Friday, November 25, 2016

Skandalkonzert

No. 235 of the ongoing  ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast235



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This week’s blog and podcasts aims to re-create a historic concert that took place at the Great Hall of Viennna’s Musikverein on March 31st, 1913.

On February 3, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. The event later became known as "The Day the Music Died", after singer-songwriter Don McLean so referred to it in his 1971 song "American Pie".

In many ways, March 31st 1913 is the day that Romantic Classical Music died – some would argue that occurred a few months later (on May 29th), at a performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris when Stravinsky’s seminal ballet music for The Rite of Spring was premiered.

The Skandalkonzert of March 31st 1913 (as it has been referred to since), was a concert of the Wiener Konzertverein conducted by Arnold Schoenberg . The audience, shocked by the expressionism and experimentalism of the music created by members of the emerging Second Viennese School, began rioting, and the concert was ended prematurely.

(A punch administered by concert organizer Erhard Buschbeck became the subject of a lawsuit, whereby operetta composer Oscar Straus, heard as a witness, testified it had been the most harmonious sound of the evening.)



Here is the program: 



As a contemporary reviewer points out, it is sometimes difficult to put yourself in the position of that original audience, especially when we compare some of this music to what came later. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, for example, isn’t nearly as challenging as some of his other work – it has identifiable tunes and cadences making it more “accessible” than some of his more rigid 12-tone compositions.

If Schoenberg now seems more accessible, the intervening century has done nothing to reduce the shock of the new in the music of his pupil Anton Webern. His Six Pieces still sound staggeringly modern. He uses the instruments of the orchestra sparingly, like diamonds twinkling on a dark background, but the sheer sparseness of the writing is still perplexing to many 21st century ears. The central climax of the work, where an eerily disembodied percussion sound leads into an ear-splitting orchestral thunderbolt, still has the ability to stun. The performance I chose for the podcast (which uses the “revised” version for large orchestra) is conducted with great care by Hans Rosbaud.

The songs by Zemlinsky– like the Mahler set that was scheduled to close the program -  hang on to basic tonality, albeit distended beyond what most of his contemporaries would have recognized, and therefore the beautiful texture of his writing is always closer to the surface. This is the complete set of songs



Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, according to some the real source of the controversy in 1913, are much less extended than Webern’s Pieces, but in their own way they too have lost none of their strangeness and distance that must have so alienated their first audiences. Again, the complete set:




A few bars into the second song, the Viennese audience burst into laughter, annoying Schoenberg who turned around and said “I ask those who cannot be quiet, to leave the room.” And after the crowds refused to heed his request, said fampously “I'm against those who disturb, call the public authorities” quoted Die Zeit.

The donnybrook that followed the Berg lieder cut the program short – but not today, as we complete the podcast with the complete Mahler song cycle.

Schoenberg continued to champion the works of his contemporaries of the Second Viennese school, establishing the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (the Society for Private Musical Performances) in the Autumn of 1918 with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of newly composed music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921, the society gave 353 performances of 154 works in a total of 117 concerts. The programs included works by Reger, Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Webern, Berg, and many others – without any reports of riots!


I think you will love this music too!