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.