experienced.

The historical Vienna was actually defined not by refined frivolity, but by a pervasive cosmopolitanism with all its attendant richness and conflict. It was the center of medicine, science, philosophy, painting, architecture, and theater. Its huge immigrant community and polyglot quarters and neighborhoods lent its artists a remarkably diverse resource of traditions and cultures. True, the image of “old Vienna” in the years between 1780 and 1848 (Joseph II to Franz Joseph) was heavily sentimentalized, but this nostalgia filled the gap between two important historical legacies. One of these was the fact Vienna was a relatively new city, everything before 1683 having been destroyed by the Ottomans; it was therefore an urban landscape of Baroque splendor. The second factor was that as a city Vienna was constantly updating itself, as is best symbolized by the construction of the Ringstrasse. One of the clearest indications of Vienna’s aggressive cosmopolitanism was its pervasive interest in and borrowing from cultures beyond Europe. For example, Mahler’s use of Chinese elements in Das Lied von der Erde is well know. And the collection that Zemlinsky turned to for his Symphonic Songs, Afrika singt, was an extremely popular anthology of poems of the Harlem Renaissance translated –very loosely–into German.

Vienna consisted therefore of much more than the preconceptions we might cull from Freud, Klimt, and Mahler. It was an irresistible magnet to young people of talent. This was particularly true in music and theater; it is no accident that Zemlinsky and Schreker were opera composers and Mahler a great opera conductor. As young artists they were drawn to the city in which musical theater had dominated since the eighteenth century. But having made Vienna their base, where did these three budding legends of modernism go within that city to perfect their craft? What institution on the very forefront of the changing cycle helped each of them break his distinct path into the twentieth century? It was the Vienna Conservatory–an unlikely candidate indeed.

After 1875, Viennese musical life experienced a distinct divide in aesthetic taste between those who associated themselves with Wagner and those who allied with Brahms (though the opposition was not so strongly felt among the composers themselves). The Vienna Conservatory was largely dominated by friends of Brahms. The distinct sense from the mid-1870s on that, despite Bruckner’s presence on the faculty, the Conservatory was anti-Wagnerian and rather conservative was increased by the 1880s, when Brahms, who sat on the Conservatory board of directors, became a powerful force in the musical politics of the city.

One member of the faculty whom Brahms particularly admired was Robert Fuchs. It was through Fuchs’s classes at the Conservatory that all the younger composers on tonight’s program passed. Fuchs taught at the Conservatory from 1875 to 1912. His curriculum was profoundly traditional, reflecting his respect for historical forms and practices. In addition to the composers on tonight’s program, Fuchs taught Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt (between 1889-91), Jean Sibelius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Franz Schreker studied with Fuchs beginning in 1892, and again later studied composition with him. Fuchs considered Schreker “particularly talented” and “remarkably productive.” Fuchs made no secret of his skepticism about Schreker’s great masterpiece Die ferne Klang (from which tonight’s work is drawn), but Schreker retained throughout his life an enormous amount of affection for Fuchs. Their friendship extended through the period in which Fuchs composed his Third Symphony. Fuchs ultimately was very tolerant and relatively neutral with respect to the ambitions of his pupils, though his own compositions never embraced modernism. And many of Fuchs’s students were grateful for his insistence that they command a great variety of forms, particularly classical forms such as the serenade, in which, as Fuchs’s own successful Serenade demonstrates, the teacher himself excelled.

As a composer, Fuchs’s output of nearly 120 works is dominated by chamber music. The first Serenade from 1874 in D major was his first very well known work. There are also one published opera and many songs as well as choral works. The Third Symphony was written nearly a decade after Brahms’s death, and reflects a powerful command of the formal procedures of symphonic writing. But it is not nearly as conservative as one might imagine. The year of composition, 1907, was personally significant to Fuchs because it marked his sixtieth birthday and his award of an honorary pension from the Emperor himself. Fuchs’s remarkable knowledge of form and harmonic procedures are evident in this work; one has a glimpse of the highest standard of compositional practice and of accepted wisdom which a new generation confronted. These are the conventions of composition to which one can consider Schoenberg’s Treatise on Harmony from 1911 as a response.

That it is Robert Fuchs, emblem of Brahmsian conservatism, who should provide the common thread between three utterly disparate modernist composers, elucidates the lesson to be learned from the last fin de siécle. The connection of generations, teacher and pupil, and musical practices allow us to appreciate the evolutionary dimension of the shift from the late nineteenth century to expressionism and finally to modernism in the twentieth. The end of the cycle is therefore never a true rupture, no matter how great the differences in eras or stylistic surfaces seem to be. Rather, like Yeats’s “widening gyre” the new always carries at least some of history in itself.