8 April 2016

Pre-concert Talk: "Degenerate"

This is a transcript of a talk given Thursday 7 April for the Auckland Philharmonia's "Degenerate" programme: Stravinsky's Scherzo a la Russe, Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, and Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony. The violin soloist was Michael Barenboim.


Tonight, three works by composers banned under the purview of the Reichsmusikkammer: Mendelssohn banned for his Jewishness, Stravinsky for his suspected Jewishness, and Schoenberg both for his Jewishness and degenerate modernism.

We tend to know him by his Jewish name, Felix Mendelssohn, but during his lifetime he was known as Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Bartholdy was not a family name but one chosen by Felix’s uncle Jakob through a property he owned. Jakob had encouraged the whole family to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism, at a time of increasing anti-Semitism in Germany.  

So Felix was raised as a Protestant, and in 1829, the year he began the Reformation Symphony, his father had encouraged him to adopt the name Bartholdy and drop Mendelssohn altogether. "There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius". Mendelssohn stubbornly kept his hyphenated name, but the forthcoming symphony was written as a statement of his Lutheran faith.

There’s some irony here that Mendelssohn’s Fifth was banned under the Third Reich when this was a work that specifically celebrated the Protestant Church and Mendelssohn’s faith as a Lutheran, rather than as a Jew.

The Symphony was intended to be premiered midway through the following year, 1830, but it was put off —the celebrations were cancelled due to the political tension spreading across Europe. Then a performance was planned in Paris in the spring of 1832, but that too was cancelled after just one rehearsal because the musicians found the score unplayable. One player described it as “much too learned, too much fugato, too little melody.” Perhaps listen out at the interval for similar things being said about Schoenberg…

In the Symphony, Mendelssohn deliberately depicts the Reformation of the church: the old Catholic Church is represented by ornate, beautiful counterpoint in the lower strings at the very opening of the Symphony. That fugato the player complained about was actually Mendelssohn complaining about Catholicism. He contrasts this contrapuntal writing with simple wind chorales and later straightforward clarion calls in the brass. Thus we can listen to the work very simply, as a dialogue and conflict between two different types of music – an almost renaissance polyphony, and a stripped-back, almost puritan, homophony. In the last movement you’ll hear a celebration of Bach’s chorale “Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott” which translates to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”.

Here is the opening of the symphony, with that Catholic counterpoint in the low strings. Performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra with Riccardo Muti conducting.

                                    PLAY TRACK 1 (first 2 minutes)

Stravinsky’s music might have been banned by the Third Reich not because it was Avant-Garde, but because it was considered savage, primitive, and containing elements of Jazz, anathema to the racist establishment. But it was actually banned, labelled as degenerate, on the suspicion that Stravinsky was a Jew.

Far from being Jewish, Stravinsky was a well-known anti-Semite, and strongly protested his inclusion in the 1938 Düsseldorf exhibition of “Entartete Musik.” He lodged a formal complaint with the German Bureau of Foreign Affairs: “My adversaries even go so far as to make fallacious insinuations…implying that I am a Jew, [ignoring the fact] that my ancestors were members of the Polish nobility.” Richard Taruskin writes that his campaign to rehabilitate himself with the Nazis was successful: by 1939 Stravinsky had been informed that his standing in Germany was “entirely restored.”

Written towards the end of World War 2, Scherzo a la russe started life intended as music for a Hollywood pro-Soviet propaganda film, The North Star. When the project fell through and Aaron Copland ended up writing the film score, Stravinsky used the material to finally write a work for Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra, who had been waiting patiently for a Stravinsky piece since 1925. Performers will tell you this is typical composer behaviour.

APO Subscribers may remember last year’s concert of music Inspired by Jazz, and this is a work that could have easily fitted into that concert. Whiteman had previously commissioned Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and his only demand to Stravinsky was that the new work be “easy listening”.

As the Reformation Symphony was for Mendelssohn, this was opportunity for Stravinsky to nail his colours to the mast: his allegiance to jazz and to populism. Here’s the opening of Stravinsky’s Scherzo a la Russe, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Bernard Haitink.

                                                PLAY TRACK 2 (first minute or so)

Schoenberg was not only Jewish, like Mendelssohn and Mahler, but also the self-appointed leader of the modernist Avant-Garde. Any and all art of the Avant-Garde was perceived as a threat to the Nazi project, and Schoenberg’s music was singled out as particularly strident in its degeneracy.

Not only by the Nazis, though – Stravinsky himself was railing against Schoenberg and his fellow modernists through the 1920s. Here’s Stravinsky again in what can only be a dig at Schoenberg: “I don’t want to name names, but I could tell you about composers who spend all their time inventing a music of the future.” He goes on to say that such composers “only intend to provoke the bourgeoisie and to achieve what pleases the Bolsheviks.”

Similarly to Mendelssohn, Schoenberg had converted to Lutheran Christianity as a young man in 1898. For Schoenberg as it was for Mendelssohn’s family, this was a mechanism of self-defence in another period of anti-Semitism, little over half a century later.  But unlike Mendelssohn, Schoenberg returned to the Jewish faith, in 1933 no less, the year of Hitler’s rise to power, and the year Schoenberg was forced out of Germany to live in exile. He was on holiday in France when he received word that it would be unwise for him to return to his home country.

Shortly after leaving Germany he applied for a position of teacher of harmony and theory at the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney. It may be surprising to learn that The Director of the Conservatory, one Edgar Bainton, rejected him on the grounds that he was Jewish and for having "modernist ideas and dangerous tendencies". 

Schoenberg himself was avowedly apolitical throughout his life: his art was not suppressed because he was a dissident – but in that climate, modernism itself was a kind of dissidence. And I think Schoenberg’s music, no matter how abstract you consider it, is fundamentally at odds with nationalism, militarism, propaganda, and the obedient heroism of the Hitler youth. Although Schoenberg had no interest in “pleasing the Bolsheviks” as Stravinsky would put it, he was firmly committed to his music of the future, no matter how hostile its reception. So it’s no surprise that Schoenberg was banned under Hitler and Goebbels. Modernism in all its forms had to be silenced.

But it is perhaps more of a surprise that the suspicion and suppression of Schoenberg’s music has lasted well beyond the fall of the Third Reich. It wasn’t until 2012 that the work you’ll hear tonight, the searingly brilliant violin concerto, was first performed (by Michael Barenboim) in Vienna. Vienna the birthplace of Arnold Schoenberg. Vienna, arguably the centre of Western Art Music and of musical innovation in the last three hundred years. Why does Schoenberg’s music continue to hold such dread for even educated musical ears? And is that dread justified, or simply an unpleasant remnant of cultural censorship?

Here is the opening of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, performed in this recording by soloist Hilary Hahn with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

                                                PLAY TRACK 3 (first minute or so)

Although Schoenberg remains a Bogeyman to many music lovers, some works have been deemed acceptable by the institutional powers that be. Early tonal works like Gurrelieder and Verklarte Nacht have entered the canon, and even some of his early free atonal music like Pierrot Lunaire is widely performed and enjoyed.

But the Violin Concerto has really struggled to gain acceptance in the mainstream repertoire, unlike, say, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, or even the Berg Violin Concerto, which one could argue are similarly challenging to the listener. Are there good reasons for this? Or has the Reichsmusikkammer project succeeded in some way? Is the tag of degeneracy, of entartung, an indelible one?

When Schoenberg first composed the concerto, Rudolf Kolisch, Schoenberg’s brother in law and the leader of the impressive Kolisch quartet, was intended as the first soloist. Kolisch was enthusiastic but also incredibly busy and unable to devote the time necessary to learn the hugely difficult new piece. So Schoenberg asked Heifetz.

Heifetz initially agreed, but the story goes that when composer and performer met to go through the score, the following rather tense exchange occurred.

Heifetz: “Sir, hasn’t it occurred to you that one needs six fingers in order to play this?”

Schoenberg: “Well, I can sit and wait.”

The British violinist Andre Mangeot also presented an analysis of all the supposedly unplayable bits in the concerto in the Strad Magazine in 1939, the same year the concerto was published.

But it turned out the work was indeed playable. Louis Krasner took on the premiere in 1940 with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to great acclaim from the composer:

“Dear Mr. Krasner:
It is a great pleasure to me to thank you for your great achievement: to play my violin concerto in such a perfect and convincing manner so shortly after it has been written and so shortly after it has been called unplayable. You must know yourself that you have achieved something which must be called “a historical fact”, whether my music will survive or not. Because these difficulties will survive in any case and you will be called their first conqueror.”

Schoenberg is of course drawing rather a long bow when he says “shortly after it has been written”. But although extremely difficult, it’s a difficulty that is violinistic. Hans Keller writes that Schoenberg’s attitude is one of intimate sympathy with the solo part. Keller on Schoenberg: “The music is never written against the instrument, even if it may sometimes seem to go beyond its present capacities.”

Rather it seems to me that Heifetz didn’t mean unplayable literally. He could have overcome the technical difficulties if he had wanted to devote himself to it. But the work didn’t suit him. It didn’t acquiesce to the Romantic soloist as a vessel for his ego and interpretation, as so many of the great concertos do. Schoenberg’s modernist concerto was seen to be fundamentally at odds with Heifetz’s idea of what music was.

I say seen to be, because I don’t think Heifetz was quite right.

When we encounter Schoenberg, do we listen to him with the idea that he is an outlier, a composer who cut himself off from the traditions of western music?
I would argue that it’s a mistake to listen with that assumption. The musical language of Schoenberg isn’t new – Schoenberg was a reluctant revolutionary who venerated Mahler and for a time Strauss as well. The clearest way to listen to Schoenberg is to listen to it like Brahms. It’s layered, linear, and extremely expressive and full of emotion. The harmonic language is different of course, but how the sounds move through time I would describe as Brahms in po-faced drag.

Or in listening you might latch onto the martial qualities, most obvious in the third movement. There’s a sort of awkward squareness and overt military character that seems to me pretty close to parody. Like Shostakovich it smacks you across the face and doesn’t let you get back up.

Here’s the opening of that finale, again with Hilary Hahn and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

                                                PLAY TRACK 4 (first minute or so)

It requires a degree of commitment to listen to this music, and even more so to perform it.

When Krasner first performed the work with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestral management refused to publicise the concerto until the week before the concert, and – wait for it – withheld Krasner’s soloist fee. Stokowski was so committed to the work that he paid Krasner out of his own pocket. Perhaps the management might have felt vindicated when the end of the first movement provoked hisses. But Stokowski, after the first movement, and the hisses, before continuing, stepped to the front of the stage and addressed the audience:

“Shall we forever make the same foolish, narrow-minded, unsportsmanlike blunders, upon only hearing a thing once? Certainly Schoenberg is one of the greatest musicians alive today. His music is extremely difficult to understand.  We don’t ask you to like it or dislike it, but to give it a fair chance. That’s American. But to condemn it after one hearing—that simply cannot be done ... Three-fourths of you are open-minded. As for the others, they can’t help it—and perhaps they are right. We won’t know for about 24 years, so we will wait.”

In an interview earlier this week on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat programme, Michael Barenboim, tonight’s soloist, described Schoenberg’s music as a unique combination of rationality and emotion. It’s as much music of intuition, expression and tension as it is of rational and precise construction.

It’s true that if you can recognise the sequence of pitches and the intervals you can perceive more quickly what’s going on. In this piece the minor second, the interval between the first two notes of the piece, is important, and so is the fifth, and the tritone.

But that’s no difference to recognising the various themes in a sonata form movement of a Brahms symphony, or the Tristan chord in Wagner. It’s not necessary to listen in an analytical way to make your way through the piece or to enjoy it.

Schoenberg himself wrote to Kolisch when Kolisch was preparing Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet by working out the various transformations of the twelve note rows. 

Schoenberg to Kolisch: “I can’t utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is! […] I can’t say it often enough: my works are twelve-note compositions, not twelve-note compositions.”

Schoenberg is a complex figure in the history of music. Michael Barenboim describes him as perhaps the most important composer of the twentieth century, but also a composer even today with a scary reputation.

Schoenberg was a reluctant revolutionary – he would say that he was never a revolutionary at all (Strauss!)– but also I think a proud masochist. He was committed to writing music that he knew might not ever be accepted in his lifetime.

His music has been used at times as a battleground between anti-intellectualism on the one hand, that music should pander to the lowest common denominator of the masses, and snobbery on the other, that music only be accessible to the highly educated.

But we can also listen to it without an agenda, with open ears, and a commitment to engaging it, regardless of our aesthetic preferences.

I leave the last words to Schoenberg the brilliant, egotistical masochist.

 “Is it so much to be taken for granted if in the face of the whole world’s resistance a man does not give up, but continues to write down what he produces? […] Beethoven, when Grillparzer called the Ninth a jumble, or Wagner, when the Bayreuth scheme seemed about to fail, or Mahler, when everyone found him trivial – how could they go on writing?

I know only one answer: they had said things to say that had to be said. Once, in the army, I was asked if I was really the composer A.S. “Somebody had to be” I said, “ and nobody else wanted to, so I took it on, myself.”

Perhaps I too had to say things – unpopular things, it seems – that had to be said.”

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