The Ethical High Ground?


At the bottom of this post, is a link to a thought-provoking review of Forbidden Music written by professor of musicology at Oxford University’s St. Catherine’s College, Peter Franklin. He appreciates many things about the book, but raises an interesting point regarding the unquestioned assumption that 20th Century Modernism occupied the ethical high ground. It’s a legitimate point to raise. A difficulty in judging the music of 20th Century Modernism on its intrinsically aesthetic qualities, has been the presumption that the developments away from tonality were overwhelmingly ethical developments. Such developments stood in contrast to what had gone before. This suggested that what had gone before, or refused to conform to certain dogmatic strictures, was ‘unethical’. Perhaps this was an easy conclusion to surmise as traditional tonality was the music of the establishment with most of the 20th century’s worst despots favouring works that were ‘easy on the ear’. No right-thinking person would wish to share aesthetic values with Hitler, Stalin or Franco. As these monsters of the 20th century were clearly unethical, whatever they did not approve of was by default ‘ethical’.


Yet Hanns Eisler, who considered Schoenberg one of the most ethical of all artists, wrote from his privileged position on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall that post-war western Modernism had somehow left Schoenberg’s ethical compass and had turned inward. Music that did not communicate could only result in elitism and ultimate ‘degeneracy’ – a word he seems deliberately to have chosen, despite its Nazi overtones. The idea that music needed to unsettle the listener was hardly new and composers decided that causing emotional, even physical discomfort was necessary in the new world-orders that followed the First and Second World Wars. The musical revolutionary who decided music needed to be more than pretty noise was Richard Wagner. Like Eisler, he preached an exalted philosophy while aiding and abetting social processes that were very far from what today, we would think of as ‘ethical’. Wagner felt that music was dynamic – a view that would have appeared contradictory at the time. Music was a pure art and no more ‘dynamic’ than the Mona Lisa or a shoebox. Its ‘dynamism’ was in the perfection of its structural symmetry and purity of its execution. The pleasure it provided was aesthetic admiration rather than emotional upheaval. Or as Eduard Hanslick wrote, ‘Feelings were neither the subject nor the purpose of Music.’ Wagner turned such puritanism onto its head with music in ‘Tanhäuser’ and then ‘Tristan’ that seemed to offer an aural representation of sexual intimacy. If human nature could be transliterated into music, wouldn’t it be possible for music to convey greater thoughts, deeds and thereby create in music a means of making humanity more ethical? ‘Meistersinger’ offered a resounding portrayal of German cultural achievement, while the ‘Ring’ carried more overt political messages: Gold and its power to remove the individual from the community (or ‘collective’ or ‘Volk’), could only lead to corruption. It thus dialectically underlines Wagner’s anti-capitalist, and by perverted extension, his anti-Semitic beliefs. In this context, it is disconcerting to read that Wittgenstein pronounced ‘aesthetics and ethics’ as the same.

The self-proclaimed ethical superiority expounded by early 20th Century Modernism is thus understandable. The early 20th century composers inhabited a world that was falling apart, and indeed, needed to fall apart. There was clearly nothing redeemable about the feudal systems that dominated the lives of most Europeans. The First World War would be the last straw. Manfried Rauchensteiner’s history of this period surprises modern readers by laying out the degree by which the aristocracy controlled most levels of administration and government in Austria. It was hardly different elsewhere in Europe. Today, we would find it quite inconceivable for all ministers, along with their staff and heads of departments, to come from the very limited talent-pool of the titled nobility. Robert Musil confirms Rauchesteiner’s representation in his novel ‘Man without Qualities’. The secondary character ‘Department-head Tuzzi’ is the husband of Diotima, a woman based on the salonnière and educationalist Eugenia Schwarzwald. What makes Tuzzi intriguing is the way Musil elaborates on the exceptionality of a non-aristocrat accorded an exalted position within Austria’s crumbling Civil Service. With the upper class so firmly in charge over a period of centuries, and the debacle of the Great War as proof of their incompetence, it was unavoidable to ascribe the established system to the ethical dustbin. Yet did it therefore follow that by creating forms of expression that were incomprehensible to this now discredited order, one had created something more ethical? By 1900, the middle class was expanding and had broken the aristocratic monopoly of power and money. They nevertheless aped the tastes and attitudes of the upper classes and only a few questioned the ethical entitlement of the existing order. For the newly empowered middle-classes, aristocratic tastes in art and music were an aspiration and no more ‘unethical’ than the acquisition of a palace or a racehorse.

What made fin de siècle Vienna such a fascinating historical blip was the fact that it was here that the middle classes did question the ethical entitlement of the existing order. It may have been the cynical, nihilistic questioning of Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger and Robert Musil, or it could have been the supporters of new ideas within society and the arts, such as the Secessionists, the architect Adolf Loos, or the young composers in the circle of Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker and Karl Weigl. Yet the un-stated conviction that art that only appealed without aspiring higher or deeper was ethically bankrupt was consistent to both Vienna’s cynical nihilists and striving positivists. As Berta Zuckerkandl wrote: ‘Artists are the builders of our ethical properties’; it was a view that was propagated by Vienna’s wild young men and women along with lots of their wild ideas. They all hated the social injustices of the world they inhabited, while at the same time, cherishing their unique entitlement to individuality. If ethics meant anything, it was establishing the autonomous balance between the collective and the individual. But was this a task for music? And if music assaulted the senses of those who had benefitted as individuals at the expense of the collective, could it be said with any certainty that the collective found resonance in such Modernistic trends as atonality and Serialism?


Has the view that Modernism embarked on an inevitably more ethical path stood the test of time? Was aleatoric, atonal and serial music truly more ethical than the music that it supposedly superseded? Did it result in the listener entering into a ‘more just’ relationship with his world, himself and his fellow man? These are indeed legitimate questions that demand answers. In fact, it is worth questioning, pace Wittgenstein, if music and ethics are even compatible. The words that are set to music can obviously convey any number of different ideas, but is music intrinsically ethical?

Unquestionably unethical was the chauvinism with which Modernism self-proclaimed its ethical superiority, leaving room for neither argument nor question. It has shut up debate until today. Angry young men in the midst of a disintegrating society simply knew that a better world was required and saw abrasive, antagonistic artistic expression as a means to this end. Revolutions are manifestations of Romanticism, and thus, revolutionaries are inevitably Romantics. Revolutions are incited by individuals, who presume to be speaking for the collective and what is good for the collective is by default more ethical. Yet the collective has never shown the slightest enchantment with Modernism. 100 years on, we can perhaps pose the question, and perhaps after heavy debate the answer will be as we expected: Modernism is indeed more ethical – or is it?


Review of ‘Forbidden Music’ in ‘Opera’, March 2014