The Savages

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg

Artist of the past couple generations have terrible taste in music. They apply discernment and passionately debate paintings, literature and movies, but settle for just about any old pop musical crap as long as it has enough shiny newness or hipness. It didn’t use to be the case. Artist used to be as learned about music as they were about other arts. Whole artistic movements, serious about their ideas and goals, allied themselves socially and aesthetically with music that was serious about its ideas and goals as well, and that represented high emotional and intellectual culture as deeply as the visual arts. One of the last examples of this in history was the “Blue Rider Almanac”, edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, a collection of images, essays and printed music by a group of sympathetic contemporaries.

Miller Theater officially inaugurated their 2009-10 season last night with the focussed, understated multi-media presentation “The Blue Rider In Performance.” The event is the concept of pianist Sarah Rothenberg, who performed and accompanied soprano Susan Narucki, and is a collaboration with the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim and is a companion to the current Kandinsky show going on at the museum. The show has just about everything, but stops short of opera in that it has no inherent set, no constructed sense of a place. It does, however, have a narrative and the sense that it is trying to tell us a story. It is didactic but not polemical and gracefully drawn, and makes worthwhile arguments that may or may not be right, but since these are arguments that can never be settled, they are always welcome.

The Almanac is clear and self-conscious on the issues facing the art, which it itself calls “savage,” and that is the major quality of Kandinsky’s work at this time. This is the art of new ideas, ideas which are fighting to break free of and supersede the old guard. Applying this same concept to the music of this period, and especially the pieces presented in the concert, yields mixed results. They share important concerns and cultural ideas, they are part of the look and sound of the thoughts of a particular place and era. Where they differ, however, is in their answers, specifically the answer to the question, where do we go next? This is music and art produced in and reflecting a period of madness, so how do these artist find their way to sanity? For Kandinsky, it was to go forward, while for his friend Arnold Schoenberg it was to step back into the past.

The first half of the concert made a subtle and fascinating conjunction of parallel movements meeting at a sympathetic point. Rothenberg and Narucki told a musical tale while a back projection did the same with the art; both offered samples of the details of each movement, while gradually drawing backwards and outwards, connecting on the one hand sounds, musical styles and gestures, and on the visual side, fragments of line, curve and color, which cohered into a history of Kandinsky’s images. They met in a thrilling performance of Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. This was a moment when the idea of the event came into complete focus with complete success and was superbly judged. The music that had come before, including Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11 and songs from Berg, Webern and Russian composers Thomas De Hartmann and Arthur Lourié, presented music that was groping its way out of one period and into the next. The Russian songs gave us the flavor of Kandinsky’s old and new worlds; De Hartmann uses a foundation of Russian folk music to make lovely, straight-forward songs, while Lourié’s Spleen and Autoportrait a more perfumed and impressionistic and far more cosmopolitan. The samples of Berg and Webern were of very early songs, adolescently Romantic; the composers were not yet at the point of questioning the same set of ideas that gave them a foundation. The key connection appeared between the Op. 11 pieces and Scriabin. As of 1909, Schoenberg was finding himself gradually and disturbingly untethered from Brahms, the music which he valued most, and drifting into an almost free-associated world of musical gestures that occasionally coalesce into a clear sense of what the music wants to be, but more often the phrases, chords and rhythms search for meaning, fail, and try again. There is fear and puzzlement in this music. It offers a powerful impression that Schoenberg feared the legacy of Late Romantic music, the artificiality and self-obsession, that it would permanently lose touch with ideas of harmony and form that had been the basis of German music since Bach. There was already madness in the streets; Kaiser Wilhelm enjoyed the sight of one of his generals dancing in a woman’s dress, syphilis ravaged the upper classes, Freud appeared and war was seen as a necessary cleansing of civilization. Schoenberg’s fears were not unreasonable. On the other hand, Scriabin embraced the madness (he seems to have been a bit mad himself) and found a way to wrap its qualities into a coherent musical package. Kandinsky’s visual madness is appealing in that his embrace of the wildness of colors and shapes is immediately attractive to the eye as shapes and colors are already coherent and in front of us every day. Also, the frame of a painting itself places coherence on the work, nothing is going to spill over, out of control, or break free. Sound is a different matter, and it can aggravate and drive one made, and it easily and powerfully expresses incoherence, a riot of ideas and feelings, madness. While Kandinsky pushed his ideas into the realm of pure shapes and colors, Schoenberg’s answer was . . . to step back from the edge and firmly grasp the support of the past.

Schoenberg’s search for a structural way to give coherence of the past to the inevitable harmonic complexity of the future led him to codify his 12-tone system. The program’s second half was a performance of a work just at the cusp of this systemization, his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10. This is one of the composer’s highest achievements, a transparent construction of music that floats between dissonance and atonality, one where every phrase conveys a sureness of meaning and place; the piece understands itself and has no doubts about its meaning. The work has an important vocal part for soprano, with text by the symbolist poet Stefan George. There is a personal story embedded in the music, with Schoenberg as the cuckold in a love triangle involving his wife and his art teacher (the composer was an accomplished amateur painter), which was represented in a fairly literal fashion by dancers choreographed by Karol Armitage, who only appeared during the first movement. The conflict rendered by the two dancing couples was strikingly reminiscent of Balanchine’s work for Agon. The Brentano Quartet and Narucki played this music wonderfully well, there was a lively, intense and thoughtful sense of conversation between the string players, and they were extremely sensitive to the shape and clarity of phrases. The music can’t quite resolve itself into a cadenza, rejecting the same thing that it appears to long for, and eloquently communicates the feeling of turning away from emotional and intellectual losses and accepting that the future may yet bring something fruitful in its newness.

Kandinsky "Blue Mountain"
Kandinsky "Blue Mountain"

The program claims that this specific piece corresponds to Kandinsky’s Blue Mountain, but this does not seem or feel right. The painting has a vivid tension between yellows, reds and blues, but is clearly representational; it’s language, although almost decadently extended, is still recognizable. Schoenberg’s Quartet is in a not quite established new language; it is not Brahms, it is not truly atonal, but it is a masterpiece of transition, but one in reverse of that of the painter. The composer is defining the edge of where he can coherently exist and is marking the spot at which he will turn back. His 12-tone system is not Modern in the sense of making something old into something new, it is rather a new technique for carrying the past means of making music into a new era, yet preserving them. Kandinsky is a savage, but Schoenberg wants to refine and preserve civilization, not demolish and rebuild it. What is a better fit for Kandinsky’s Blue Mountain? Stravinsky, who, by the time the second anthology was published had already premiered the Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps, the paragon of savagery in music. And the spectacular, brilliant colors of Stravinsky’s orchestrations and sound-world are the aural cognate of the painter’s visual brilliance.

This is a complex and wonderful subject, and arguing it produces a vast series of “yeses,” of agreements and ideas of what was, and is, possible. “The Blue Rider In Performance” can only practically offer a specific view of this subject, and does so with an admirable combination of artistry, erudition and imagination. What is most admirable about it, above the performances themselves, is it’s eagerness to make and argument, to tell us what something means. The event is repeated tonight at 8:00PM at Miller Theater.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.