Julius Korngold’s Article on “The Modern” in Music, 1901: Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler and Julius Korngold

When researching Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, the ANNO pages of all of Austria’s newspapers since 1568 at the Austrian National Library website were not yet searchable. This meant I had to flick through each copy of Austria’s paper of record, Die Neue Freie Presse individually, starting in 1865. If I saw a music review, I saved it and gave it a file name that could be retrieved later. As a result, I ended up with a huge repository of music criticism by Eduard Hanslick and his eventual successor, Julius Korngold, who was the notorious father of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold Sr. is interesting in his own right. I quote him copiously in my book and he shares a similar background to his idol Gustav Mahler: both were Jews born in 1860 (Mahler on 7 July, and Korngold on 24. December); both grew up in Moravia (Mahler in Iglau, now Jihlava and Korngold in Brünn, now Brno). Both had fathers who sold spirits and were successful enough to provide a reasonable environment for intellectual and musical interests. In his memoirs, Julius Korngold quotes copiously from their personal correspondence, and though they never used the informal “Du”, but addressed each other as “Sie”, it’s clear that the relationship was mutually useful and respectful. Mahler used Korngold to get messages across, and Korngold, as music critic of the most powerful newspaper in the Habsburg Empire, became a staunch supporter of Mahler – so much so, that he contrived to destroy everyone of Mahler’s successors at Vienna’s Opera House, including Felix Weingartner and Richard Strauss.

The Anno Pages of all of Austria’s Newspapers and Magazines since 1568: https://anno.onb.ac.at/

If Weingartner and Strauss were impressed by Erich Korngold and performed his works, Julius saw only deceitful attempts to butter up Erich’s powerful father. At no point did he ever consider his son to be of greater importance than himself, a situation that would push Erich away from the narrow confines of serious classical composition into the world of operetta. It was the only way to free himself from Julius’s ambition to become the obvious successor to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Only with the financial independence afforded by Erich’s pursuit into light music, (that Erich always maintained, to Julius’s distress, was not light, but needed to be taken as seriously as any of the Viennese greats) could he free himself from Julius’s poisonous meddling. This is all covered in my article on Korngold elsewhere on this blog. What interests me today, is Julius Korngold’s writings on Gustav Mahler. They interest me because they are written without any benefit of hindsight, and written as defence against other talents – some (as you can see in the article below) are well known, others who may have seemed a potential rival at the time, have now disappeared entirely from our collective consciousness.

Richard Strauss and Felix Weingartner

Like all newspaper articles from the past, we encounter not just a point of view, but a full dousing of a long lost Zeitgeist. References are made that must have resonated with the readership of the day and been a recognisable part of the intellectual fabric. It makes it difficult to translate, as indeed, the style of journalism from over a century ago. Not just wordiness and florid digressions make for awkward reading. Run-on sentences are common in modern German and allow disparate facts to be accommodated in a single, lengthy flow. Case endings allow for subjects, objects and indirect objects to be heaped into seemingly elegant pile-ups.  A monstrously complex sentence was considered a thing of literary beauty in earlier times.

The article below is the first Julius Korngold Feuilleton making a reference to Mahler, that I filed. There may be others, but Mahler is present enough in this article, for me to have added it in the file name. In this particular article, Mahler only appears towards the end of the piece, which is mostly made up of Korngold’s review of two books on “The Modern in Music”. Note:  there were at this point, no “-isms”, so he never refers to “Modernism” or even “Modernity”. It is always referred to as “the Modern”. It may be interesting to Mahler enthusiasts, but of greater interest is the lengthy discourse on what “modern music” was meant to be in 1901 Vienna. Obviously, this is taking place in a world before atonality, twelve-tone music or arid “New Objectivity”. In Italy and France, “modern” was a presentation of a “veristic” world, graphically reflecting the earthiness of village or proletarian life. In Germany and Austria, it was still the debate about the extent music and extra-musical elements (i.e. literature) should be used to bypass architecturally immutable structures. It was the debate of “New School” (Wagner and Liszt) vs. the “Old School” (Mendelssohn, Brahms). This article lays out the arguments in an age that had yet to be confronted with “Modernism” but had already encountered Strauss’s tone poems. In Julius Korngold’s Vienna of 1901, departure from classical forms and the any appearance of unresolved dissonance were the two worst things that could happen.  This Feuilleton appeared in the Neue Freie Presse on July 7. 1901. My next saved reviews of Mahler by Julius Korngold don’t appear until 1904, but from that point. They arrive at regular intervals until Mahler’s death. I hope to find the most trenchant reviews, translate them and post them onto this blog so that Mahler’s principal defender in Vienna can have his voice heard beyond the world of German speakers. It isn’t always pleasant and agreeable, but he always has things to say and a trenchant way of saying them. 

What’s modern? In any event, the question itself is. It would therefore be surprising if we did not encounter this question in regards to music as well. Two new books provide us with answers of reassuring conviction. Heinrich Rietsch in his ‘Collection of Musicological Articles‘ published this year (1901) by Breitkopf & Härtel, attempts to parse individual features of modern compositional techniques; Arthur Seidl pursues ‘The Modern Spirit of Music‘ in his book published by Berlin’s Harmonie-Verlagsgesellschaft. Rietsch offers a methodical examination: we have twenty leading tenants offered in clinical sequence. Siedl’s work is perhaps more freely structured – one might say im freien Satz – “rhapsodic” would be the description of how he organises his widely flung ideas’ net. Nevertheless, those who so thoroughly search for spirits can often only end up encountering ghosts. Thus, we should not be surprised to find in Seidl’s work the origins of every conceivable modern spirit, or literary, artistic, speculative ghost. Rietsch remains firmly grounded on the fundamentals of music. He deals with specific reconfigurations in music’s artistic elements: harmony, rhythm, voice leading, figuration etc. etc. all of which are elements with their provenance from 1850. We hardly need to state it, but this musical reference starts with Liszt and Wagner. Seidl’s ‘Modern Spirit‘ is younger – much younger. It is the spirit of today – in fact, it would be better to say that it is the spirit of tomorrow. It is the spirit that rejects yesterday. And, as far as Seidl is concerned, Wagner too belongs to yesterday.

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Both authors have one thing in common: their irrefutable praise of the new. That is not a surprise with Seidl, who is well known as a partisan follower of the “New German School”. It is, however, a surprise with Rietsch, the worthy collaborator on [Guido Alder’s editions of] Monuments of Austrian Music. Given his affectionate attachment to the past, one would have expected a more critical examination of the new. As a result, this laudable work leaves something out, which we would like to have seen examined: criticism of new styles and new means of expression. Is this technique of proliferating up-beats and harmonically altering chords of chromatic secondary voices, part of the freely unstructured form that no longer bases itself on the musical idea, but on extra-musical ideas? Is this style based on luxurious orchestrations at the expense of the melodic line an irrefutable given?  Well, so would seem to be the opinion of Rietsch, who specifically prioritises new techniques over old ones. He describes this new style as: “the adaptability of tonal material, via a variety of means in order to achieve the maximum of expression”. Nota Bene: “expression” – here we come to the point. “Expression” is the favourite term of the Modern and its followers, even if it is not particularly clear what is meant. Are we to understand that the variety of means within the tonal material as used by Beethoven, Mozart or even Bach was unable to achieve maximum “expression”? This is a criticism that even the most hardened follower of the Modern would not suggest. Does “expression” perhaps mean something different, or even something more than the pure impression of an unspecified intellectual, spiritual element, normally found in common musical narratives? In relation to this latter point, there has never been a truly beautiful or meaningful composition that was not “expressive”.Today, however, it must be stated that all music is specifically expressive. Modern music aspires, it would seem, to achieve a degree of expression that is based on a supra-narration, characterised by something that is within itself, extra-musical. This is fundamentally, what “expression” means today.

Heinrich Rietsch 1860 – 1927

No, there can be doubt that we are dealing with that unique characteristic of music, in which word and musical-tone are combined. It is this secondary feature, yet, that comes at the cost of music’s noblest power and raising it to its own determined ends. Such understood, or misunderstood purposes of “expression”, are apparently only possible using these newest compositional techniques. The music that is truly expressive, sensitive and engaging is not going to be the sole result of new styles and techniques; at least no more than it was through old and more natural wellsprings of musical language. Nevertheless, the danger has been shown that the driven, complicated technical apparatus of today has become an end in itself. Yet, how quickly one might tire of these forced charms! In addition, no “style” has so quickly become forced, formalistically paralysed as this specific definition of “the Modern”, which accordingly does not offer much in the way of meaning, while at the same time, drunk in its attempts to add meaning, and allowing content to dominate form. This “Modern” style is apparently not only capable of expression, but is indeed, addicted to expression – such a pity then that it has so little to express!

Arthur Seidl 1863 – 1928

That being a given, what is the present state of the modern melody? In Rietsch’s armoury of music’s modernity, there is no room for it. Fortunately, Mr Arthur Seidl has something to say on the subject. In search of the the Modern Spirit in art song, he happened to bump into it. With unexpected patience, he allows melody to travel on both ancient and modern tracks. “There are altogether two different types of melody. The one, mostly encountered, grows out of architectural plasticity on the foundations of simple and expanded cadences, or out of modulatory nearest sequence.” Symmetry, parallel periods, repetition, development and the flanking of principal motifs apparently are its identifying features. This is in contrast to the “newer, contemporary increasingly predominant” melody. “Here, one encounters the music muse turned inwards, following the hidden dark laws of physical intuition, in narcissistic externalisation of life’s intimacies. It is here that the basis is found of an apparent arbitrary up and down of innermost feelings, their eternal, sinewy, peripheral mood changes forming into a special rhetoric of a free, natural expiring spiritual sentiment.” Mr Seidl disarmingly admits to not “fully comprehending” the mysteries of this new type of melody – but he feels, he is getting close. It is a comfort at least to know that the “new melody” has not pounded the old variant out of existence. What of the older “architectural-plastic” melody, assuming it is lovely and deeply felt, and based on the assumption that the muses have not followed the laws of “physical intuition”, as with the “psychological declamatory”? And what of the latter, assuming the composer dispenses with the architectural in order to express the plastic consciousness that achieves the resultant feeling deriving from his spiritual state? “Architectural” is a second bit of Modern argot, when speaking of older styles.  Architectural issues undermine not just the melody, the subject as such, in works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak, but their entire structures of movements. This means, these works suffer the effects of music’s existential necessities, the immutable laws of rhythm, the symmetry determined by time that forms music itself. One can also read much about structure that is at least instructive, in Friedrich Rösch‘s ‘Music Aesthetic Points of Conflict‘; or the same ideas are covered by Oskar Bie in his essay ‘Modernism in Music‘ – all of them longing for the removal of barriers in order to achieve a musical Naturalism: “Leaving behind all the leftovers of more formal times, all structures, all measures, all motific repetition.” It’s probably unnecessary to state that this applies to points of structural organisation in large scale works as much as it does to individual concepts of tone or pitch. Even the most rambling tone poem, if only occasionally, and as if succumbing to natural laws, bends its most rhapsodic elements into something architectural. No need for the monumental buildings as from an earlier age, today we must go for the decorative, atmospheric cottages of Darmstadt. However, it’s specifically here that one attempts to cash in on the spirit of the Modern. Apparently it’s most at home where the “characteristic, supplest, tiniest motif” can overwhelm the broadest of melodies and where the possibilities of every instrument are pushed to their most extreme, and where the listener is subjected to “temprement” to the point of temper-tantrum.

Oskar Bie 1864 – 1938

“What is modern in music?” asks Seidl. Initially, he answers in attractive generalities: “the vitality for our existence and the effects of a breaking day”, ”the new that is entitled to the future”. Sadly for Seidl, vitality applies to anything that draws breath, anything affecting our existence that doesn’t work, everything that is of the future and offers nothing to the present. Modern is to Seidl anything that takes his fancy and any contemporary experiment. Modern includes everything in between, all transitional forms, every synthesis of art, the latest attempts at melodrama and last but not least, all attempts of mutual fruition between music and literature. Seidl offers us this final observation: “Poetry aspires to idealistic augmentation – even at its most naturalistic, it is musical; the music of poetic realism.” This includes incorporating “the newest secessionists’ colour-effects representing the latest in pre-Raphaelite tastes.” The scenic presentation of an opera, such as Thuille-Bierbaum’s ‘Lobetanz‘ is according to Seidl a tendency towards the Modern. And it isn’t just in the works of Humperdinck and Thuille, but also [Max von] Schillings, [Felix] Weingarten as well as the tone poems of [Siegmund von] Hausegger, [Gustav] Brecher, [Friedrich] Klose, [Franz] Mikory, where the eager gardener can spot young buds of the Modern sprouting.

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Everything he writes, however, aims towards one conclusion: the modern spirit of music materialises from any and all sources in one particular artistic apparition: The name is not only the dedicatee of the book, but appears in every line and even between the lines: it’s not Richard Wagner, but Richard Strauss. There is a certain delicious irony in seeing how Seidl has managed to segue from Nietzsche’s negative ‘The Case of Wagner‘ to ‘the Case of Strauss‘. The Wagner-craze that erupted was due in no small part to Nietzsche’s polemic. The antidote is no less effective than Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ was at the time of its publication. Unintentionally, in Seidl’s “Slave Rebellion” against Wagner-dogma, he lets Nietzsche’s arguments against Wagner slip out, even if they’ve been carefully wrapped in protective packaging. The ideals of a Romantic world consisting of mercy and sympathy, the pessimistic circle of self-denial and redemption, are offered as last rights and lovingly laid to rest. Seidl flatters both Wagner and Wagnerism as the high temple of “the Modern”. It is here that Nietzsche sits as the deity of the day. Wagner is, the all clarifying and final genius of past epoch: Nietzsche’s “Prototype of the modern Being”, the seer of the future.

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844 -1900

Alongside the Wagnerian wing on the right is the one on the left that brings us into radical new territory.  This brand new work of war seems less certain after Zarathustra’s words are transcribed into sound by Richard Straus. It is here that roads cross – byways welcomed by those who explain the age to us – that consist of the modern philosopher and the modern musician. An entire section of his book – indeed a quarter – is headed under the title of ‘Thus Sang Zarathustra‘ and consists of an examination of Strauss’s orchestral works. The more passionate his plea, the more deliciously tiny scruples are exposed. A question arises: The intellectual progenitor of the Zarathustra idea is Nietzsche himself, and would he have approved of this presentation expressed in music? It is certainly a question worth asking.  Just as Wagner’s philosopher of choice, Schopenhauer did not share Wagner’s musical principals; it can equally be assumed that Nietzsche’s musical values do not correspond with the philosophies of Strauss the composer. Seidl is subdued in his admission that Nietzsche, the great defender of the Dionysian and the dithyrambic of prose, and the liberation of rhythm in poetry, was more likely to support the Apollonian ideal of melodic beauty in music, pronouncing “the artistry of musical beauty the simplest means of symmetrical fulfilment”. So, we can assume that Nietzsche was supportive of the “architectural”? – Ouch! That hurt! Siedl is able to see darker spots on his sun: The tendency of Straussian exaggeration, to caricature, of piling up the polyphonic to the point of cacophony. Seidl carries out these qualifications with a good deal of humour directed at the Pschorr [beer company owned by the Strauss family] blood running in his veins. It is amusing to think of the stream of dissonance in Strauss’s latest works as coming out of the rivers of beer flowing through Munich, while listening to ‘Ein Heldenleben‘ and sensing it merely as a chapter in the history of a Bavarian brewery!

Richard Strauss 1864 -1949

Richard Strauss is accorded a leading place within the subject of Modern art song, though he has to share his position with Konrad Ansorge, who is presented as the Maeterlinck of Lied. Ansorge is placed as the lyricist against Straussion “drastic characterisation”. Both are placed ahead of Hugo Wolf in the line of Modern art-song composers. According to Seidl, Wolf offers “merely a late blooming of traditions begun by Schumann and carried through by Wagner” and lacking “the power to drive into modern lyricism, or indeed any desire to carry the banner of new music into the aspirational age”. In questions of assessing Strauss’s value as a composer of song, one is in happy agreement, though one neither desires the presence of the banner waver, nor indeed, the banner itself. Strauss is as tame with Lied composition, respecting both what is and what was, as he is unbounded, in crashing through borders, in his orchestral works. With considerable sharpness, Seidl attacks the widely accepted Wagnerian principals of art song. He doubts the claims by the Modern of accompanying song with orchestra and blindly using Leitmotifs as a successful means of thematic construction. He writes accordingly, “One took the Tristan chord, extrapolating from its chromaticism a fearless plan to move both into musical image projection as well as into characteristic declamation. All of this could possibly tumble into the exuberant bombast of harmonic chord shifting, resulting from a combination of exalted and affected modal sequences. The resultant ceaseless augmentation of which leaving us with an orgiastic impression.” Excellent! I couldn’t have put it better myself. Yet how applicable this is to all modern music that reaches beyond both consonance and dissonance for its extra-musical raison d’être.

Konrad Ansorge 1862 -1930 and Hugo Wolf 1860 – 1903

Gustav Mahler is also accorded an eminent place as a modern composer in ‘The Modern Spirit in German Music‘. It is even quite a flattering representation as well, slap next to Richard Strauss with whom he is often compared. Mahler himself makes reference to his relationship with Strauss. We know this because of a letter included in Seidl’s book in which Mahler makes suggestions as to how to structure a programmatic composition. Mahler admits that his “compositions seek a programme as the last, realisable ideal whereby Strauss has the programme as his template at the very start.” So why did Mahler – as was the case with his D major Symphony withhold the programme from the listener? [Sic! Presumably JK is referring to Mahler’s D minor Third Symphony which had a pantheistic programme that Mahler withdrew] It was, after all, his  “last realisable ideal”. Mahler compares his relationship with Strauss as two miners, “who start to dig separate tunnels before meeting in the middle”. In any case, we find both composers on shining paths. Actually, Mahler the composer is presented by Seidl as problematic, strange and unpredictable. This is not the case with Mr Ludwig Schiedermair, who appears to have completely solved the Mahler puzzle. Mr Schiedermair is only the latest in offering a critical Mahler biography, and offers this particular artistic portrait to the Leipzig Valhalla publishing house of Hermann Seemann Nachfolger. His praise is unrelentingly sweet, in danger of turning his panegyric presentation into something closer to a pamphlet. At the same time, Mr Schiedermair, by fretting that Mahler, “the marvellous opera director and the superior conductor” could unwittingly become a useful friend to all of Mahler’s enemies. The superficial ease, of Mr Schiedermair’s inadequate means to delve deep, is most likely to lead to the author being dismissed by the most generous reader, who in the worst case, should seek refuge in Seidl’s book, which is thankfully superior, despite principally dealing with a weak subject. At least it is lively, fresh and offers a degree of specialist knowledge.

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