Breaking Free

I’ve been enjoy a series of fascinating programmes about music from the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern) on BBC Radio 3 this week gathered under the umbrella title of Breaking Free. In the period from roughly 1903 to 1925 these composers finally abandoned the traditional forms of tonality that late Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler had struggled with in their later work. Aside from its obvious emotional intensity, one of the reasons I find music from this period absolutely absorbing because it was written in a period of highly turbulent transition; you get such a strong sense of new possibilities being opened up when you listen to some of the pioneering works. Some of them are also extremely beautiful. I often hear people say that they they think atonal music sounds ugly, but I disagree. The same people would probably agree that birdsong is beautiful, and most of that is entirely atonal..

The only problem is that I’ve now got a very long list of recordings to buy, as I don’t have any CDs or downloads of some very important pieces. I’m going to be a but poorer financially as a consequence of this educational experience, but hopefully enriched in a cultural sense.

The “breaking free” in this period wasn’t confined to music – revolutionary change was underway in other artistic fields, including painting. Last night I was listening to one of the programmes in the Breaking Free series and it inspired me to have a look in some of my art books for something appropriate to post from the time (if not the location) of the 2nd Viennese School. I decided on this, wan abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky called Composition VII which was painted in 1913.


15 Responses to “Breaking Free”

  1. John Peacock Says:

    My number 1 Schoenberg record is Gurrelieder conducted by Ozawa, with Jessye Norman. Although this is a pre-revolutionary piece, it’s still amazing – especially that performance.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I have that recording (and two others of the Gurrelieder).

      I also think Verklarte Nacht is a masterpiece of the pre-revolutionary period. I think of it as expressionism before it went abstract.

      • John Peacock Says:

        Agreed about Verklarte Nacht. Although I’ve never heard a recording of that in the original sextet form that convinces me fully: the expansion for string orchestra is much more effective. But even there, I don’t know a CD of it that really delivers in full. I have a great recording off the radio of Mark Elder doing it at the proms, and there’s an astonishing arrangement done by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble – perhaps the best version of all.

      • telescoper Says:

        That’s interesting: I’ve always greatly preferred the string sextet version!

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The transition to chaos in both music and painting shows how incredibly sensitive artists are to the zeitgeist. Not a zeitgeist or music or art I have affection for, though.

    • telescoper Says:

      Not a transition to chaos – just to a different kind of order.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The order that showed itself in cultural suicide in two world wars. Nothing says it better than Edvard Munch’s The Scream, though.

      • Are you praising The Scream (of which there are several versions) as a piece of art expressing the sentiment well, as an example of that sentiment, or both?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I don’t see the difference between your first two categories, in which I praise it. I’m not expressing a view on it as art.

      • The second is “a product of its time”, whatever its intrinsic merits. The first refers to it expressing the sentiment of the times well. For example, one could argue that many derivative bubble-gum beat combos are products of their time, but don’t incisively comment on it, while someone like Dylan (though he would disagree) was the “voice of a generation” and hence in (at least) the second category.

  3. “The order that showed itself in cultural suicide in two world wars.”

    While Anton and I agree on (among other things) our distaste for most modern art (be it painting, music, architecture, whatever), I am sceptical whether modern art has anything to do with the two World Wars. Certainly good art was produced at times and places when society was in a similarly bad state, and the few times and places of peace didn’t always produce wonderful art.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That which produced Nietzsche produced these items of art (art in the wider sense).

      • telescoper Says:

        Although Nietzsche died in 1900 (and had been so ill as to be incapacitated for the last decade of his life), there are direct connections between his philosophical ideas and both Kandinsky and Schoenberg. Kandinsky was born in Russia but came into contact with the Nietzsche “cult” when he moved to Munich in 1896.

        It’s also perhaps with noting that the music of Schoenberg and the art of Kandinsky were both regarded as “degenerate” by the Nazis.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        You don’t have to be a Nazi!

  4. telescoper Says:

    Interestingly, the Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3 last night (part of the Breaking Free series that inspired this post) featured Wassily Kandinsky. You can listen to it on iPlayer here:

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