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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC

Reflections of a Music Publisher

by ERNST ROTH

5. RESURRECTION

Music between the wars was distinguished by its lack of a common style. If it can be dated with a fair degree of accuracy today the criteria are still rather negative: the absence of old-established rules, phrases and turns, rather than any common positive feature, assigns it to its proper place in the calendar of the art. Ravel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Falla, Bartok, Hindemith, Schoenberg are all individually recognizable and hence datable. Where there are no common rules individuality becomes the only guide. Moreover, politics took it upon itself to govern not only public and private life but art as well. It decreed what was healthy art and what was degenerate, and in spite of the different nomenclature the ideas were astonishingly similar. What was called 'cultural bolshevism' on one side was called 'cultural capitalism' on the other. And new music was burnt at the stake. War broke out again and this time it did not come as a surprise. It seemed to be the end of everything.

But when the last bombs had fallen and the dust of ruined cities had settled new music rose like a phoenix from the ashes. It was like a miracle.

How it came about that the new teaching, now more than twenty-five years old and represented only by a mere handful of convincing works, was re-examined and resuscitated will probably never be known. Resurrection did not begin in the United States where Schoenberg himself was teaching and composing-it was rather the younger generations of Germany, France and Italy which awakened to the uncomfortable feeling that the world had left them behind. Or had the knowledge imperceptibly seeped through the cracks of consciousness in spite of war and persecution? Although material destruction in the Second World War exceeded all experience confusion was not as great as it had been after the First. There was not the same dangerous trend towards anarchy, and everything old was so remote and so disgraced that it did not irritate the present. Enough that submerged Atlantis rose to the surface again; only then did the teaching of twelve-note music spread and cease to be the exclusive practice of a black brigade.

The starting-point, however, was not the father and creator of the movement but the less successful and-one would have thought-largely forgotten Anton Webern. He alone of the whole school had resolutely turned away from the past; in him alone the new technique had also produced a new attitude. In his soft sighs there was not a breath of tradition or convention, while Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron was still written and felt in the shadow of Tristan. Both Schoenberg and Webern have orchestrated a work by J. S. Bach: Schoenberg the organ prelude and fugue in E flat major, Webern the 'Ricercare' from the 'Musical Offering'. The choice is characteristic of their different moods, and the results even more so. Schoenberg tried to produce the sound of a super-organ with a large orchestra, so much so that one might ask what purpose such orchestration could serve. Webern's score, on the other hand, looks like any other of Webern's scores. He dissolves Bach's closely-knit parts into a widespread diaphanous tissue, translating Bach into an entirely different world-Webern's world. 'Every work of Webern's is like a finely-cut diamond,' Stravinsky once said to me; not the Koh-i-noor or the Star of Africa, it is true, but a flawless splinter which, under the magnifying-glass of loving study, may even sparkle.

It has rarely happened that an artistic turning-point has been so clearly discernible. Fundamental changes usually develop step by step over a considerable period of time, and new attitudes are not normally found within one generation. But here was Webern accomplishing it alone and leaving his pacemaker far behind, not by merely implementing the new theory but by giving music a new purpose.

Such a turning-point is also a moment of truth for every honest music-lover. I have said before that it is not easy to determine exactly the point where I could no longer follow the development. I had no difficulty with the music of the masters between the wars. This was in the true sense 'la musica a' miei tempi'. I could familiarize myself with the music of Ravel almost as closely as with the music of Brahms. Access to twelve-note music was much more difficult. The vocal score of Wozzeck, for example, conveyed to the player little of the actual sound of the music. One had to hear it and hear it again, and I found that it left a vivid and detailed memory sufficient to reconstruct it when playing from the score. This brought Alban Berg's music within the reach of my understanding.

'Understanding' of music is a rather vague conception, just as vague as the 'meaning' of the music which is to be understood. To understand the technique, to know how it is done, though indispensable for the composer, is irrelevant for the listener. In the last resort understanding of music is no more than a feeling of satisfaction and a desire to hear the piece again. Intimate knowledge of the music itself may find more detailed justification for such satisfaction; for example, the change of key from the dark E flat major to D major when Don Ottavio and Donna Anna enter with lights in the sextet in the second act of Don Giovanni. This is only one of thousands of such major and minor features which strike the listener, even if he does not know exactly why. However, it is only natural that a new work is not so readily understood at a first hearing. I remember how I detested the first of Beethoven's piano sonatas, Opus 2, No. I, after having spent my first four years at the piano with Diabelli, Clementi, Kuhlau, Haydn and Mozart.

If I could, though with some difficulty, follow Alban Berg's music without being troubled by many doubts, I could not say the same of Schonberg's. None of his earlier works-Verklarte Nacht, Pelleas, the First Chamber Symphony seemed to compare favourably with Debussy or Richard Strauss, nor could 'Gurre-Lieder' stand up to Gustav Mahler. Nothing he wrote seemed to have the vigour of Stravinsky's Petrushka or Rite or the wit of Pulcinella. Pierrot lunaire appeared to me as an oversophisticated and pretentious attempt at reviving the long-buried 'melodrama'. But it had a peculiar fascination which did not fade with repeated hearings, and if I could not share it at least it made me appreciate the admiration the work commanded in progressive circles. I was all the more surprised to find it 'dated' when I heard it again towards the end of the war after an intenal of ten years. It had lost the excitement of novelty and did not seem to have that enduring quality. I fared better with the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, though they seem to be more a 'serenade' of the old music rather than an 'aubade' of the new. However, with the Wind Quintet, Op. 26, and the Piano Pieces, Op. 33, over which I toiled for many months, I found myself quite out of touch.

No wonder that Webern's music remained outside my understanding. It made no difference that I forced myself to analyse various of his works, and particularly the Symphony, in order to learn from analysis what I could not learn from listening-and opportunities of hearing Webern's works were rare. But I could not discover the inner urge which created this music nor the desire of the listener which it should satisfy. Inner urge and satisfaction are not out-moded notions like feeling and expression. Without them every art is homeless, even senseless. Among the arts music is a 'useless' thing, which neither educates nor informs nor serves as a permanent decoration. If a man decides to spend his precious days in writing music he must be driven by an irresistible compulsion. If I am to understand his work properly, and not only in a peripheral, technical sense, my desire for it must be akin to the creative urge. And as music can have no other purpose it depends more than the other arts on this urge and this desire. This, I believe, was the origin of anonymous, spontaneous folk music, when creative urge and understanding desire were the common property of a whole nation or community. Folk music is gone, buried and forgotten, and the creative urge has become personal and individual. But it must exist as long as music is invented and required, with Webern as well as with his contemporaries and predecessors. The result, however, is overwhelmingly different from everything that happened before. Before Webern music unfolded; with him it shrinks. Before him music strove for greatness, monumentality; Gustav Mahler, from whom the whole Schoenberg school received much encouragement, could not overinflate music. With Webern, musical content is concentrated, its inner urge exhausted in a few bars, in a breath. After the colossal painting, the miniature.

I can feel all the ancient objections rearing their ugly heads. I have the uncomfortable suspicion that Webern's works are most important aphorisms, the meaning of which I cannot discover; that in his highly organized microcosms a universe lies hidden which I cannot approach. I might be happier if I did not try to listen to his works, because the acoustic phenomenon tends to obscure the finely chiselled structures. In his last years Webern himself did not care for performances, saying, somewhat cryptically, that the sound was ever-present. But I cannot do without the old-fashioned desire to hear music physically.

As Webern is the true patriarch of our new music I have to admit that I do not possess the key to its understanding. What am I to do? Should I join the ranks of those who write books to prove the invalidity of this new music, and quote what the Patriarch of Jerusalem said eight hundred years ago about the royal house of Anjou: 'De diabolo venerunt, ad diabolum ibunt'?

I am convinced that Webern and his followers had to compose as he did and as they are doing, and that their music is inevitable. But I feel entitled to regret it, as I regret many other things that are happening today. I do not love this new music and I do not hate it. I do not believe that it is the final redemption of the art, nor its final destruction.

I know that this is a peculiarly qualified conservative or progressive view. If one considers the new to be inevitable one ought to love it, and if one does not love it one should not accept it as inevitable. From an abstract moral point of view everyone should have the courage of his convictions and make his own perceptive powers the general yardstick. But these last fifty years have ridden roughshod over all those who used every device of logical argument to try to arrest the change or give it the direction which they thought it should have. Convincing proof of inevitability is very rare. The bare fact of a change's taking place is its justification. All respectable people, the man in the street as well as the physicist, philosopher or statesman, would agree that the atom bomb should never have been invented, constructed and used. But it happened, and the bomb with its all-destructive power is being improved every day.

If I may compare the great with the small, the great wickedness with the small virtue, then I find that same fatalism in our music. I have witnessed innumerable cases where young people brought up in the strictest tradition in academies and conservatoires began to compose twelve-note or serial music as soon as they left them. Who taught them to do it? What attracted them to abandon all the comfort of old rules and proved effects? When, a few years ago, I met Bohuslav Martinu in Rome, where he had a teaching grant at the American Academy, he laughed when I asked whether he was very busy. 'This time I really have been lucky,' he said. 'Six young Americans came and asked me to teach them serial composition. When I told them that I knew nothing about it they went away and I have not seen them since. So I sit in that marvellous Villa Doria Pamphili and compose.' It is certainly not true that these young men necessarily have more talent than their elderly teachers, but they have the instinct of the present and little love of the past which makes them feel superior. As perhaps never before, music today is the epitome in sound of the glory and the misery of the time which produces it. Only in the context of the time, of its moods and its trends, can it be approached and appreciated.

 

 

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