Was there something in the Wasser? Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries was a Petri dish of cultural innovation, so I choose to remind my dear readers of a few key figures they may wish to investigate on their own. The word “decadent” is reflexively applied to this period, usually referring to the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. But to do so is to oversimplify and demean. These immense creators deserve full honor and examination. Sometimes they are from elsewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Moravia, Bohemia—today the Czech Republic or Slovakia), and they followed the siren-song of Vienna as youth in the US often migrate to New York in search of themselves.
Have you ever made a Freudian slip? Or had an Oedipus complex? Well, most of us have done the first, but not the second. If you hear of anyone who killed their father to marry their mother, let me know. It would make a great jailhouse interview and book deal á la Norman Mailer. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), though a native of Moravia, lived nearly fifty years in Vienna before being forced out by the impending Nazi takeover. He revolutionized the study of psychologically-induced illness and created a model for subsequent mental therapies. Though some aspects of his work became somewhat discredited as the twentieth century wore on, he cast a long shadow over his therapeutic descendants. He also provided endless references for the likes of a Woody Allen. Start with “The Interpretation of Dreams” possibly his most important book, in which he attempted to show scientifically (emphasis mine) how dream contents influence our waking lives.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was native Viennese. The name still has the unfortunate tang of “box office poison,” as one of my former artist representatives called him. He is famous now for his adherence to a certain “system” of composition called “12-tone” that uses each note of the octave once in a pre-determined series and then manipulates that series or “row” from which the composition is derived. It was a response to the perceived “weariness” of the tonal system that had held sway for about 400 years. Schoenberg wasn’t even the inventor of it. It has been hard to see in which ways Schoenberg was actually a logical continuation of the “tradition” from Brahms and other late-Romantics, ultimately a “traditionalist” in terms of expression, simply longing for an expanded vocabulary with which to express. His “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night, Op. 4, 1899) is a lush late-Romantic tone poem, originally for string sextet. Usually heard with full string orchestra, it contains little that would “shock” today’s listeners, however the august gentlemen of the Vienna Philharmonic would not program the piece because it contained an “unclassifiable dissonance” (!). The premiere of Schoenberg’s String Quartet #2 (1908), which contains a soprano soloist in the last two movements, was the scene of a riot and criminal charges.
Robert Musil (1880–1942), born in the Vienna suburb of Klagenfurt, is known for his novel (on almost every college syllabus) “The Man Without Qualities.” (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) The enormous book, published in three volumes (one posthumously by his widow), was unfinished by Musil. It tells of Ulrich, who is symptomatic of the Austro-Hungarian crisis of political and cultural unity and leadership. He is “without qualities” because he relies on the exterior world to give him his identity. He feels the world’s “order” slipping away and is powerless to change for the better. In this we read Musil’s harsh assessment of the Austrian state pre-WWI. Ulrich even has “mystical incest” with his sister, with whom he is reunited at their father’s funeral.
Now, I don’t want this to get too long, so I’m going to telegraph a few lists of major Vienna-centered figures in the arts:
Music: Gustav Mahler, the symphonic maximalist, whose centennial death-year is next year; Hugo Wolf, who some say is the greatest Lieder (German classical song) composer; and Richard Strauss, a non-Austrian who wrote perhaps the most poignant portrayal of aging (woman and society) in his Viennese opera “Der Rosenkavalier.”
Literature: Strauss’ librettist for the preceding (and five other operas) was Hugo von Hoffmansthal; Arthur Schnitzler, whose play “Reigen” (The Round-Dance) presented sexual coupling in every possible combination with never-before-attempted frankness on stage; Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the most haunting lyrical poets (a Prague native); Franz Werfel (another Prague native) who married Gustav Mahler’s widow and emigrated to Hollywood, where he wrote the screenplay to “Song of Bernadette.”
Visual art: Oskar Kokoschka, whose portraits sometimes make faces resemble meat hanging in a butcher shop; Gustav Klimt, famous for his gold-encrusted erotic and decorative canvases (New Yorkers, go go go to the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave @ 86 St.!); architect Adolf Loos, whose functional designs stripped away the curvaceous ornament of the Art Nouveau.
Assuredly a whirlwind tour, but you can see what a treasure trove is there waiting for you. Choose one or two and dive in! And remember: “Barbarism lasts for centuries; it seems our natural element; reason and good taste are only passing.” (d’Alembert)
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs