Musikverein Festival: Courage! 2023/24

“I believe that art does not come from being able, but from having to”: this is how Arnold Schoenberg said it in 1910. Three years later, on 31 March 1913, this necessity, i.e. the inner necessity of artistic activity, was to lead to a scandal in the Vienna Musikverein. Under Schoenberg’s direction, the Wiener Concert-Verein, the forerunner of the Wiener Symphoniker, intends to perform works by Schoenberg himself, Alexander Zemlinsky, Anton Webern and Alban Berg; Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” will of course no longer take place.

Poster “Skandalkonzert” in the collections of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna © Wolf-Dieter Grabner

Declared supporters, opponents of the Schoenberg School, and many non-specialists meet because the architect Adolf Loos has bought a bunch of tickets because of the bad sales and given them away indiscriminately to passers-by: This results in an explosive mixture. The fight between whistles, hissing, applause and cheers leads, despite or precisely because of Schoenberg’s calls to order, to duel demands and brawls with judicial aftermath. The sensitive Alban Berg is disturbed that the tumult becomes uncontainable during his “Altenberg Songs” and that the arguing parties can only be brought to reason by extinguishing the hall light. The composer Oscar Straus later stated that the clapping of the slaps was the most musical thing of the evening …   

This legendary “Waddling Concert” is the linchpin of the Musikverein Festival “Courage!” – not because of its historical significance as the mother of all music scandals, but because of the attitude that Schoenberg and Co have shown in their music. To recognize one’s own artistic need and put it into practice, to realize it against resistance from the audience and criticism, from the academic side and from the performers: This requires a good deal of guts. “Brave are those who perform deeds that their courage does not match,” it says in Schoenberg’s Four Pieces op. 27 – a thoroughly autobiographical insight. The composers of the former scandalous evening form a strand in the program of the Musikverein Festival “Courage!”, in which essential works by Schoenberg are performed. The monodrama “Erwartung” with Dorothea Röschmann and the Wiener Symphoniker, “Verklärte Nacht” with members of the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as the two chamber symphonies (Ensemble Kontrapunkte; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie; Altenberg Trio), are among the highlights. 

However, the courageous attitude of sound creators and their works is also pursued in music history, both near and far: Who showed courage in art with bold innovations, and who as a human being in bad times? Ludwig van Beethoven is not the first but one of the most prominent historical figures. Together, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Wiener Singverein celebrate two monumental works that break all conventions: the Ninth under Riccardo Muti and the “Missa solemnis” under Herbert Blomstedt. Its global message of joy and love is necessarily preceded by explicitly politically charged symphonies such as the “Eroica” (Wiener Symphoniker / Karina Canellakis) related to Napoleon and the Fifth with its breakthrough to the revolutionary finale, as well as the incidental music for Goethe’s “Egmont” (Orchestra Wiener Akademie / Martin Haselböck / Thomas Hampson), whose hero goes to his death in the Dutch struggle for freedom against the Spanish yoke for his convictions. 

Once again, an object from the priceless collections of the Musikverein provides impulse and inspiration for the Musikverein Festival: an original historical poster associated with a spectacular event in music history. What had been announced for 31 March 1913 as a “Great Orchestra Concert” with conductor Arnold Schoenberg went down in history as a “scandalous concert”. Behind the tumult, however, was the consequence of an artistic attitude. We make them the theme of this festival: Courage!

Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler remained true to their radical aspirations: Bruckner was never able to hear the Fifth Symphony, his “contrapuntal masterpiece”, in its original orchestral form; In his Third, in continuation of Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler wanted to “build a world with all the means of existing technology”. Both works are on the programme with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Klaus Mäkelä.

Courage was needed in times of dictatorship, war and the general inhumanity of the manifold victims of the Nazis, who could speak of happiness if they were “only” deprived of position, property and homeland, but in countless cases, ended up murdered. Just in 1933, when, in the course of Hitler’s “seizure of power”, a large part of Paul Hindemith’s older works were immediately banned as “cultural Bolshevik”, this composer was captivated by the work on the opera “Mathis der Maler”: the title character is torn between artistic vocation and the obligation to take a stand and fight in the political-religious turmoil of his time – at that time a subject that was as topical as it was precarious (Wiener Symphoniker / Joana Mallwitz). Hindemith was to emigrate, like Béla Bartók, who could not and did not want to work in a “robber and murder system”. His bold “Miraculous Mandarin” (ORF RSO Vienna / Peter Eötvös) had been banned in Cologne in 1926 after defamations as a “document of intellectual perversion” and “claw music” … Bending over backwards and becoming unfaithful to his artistic-humanistic vision was out of the question for Bartók. Of course, those imprisoned in concentration camps had no choice: Theresienstadt has remained synonymous with a lively cultural life under the worst circumstances, in the last collection and transit station on the way to systematic mass murder. And yet, despite unspeakable conditions, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Erwin Schulhoff and many others chose humanity, provided musical community experiences – and thus showed attitude.

A concert by students of the MUK will bring this particular form of courage to mind. Another concert in the Glass Hall will take place as a co-production of the Musikverein and Exilarte, the Centre for Persecuted Music. His theme is explicit: “Courage – Music in the Resistance against National Socialism”.

Poster “Skandalkonzert” in the collections of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna © Wolf-Dieter Grabner

Even under the pressures of the totalitarian Soviet Union, courage was required. On the one hand, Dmitri Shostakovich was regarded as an international model composer, especially during the Second World War and the Red Army’s fight against Hitler. On the other hand, however, he had to allow himself to be reprimanded several times by the Stalin regime, up to the imminent danger to life and limb. Masks and double bottoms, therefore, determine Shostakovich’s music, in which the accusation against the communist murder system is coded and yet spontaneously understandable (Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Karina Canellakis; Vienna Philharmonic / Andris Nelsons). Works by his long-forgotten friend Mieczysław Weinberg (mdw student), who narrowly escaped terror, and two indomitable female composers reveal even more facets of courage behind the Iron Curtain. One is Galina Ustvolskaya, who, at her death in 2006 at 87, left only a small oeuvre of about two dozen good works. She destroyed everything else or provided it with the icy inscription “for money”: utility music that helped alleviate her financial hardship under communism. On the other hand, her work was purely based on external motives: it should only be based on inner necessity, filled “with a religious spirit”.

This also touches on the work of the others, Sofia Gubaidulina: Through her Tatar grandfather, a mullah, initially influenced by Islam, she turned to the Russian Orthodox faith and was thus at odds with the official artistic doctrine of the USSR. Emphase, expression, and transcendence characterizes her music. Works by these two composers will be performed at festival concerts in “Nachklang”. But this attitude is also evident elsewhere and is no less necessary today: Harri Stojka, for example, manages to stand up for the rights and visibility of the Roma as one of the most versatile local jazz musicians at the same time. The Iranian composer Rojin Sharafi courageously crosses borders. And for the youngest members of the Musikverein, there are encounters with not only Schoenberg’s fairy tales and the humorous and critical question about heroines and heroes of then and now: Courage! 

Text by Walter Weidringer.