The modern music festivals of the ’20s and ’30s

Mag cover: interwar modern music festivals

 The new-music festivals of the 1920s and early ‘30s must have been something totally different from what we know today. They probably settled somewhere between Glastonbury and Darmstadt. Post-1919 developments simply piled up on top of each other with no clear indication as to what sort of music might eventually evolve. Jazz had started to exert a fascination on young German and Austrian composerswho had no clear idea as to what it was. The French seem to have responded more elegantly to this particular American fusion than their neighbours. Early Austro-German Jazz experiments sound a clumsy syncopated ‘Schuhplattler’ and even Krenek, later in his memoirs, would cringe at what he believed to be jazz when composing ‘Jonny spielt auf’.

But he was good company: Kurt Weill’s experiments sound equally Teutonic to Anglo-Saxon ears – even with the addition of Brecht’s school-book English texts: ‘Oh show us ze vay to ze next Viskey-bar – Oh don’t ask vhy. . . ‘ Max Brand and Erwin Schulhof were more successful, but this was because they more or less gave up the fight altogether and simply interpolated Dixie Land or Black-Bottom numbers they had blindly copied from elsewhere. The addition of saxophones and off-beat stresses never resulted in Austro-German composers achieving the same unique fusion that Ravel so effortlessly managed. But there were other competing strands as well. It wasn’t only restricted to trying to marry popular music with its artier classical cousin; indeed it was also moving serious music into regions that most audiences found difficult to follow. As popular music made seductive noises towards ‘serious’ music, the latter fled further into esoteric anti-diatonic regions. Schoenberg had started the process in 1908, but by the beginning of the First World War, both he and his pupils, along with Stravinsky, were openly antagonising traditional music lovers in the music capitals of Vienna and Paris.

Interestingly, pre-1914, Berlin and London remained immune to such acts of aggression. Somewhere in this melee was also the germination of what mechanisation had wrought, as mentioned in the mini-essay elsewhere on this page regarding Hindemith’s postcard to Ernst Toch in preparation of the 1928 Baden-Baden Festival. Composers wondered how music could reflect the age in which both manufacturing and the massacre of soldiers had become so perfectly mechanised. Out of this would inevitably develop a desire to see music itself as a purely mechanical function, the result of nothing more than technical perfection of the performer. Eduard Beninger writing in Schott’s new-music house magazine ‘Melos’ thought the best thing about recent piano music was the sense that there were no human personalities between the work and the listener. He even went so far as to suggest that it would be best if pianos were equipped with rubber hammers to make any attempt at personal expression impossible. Other festivals would start to concentrate on providing political instruction through song and didactic pageants. The idea of ‘practical’ music took hold though it seems strange to us today as to why such a concept was even necessary. But for most people, meaning the urban and rural poor, there was little access to music beyond churches and local fêtes. The view developed that the wider public was intimidated by music and what was needed was a breaking down of barriers between performers and public. This was still long before the days when popular music would generally emanate out of Europe’s concrete housing estates, though one of the attractions of jazz was its sense that it was the music of an exotic urban community.

Yet the one thing these festivals of the 1920s and ‘30s had in common was the sense of unbounded exuberance and optimism along with a belief that music could change the world. In this respect, they were simply building on what Wagner had put into place when he elevated the purpose of music from the confines of accompanying the pastimes of the wealthy. Perhaps the most simplistic encapsulation of new music festivals post- First World War and post-Second World War would be that the former attempted to instruct and find ways of becoming inclusive whereas the latter attempted to admonish and isolate.