Articles & Essays

The Challenges Ahead

By Michael Haas

It was in the mid–1980s when, as a producer for London Records, I first discussed a short series of works by Alexander Zemlinsky to be recorded with Berlin's Radio Symphony Orchestra and its new music director, Riccardo Chailly. The manager of the orchestra and source of this suggestion was the composer and conductor Peter Ruzicka.

Even as a very young producer, I was aware of Zemlinsky and owned a recording or two picked up during my student years in Vienna. What seems interesting in retrospect is the argument, offered by Chailly, that we should record Zemlinsky because he had taught Schoenberg and was Schoenberg's brother–in–law. At the time, Chailly was keen to present himself as a champion of twentieth–century music and had already been conducting copious quantities of Stravinsky in London. It was therefore not a surprise that he would wish to focus on the Second Viennese School, but it struck me as strange that he should approach it via another composer's relationship with Schoenberg rather than because of anything startling or persuasive about Zemlinsky's music itself.

Ruzicka was more forthcoming: he patiently explained the exotic paths and byways of fin–de–siècle Vienna, which had led to atonality and then to serialism. In his view, it was important to have an understanding of Zemlinsky if one wished to understand Schoenberg. Aha! I thought: If Schoenberg is the fulfillment of all of the twentieth century's musical aspirations, then Zemlinsky was the key to understanding much of his rather user–unfriendly music. I was up for the proposal, and we all agreed that making Zemlinsky recordings was a worthy undertaking. I still wasn't sure what his music was like, and the first couple of recordings — a youthful symphony in B–flat and a tone–poem called Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) — sounded remarkably reminiscent of Dvořák. Any thoughts I may have had that this wasn't really what we expected twentieth–century music to sound like (indeed, even Schoenberg's early Pelleas und Melisande, which had shared a premiere with Seejungfrau, sounded more 'modern') were tut–tutted away with the affirmation that Zemlinsky was after all Schoenberg's only teacher and brother–in–law. I had only just turned thirty, and in the mid–1980s it was still possible to lose street–credit amongst musical colleagues if new repertoire did not challenge the listener. This may have been twentieth–century music, but only in the way that Klimt was a twentieth–century painter: It was not the alienating, “red in tooth and claw” avant–garde of a century ago.

Over the following two decades, Chailly became one of Zemlinsky's most persuasive apologists; Ruzicka went on to run the Salzburg festival and feature works by Franz Schreker, Zemlinsky, Erich Korngold and Egon Wellesz; and I produced a series of recordings with the sensationalistic sub–heading, “Entartete Musik” (“Degenerate Music”). Returning to the Zemlinsky recordings today, I'm surprised at how idiomatically Chailly approached the works. He made no attempt, as other specialist conductors were doing with similar repertoire, to view them through the prism of Webern or Darmstadt.

To our great delight and surprise, the recordings were well received, and I could relax and enjoy the music for what it was. Yet the experience triggered a number of questions — questions that still need addressing, as they represent the very problems of perception that constitute our greatest challenges today.

In keeping with my A&R profession, I divide these challenges into the categories of “artist issues” and “repertoire issues.” In some respects, the artist issues are more complex. Good performers are busy people, and no matter how intellectually inquisitive they may be, they rarely have time to inform their performances with historic background. By a lucky coincidence, Chailly had an innate response to Zemlinsky's music, even though it was distant from most of the repertoire that he was conducting at the time. He was recording Zemlinsky before he started to record Mahler; his ability to enter the sound–world of fin–de–siècle Vienna was instinctive.

With respect to music by the “suppressed” composers of the Nazi period, communicating historic information to artists in ways that mean something to them is one of the biggest challenges we face. The fact that this information is still not readily available comes as a shock. Most major European opera houses now mount operas by Zemlinsky, Korngold, occasionally Schreker and, even more occasionally, Walter Braunfels. Yet where once unfamiliar works gain a modicum of familiarity, the problems of perception change: lazy thinking takes over, and the works risk being dismissed for not outshining the glare of the familiar masterworks with which they are inevitably compared. One noted conductor told me, for instance, that the composers banned by the Third Reich “all sound like second–rate Richard Strauss.” The arrogance of such views is difficult to accept, and performers of this sort are rarely willing to hear explanations of why Korngold and Zemlinsky are not Strauss manqué, but fundamentally different.

The often willful inability to hear individuality in voices that sound familiar but aren't immediately recognizable will remain one of our biggest headaches. As a reaction to the Nazis' redefinition of new music in Europe, musicians in post–war Europe defied all that was perceived as safe and secure. Alienating the public was a punishment meted out to the Bildungsbürger, the culturally aspiring middle–classes, for having given space to the aesthetic doctrines set down by the Third Reich. Alienation in itself was perceived, de facto, as anti–fascist. When Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee chairman under Stalin, decreed that Socialist Realism in the arts had to speak to and about the people, the non–Communist West responded with music that was even more abstract than before. The reaction to the manipulative musical values of the Nazis and the cultural legacy that grew out of the Cold War has resulted in a rupture that has left contemporary audiences reluctant to listen to unfamiliar music and unwilling to take the time to understand a work in its historic context. With composers banned by the Third Reich, such as Schreker, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Braunfels and Hans Gál — and even those regularly featured by the Nazis, such as Hans Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt, Emil von Rezniček and Josef Marx — one has an impressive list of twentieth–century composers in the Austro–German tradition who did not see music's progress as an inevitable, inexorable move away from traditional tonality. Yet the fall–out of history has left Richard Strauss as the soul survivor and today's audiences reluctant to explore any further.

It was this last point that frustrated me when I spotted the announcement of Esa–Pekka Salonen's “Vienna, City of Dreams: 1900–1935” series with the Philharmonia Orchestra during the 2008–09 London season. The series offered programs like those that Boulez had conducted in a nearly identical series forty years earlier, but with Zemlinsky now thrown in, probably because of his “Schoenberg connection.”

Schoenberg was a Jewish composer who would have been banned by the Nazis even if he had never written anything more complex than a four–part, tonal harmony exercise. Yet Schoenberg had asked crucial questions about music and art in the dying days of the Austro–Hungarian monarchy, which, for the Viennese of his generation, was the only known social and political order. Yet they saw their order moving inexorably towards war and away from any attempt at guaranteeing peace, security and stability. Their premonitions were not groundless, as the thirty–one years from 1914 to 1945 brought both bloodshed and instability, and during the following forty–four years peace was guaranteed only by keeping Europe divided, locked in the check–mate threat of mutual destruction. Ironically, some of Schoenberg's most devoted disciples were sympathetic to Hitler, and many members of the post–war generation who cited Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as their musical progenitors were themselves children raised under fascism who, as adults, were seemingly drawn to absolutist views. Yet Schoenberg's contemporary followers and pupils did not always agree with or even understand what he was trying to achieve. Many of them felt that establishing serialism as twelve–tone dogma created a cul–de–sac from which the avant–garde needed to be rescued.

Today we encounter the same problem mentioned above, but from a different angle: musicians facing what they perceive as new repertoire that sounds almost familiar. Confronted with new yet familiar sounding music that is clearly moving away from tonality, artists instinctively refer to the “gold–standard” of Schoenberg and thus assume, for example, that Egon Wellesz and Hanns Eisler must have been less talented Bergs and Weberns, or that Ernst Krenek's twelve–tone opera Karl V was most likely a 'poor man's' Lulu. Few take the time to ponder what these composers did differently and why they felt compelled to modify Schoenberg's ideas. For the listener who demands challenging repertoire, there is still much that remains unexplored. All of these composers, along with several others, did indeed feel that music's progress would inevitably lead away from traditional tonality. Whether their music was the result of haphazard ideas or consisted of scrupulously mapped out serialism or diatonic–sounding serialism — reflecting Eisler's ambition to write “twelve–tone music for the common man” — it becomes apparent that the Second Viennese School offered more than just Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. In other words, when we listen to the music of Hanns Eisler, Ernst Krenek or Egon Wellesz, the issue should not be how they are similar to Schoenberg but rather in what ways they differ from him.

Our main task, now, is to continue to pose these questions and to formulate and communicate coherent answers. I recently read a well–meaning article about Korngold's Die tote Stadt that breathlessly declared that Korngold “doesn't sound like Puccini meets Strauss, but like his teacher Zemlinsky.” Our challenge is to convey the message that Korngold sounds like Korngold. The public is receptive to such messages only when it stops being afraid of the unknown. Until then, we continue to do the composers banned by Hitler a further disservice by forcing them into musical alliances that they would not recognize.