The Rest is Noise 4: Berlin in the 20s and 30s

The South Bank Centre is hosting a year long festival of 20th century music based on the book, The Rest Is Noise, by American critic Alex Ross. Part of the festival is a series of 12 weekends each focusing on an important time and place. This weekend the focus was on Berlin in the 20s and 30s, with big concerts on Friday (Liza Minnelli, the Berliner Philharmoniker doing cabaret), Saturday (‘The Threepenny Opera’), and Sunday (Berg’s ‘Violin Concerto’ in the afternoon, Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in the evening). During Saturday and Sunday there was a series of lectures, presentations and film showings, 20 on Saturday, 19 on Sunday. I attended the following:

Saturday 2nd March

Breakfast with Kurt Weill: ‘The Threepenny Opera’ – interactive workshop led by composer John Browne and voice coach Mary King, enthusiastically explaining, demonstrating and singing elements of Brecht and Weill’s 1928 smash hit, the centrepiece of the weekend. I learned:

  • The 20s a period of tremendous criss-crossing currents but the main trend towards Simplicity and Order: neoclassicism, Neue Sachlichkeit etc Schoenberg’s 12 tone method was a variation on the quest for Order. All of it disgusted by the bloated self indulgence of late Romanticism, associated with the windy rhetoric which led to the cataclysm of the Great War.
  • The two musical giants of between the wars are Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Stravinsky is about rhythm and the dance. Both incorporate unprecedented amounts of dissonance in their music; Stravinsky uses dissonance to release energy, to reconnect with the Primitive; Schoenberg uses dissonance to reveal new mystical landscapes.
  • One of Stravinsky’s less-known works, ‘The Soldier’s Tale‘, turns out to be crucial for between the wars music. Composed in 1918 for a small travelling ensemble resembling a stripped-down dance orchestra means you can hear the seven instruments very clearly, with all their individual roughnesses. (Having a big bank of strings as in a symphony orchestra smooths out the sound.) Weill uses just seven instrumentalists in the Threepenny Opera to create a deliberately rusty, ragged sound. Clarity. Honesty.
  • In vocal terms, Brecht-Weill pieces show the influence of Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg’s far-out experiment with Sprechstimme or speech-singing. Mary explains that in speechsinging you speak – but on the pitch. You’re speaking to a note.
  • Weill is often categorised as a ‘crossover’ artist because he incorporated elements of popular music, from instrumentation (guitar, harmonium, mandolin, banjo), to length (mostly songs and song cycles), to rhythm (jaunty, bouncy and repetitive rhythms, to emphasise the melody) and mood – sentimental.
  • The abandonment of a “home key” – atonality, the liberation of dissonance – in so much 20th century music, especially avant-garde music, is cognate with the decline of other forms of certainty, moral, religious, social etc. Weill is poppy because he very much does use home keys to root his tunes in – but he often uses more than one, and there are no smooth transitions from one to another as in the symphonic tradition. Instead the whole tune just jumps to another key. Then jumps back again. John compares this with Montage, Eistenstein etc. Jerky unexpected cuts. And with the techniques Brecht uses in his plays to jerk his audiences out of their bourgeois trance – lights on, captions, addressing the audience, characters carrying captions.
Photo of Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill. Copyright The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

Germany between the wars – lecture by Frederick Taylor. The Germans lost the First World War in part because their society collapsed. The Kaiser abdicated, the government resigned, there were would-be communist revolutions. Taylor goes through the history of events from 1918 to 1933 in detail, the sorry sequence of attempted coups and putsches, the devastation of the economy by ruinous reparations to the Allies, the collapse of the currency in the early 20s after France reoccupied the industrial Ruhr, a period of stability by 1924 which lasted until the Wall Street Crash when the American bankers wanted their money back, and the Germans couldn’t pay. Collapse of the economy. Massive unemployment. 1930 collapse of the coalition government. Revival of the street fighting of the early 20s. Everyone who lost out on the past 15 years looking for a saviour – Rise of the Nazis. I learned:

  • Berlin by 1914 was the centre of German industry, home to AEG, Siemens etc, with a population of 3 million the third largest city in the world after London and New York, with a notoriously stroppy industrial proletariat of 600,000. With a population of 3 million it was the third largest city in the world after London and New York.At Alexanderplatz began the vast Hinterhofer, enormous council blocks of apartments in which teeming thousands lived in squalor.
  • New Labour laws passed by the liberal Weimar government guaranteed workers an 8 hour day which led to a (relative) explosion of hobbies and activities and spectator events, such as sports – bicycle racing, boxing – and theatre and cabaret.

Brecht’s composers – presentation by composer Dominic Muldowney who has set over 200 Brecht poems to music. Dominic emphasises that Brecht was a poet first, playwright second and idealogue third (exactly the opposite to how he became known to British audiences.) Informal and informative Dominic read out his favourite Brecht poems, played musical settings of Brecht poems by his main collaborators – Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill – and performances by a wide range of artists (including David Bowie and Sting).

Photo of Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (Photo: Jörg Kolbe. CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

I learned that:

  • Brecht came from a strict religious background; early poems are titled psalm, hymn etc, and his work is fuelled by a deeply religious moralism, reversioned into fierce communism.
  • Brecht served as an ambulance orderly in the great War (like Vaughan Williams).
  • When he made a radio documentary about it, Dominic identified 158 versions of ‘Mack the Knife’ and played us the comedy version by Liberace
  • Hans Eisler started as a devout pupil of Schoenberg (Sunday lunchtime I heard Karim Said play Eisler’s thoroughly twelve-tone 4 Pieces, opus 3). But Eisler abandoned his teacher, adopted the cabaret style of the era, worked closely with Brecht and became a prolific writer of songs (over 500 songs, nearly as many as Schubert!).
  • Dominic characterises the power of Brecht’s poetry in its extreme simplicity of diction which nearly always leads to a sudden twist or insight.
  • Compare the settings of Brecht’s Nannaslied by Eisler and Weill.

Dominic makes the profoundest comment of the weekend: this music and this period are Nostalgic; it is safe, neutralised. In films and lectures throughout the weekend I sit completely surrounded by really old people, a sea of greyhaired old ladies. They listen to songs about sex and prostitution and murder and the overthrow of the system with a smile on their lips and a twinkle in their eyes. The savage satire on greed, power and corruption, Threepenny Opera, sold out almost immediately.

It is accessible and brilliant popular music, after all.

Why and how did music become so politicised lecture by Alex Ross, the man whose brilliant book started all this. Alex spends an hour taking us through composers of the era, moving beyond Weill and Schoenberg to play Hindemith, Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf, Kurt Schwitters’ Dada UrSymphonie, a 1930 setting of the Communist Manifesto, the Russian piece about an iron foundry and Popov’s big symphony which he thinks influenced Shostakovitch. I thought wandering into Soviet territory was a bit outside the scope of this weekend. There’ll be a separate weekend about music under Stalin. What Ross gives you is a really confident overview of a period with choice examples, many of them refreshingly off the beaten track.

Listen to this – South Bank’s Head of Classical Music, Gillian Moore played numerous samples of 20s and 30s music, explaining and commenting.

  • Berlin had over 30 studios and produced hits like Pandora’s Box, Nosferatu, The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. Of course, many luminaries of the industry emigrated to Hollywood after the Nazis came to power.
  • Schoenberg was attracted by the film industry and wrote a ten minute piece, Accompaniment to a Film Scene, convincingly portraying the familiar Expressionist emotions of Anxiety and Fear. As Gillian pointed out this wouldn’t be out of place in a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack to a Hitchcock film.
  • If film was one new technology which was impacting on composers, radio was another. Brecht and Weill collaborated on a 1929 radio broadcast of their cantata ‘Lindbergh’s Flight’ (Der Lindberghflug).
  • Gillian ended with the harrowing Song of a German Mother.

Nazism and the myth of progress – lecture by philosopher John Gray. Gray was promoting his as yet unpublished book on the writings of Central European intellectuals Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. He spoke for half an hour then took questions.

  • His main point is that whereas science shows real progress (remove four fifths of the scientists from the world and we wouldn’t go back to alchemy; the basics of evolution, modern medicine, astronomy, string theory, are established and written) politics and ethics don’t. ‘Civilisation’, if we mean the highest standards of morality and respect for human dignity, can easily slip, collapse, erode.
  • Gray singled out the disastrous impact of nationalism in Central Europe after the collapse of the multinational Empires in the Great War, which led intellectuals and political parties to identify essential members of the ‘nation’, and to marginalise and victimise all groups who didn’t belong for one reason or another, to the resulting narrow definitions of nationhood and citizenship: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals.

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Sunday 3rd March

A Beginners Guide to Serialism – lecture by Jonathan Cross. Best explanation of Schoenberg’s twelve tone method I’ve ever heard, starting with detailed analysis of examples from Bach to show that the key techniques of creating a tone row then manipulating it through transposition, inversion and retrogression, existed in the 1740s and could produce extremely palatable music. I learned:

  • The 1920s quest for Order: Schoenberg unveiled the twelve tone method in 1923 as a solution to the draining challenge of wrestling with the emotional content of Expressionism within the unstructured soundworld he created when he began to abandon traditional tonality around 1907. Serialism tries to impose mathematical order on the chaos which the Austro-German tradition had become.
  • By showing us the scores and playing us fragments by each composer Cross demonstrated how
    • Schoenberg chose tone rows which involvedlarge moves up and down the scale between notes (ie something like melody)and could incorporate tritone gaps and elements of repetition
    • Webern chose tone rows where there is very little space between contiguous notes, giving a costive, tightly wrapped feel of his pieces
    • Berg had a much more open attitude to quotes and influences from the tradition; hence he was able to structure pieces as big as his two operas

Karim Said: Twelve Tone Piano The young wunderkind piano player Karim Said sat at the joanna and explained aspects of the twelve tone system to Sara Mohr-Pietsch of BBC Radio 3. Fascinating to hear him play a baroque gigue – and immediately play part of the gigue movement from Schoenberg – and explain the difference. He played Schoenberg’s Five pieces, opus 23, two tiny Webern pieces, Eisler’s Four Pieces, opus 3, from his Schoenberg period, and then the work in which Schoenberg fully introduced serialism, the piano Suite, opus 25.

  • With Jonathan Cross’s contrasting of Schoenberg and Webern fresh in my mind, along with Karim’s explanations, I was able to detect quite a difference between Schoenberg, Eisler and Webern which was good – but found the Schoenberg pieces did go on a bit, which was bad.
  • For a start the piano is one instrument and so its tonal and dynamic range is obviously smaller than a small ensemble. Listening to unaccompanied piano music by anyone for 25 minutes is challenging. 
  • But there comes a point in atonal music where the initial pleasure, the novelty of the sound organisation, palls. At which point, maybe having it better explained, maybe even having a score, would help you continue your pleasure…

The festival fills its days by programming multiple events at the same time. You have to choose. I now faced the hardest choices I’ve encountered so far: at 3pm an hour of readings and singing of Brecht poems; a discussion of Christopher Isherwood’s classic novel, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’; or, the one I went for…

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis an experimental black and white silent film from 1927. Although I suspected I could buy this or watch it on YouTube, I argued I’d never be able to see it on the big screen and with full sound. In the event the Spirit Level downstairs at the Royal festival Hall is quite a small room and it was quite a small screen. I regretted not going to the Brecht poetry, but it was a fascinating film.

Similarly, I really wanted to go and see a talk by Ruth Remus about the role of Germany artists in the Dada movement; but also really wanted to see Kuhle Wampe, a communist propaganda film written by Brecht with music by Hans Eisler, and again figured I’m never going to get the chance to see this on a big screen.

Kuhle Wampe turned out to be a talkie and so we had to stop the film to find the English subtitles! But it was also a deeply puzzling experience, the characters made of paste, behaving like robots, with almost no touches of kindness or feeling anywhere in it, and the final 10 minute orgy of healthy outdoor sports followed by singing from a communist agitprop group could, with a few tweaks, have come from the kind of Nazi propaganda film that was being churned out just a few years later.

A fascinating and informative weekend. Thank you very much to Jude Kelly, Gillian Moore and everyone else who made it possible.

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