Richard Stöhr – an important new Website

Richard Stöhr - hiking on the Dachstein in the Alps c. 1919

Richard Stöhr – hiking on the Dachstein in the Alps c. 1919

As composer websites come on-stream, there is little point in constructing ‘virtual exhibitions’ as their websites offer a wealth of biographical information, work-lists, timelines, audio clips and photographs. Richard Stöhr now has a new website that features this once important composer and teacher. I can still add my own comments as for me Stöhr’s importance rests on his stand as an Austrian traditionalist who offered a quiet response to the wayward experimenters who had gravitated towards Berlin. Indeed, they gravitated towards Berlin because of people such as Stöhr, Joseph Marx, Julius Bittner, Franz Schmidt and others who along with Erich Korngold’s powerful journalist father Julius Korngold, felt strongly that Austria had a unique musical identity that was based on traditional foundations and demanded the innate comprehension of the listener. Each of these composers, in their own way, represented developments that at the time appeared reactionary, yet in retrospect, seem to have offered a non-radical avenue for music to develop. Relying on conventional means to keep the arts current, yet within the realms of the public’s ability to comprehend, does not seem radical today. In fact, radical art today demands that it is comprehended, in order that its innate radicalism is understood. It’s clear that we can see the difference between conventional expression and wanton conventionalism. Not only did Vienna’s ‘conventional’ composers preserve their individuality, it often comes as a surprise to discover that even the most radical composers returned to musical conventions at various points in their lives.

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From the perspective of today, the potential results of political and social revolutions from the beginning of the 20th century were beyond the comprehension of most people: ergo, culture had to replicate the same revolution. If social and political changes meant turning all social and political conventions upside-down, so be it with the arts as well. Who knew where it would end and best not to try and explain. The emphasis of the post-imperial cultural revolutions that manifested itself in 1920s’ Berlin came at the expense of examining music’s quiet continuity in Vienna. One of the Stöhr’s most interesting pupils – not headlined in the website – was Erich Zeisl. The Franz Schreker scholar Christopher Hailey once described Zeisl to me as “a typical example of a composer who chose not to go to Berlin”. This was not meant to demean Zeisl in any way, but rather to comment on the quiet counter-revolution that was taking place south of the border, and largely dismissed until today. With the re-evaluation of composers such as Erich Zeisl, Hugo Kauder, Hans Gál – and the older generation of Julius Bittner, Richard Stöhr, Joseph Marx, Franz Schmidt and perhaps even the once very popular Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, we admit to an alternative 20th century. It was certainly not as galvanising, weird and wonderful as the 20th century taking place in Berlin or in Weimar Constitution Germany’s music festivals. But what fascinates the historian today is the cross-generational aspect. Some of the most revolutionary figures were elder-statesmen and some of the most radically conventional were young. This conflict is drawn most vividly in the conflict between Schoenberg and his pupil Hanns Eisler. And indeed, one needs to remember that Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Krenek, Eisler and Toch were Austrian and all in their various ways, leaders as they took music down paths unknown. Richard Stöhr reminds us that there were still significant figures who carried on marching down a well-established road used by composers for centuries.

Robert Fuchs (1847 - 1927)

Robert Fuchs (1847 – 1927)

Another reader has contacted me (since writing the above), and asked me to clarify my personal position on Stöhr. This is easier said than done as little of his music has been recorded, and I only know what is on the Toccata Classic’s CD and a concert of chamber works recorded in Vienna. . He is very conventional – but, ‘good’ conventional. I see Stöhr as a rather worthy continuation of the school of Robert Fuchs. I’ve recorded some Fuchs, and Mahler was right: he was brilliant in his preservation of classical models, but by restricting himself to classical models, he limited the potential of music to say something new or even to say something old in a new way. Much of this is the hold-over of the Hanslick-Wagner debate with Fuchs siding with Hanslick’s ideals, even if Hanslick was often frustrated by the lack of creativity that Fuchs demonstrated. And perhaps Mahler’s assessment of Fuchs in his conversations with Julius Korngold – resulting in his recommendation that Erich be removed from Fuchs’s instruction and placed with Zemlinsky – underlines how emerging new voices saw classical models as a straitjacket that restricted creativity.

Stöhr with American pupils for a summer course in Ötz (Austria) 1937

Stöhr with American pupils for a summer course in Ötz (Austria) 1937

Stöhr was the organic continuation of Fuchs’s school. But I suspect – and this is conjecture – there was more to it than that. Even Hanslick had noticed that classical models were no longer producing the creativity necessary to keep music vibrant as a creative art-form. His view was that the model lacked talented practitioners and eventually, someone with more brilliance than Brüll, Joachim or Fuchs would come along – his great hope being, of course, Brahms. One could go on about how composers like Dvorak and Goldmark also tried to exploit conventional models with varying degrees of Hanslickian acceptance. There was hope that these models could survive into the 20th century – even Schoenberg was not initially convinced that they had nothing left to offer. Stöhr is fundamentally different, however, from Fuchs in another very important way: he was obviously an inspiring and charismatic teacher. He may have been trying to pour new wine into old pouches, but he clearly communicated in a manner that captivated his pupils. I suspect that much of his popularity comes from the admiration of those who knew and studied with him. The music itself is never dull, but what of it I know, has yet to reach me in the way that other ‘conventional’ composers such as Hans Gál, Erich Zeisl or Hugo Kauder do. In fact, all of these composers are nearly a generation younger than Stöhr and were to some degree indirectly or directly influenced by the musical dynamic he established in Vienna. One needs to place Stöhr (born 1874) next to Zemlinsky (b.1871) or Schreker (b.1878) – along with Arnold Schoenberg, Julius Bittner or Franz Schmidt (all of whom were also born in 1874), Karl Weigl (b. 1871) or Joseph Marx (b.1882). Stöhr is a very fine conventional composer who influenced musical life in Vienna before 1938 enormously. As I wrote above, the continuation of musical life in Vienna has been neglected at the expense of interest in Berlin during the same period (or up to 1933).

Self-portrait: Arnold Schoenberg

Self-portrait: Arnold Schoenberg

But another uncomfortable fact needs consideration: the experimenters of the first half of the 20th century did not write music that, despite all expectations, speaks to the public today. The difference between abstract visual art and abstract music is that visual art’s communication is immediate and transmits time, structure and composition simultaneously. Music is linear and demands time for structure and composition to unfold. If one or both elements are abstract, then the listener is left baffled and worse, as Hanns Eisler pointed out, excluded. This music has continued to exclude and even with familiarity, works such as Pierrot Lunaire or Erwartung still demand more of the listener than the listener is willing or even capable of giving. All hopes of the experimenters from the early 20th century that future listeners would have the ability to comprehend what was incomprehensible to contemporary audiences have been dashed. The grim reality remains, that the aesthetic rewards of attempting to assimilate such works are not commensurate with the time and goodwill-investments demanded of the listener. For that reason, composers from the same period as Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Krenek (and the host of lesser geniuses), who threw musical comprehension overboard in an attempt to create a new language for a new era, are now being re-evaluated in the light of their less radical contemporaries. The search for contemporaries of Schoenberg with something to say to today’s listeners is where composers such as Richard Stöhr and a host of others come in. This really comes down to listening to the music in Isolation so listen to the sound files on the Stöhr site and draw your own conclusions.