The Rest is Noise 1: Here comes the 20th century

21 and 22 January 2013

When Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank, finished reading American critic’s history of classical music in the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, she was so impressed she rang up the author. “Hey Alex. How’s about we put on a year long festival of music at London’s premiere art complex in celebration of your book? We should be able to rustle up nearly 100 concerts devoted entirely to 20th century music, plus loads of spinoff events. And let’s scatter through the year a series of 12 study weekends, where we invite leading historians, art critics and musicologists to explore the cultural milieu of pre-War Vienna, Paris in the 20s, Weimar Germany, music under the dictatorships and other key moments. Whaddya say?”

Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 saw the first in-depth weekend, titled The Big Bang, designed to explore the music of pre-War Vienna, dominated by the giants Strauss and Mahler, but with the new sounds of Arnold Schoenberg beginning to disturb the peace.

Saturday 21 January

Here Comes The Twentieth Century The Right Honourable The Baroness Williams of Crosby (Shirley Williams to you or me) belied her 82 years to present a sweeping overview of the 20th century. Necessarily a high level review it was striking for on the one hand retreading some overfamiliar terrain – Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen from the Great War – on the other completely omitting the Bolshevik Revolution and the chaos all across central Europe after the Great War. Why, I thought as I sat in the splendid Queen Elizabeth Hall, didn’t they invite a historian to do this? But towards the end she surprised me again by choosing to focus not on our ongoing anxieties, but on three great moments of hope: Martin Luther King’s Civil Right movement; Gorbachev letting the Berlin Wall come down; Nelson Mandela walking free to seal a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. Her point was, Change can happen, political processes can improve the world. This fed back to her dwelling on the post-war founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time I thought it was light on historical detail, a week later I realise it was really about this positive, liberal vision.

Still, no denying the 20th century was the century of catastrophe; Leonard Bernstein called it the Century of Death. 20 million dead in the Great War. 60 million dead in the Second World War. 30 million killed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Without doubt the most catastrophic century in human history and also the most complex. Almost impossible to reconcile the billions of individual stories, achievements, discoveries and art works with the complex political and social movements all round the busy globe. It’s almost enough to make you ashamed to have been born into such a terrible century. Following Dame Shirley was…

Alex Ross, the man himself whose brilliant book started all this, Alex turns out to be a smart, suave, bullet-headed young American, personable, polite and dazzlingly knowledgeable. He delivered an hour and a quarter lecture which you can listen to on the South Bank website. I think he’s appearing four times over the year, so in each speech has to cover four of the twelve themed weekends, so this first address stretched long to cover Schoenberg, the nationalist and folk movements, and 1920s Paris. His key point is that listeners accept all the techniques of the supposedly difficult Second Viennese School, when it’s presented in film scores – but balk at them when presented in the concert hall, and then pondered why this should be. In this speech and the next day’s Q&A what emerged is the tremendous conservatism of the classical music world and its audience; as a rule of thumb classical music can be taken as about 60 years behind the times. Looking around at the grey-haired audience, and remembering the deep squareness of all the classical musicians I’ve ever known, I’m not surprised.

Alex mentioned the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, but eventually returning at which point the distraught painter set fire to his paintings, stabbed himself and hanged himself in front of a full-length mirror in his studio. Schoenberg was finalising his Second String Quartet with its intense, angsty sound, so everyone can do some amateur psychology about this typical overwrought episode from the heart of Teutonic Expressionism.

After these two start-up lectures, we the audience had a choice of events to go to. For example, throughout the weekend they were screening the BBC’s new three-part series about 20th century music, The Sound and The Fury. I figured I can see this on  when it’s shown in February. There are ‘Sound bites’ – hour slots containing four x fifteen minute presentations about key figures of the (early) twentieth century eg the Wright brothers, Marie Curie etc. I chose:

The Birth of the Modern In a packed house in the Level 5 Function room in the Festival Hall for a presentation by art historian Tag Gronberg about art in prewar Vienna. This started with Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss and explored the tensions between Klimt and the Sezessionists, the Austrian wing of Art Nouveau known locally as the Jugendstil – and their opponents like the satirist Karl Krauss and the architect Adolf Loos, who rejected  Klimt’s fine decoration in favour of plain truth, Loos’s plain functional building anticipating the clarity of the Bauhaus and all 20th century Modernist architecture. The audience was old, as in most art galleries plenty of grey haired ladies looking at pictures of naked men and women and drinking in a lecture about sex, love and the decorative arts.

Lisa Appignanesi: Freud and the Modern Age Ms Appignanesi was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to literature. She has written widely on Freud and gender. A vivacious, laughing lady with big auburn hair like Rula Lenska, Ms Appignanesi gave a rather disappointingly basic introduction to Freud, skimming over the early publications and basic ideas, while recommending her books which were on bookstands located around the foyer.

Main points were that, though Freud prided himself on his ability in language and his works are often thought of as being more literary than scientific – he was musically null. He liked the obvious greats of the day but had little or nothing to say about music. If Ms Appignanesi had referenced any psychoanalyst who has applied Freud to music, or developed her own thoughts about psychoanalysis and music, it would have been useful. Instead we learned that prewar Vienna was awash with artistic movements, that Freud’s ideas have shaped the century, that he spent a few hours psychoanalysing Mahler on a famous walk, and learned that Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, left him during the composition of the Second String Quartet and, you’ll never guess what happened!!

Resisting the lure of a Sound Bites session including the Birth of Radio, I stayed in the foyer of the QEH for –

Listen to this – a listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by Head of Music at the South Bank, Gillian Moore. Either playing chords herself on the grand piano or introducing clips from CD, Gillian explained in detail the music of Salome (Richard Strauss’s radical opera which was being performed later that evening), its deliberate use of barbarism, atonal chords etc, before moving on to explain the hyperchromaticism which was turning into atonality in Schoenberg.

5.30 and I was full, and so didn’t go on to the evening concert, a concert performance of Strauss’s opera ‘Salome’, centrepiece of the first chapter of Alex’s book – let alone to the interesting-looking Ida Barr’s Music Hall Night Club which followed through till midnight. What a varied and interesting day, and all for £10!

Sunday 22 January

Breakfast with Schoenberg – Focus on Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet Back in the foyer at 10.15 for a very interesting hour-long explanation of the structure and technique of this transitional work. Presented by Fraser Trainer with an actual string quartet (musicians from Aurora Orchestra) on stage who played short fragments illustrating Fraser’s points. The cellist, Oliver, also added points of his own, including the interesting facts that Schoenberg’s music carries the most detailed instructions for the player; instructions to play notes in novel positions ie at the bridge on string instruments thus creating an eerie sound with strange overtones. Fraser’s enthusiasm was infectious. This was great!

Except. For some reason he and Gillian Moore from yesterday both tended to apologise for talking about keys and chords and scales; and when they demonstrated them tended to do so in a hurry, as if ashamed or embarrassed. Why? Who do you think is attending this weekend? It smacked of a very British philistinism and embarrassment, fear of being even a teeny bit intellectual or demanding. In fact both presentations would have benefited from a relaxed ten minute introduction explaining how basic triadic harmony works in classical music or pop songs, with a few easy examples. Once this is established it’s easier to show how the chording of Wagner, Strauss et al becomes more and more complicated – extended tonality, as it’s called – until it starts to compromise harmonic language and you begin to lose the sense of a tonal centre ie it’s hard for your ear to hear which key the music is in, where’s it’s meant to return ‘home’ to give the sense of completeness as in a Mozart piece. It’s this tonal drift which creates unease and anxiety, the predominant emotions of the broader cultural Expressionism of these years, and the angsty sound which the average listener associates with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to this day.

Of course Fraser told us the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter, Richard Gerstl – and did you hear what happened when she finally returnd to composer? You’ll never guess!!!

Alex Ross in conversation with Jude Kelly Back in the sumptuous Queen Elizabeth Hall head of the Southbank, Jude, asked Alex a number of questions before questions from the floor. Among many points I remember:

  • the tragedy of America rejecting its black heritage, jazz – there was a crossover moment in the 20s and 30s but it was rejected, and America’s greatest folk tradition was fatefully barred from its classical composers
  • what is it about classical music that is so offputting?  Both discussed the offputtingness of the Concert Hall with its nineteenth century architecture, its intimidating dress codes etc. Jude asked if there were any black people in the audience? There was one Asian guy, no one of African descent. I didn’t see any black people all weekend apart from a few security guards and assistants.

You can hear the full conversation here.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire Back in the performance space behind the Royal Festival Hall bar, students from the Royal Northern College of Music performed Schoenberg’s half hour masterpiece, 21 poems spoken by the folk character Pierrot, divided into three thematic groups, set to music. Three different young ladies sang, wearing black outfits with white facepainting and makeup – Natasha Best, Rosie Middleton and Emma Stannard. The distinguishing thing about the music is Schoenberg’s deployment of Sprechstimme ie a style half way between singing and speaking where the voice swoops and dives between notes, creating a strange otherworldy affect, which matches the strange words of the deluded Pierrot looking up at the imaginary moon.

The Air of Other Planets: Understanding Schoenberg’s Journey into Atonality presented by Julian Johnson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. Suave and posh Professor Johnson once again told the story of Schoenberg’s wife running off, then returning and the distraught painter setting fire to his paintings then hanging himself. Fourth time I’ve heard this story. Is it really the only thing to say about Schoenberg?.

The professor assumed this great offputtingness in Schoenberg as the premise of his presentation before leading off into an exploration of the issues. To be honest I was full up and don’t remember much. the best moment was a question from the audience at the end: a youngish man said he’s no great musical expert but he doesn’t see what’s so difficult about Schoenberg!. To him Schoenberg sounds like the soundtrack to any number of horror movies, thrillers or psycho films; jazz incorporated atonality in the 60s, rock bands did it in the 70s. If you approach him like that you can swallow him whole without blinking. What Schoenberg problem?

It’s true. You have to approach the Second Viennese School from the extremely conservative, ears-closed, up-tight bourgeois classical position to be daunted by them. In other words, you have to be the typical classical music audience as described by Alex and Jude this morning. If, like me, you were brought  up on the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Clash as well as The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien and so on, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg sound either pretty familiar or fairly easy to swallow. It’s only putting them into the antiseptic and reverential concert hall that their music begins to sound out of place.

You have to have lived a very sheltered musical life, in other words, to find these guys ‘difficult’. Much more difficult to listen to is something like Les Noces’ by Stravinsky. And hardest of all is something like the orchestral works of Bruckner or Nielsen or Sibelius at his worst. Incredibly long and awesomely boring, I’ve never made my way to the end of one. Whereas Webern with a whole suite in 5 minutes, was made for the ipod age.

Schoenberg’s daughter A major reason for attending Day 2 of this weekend was to see Ms Moore and Professor Johnson in conversation with Nuria Schoenberg Nono, 80 years old this year and not only daughter to the great Arnold but wife to the Italian Modernist composer Luigi Nono. Unfortunately she was too ill to attend. Maybe she would have told us the story about Mathilde running off with the painter Richard Gerstl but then abandoning him whereupon he… oh, but I don’t want to spoil the story for you…

Conclusions Ross is an amazing man who wears his encyclopedic knowledge with grace and elegance. The festival is an epic and unprecedented project. Why, in a year dedicated to embedding 20th century music into its historical context – are there no historians? The art lecture was so-so. The Freud one was disappointing. The musical analysis was riveting and I wanted it to be more confident and genuinely didactic, teaching me slowly and thoroughly how this music is made and how to appreciate it.

But for organising these and all the other events coming up during 2013 – Well done, South Bank!

The festival continues for the rest of the year.

Of course, an enterprise like this runs the risk of being accused of dumbing down or glossing over complexities. That’s certainly what I felt about the Freud lecture, and felt was being demonstrated in the repetition of the same tired stories about Schoenberg. See the comments on this Guardian page for quite fierce accusations of dumbing down.

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