Saturday, 5 November 2011
That was the theme upon which I had half an hour to expound before the second in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 1911 series in Glasgow's glitteringly refurbished City Halls on Thursday evening (more on the revelation of this virtually new venue, and the concert, in the next post).
Of course it's a subject which throws up further astonishing links the longer you have to think about it, and even as I was putting the finishing touches to my dozen examples, the year of Alexander's Ragtime Band turned my thoughts to checking what Ives was up to. Sure enough, it was then he composed The Fourth of July, third movement in the Holidays Symphony and the trickiest polytonal melee of the lot ('I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played , and perhaps could never be played' - it finally was, for the first time, in Paris on 21 February 1932 - 'although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades').
Even in terms of what DID get performed in 1911, the musical list is perhaps the most impressive of any year. I turned to the treasure-trove chronology of Slonimsky's Music Since 1900 to compare the premieres of the twelfth year with those of the first. In 1900, the lucky public got Tosca (a lively start in January), Finlandia, The Dream of Gerontius; in 1911, another start-of-year blast with Der Rosenkavalier, Scriabin's Prometheus, chunks of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe as well as his L'heure Espagnole, Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, Elgar's Second, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien and Stravinsky's Petrushka (the latter two respectively graced by designs from Bakst and Benois below).
In terms of the as yet unperformed, you can add to the list Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, from which I took the vision behind the Fifth Door and Judith's blank response as a paradigm of the splendour-and-misery dichotomy of music in 1911, and the fourth of Webern's Op. 10 pieces, composed on 19 July, 'scored', Slonimsky sums up, 'for clarinet, trumpet, trombone, mandolin, celesta, harp, small drum, violin and viola , containing 6 1/3 measures in 3/4 time lasting 19 seconds according to the metronome mark.' (Boulez takes 22).
That made a neat contrast to the Mozart-minuet-for-breakfast that turns into a sensuous 19th century waltz in Der Rosenkavalier (taking advantage here of one of the Roller designs the Austrian National Library in Vienna gave access to during its all too short Rosenkavalier centenary exhibition).
Other polarities I used - analogous, I hope, to the Somov/Schiele split up top (both portraits painted in 1911) - were Debussy's whole-tone versus diatonic in Le Martyre, the slightly unsatisfactory 'fragments' from which were being performed in the concert; Stravinsky's tritone-into-bitonal basis for riven puppet Petrushka versus the white-note-y Russian Dance in the ballet; Sibelius's tritonal obsession in the Fourth Symphony versus the light and airy 'Way of the Lover' in Rakastava; and the dissonant nine-note scream in Mahler's Tenth as contrasted with the great string leap leading to a final becalmed F sharp major at the end of the symphony - if only to prove that human love, in the shape of 'to live for you, to die for you, Almschi' as written beneath it, was the ultimate triumph for Mahler. Who of course died on 18 May that year and was buried in Grinzing cemetery as painted by Schoenberg (an image I've already evoked on this blog, but worth repeating).
The one issue I took was with the doomy nature of the BBCSSO's blurb: 'immense change was afoot...accelerating towards the cataclysmic events of 1914...the end of the empire...the angst-ridden music of middle Europe...a time of great foreboding'. True, the world was worried by Germany's rush to arms
but once more I take my new bible on the subject, Simon Winder's Germania, as gospel against the notion that everyone sensed the world as they knew it was about to crash and burn. Winder maintains that the Habsburg end of things needn't quite have shattered in the way it did had the Austrian Empire not been tied to 'the cretinous and wholly unrealistic aims of the Germans'. He points out Vienna's pioneering brand of 'luxury modernism' and argues it could, and should, have continued to carry on defining European style and idea:
It seems more rational to be angry than mournful that a war of such a peculiar kind would end all this. The final movement of Berg's extraordinary Three Orchestral Pieces, with its lurching, macabre military march, written in the spring and summer of 1914, is generally seen as a brilliant premonition of the conflict to come - but nobody could foresee such a thing. It would be as plausible to criticize Klimt because his paintings incorrectly presaged a future mostly filled with half-nude society hostesses.
The example I took from 1911 parallel to Winder's Berg was from the Rondo in Elgar's Second Symphony, namely that juggernaut of a summer-garden ghost resurrected AntiChrist-like from the first movement. David Pownall's play Elgar's Rondo posited it as a prophetic vision of soldiers marching to their doom on the battlefields of the First World War, which may have been justifiable dramatic licence; but to me it's a private nightmare of the riven, troubled Elgar. Below is the late lamented Sir Edward Downes's performance, posted on YouTube by someone who seems to find the movement happy and joyful (though one commenter contradicts that). The apocalypse I refer to starts at 4'44, though of course the Rondo is nearly all chromatically unsettling.
At any rate a month after the unsatisfactory premiere of that divided symphony, Elgar's splendid and far from harmonically placid Coronation March for George V and Queen Mary was performed. It was recorded in abridged form - it's awfully long, probably the only reason why it doesn't join the Pomp and Circumstance Marches on concert programmes - by Landon Ronald in 1935, a year after the composer's death, for the Silver Jubilee of the same couple. Which I would compute as being 1936. In which case, as J pointed out when I played him the black-white examples, here would be another case of a significant time three years away from a big cataclysm.