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Radical Angst

Review of Expressionism in Twentieth Century Music by John C. Crawford and Dorothy L. Crawford

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 19 August 1994

In January 1911, Schoenberg, replying to Kandinsky, who had written him a fan letter which inaugurated their extensive correspondence over the next three years, gave a succinct definition of Expressionism in music:

But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! Not one's taste, or one's upbringing, or one's intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive.

Kandinsky agreed that "when one is actually at work, then there should be no thought, but the 'inner voice' alone should speak and control". Schoenberg was at this time almost as much concerned with painting as with music - Kandinsky was to exhibit some of Schoenberg's work in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition later that year - and his approach to composition was very much that of a painter. What he says about dispensing with intelligence, knowledge and skill and relying on instinct is, of course, nonsense: only someone with Schoenberg's prodigious technical skill and supreme musical intelligence could have written Erwartung. But Erwartung provides the clearest example of what he was aiming to do: tonality and any kind of traditional formal structure are relinquished; in their place is a free-flowing succession of emotionally supercharged musical ideas. Erwartung is a journey into the dark depths of the unconscious. Schoenberg uses the orchestra to present his nightmare vision in vivid colours, which change continuously. A performance of Erwartung with a piano reveals as little of its true nature as a black-and-white reproduction of one of Kandinsky's paintings.

The musical language of Erwartung owes much to the scene of Tristan's delirium in the third act of Tristan und Isolde and to certain passages in Parsifal, and even more to Clytemnestra's nightmare in Elektra. But Schoenberg went further. To abandon tonality was to plunge into a seething emotional cauldron from which there could be no return to stability, as there is, eventually, in the work of both Wagner and Strauss. It is also hard to separate Expressionism in both painting and music from its association with Angst. John and Dorothy Crawford, or their publishers, recognise this in placing on the cover of this book that archetypal Expressionist icon, Munch's 'The Cry'. It is surely no coincidence that, at the time Schoenberg made his break-through into a wholly chromatic language, his personal life was in a state of extreme crisis: his wife had left him to live with the young Expressionist painter Richard Gerstl, who had been giving Schoenberg painting lessons; when Schoenberg persuaded her to come back to him, Gerstl committed suicide. Gerstl's artistic achievement, incidentally, is still inadequately recognized: his last major work before his death, the nude self-portrait, is one of the greatest paintings of our century. Schoenberg's language had been growing more and more radical with each piece he wrote, but this personal crisis gave his break-through into Expressionism a compelling inner necessity.

It is fair to say, also, that the hypersensitive temperaments of Berg and Webern made them the ideal recipients of Schoenberg's revolutionary language, and they were soon writing Expressionist music that rivalled and perhaps even surpassed their master's in tonal freedom and emotional pitch. Some of Bartók's works of the same period are also thoroughly Expressionist in spirit, Bartók, the lonely disciple of Nietzsche who wrote in 1909, "I cannot conceive of works of art other than as manifestations of their makers' limitless enthusiasm, despair, sorrow, anger, revenge, scorn and sarcasm", was again ideally equipped to compose them.

The Expressionist music of these four composers is meticulously chronicled by the Crawfords in this well-researched, intelligently written and beautifully produced book which, however, also attempts to expand the idea of Expressionism to include Stravinsky's Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, and to American composers, notably Ives and Ruggles. Their case is well argued, but I am reluctant to follow them this far. Stravinsky may have told M.D. Calvocoressi in 1911 that "I always aim at straightforward expression in music…The one essential thing is to feel and convey one's feelings" - this in striking contrast to his notorious pronouncement twenty-four years later that 'music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all' - but the outstanding quality of the music of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring is its impersonality. The violence of The Rite of Spring, however personal its origin, is transmuted into objectivity: we hear it as the awesome power of nature. If the term Expressionism has any meaning at all it must imply an exclusive emphasis on the subjective.

Similarly, although Ives's music, quite coincidentally, sounds rather like Schoenberg's at times, its tone is again objective and free from any personal emotion, even if its origins may lie there, as in The Housatonic at Stockbridge. Ruggles, who did hear and was influenced by Schoenberg's Expressionist works, achieves a similar objective monumentality. The one living American composer whom the Crawford's rightly single out as a latterday Expressionist is Leon Kirchner, a pupil of Schoenberg in the 1940s, whose music, like some of Berg's and Webern's, transcends personal Angst to attain an intense, fragile beauty. Peter Maxwell Davies is another natural inheritor of Expressionism and, in works from the 1960s such as Revelation and Fall and Eight Songs for a Mad King, he took Schoenberg's language a stage further in the evocation of night-marish terror.

The legacy of musical Expressionism is curious because of what Schoenberg tried to do with the new language he had invented when his Expressionist period had run its course after the First World War. His twelve-note method codified it and purged it of emotional excess; it was then fit, Schoenberg believed, for any kind of work, from neo-Mozartian string quartet to comic opera. But was it? To many ears, including mine, Schoenberg's later language sounds convincing only when he sets a text that is suited to it - as in A Survivor from Warsaw - or when he has, once again, extreme things to say, as in the String Trio, written after he had almost died in hospital. Schoenberg's huge influence on the music of this century has resulted in a lot of angstvoll quasi-Expressionist music from composers who should probably have been using a carefree neo-classicism. Never mind, it will be forgotten, like all the half-baked Wagnerian bawlings from the last century. Erwartung, Wozzeck and the Three, Five and Six Pieces for Orchestra will survive to testify to a brief but extraordinary episode in musical history.