The cultural quandary of classical composers is riveting stuff, finds John Burnside THE REST IS NOISE
Fourth Estate, 20
PERHAPS the most enduring myth of 20th-century art is that of the avant-garde revolutionary – solitary, iconoclastic and forever misunderstood – and his lifelong war against an army of ignorant philistines whose only goal is to stand in the way of progress. Musicians, in particular, suffered from bourgeois incomprehension, and the list of victimised composers is a long one: Mahler, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives and Shostakovich were consistently greeted with bewilderment or hostility by lazy critics and a public whose lack of imagination was matched only by its readiness to run amok the moment it was exposed to anything new.
The truth, however, is far more complicated than this romantic legend, as Alex Ross points out in this utterly gripping account of the relationship between music and public life in the last century. Strauss enjoyed something close to pop star status even in his earlier career, while Mahler received considerable critical and public acclaim. Even Schoenberg, that archetype of misunderstood genius, had a "massive success" with the 1913 premiere of the Gurre-lieder – though he doggedly refused to relish the moment: "The hero of the hour failed to appear, even as the applause swelled. He was found, according to the violinist Francis Aranyi, 'huddled in the most distant and darkest corner of the auditorium, his hands folded and a quiet, quizzical sort of smile on his face.'"
Yet, if the public was not always as philistine as the myth suggests, if the vox populi was as often right about the new music as it was mistaken, the composers still had problems with the critics, the politicians and – on occasion – with one another. Those who adhered to the romantic myth of "pale young geniuses, criminals of the dream" (in Thomas Mann's memorably ironic description) despised not only the vulgarity of the mass but also the grubby allure of money, and woe betide any who succumbed to commercial pressures. In the ugly rhetoric of the day, Strauss was branded as "flighty", "feminine" and "more of a stock company than a genius", for enjoying the company of "Jewish millionaires", while Mahler was condemned for selling out when he travelled to America to give concerts in "supermarkets" for rich ladies.
Of course, Strauss enjoyed the company of more sinister figures than those "Jewish millionaires". The Nazis, for instance. Hitler loved music – one of his plans, during the later stages of the war, was to bring wounded soldiers to Bayreuth, so they could be healed by having "their own Wagner epiphanies" – and he would have enjoyed having the venerable, though by now disillusioned, composer in his cultural retinue. Yet, though he did all he needed to do to stay in business under the National Socialists, Strauss was his own man, and The Rest Is Noise contains a wonderful and painfully absurd story of the occasion when Wilhelm Furtwngler, another musical genius adept at walking on eggshells, managed to persuade Hitler that "international opinion might turn against Germany if Strauss's birthday was ignored". It was 1944.
This is one of many poignant, ironic, often tragic stories about the play between politics and music, and it is interesting that some of those episodes do not end in the way one might expect. In a chapter entitled 'Brave New World', the tragic figure of Dmitri Shostakovich is seen, mechanically spouting the Stalinist rhetoric prepared for him by the apparatchiks, on the occasion of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, held at the Waldorf Astoria in 1949, and we share the dismay, if not the hostility, of those who witnessed the farce, but we are given an equally troubling account of the damage done to American composers by the reactionaries who, as they headed down the road to the McCarthy era, destroyed the New Deal, and brought down the artists who participated in its cultural and social programmes, including the iconic mid-century American composer Aaron Copland. It seems that party politics, in whatever form, is bad for culture, and politicians are rarely interested in art for art's sake.
The Rest Is Noise is a wonderful book, both as an account of 20th-century music and as something of a cautionary tale about the influence of politics on art. On the way, it dispels a few romantic myths about the suffering artist, reminding us that what great artists usually suffer from is not that much different from what pains the rest of us.
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