Sunday, 1 March 2009

Vienna as myth "City of Dreams"

"Vienna, City of Dreams, 1900-1935" is a series of concerts, exhibitions and other tie-ins running in 18 different European cities this spring and summer. It will be a huge commercial success because it builds upon the popular image of Vienna already ingrained into our minds.

Not for nothing the series gives great prominence to illustrations by Gustav Klimt. Klimt pervades commercial culture. We've all got the posters, postcards, CD covers, t-shirts, fridge magnets. So the series has inbuilt, instant "branding". You can't knock Klimt anymore than you dare knock motherhood or apple pie.

But therein lies the contradiction. Klimt's art may be glamorous, glossy and impressive but it reflects only one aspect of what was really going on in Vienna at this time. ' Read the link below, where Waldemar Januszczak describes him as "a pygmy seen through a microsope".

The concerts focus on well-known standards like Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Zemlinsky. That's no disadvantage as this is good music and it needs to be heard. The Philharmonia are an excellent orchestra, who deliver. Esa-Pekka Salonen is much underrated. His Sibelius series last year was brilliant, shattering the cosy sub-Tchaikovsky image many still have of the composer. So it is no defect at all if the series ignores composers like Krenek, Eisler and Schreker. It's a good thing if it brings good music, and good music needs to heard.

Basically, this is Second Viennese School, without using the term because it would scare the crowds away. In the last ten years, coinciding with the rise of internet message boards and similar founts of infinite wisdom, it's become fashionable to blame all modern music on Schoenberg and dodecaphony. Anti-atonality fanatics can't get their heads round the fact that Schoenberg adored Brahms and that there have been lots of different types of modern music. One of the best things in the programme book that comes with the series, is that it states that such ideas "belong to a cartoon account of music history".

It was good then that Julian Johnson, the series organizer, gave a talk before the Gurrelieder concert which emphasized the affinity the work has to Wagner. While most people who know Wagner can make the Gurrelieder connection, there are many more who don't, so this was a perfectly valid way of legitimizing Schoenberg by placing him in context. But there aren't many composers who weren't influenced by Wagner and the love/death obsession that runs throughout 19th century thought. And Wagner was a revolutionary. The talk hardly touched on the second part of Gurrelieder, or the new ground Schoenberg was breaking. It might have been an opportunity to explain these new aspects, but caution seems to have won out. The booklet refers to the "regret" some have that Schoenberg didn't continue to write in a late Romantic style, and that others dismiss it as "romantic excess". But artists can't help doing what they do. They are driven to create and can't choose, as such. And one of the finest recordings is by Boulez. In any case, people who have shelled out huge money to hear Gurrelieder are probably open to learning more about it.

It's a Faustian pact. Getting mass audiences may mean pandering to populist anti-modernism, but that in itself amounts to an attempt to refute nearly everything the period stood for. Of course people looked back on the past, but the reason the period is so fascinating was because there was so much happening that was new and innovative. The series bases its spiel on parallel developments in literature, psychology, politics etc. Playing down the modernity in the music contradicts the whole basic premise. Vienna 1900-1935 was a hotbed of intellectual change. That's why it is important : it was the birth of so much that is "modern".

It's Faustian, too, balancing how much information to give. The booklet is lavishly produced, full of one-line quotes. Especially impressive are Edward Timms's diagrams of the circles connecting people. These diagrams are justly famous because the influences are elaborate. But there's no context. How many people reading this know, or care, about the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Social Party? Or many of the people named therein ? If they did, they'd know Timms's books on Vienna anyway. The diagrams are there to add an illusion of authority and gravitas.

This imbalance of specialist knowledge and generalist simplification is worrying because a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. There are things in the booklet which over-simplify to the point of being misleading. But that's no big deal given that anyone can find out more if they want to. But the question is, will they ?

We live in an age where there's so much information around that it's easy to mistake quantity for quality. We have the illusion of knowledge, but not the intellectual depth to process it. Of course the series will inspire many to listen and think further, but there is also many who won't. It's not the series's fault that our culture values appearances rather than content. So the Klimt connection is apt. Looking at Klimt makes us think we know more than we actually do about secessionist Vienna and what followed. But it's shiny wrapping paper, point of sale attraction. There is absolutely nothing wrong about being commercial per se because it "spreads the word". What matters is the substance of what is being sold. Certainly in terms of music this series delivers but I'm less convinced by the packaging. Unfortunately, the medium is often the message, so it does matter how the subject is represented.

Modernity is the Elephant In The Room. It may not be easy to sell, but it needs to be acknowledged because that's what Vienna 1900-35 was about.

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