Saturday, 18 July 2015

Vienna as metaphor

There are cities which embody a culture, a history, and a people. The big European cities who have survived the Second World War (relatively) unscathed, have complex stories to tell, which are demonstrated by their appearance. Vienna has the reputation of the 'city of classical music' and of the 'cradle of modernity' - at least: one of its cradles, and as far as music is concerned, it is also often criticized as a 'bulwark of conservatism', with its two pinnacle classical institutions: the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Wiener Staatsoper, as representing the 'bad taste' of 'bourgeois audiences' who cultivate a tradition of booing modern masterpieces. Going there, is confronting such notions with reality.

Thanks to a generous subsidy from a British anthropogist, I went to Vienna in the autumn of 2013 for the first time. Of course I knew the city already 'virtually', its history, monuments, musical riches, and culture, but walking through its three-dimensional reality still gave a shock. Of course what detemines Vienna's character is the 'innere Stadt', the city centre, and its surrounding quarters, all built beyond the Ringstrasse which follows the line around the centre where in former times the city walls stood (the 'glacis'). Seen as a whole, this territory forms a continuum of architectural representation within which endless variations give character to locality, within a range from grandiose to very intimate expression. After a couple of days wandering around, it became clear that this was an apt visualisation of what a classical tradition is: an aesthetic framework of a repertoire of rather neutral material which can be varied ad infinitum, with works referring to each other, commenting upon each other, as if in a conversation stretching over long time spans, creating a harmonious world of consciousness and emotional exploration. Since Vienna's architecture no longer also represents the political power of a great empire, the more sordid aspects of such a cultural continuum have disappeared and what rests, is a cultural dream which is all the more real for its being somehow disconnected from the direct needs of power interests. It has become mainly aesthetic and cultural.

Instead of complaining about such an impressive 'capital' which no longer represents its earthly power, we should be grateful for the course of history, because in this way, Vienna offers a marvellous example of what a cultural tradition can be, and that is not a nostalgic reason for regret, but an inspiring representation of what the highest faculties of man are capable of. Alas, also here, the excrements of modernism have made their usual destructive interventions.... like the 'Haas Haus', the tumor that forms such an eye sore at the central square Stefansplatz, right opposite of the beautiful cathedral St Stefan, one of Europe's greatest medieval monuments. It is incredible that the city did allow this abberation, because the aesthetic and structural points of departure of this style are not only 'different' from the Viennese architectural continuum, but stand in aggressive opposition to it. Unfortunately, here and there, similar interventions can be noticed, although the skyscraper type has been restricted to the outskirts.

My impression is that the Viennese love their old, 'unreal' and dreamy city, that they experience it as a harmonious universe, in spite of the problems that all contemporary metropoles have to deal with, like the homeless and beggars found in Mariahilfstrasse, Vienna's commercial gutter. Since my trousers had suffered considerably from the train yourney, I went to the Peek & Kloppenburg in Mariahilf to buy some new ones, and was touched for money by a middle-aged Eastern-European man in rags, seemingly desparate - according to the story - to pay for the rent of his room where he had settled with his family. (I gave him some, on the risk the story was true.) We see this thing increasingly in Europe, in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, etc. which exposes not only the faultlines in our own society but also in a wider context, given the endless flow of fugitives trying to find a rather civilized life - the life that has been won, against all odds, more or less everywhere in Europe. All the more reason to think about what 'civilization' means, what a cultural tradition means, and how to deal with the forces which attempt to undo what has arduously been built over the centuries.

Thinking back to the loud protests which greeted Schönberg's pieces at the beginning of the last century, the picture takes-on a meaning quite different from what the books of musical history try to convey. Schönberg broke with the cultural continuum which untill then was still in place, and it seems obvious to me that the protests resulted from the anxiety that the musical tradition, which formed an important part of Viennese cultural identity, may be destroyed. So, 'conservatism' could have been, in circumstances of decay running-up to WW I, an excellent reaction. The modernists at the time, like Gropius and Adolf Loos - who wrote a book with the title: 'Ornament and crime': - wanted to get rid of a culture of pompous representation, overblown and non-functional ornamentation as a self-congratulating gesture of a powerful but corrupt upper bourgeoisie (interestingly, the function of giving character through ornamentation was not understood). But considering the aesthetically so much poorer times we live in today, these 'overblown representations' now have obtained the meaning of a paradise of beauty and suggested stability, both qualities that no longer seem to be easily sustainable. The millions of tourists from all over the world who visit Vienna nowadays, are not disgusted by these 'bourgeois expressions' but instead enjoy this world of over-the-top beauty and ornamentation - I am sure. You see the happy faces of the visitors in the museums, churches, monuments like the Hofburg, you see the psychological saturation at the terraces along the many 'gemütlich' streets.... the world has come here to experience the dream of culture which has become so rare.

Now, what does all this mean for music? Freud (fruit of Vienna's modernism) has already observed in his 'Civilization and its discontents' of 1929, and rightly so I think, that cultural development inevitably meant suppression of basic instincts like aggression, destruction, the more violent drives of sexuality, and the like: if we want to live a more cultivated life, quite a lot of such dark drives better be suppressed and locked-up in the dungeon of taboos. It is likely that if too much of nature is put into the dungeons, we pay with neurosis for the rewards of civilization, so a balance has to be found - and not the uninhibited liberation of underground demons. It is therefore not without symbolic meaning that under the physical surface of Vienna there is a labyrinth of underground tunnels and sewage systems comparable with the Roman catacombes. Think also of Piranesi's 'Dungeons', these remarkable pictures of infinite prisons, which form a mirror image of his other fantasy engravings of brilliant classical palace structures in the open air. Above and underneath, the light and the dark, it all forms a fundamental part of the human condition. As fas as music is concerned, the last century enthusiastically exposed the dungeons of man, which have to be overcome if musical creation will develop again towards that level of beauty and sophistication as represented in the core of the classical music repertoire, which was born in the Vienna of the late 18th century and of which 'the classics', Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, formed the pinacle. This cultural achievement has been a standard measure for musical quality ever since and rightly so - we have to strive after the best.

Talking with quite some people of Viennese musical life, it struck me how entirely incorrect the reputation of conservatism of Viennese musical life is, or has become. I expected the staff of the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera to reside in wooden-pannelled rooms, working in a well-dressed, formal and intimidating  atmosphere of quiet highbrow dignity, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they were no-nonsense, hardworking people, dealing intensily with the immense pressures of the institution and the piles of paperwork in purely practical and noisy premises, like any office anywhere in the Western world. No time for façades... or posturing... or whatever distraction that could form a threat to the organizational requirements. Nowhere I found the slightest sign of elitism or snobbery, the usual accusation of people who find 'classical music' a parasitic form of entertainment unfairly supported by the community. Also people from the more 'marginal' organizations showed intense commitment to their activities in spite of the increasing shortage of money. Vienna's musical world is buzzing with intense life, expressing its cultural continuum with a fervor, rarely found elsewhere. If you want to understand what a musical culture really is, and what it should mean to the community, go to Vienna and see what is really there.

In Vienna, the musical institutions do their very best to present the classical repertoire in the best possible way with the best possible performers, not as an expression of 'elitism' or 'conservatism', but as an expression of love and commitment to the cultural continuum. The cultivation of the core repertoire is not a sign of conservatism, but of love of a high culture still fully alive and present, and supported by the state and the community, and serving a big and enthusiastic audience across all age groups and social classes. The protests against Schönberg's innovations, explorations which - by the way - were mainly driven by psychological and aesthetic despair, have disappeared because the continuum has survived the inroads of modernity. These attempts to undermine tradition have merely created an extra territory at the margins of music life, thereby extending the overall palette of offerings - nothing wrong with this. Want to enjoy pulverizing or alienating modernity, or unexpected sonic experiences? Visit the Wien Modern festival. Want to be uplifted and to feel what it means to be human? Visit the Musikverein or Konzerthaus or State Opera - which, it has to be said, regularly include 'modern' works in their programmes, and without them damaging the central culture which has enough strength to endure these little deviations, like the Haas Haus at the Stefansplatz which cannot destroy Vienna's overall atmosphere and character. In contrary, these deviations - like dissonants preparing the following consonants - underline the core of what the cultural continuum represents.... a dream of humanity and beauty, lifted from its historical context and thus, accessible to anyone sensitive enough to perceive it.

And then: the coffee houses.... They were the hotbeds of intellectual and artistic fermentation around 1900 and one can see why: they are not mere 'café's', but salons, designed for long, intimate stays, for reading the newspapers, for meeting your friends, for your meals if you have enough money to spend on such things, for reflection and discussion, and work: many writers, poets, and revolutionary desperado's thought-out their plans in the soft light and dignified hush of these haute-bourgeois creations. The Viennese coffee house offers a space, removed from the sores of daily life, a civilized area of reflection where both artistic visions and morbid demons can bubble-up to the surface of the attentive mind. How ironic: the best coffee houses were, and still are, thoroughly oldfashioned spaces with all the appearances of a settled aristocracy, they express the wish of the 19C upper middle classes to live the life style of the aristocracy - in fact, they WERE the new aristocracy, trendsetters, determining developments in society. And all those anti-bourgeois revolutionaries, among which Schönberg and his circle, gathered in these quasi-aristocratic spaces to plot their interventions of a continuum in which they did not feel at home. This is certainly a subject to be further researched... I cannot but feel a profound sympathy for Stefan Zweig, who conjured-up in his 'Die Welt von Gestern' a Vienna that has been lost but has since then been recreated, at least partially, and with adaptations. His Vienna did exist both in reality and in the minds of the coffee house visitors.... To the extent that this vision was a projection, this was exactly the reason why Vienna has survived, recovered from its dark spots, and has entered the realm of timeless presence.

There are small, intimate court yards in the city with greenery hanging over ballustrades and white-washed walls bending in expressive arcs, with little staircases decorated with flowers. One of them housed Beethoven for some time. But also elsewhere the past is very close. On a rather misty friday afternoon I visited a professor at the Music University, and he did me the favor of getting stuck in a traffic jam so that I could stroll around the building which was an old cloister adjoicent of the Belvedère gardens, this impressive ensemble of baroque palaces and park landscape. The bushes in front of the old gates already showed the copper and gold of autumn, some late roses lingered along the crumbling walls. I was back at least some 200 years. Intimacy and grandeur, and all the shades of expression in between, as can be found in Beethoven's music - the continuum will live-on.

But where are the contemporary composers picking-up the thread of their culture? There are still the old men of modernism, in Austria more focussing on irony and eclecticism than the systematic and moralizing denials of their German collegues. No doubt there will, in the course of time, appear some new Mahler, Schubert, Brahms or Wolf, because the creative spirit follows its own course and where could it flower better than in Vienna?

"At the start of the 20th century, Vienna was one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. Though not without grievous bigotry – in 1897, after repeated attempts by the emperor to block the appointment, the city elected a virulently anti-Semitic mayor – the population was not divided, as much of central Europe soon would be, into violently hostile groups. The antique structures of the Habsburg state supported a society that was remarkably modern, not only in its embrace of technology (railways and trams, electric lighting and public sanitation) but also in enabling people with widely ­differing cultures to coexist and work productively with one another." From an article in the New Statesman:

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