It was March 31st, 1913 in Vienna, the world’s capital of art and culture. Four young Mahlerians would turn the Musikverein’s Great Hall, the most prestigious concert hall on Earth, into a battleground with music alone. To the Austrians, this event was the Watschenkonzert, the slap-concert, as concert organizer Erhard Buschbeck was accused of slapping a patron during the fighting. In the ensuing litigation, composer Oscar Straus would testify that “the slap had been the most harmonious sound of the evening.”
Humor me. Let me give my opinion on the works performed that day of infamy. First we have Six Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Webern. This is easily the most effective work on the program, notwithstanding the Mahler which was never heard. Webern’s textures are well-proportioned and his reservedness and humility in this new domain are commendable. He respects us.
Second were the Four Orchestral Songs on poems by Maeterlinck (no. 1-3 & 5) of Alexander von Zemlinsky, a work which was later expanded to become his Opus 13. The only redeemable movement is the third, the Lied der Jungfrau (Song of the Virgin). Maeterlinck’s lyrics are superb and the composer’s setting is perfectly tailored for them.
Next we have the Chamber Symphony No. 1 of Arnold Schoenberg, their ring leader. At about the five-minute mark, one’s impression is that this piece may demonstrate the highest compositional virtuosity of those programmed, save Kindertotenlieder. After this point, one begins to feel cheated, as many of the Viennese that day must have felt. One suspects that the composer has lured us into an ambush. After all, not six weeks earlier, he refused to accept their applause at the premier of his Gurrelieder – basically a secular Mahler’s Eighth – because he thought they were still too conservative. What, then, was your intention with the Chamber Symphony, Arnold? In my opinion, there is not one meaningful instance of tension being built up and released; the single-movement, twenty minute symphony has the contour of a plateau, even with variations in instrumentation and dynamics. The texture and orchestration are disorientating. The ending is satisfying but this may be due to the fact that it’s finally over.
Fourth, they heard the second and third movements from Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, set to music by Alban Berg. These two songs, which together take less than three minutes to perform, incited the good people of Vienna to violence. I tell you, if they held their peace, the very chairs would have cried out! They began to riot and demand that Berg join Altenberg in the insane asylum. The supporters of the Second Viennese School could not allow this affront to its honor and a brawl broke out.
Here are the lyrics from the Berg in English, if you’re curious:
Have you seen the forest after thunderstorms?
Everything sparkles, gleams, and is lovelier than before.
See, woman, you also need thunderstorms!
Over the borders of the universe, you gaze out thoughtfully,
You never worry about hearth and home.
Life, and the dream of life – suddenly it’s all gone – – – .
Over the borders of the universe, you still gaze out thoughtfully.
It’s true: women also need thunderstorms. Otherwise, I have nothing to say about this work. Altenberg was granted leave from the asylum that morning to watch the dress rehearsal. After hearing about what transpired, he wrote a prose sketch in which Alma Mahler attended the concert.
It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but if Buschbeck omitted either the Berg, or two of the first three works, Kindertotenlieder, Songs on the Deaths of Children, would have probably been performed and the program’s central implication would have been imparted to the audience. Of course I speak of the fact that we are the dead children, dismembered by our parents and the necrotic society they created, our dread inheritance. Modernity, then, is nothing more than our propensity to shirk this realization by employing every bromide available and, when these are exhausted, making new ones. The program implied that the works of Liszt, Wagner and the like present a purely musical treasure detached from the reality of man’s diseased state. Moreover, these are cast before swine who merely consume them to prevent their internal twistedness from becoming conscious. Romanticism can raise the dead, and we see this in the Bayreuth spell, Wagner’s cult of personality which Nietzsche came to find so repulsive – its concentric rings of devotion, the moths coming to the lamp to live vicariously through Siegfried. “No more of this!” says Schoenberg, “look at yourselves and realize what filth you are! This is what our diseased hearts sound like!”
The Second Viennese School’s position on this matter is unassailable, but to try and tackle the problem in such a way was an act of naivety. While some may argue that inciting the brawl was an artistic achievement, it really represents the composers’ desperate bid for catharsis regarding their personal frustrations, no matter how related to social issues these may have been. Wagner knew that Christ already went up against these living-dead charlatans for us so we don’t have to. Don’t tell them, Arnold! It is far more effective to capture them in your orbit. Dangle before them a simulacrum of what they lack and proceed to extract value from the energy they exert escaping the repressed. That’s what art should be for! … but whoever does this will have to answer for it on the last day of his life. Thus the Skandalkonzert composers – or at least Schoenberg – evidently had some neurotic need to strive against an immovable object. They damaged the wheat trying to uproot the tares.
Between Wagner and Schoenberg, temporally and temperamentally, we have the saintly Mahler, whose project is one of embracing the spectrum of human passions. He did not compromise for the masses or intentionally agitate them, but was utterly devoted to art. The deciphered message from the draft of the Tenth’s finale would seem not to condone the decisions that led up to the Skandalkonzert. In that symphony, Mahler is already trying to figure out what went wrong. We hear him toying with disembodied forms torn asunder by late Romantic stresses. After deconstructing every Romantic idiom with his symphonic oeuvre, he, in the three middle movements attempts to reanimate them with amateurish surgical procedures and jolts of direct current. This is a failure and often raises the most hideous of forms. Is this the exhumation of Titurel? But the finale is a promise of ultimate acceptance and ecstatic apprehension of the most sacred mysteries … and a musical cryptogram pointing the way to the objective interpretation of Parsifal. All this, whose essence enlivens every Mahler symphony, eludes Schoenberg and his colleagues. They inherited Mahler’s hammer of demolition but none of the Living Water given to him by Beethoven.
To make matters worse, what transpired that day would directly lead to the July Crisis and the Great war. According to sources familiar with the matter, Gavrilo Princip was convulsing on the floor during the fighting and babbling something about a Yugoslav state, free from Hapsburg influence. The Altenberg Lieder was evidently too much for him and, as many innocent people did that day, he passed “over the borders of the universe.” Why did the composers do this? Operatives from a Black Hand sleeper cell found him in the gutter that night and brought him back to Serbia. There, under Dragutin Dimitrijević, the ibn Hassan of Southeast Europe, Princip would be engineered to believe that only assassination could relieve the unbearable tension he acquired at the concert.
This brings us to the songs that were never heard: Kindertotenlieder, finished in 1904. Their lyrics are by Friedrich Rückert. These ghostly settings explore the maddening grief of parents adapting to life after losing their children. Concertgoers would have heard some of the experimental harmonies that laid the groundwork for modernist music, but I would like to call attention to the lyrics. Here we face disconsolate questioning about the bitterness and brevity of life. The grieving report hallucinations of the departed. They cannot understand what has happened. The fifth and last song is In diesem Wetter (In this Weather). In every regard, it embodies anxiety. The orchestra creates a violent storm and the vocalist recalls some vague tragedy. It is as though she lost her mind and now answers the thunder and lightening. She keeps repeating that she would never have let the children out in such weather but also that “they have been carried off.” When all this becomes too much to bear, the key changes from D-minor to D-major and the tempo is slowed to half of what it was. The last verse assures us that the episode, whatever it was, is over and no more harm can come from it.
In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother’s house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.
With these lines was the Skandalkonzert intended to conclude. I believe much of what I said would have been understood in essence by the audience, Mr. Princip among them.