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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC

Reflections of a Music Publisher

by ERNST ROTH

Part II: MUSIC AND THE MIND

 Art is a phenomenon not of biology but of history - R. G. Collingwood

1. INTRODUCTION

 In the niches of the facade of Garnier's Academie Nationale de Musique in Paris, the Grand Opera, are placed four busts of composers who, a century ago, must presumably have been regarded as the worthiest representatives of opera or of music generally: Mozart next to Spontini, Beethoven next to Auber. It is always a desperately diffcult task to choose just four names from the multitude of acknowledged masters. But surely the selection at the Place de l'Opera is particularly strange. Who made the mistake: experts or public?

The answer is that, while the public was not directly consulted, it misled the experts by heaping successes on both Spontini and Auber, at one time even preferring Spontini's Vestale to his neighbour's Don Giovanni and Auber's Muette de Portici to Beethoven's Fidelio. And the same public afterwards calmly stabbed the experts in the back by consigning Spontini and Auber to oblivion. Now the reminder in golden letters is as ineffective as it seems irreparable.

Those were the days when the public, the generality of uncommitted music-lovers, ruled the musical scene, passing judgement or revising it, unconcerned with the opinion of experts but guided by an instinct which corrected every initial mistake as surely as the needle of the compass always corrects itself

Those days are over. Public judgement and public rule are suspended. The material changes of the art, transportation and preservation, protection and profitability have gone hand in hand with a revolution, inside the art, the speed and thoroughness of which far exceed all the known changes of the past. All that happened before in music was evolution, transition from style to style, from intention to intention; through the last three hundred years we can follow music from erudition to beauty, from beauty to expression. Wagner and even Richard Strauss felt indebted to Gluck as their spiritual ancestor, despite the vast difference between his music and theirs. But in the last fifty years there has been a break which has left no spiritual kinship between old and new music. Music now strives to cut itself off from its past, indeed from its most glorious past, from its Golden Age. This would be painful even if the results were more manageable.

If a similar revolution has taken place in painting and sculpture, it has been mitigated by the fact that no comparable Golden Age preceded it, and that this revolution has found itself a label by calling its works 'abstract'. A label is reassuring; it creates a category and defines a direction. If one has a label one knows, or believes one knows, what one is doing. But new music will not accept a label or submit to a heading. Whatever one calls it, dodecaphonic or serial, structural or indeterminate, it will not allow itself to be nailed down. It still seems to scatter in all directions away from the solid and great achievements of the recent past.

This is bound to irritate and disorientate the uncommitted music-lover, to whom new music generally has become strange and remote. 'Is it right,' he must ask, 'that Beethoven, who has been dead for almost a century and a half, still means so much to me, while Boulez, living next door to me, means so little?' The answer to this simple question would be equally simple if one were to assume, as quite a few people do, that the revolution in music was the inconsiderate vandalism of a few wayward rebels. But half a century of destruction and experiment without apparent new purpose, or with so many conflicting purposes as to obscure any clear line of development, indicates some deep-seated disturbance.

This is why this strange and remote new music deserves and requires to be taken seriously. If one cannot live with it as one still lives with all the earlier music from Bach to Debussy, one must at least try to find out where one stands and how the present confusion fits into the context of the past. In life as well as in art there have been good and bad times, which have not been welcomed with the same enthusiasm and have not left posterity with the same sense of admiration. But bad times, too, have their relevance and cannot be dismissed. Nothing is as tantalizing as the feeling of having lost contact with the times. Assessing the time, measuring what it can create, comparing and contrasting the present with the past, may supply no guidance for the future, but may still restore the confidence which the uncommitted music-lover has lost Anxious questions will have to be asked and answered, questions which have been avoided in all the writings about new music. They are useless for the composer working under the compulsion of forces of which he is unaware. They are vital and inescapable for those who cannot find consolation in their bewilderment.

In these fateful years of change and revolution many musicians have crossed my path, from the greatest of my time to the undernourished and underpaid young proof-reader whom I successfully recommended as conductor of the Viennese performances of Brecht-Weill's Beggar's Opera-to his eternal gratitude. Poor fellow! He never looked as if he could weather the storm.

If one spends a lifetime at the foot of Olympus one might hope to meet the Olympians, superior beings enjoying their own genius and fulness of life without ever looking over their shoulders, without resentments, sure of themselves and of their mission. I must confess that I have never met such an Olympian. Perhaps he did not exist in my time any more. Or has music always been incapable of breeding such Olympians?

Music is curiously enclosed within itself. It seems to know nothing but its own creator. The visual arts and literature must take note of the world around them and assume an attitude towards it, but music is impervious to any knowledge and wisdom. Whatever the composer wishes to be, apart from being a composer, his work will not disclose it Nor does music meet with the other arts; it collides with them. Poetry, in particular, is crushed by it. Whatever has been written about it in the last two hundred years, it remains unalterably true that music sucks the marrow from even the sublimest text. This anonymity and cruelty are bound to be reflected in the character of the musician. Musicians generally may not be evil but they certainly are not good-Liszt being perhaps the only notable exception. (Beethoven may have dreamt of an ideal human race but he hardly counted any of his contemporaries among it. And Richard Wagner was almost evil.) To do good is not the task of music, nor of its creators. Music has no vocabulary for it, no words for love of mankind and for selflessness. And where there is no vocabulary, there is no awareness of the object. There lies a thorny contradiction. No other art gives itself away so freely, receives its re-creator with such open arms as music does-or did, until fairly recently. It makes the man in the musician all the more fascinating, the man who knows and feels only himself and still scatters his riches among the people, friends and strangers alike.

And this brotherhood of envy and selfishness has been faced with the most formidable artistic and human problems. How did they stand or lose their ground? There is a human side to the whole struggle for and against a new art in the midst of a changing world which must not be forgotten when talking of music. For one of the major issues in our time is the personality, the individuality of creative man.

 2. 'LA MUSICA A' MIEI TEMPI'

Every generation sings, with Rossini's Bartolo, 'La musica a' miei tempi era altra cosa,' trying to justify its preposterous veneration of old or dislike of new music. This is and remains one of the strangest phenomena of music-at least, of European music. One is somewhat surprised to hear Americantype pop-songs from Japanese singers and marching songs after the Russian model from Chinese demonstrators. At school we were told that in Korea, more than in any other part of the Far East, life and customs had remained unchanged for two thousand years, yet this did not prevent both North and South Koreans from having all the planes and tanks and guns to wage war in its most modern form. In Europe things did not happen with such unexpected suddenness, but life changed again and again, sometimes for reasons which seemed obvious and sometimes inexplicably. Nothing gave more convincing evidence of such changes of thought, mood, enterprise, fashion or food than the arts; but no old art fell into such disrepute as music. If the artists of the Italian Renaissance despised the barbaric gothic style of the North, their reverence for the older Greek and Roman classicism was boundless; if we do not now build as Kallikrates built or paint as Raphael painted or write poetry as Homer or Milton did, the old masterworks have none the less lost nothing of their validity. They are a constantly re-valued and upgraded asset in the balance sheet of mankind. Who could seriously pretend that Bramante's light was dimmed by Le Corbusier, or that Leonardo's stature has been reduced by Picasso? Yet in music not one artist has arisen who, over the centuries, has added to our patrimony. One becomes more painfully aware of this strange mortality of music in an age which is again turning away from the past, with all the old radicalism. When the symphony of the eighty-year-old Zoltan Kodaly was first performed in Lucerne he said, as if to excuse it, 'This is the music of my time'- la musica a' miei tempi.

The latest music is not 'the music of my time'. I must try to find, amid all the stormy changes of the last fifty years, the point where I was left behind, a point not so easily determined that I can say without hesitation which precise work at which precise date was still just within my range. One has to be honest with oneself. In my case I am following the phenomenon of ageing with a certain critical curiosity; I disapprove of my inclination to halt the world at a particular moment and to dread any change because, unwillingly, I believe that everything that follows must be inferior to what has gone before. This applies not only to music but to many minor and major habits of daily life, to places, to people. I can therefore still understand the latest developments in a tech-nical sense, and regret their necessity, but I no longer take part in them.

This does not mean that one has to return to one's first love, like Otto Klemperer or Ernest Ansermet and many other former champions of the new, much less try to prove, for merely biological reasons, the exclusive validity of the old and the invalidity of the new. This is especially true if, instead of attempting to assess the value of the new, one is content with a comparison, leaving any verdict to the public in the widest sense which, without considera-tion of new gods, their prophets or detractors, is the only competent architect of the temples of the arts.

When I made my first acquaintance with music, electric tram-ways were not the only astounding innovation: Richard Wagner too was the subject of violent debate. There were serious experts who insisted that Wagner had destroyed all musical form and that his 'endless' melody was a contradiction in itself because form was definite and a fundamental requirement of all melody. I seem to remember that the harmonic freedom of Wagner's music was much less debated. The 'Tristan sequence' certainly sounded strange but it was not yet accused, as it is today, of corrupting our whole tonal system. I remember a summer holiday spent with my parents and the family of a schoolfriend of mine in a house buried amid the enormous forests of Northern Bohemia, when in ten weeks my friend's mother, an able pianist with a small but expressive voice and also an enthusiastic Wagnerite, took me through every bar and every note of the Ring, playing, singing, explaining, to persuade me that music had not ended with Mozart and Beethoven, as I was inclined to believe. I can still hear her singing 'Des seimigen Metes sussen Trank wirst du mir nicht verschmahen . . .' and her quiet insistence that no sweeter or more beautiful tune had been written before or since. She did not, in the end, make me a Wag-nerite, a blind admirer of everything Wagner wrote and of how he wrote it, but perhaps I was not made for any kind of blindness.

Brahms too was 'new', but he presented no problems. One could like his music without getting into arguments with one's friends Tchaikovsky, no less new, was labelled a barbarian--apparently synonymous with Russian, more of which language was heard in Prague, where I grew up, than anywhere else outside Russia. Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov were often played, not so much for their music as for their political sympathies and opposition to Austro-German domination. But the musical revolution really came from Debussy and Richard Strauss. Of the two Debussy was, in Prague, more a rumour than a living person. I remember vaguely 'L'Apres-midi d'un faune' at the Czech Philharmonic, and the irritation it caused me afterwards when I found that I could remember no more than the very first phrase. On the other hand Strauss's symphonic poems were often played. Conductors loved them and we, the young audiences, were enchanted with them. This, for us, was new music, harmonic freedom, springy rhythm, ravishing sound and harsh clashes, and all this without demolishing all the notions of the glorious past. One could hear in the same concert Beethoven's Seventh and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel and one could see the bridge spanning a century.

In 1909 I heard Elektra (Salome had been performed too but was presumably considered unsuitable for a schoolboy). That new music was indeed more violent, and more dissonant. With Mozart and Haydn it had been a lovely little angel, now smiling, now weeping. Beethoven had introduced a brutality which Haydn found abhorrent, but now, in unguarded moments at least, the little angel had become a raging fury. Elektra was easily the most dissonant-sounding piece of pre-war years, not excepting Stravinsky's Rite of Spring written five years later. What a change from Donna Anna's 'Vendetta ti chiedo !' to Elektra's 'Vater! Agamem-non, dein Tag wird kommen'! Two years later, though, there followed the sensational success of Rosenkavalier. I well remember the white and green posters with Roller's figurine which could be seen on the hoardings in Prague and, strange as it may sound today, there were special trains which took music-lovers from Prague to Dresden, 150 miles away, across the border in Saxony; but in those blessed days one needed no passport and Austrian crowns were as good as German marks. I was surprised to hear the experts among them my music-teacher, who was a simpleton-- say that with Rosenkavalier Strauss had withdrawn from the ranks of the avant-garde and returned to the security of big royalties and small objectives. For me, certainly, the work did not have the cyclopic grandeur of Elektra but it had instead a fragrance which no other music had and which has not diminished with many years of close acquaintance.

Looking back, I can understand better the disappointment of the young. The break seems to have occurred some time between 1908 and 1911: in 1911 Petrushka was first performed, in I9I2', Pierrot lunaire, in I9I 3 The Rite of Spring and Ariadne auf Naxos. The ways had divided. Some said that the end of music had arrived--which they had not said of Elektra--while others, such as Florent Schmitt in Paris and Alfred Kerr in Berlin, spoke of 'new steps of listening', whatever that may have meant. Those who relied on their ears, which until then had exercised supreme authority in music, could only observe that in evil times music, too, had to sound dissonant--although in 1913 there was as yet no conclusive proof that the times were really evil.

Dissonance has a long history, and it is not easy to find a clear connection between its development and that of the times. Before J. S. Bach, chromaticism was considered cacophonous; even at the time of his death conservative musicians still looked upon it as a symptom of disease. But composers became used to using all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and dissonances stole in like thieves at night. The introduction to Mozart's string quartet in C major, K. 465, of I785 is intriguing not because of the disson-ances themselves but because of the still unrecognizable intention behind them. Twenty years later Beethoven combined a sustained dominant seventh with the common chord. People called it one of Beethoven's frequent extravaganzas and were reconciled when the dissonance ruefully resolved itself and returned to the beloved E Iqat major. In the Seventh such comfort was not easily to be had, but 'Not these sounds,' said Beethoven later, rejecting his own violent discord.

Yet this did not prevent younger composers from rattling at the locked doors of the harmonic edifice wherein they felt themselves more and more closely confined. Schubert experimented, not always happily and not always with restraint, in getting from one key to another, distant one without walking the long corridors of the usual modulations. Chopin heard hidden enharmonic relationships which loosened the fabric of tonality so much that Wagner, with an ear not perhaps naturally sharper but sharpened by new circumstances, could advance from Lohengrin to the Tristan sequence; for in Lohengrin tonality had already breached its banks. One only had to continue in this way, adding more and more vehemence in keeping with a world that became noisier every day, and one arrived at Strauss and Debussy--and Gustav Mahler, too, though Mahler's works were then so rarely played that they could not be regarded a@s a characteristic feature of musical life. It was all an apparently consistent development or progressive change, leading up to Schoenberg's Pierrot and Stravinsky's Rite.

One would not get very far in trying to relate the progressive change in music to the progression of extra-musical events. The period between Bach and Mozart was comparatively quiet in Europe, though one might say that it was then that the seeds of future troubles in politics, economics and music were sown. Mozart and Haydn, the fathers of the French Opera Comique, Cimarosa, Paisiello, to name only the most outstanding musicians of the time, all witnessed the French Revolution, but their music was un-affected. It had already gained a large measure of that freedom which, in other contexts, led to great social and political convul-sions. Beethoven, however, was affected by both the spirit and the letter of the new era. His music had an earthy or democratic quality as distinct from, or even opposed to, the more aristocratic attitude of Mozart's or Haydn's; it had what his contemporaries, with a mixture of shock and fascination, called vulgarity. But Beethoven, like Mozart and Haydn, is called a 'classic', though musical classicism has little or nothing in common with literary or architectural classicism except in its formal perfection. Some-thing was stirring within life and within the arts, of which Beethoven may be regarded as a forerunner.

The industrial revolution, a reality in England, a distant fear on the Continent, may have sparked off the Romantic movement, with its nostalgia for a vanishing dream-world. At this point there is a much closer resemblance between the arts, between Schumann and Eichendorff. It was the same flight of fancy in each case, trying to escape from reality and knowing nothing but its own jubilant or aching heart. 'Programme music', Berlioz and Liszt, belong spiritually to Victor Hugo and all of them to Wagner and to his Gesamtkunstwerk, the 'total' work of art embracing all the arts in one and the same aim, a thing that had never and could never have been thought of before. Music had indeed joined company with the other arts, reflecting as they did in some half-conscious way the coming of the greatest change in European life and temper.

In the last decade before the Great War there was no need for apparently far-fetched theories. The kinship between Renoir and Debussy was obvious; that of Schoenberg-Stravinsky and Picasso-Braque-Derain's 'analytical cubism' even more so. Together music and the other arts conspired against all tradition.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that music was the last blossom flowering in the autumn of the relevant culture, a language of a bygone era arriving too late; and that 'all truly significant music is a swansong'. This has certainly been true of the past. Gothic music was much less complicated than the finely chiselled stone decorations on the windows, walls, portals and towers of the cathedrals where it was sung, but, more important, it had nothing of their grandeur, nothing of the mystery of their dark, high vaults. Music, indeed, missed the great movement of the Renaissance altogether. What we know as Renaissance music is really gothic in the feeling of its polyphonic tracery, unaware of the clear, straight lines of Renaissance art. Up to that time Nietzsche was obviously right.

Then, quite inexplicably, music caught up with Baroque art. It is difficult to understand why Nietzsche thought Handel's music was the true expression of the Lutheran spirit. With its coloraturas and fiorituras, with its ravishing beauty of sound, Baroque music seems to come from the same intellectual climate as the large canvases and painted ceilings with their exuberant colours and movements, the fantastic, gilded interiors of Baroque churches and palaces. Music suddenly found its rightful place and became as pompous and stilted as the fashion, the style and the language -- and often as hollow. And from that moment--about 1650--music followed close on the heels of the other arts. The musical equivalent of Racine or Claude Lorrain was not Mozart, not Figaro or Don Giovanni, but the opera seria, the tragedie lyrique which was finally interred with Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito. Far from being a swansong, Mozart's music was a premonitian and we have seen how, in the nineteenth century, it could never again be left behind.

How music springs from the unconscious will perhaps never be explained. But it has acquired an almost prophetic quality, it has become a most sensitive seismograph which records every tremor of emotion. There is some consistency in this development: music had to become up to date as Baroque music had done. It had to possess itself of all its means, as the music of Mozart and Haydn did, it had then to become individual and personal as Mozart had already foreshadowed and Beethoven then consummated; and from there it found its way into the greater mystery of the human mind. It was the end of a long road from a craft to an art. It was this new quality of music which, in the nineteenth century, drove the stormclouds of coming change across its once serene skies and led inexorably to the crisis of the years before the First World War. By then it was no longer concerned with external problems of composition alone, but with the convulsions of the time itself--with the soul.

Looking back at those pre-war days, which seem now as far away as the days of Charlemagne, I cannot help wondering how and why the arts alone were driven to warn the world of the impending catastrophe. I am not using this strong word lightly: in I9I4 mankind left its secure dwellings to wander into the wilderness of half-imagined, half-formulated new ideals and has not settled again to this day. Up to that fateful summer day in 1914 lifewas indeed secure, to a degree that seems almost un-believable to us: diplomats, though as dangerous as ever, were proverbially polite; currencies were reliably stable; the greater part of the world was open and travellers needed no passports but could settle where they wanted and take all their money and possessions with them; summers were hot and winters cold, the rich were rich and the poor were poor, and everything was in its proper place. True, there were some incidents, wars in Manchuria and in the Balkans, which fertilized the toy industry but did not disturb the prevailing sense of satisfaction.

Only the arts were nervous, upset and uncomfortable, as if they had the animal's instinctive awareness of an approaching storm. There is a passage in the Klytemnestra scene from Elektra, easily the harshest piece of music before the Rite, which mirrors the whole situation: in the midst of the most violent harmonic clashes there comes (at figure I68) an almost honeyed phrase in thirds and sixths: 'Wenn einer etwas Angenehmes sagt'--'If someone says something agreeable'. Many agreeable things were said, but the arts did not believe them. For the people, the public, there was still much consolation to be found in Verdi, then almost contemporary, in Puccini, whose sun shone brightly, and in Viennese operetta and its sweet, illusionist tunes.

It is an intriguing thought that the statesmen of the last decade before the First World War could have consulted not only their diplomatic files but, perhaps with the help of psychiatrists, the arts as well. They might have gleaned there some wisdom no other visible fact could provide, a warning that something was stirring in the human mind which might escape their control and set the whole world on fire. But the outraged conservatives would not look for enlightenment, nor could the radical innovators spell out the reasons for their malaise. So fate had to take its course, as in a Greek tragedy, and everyone professed surprise.

War broke out, suddenly and, as it seemed, senselessly. So tenuous was all the elaborate security that a few shots in a far corner of the Balkans unleashed a conflagration without parallel in European history. War came not as a hollow-cheeked fury with a flaming torch, running howling through the land, but as a paper ghost, pasting with remarkable composure large posters on walls calling men to arms for reasons which were either unintelligible or, if intelligible, unconvincing. This was particularly true in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, composed as it was of a dozen nations who were determined never again to live together in peace. But, for the present, their uniforms were still the colourful affairs we had seen at school in pictures of the capture of Belgrade by Prince Eugen.

Like all wars, it did the arts no good. Gold went for steel and pens for rifles. It was like a change of scene on a darkened stage. When, five years later, the lights went up again nothing stood where it had been before. We came home from the war like Enoch Arden: the world had taken to new ideals.

Music, in particular, broke out of its stable like a wild horse and became atonal. How all the good old rules went with the wind! Atonality was not just a new light. It was a bomb, threaten-ing to blast the once luxurious palace of music to the ground. That fitted well into the general mood of destruction, which had priority over every thought of reconstruction. We had not freed ourselves. Time and circumstance had done it for us, by an inexorable process. For six hundred and fifty years Austria's destinies, accord-ing to the old National Anthem, had been united with the Hapsburg throne, a much more ancient union than that of music with tonic and dominant. If the one was dispensable, why not the other? Those were great days: the days of collages, of Dadaism and Sur-realist manifestos. All this was atonal, intended to destroy the past root and branch. The futurists of the past had become the artists of the present, and if the general political and economic confusion made the new world less desirable than the old had been, the arts at least seemed to enjoy the new paradise.

But musicians had to think of the future. Complete freedom is a fickle friend. If a new art was to arise from chaos it had to find shelter in new rules.

 

 

 

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