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Poetic Truths

Review of Lies and Epiphanies: Composers and Their Inspiration from Wagner to Berg, Chris Walton

Published in The Wagner Journal, 2015

The mysterious quality that brings music to life - inspiration here might be called 'the breath of life' - is not the subject of this book; in any case it is almost impossible to explain. Chris Walton's engaging study is concerned instead with inspiration in its engendering aspect. He takes five German Romantic composers - Wagner, Mahler, Berg, Furtwängler and Strauss - and, by closely examining received accounts of how particular works came into being, he suggests that what has hitherto been accepted as objective truth is not to be taken at face value. In the 19th century, composers, no longer subject to patrons but now free agents in a competitive artistic world, began to write about themselves and their work as a means of generating attention. Wagner was one of the first to do this, and the way he chose to write about his work, for instance in his autobiography Mein Leben, was sometimes, as he probably would have admitted, 'a poetic embellishment', as Walton puts it, of the literal truth. Walton writes:

What Wagner regarded as useful allegories were treated as incontrovertible facts by his successors (especially by those who desired to assume his mantle). Inspired by both Wagner and Schopenhauer (from whom Wagner had derived many of his views on the topic), several of them seem to have felt that aesthetic validity would best be attained by assigning a similar historical specificity and autobiographical justification to the nascence of their own musical ideas; treating his fictions as truths prompted them to create fictions of their own.

Walton singles out the well-known account by Wagner of the conception of the Prelude to Das Rheingold in La Spezia, Italy, in September 1853, which he described most elaborately in Mein Leben fifteen years later. Several Wagner scholars, notably John Deathridge, have questioned the absolute veracity of this account. The way Wagner tells it appears to be informed by a passage from Schopenhauer about the allegorical significance of dreams that he read the following year. And as it happens we have the first sketch of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, made in November 1853 (not September), which differs quite considerably from the finished score. Wagner implies that the Prelude was revealed to him in its completed state from the start. It wasn't, but his first sketch is also in the key of E flat and does contain arpeggios, though not those he eventually arrived at.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that Wagner did experience some kind of 'vision' at La Spezia, and that it should have occurred in a half-awake state makes perfect sense to me as a composer. Many of my ideas come in this way, sometimes in the middle of the night: I wake up and write down a phrase in my head, look at it in the morning and frequently decide to use it. While composing, usually in the morning before sleep has been completely shaken off, I am occasionally able to return to a trance-like state in which ideas can most easily flow. In his chapter on Richard Strauss, Walton quotes a passage from a late article on melodic inspiration where Strauss discusses Einfall, the evocative German word for inspiration, and says much the same. And I think that Stravinsky's famous description of composing The Rite of Spring, 'I am the vessel through which The Rite passed' is very accurate; I often look back at my music and have little idea how I composed it.

Walton also writes interestingly of the Siegfried Idyll, though not to challenge its origin as a birthday piece for Cosima and a celebration of the birth of their son Siegfried. He quotes from Cosima's diary that one day in 1878 Wagner 'sings from the Idyll "A son is born!"' [ein Sohn ist geboren] and comments that 'we sadly do not know which passage it was', though it fits the main theme, for example at bar 30. Rather, Walton undermines the perfection of the story of Cosima waking on Christmas Day 1870 to the ravishing sounds of the Idyll played on the staircase outside her bedroom by pointing out that Wagner had done something very similar before with 'Träume' for Mathilde Wesendonck; that Mathilde had heard the Idyll in rehearsal before Cosima; that it is possible that Walton thinks probable Wagner was the father of a son born eight months before to their housekeeper Vreneli; and that, much to Cosima's annoyance, Wagner sold this special private gift in 1877 to his publisher Schott to cover debts. Walton concludes: 'the Idyll offers us a prime example of how utopian fantasy and hard-nosed calculation, the private and the public, and inspiration and perspiration can all come together in a work of art'.

Walton moves on from Wagner to the famous story of Mahler's 'lightning bolt' moment of inspiration for the finale of his Second Symphony when he heard Klopstock's Aufersteh'n sung at Hans von Bülow's funeral in Hamburg in March 1894. He proves conclusively that Josef Foerster's account of visiting Mahler that afternoon, seeing him writing at his table and Mahler exclaiming "'Foerster, I have it"' is false. Mahler was at von Bülow's cremation in the afternoon, where he played the harmonium, and he conducted The Bartered Bride that evening; he would hardly have had any time to visit his apartment. Henry-Louis de la Grange's biography, which accepts Foerster's story, states that the cremation took place the following day, but the programme, which Walton reproduces, shows that this was not so. In fact Mahler seems not to have started work on the finale until June. Walton points out that Mahler would have known Aufersteh'n already and doubts any 'lightning bolt' inspiration at the funeral; he thinks that Mahler's own account, in a letter three years later to the critic Arthur Seidl, a close friend of Mahler's chief rival Richard Strauss, was 'primarily an example of self-propaganda.' He also believes, following the psychoanalyst (not psychologist) Theodor Reik, that the most important thing about the funeral for Mahler was his feeling of liberation from von Bülow who, when in 1891 was played the original version of the first movement of the Second Symphony by Mahler, apparently put his hands in his ears and at the end said: 'If what I have just heard is music, then I can no longer understand anything about music!' The long creative block that prevented Mahler from completing his symphony was finally ended with von Bülow's death. I see no reason, however, to doubt that something important also happened at von Bülow's funeral that might well be called 'inspiration'. Mahler did after all use the words of Aufersteh'n, typically making his own additions to it, and they provided his symphony with (in my first sense of the word) a truly inspired ending.

The central, longest and most fascinating chapter in this book, on Berg's Violin Concerto, swiftly demolishes the simple explanation that it was solely a memorial piece for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler-Werfel's daughter who died of polio in 1935 while Berg was composing the work. The concerto is dedicated 'To the memory of an angel' and Berg certainly intended Alma to believe that the angel was Manon (Walton says of Manon: 'a pretty girl […] but hardly one whose physical features […] would unerringly prompt the adjective "angelic"', which is a little unfair: she had perfect features and luxuriant hair of decidedly angelic length). It is now well known that the real inspiration for the concerto was Hanna Fuchs, to whom Berg had written a farewell letter in December 1934, shortly before he received the commission for the Violin Concerto, reminding her that in May 1935 it would be ten years since they met and he fell in love with her. Walton thinks, probably correctly, that they were never physical lovers: Berg, like Janáček, needed a muse figure and Hanna (and other women, it seems) fulfilled the role. By the time he wrote the concerto she had become a poignant memory, but a more present angel for him than Manon. Following on from Douglas Jarman's full account in The Berg Companion, Walton notes the pervasive use in the concerto of the numbers 23 (Berg's special number) and 10 (Hanna's), the frequent occurrence of the notes B (H in German) and F - Hanna's initials, and the use of the term 'amoroso' near the end of the work. The prominent Carinthian folksong in the second half of Part I seems unconnected with either Hanna or Manon, but rather with a serving girl, Marie Scheuchl, who gave birth to Berg's daughter when he was 18, the age at which, as it happens, Manon died. The violent climax to the first half of Part II could refer to Manon's death - but then most of Berg's pieces have catastrophic climaxes; he seems to have been perpetually in a state of heightened internal drama.

There were practical reasons for Berg's dedication of the concerto to Manon. His income had fallen after his music was no longer played in Germany following the advent of the Nazis. He badly needed to get his opera Lulu staged when it was finished, and for this the help of the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg would have been useful (Berg seems to have sympathised with his Austrofascism, influenced by Mussolini - what would Britten have thought of this if he'd become Berg's pupil, I wonder?). Alma was involved in an affair with the Catholic priest Johannes Hollsteiner, who was father-confessor to Schuschnigg. She also knew Schuschnigg well, as he was the lover of her daughter Anna. Alma was furthermore the intermediary between Berg and Hanna, who just happened to be the sister of Alma's third husband Franz Werfel. As Walton notes, this incestuous circle recalls Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen, or Lulu itself - and Berg may even have had Alma in mind for the character of Lulu.

Alma wrote letters putting pressure on Berg, until he was more or less obliged to give Manon the dedication. As often, Alma comes over as an exceptionally unattractive character. Walton says that she was not present at her daughter's funeral, although Elias Canetti's account of the funeral in his memoirs makes Alma the central figure there: 'She was weeping. It struck me that even her tears were of unusual size. There weren't many of them, but she managed to weep in such a way that droplets merged into larger-than-life accretions, tears such as I had never seen, enormous pearls, priceless jewels.' If Alma in fact wasn't there, this description goes far beyond 'poetic embellishment'.

The chapter on Wilhelm Furtwängler takes a different approach, since there is no generally accepted myth about his music, which is less well known than that of the other four composers. Furtwängler had a high opinion of himself as a composer, but the poor reception of his early works led to a long creative block between 1909 and 1935, during which he was unable to finish anything. Between 1935 and his death in 1954, however, he wrote seven large-scale works including a piano concerto and three symphonies. Walton shows how this 'return of the muse' coincided with Furtwängler's secure position within Nazi Germany where virtually all his rivals, including Hindemith, whom he initially supported by resigning in 1934 from the vice-presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer, and Schoenberg, whose Variations for Orchestra he had premiered in 1931, had either gone into exile or their music banned. Furtwängler enjoyed considerable success as a composer during this period, during which his attitude towards modernism became increasingly hostile: it seems that he 'needed a perceived enemy in order to be able to continue to compose'. That his music is mostly dull and uninspired is another matter.

Dealing with Richard Strauss's last years, Walton begins with a rather familiar questioning of his political attitudes, though I'm not sure that anyone with a Jewish daughter-in-law should be censured for his courting of influential Nazis. That Strauss was a shrewd operator, able to get the best out of whatever situation he found himself in, was evident throughout his long life. The really interesting part of this chapter is a re-examination of the Four Last Songs, and in particular 'Im Abendrot', the first to be composed, but sensibly placed last by his publisher Ernst Roth, who also gave the songs their title. Walton suggests that, far from being a calm acceptance of death, 'Im Abendrot' is 'an act of defiance in the face of it' after which he found the strength to compose the other songs. The twice-sounded quotation from Death and Transfiguration, Walton says, 'serves as a kind of repeated, shamanic summoning of the creative powers of his youth as a means of rejuvenating his muse.' The song ends 'in sunset' not after it, and the skylarks rise up in the final bars as a sign of renewed life. This interpretation is startlingly radical, but I find it convincing.

In allowing us to reappraise much that has been taken for granted, Walton has done a valuable job. At the very end, having laid a variety of myths to rest, he is cautious about going too far: 'we should also be prepared to regard apparent mendacities […] as allegories that allow us alternative, symbolic points of access to an understanding of complex, barely understandable phenomena.' These are wise words with which to conclude this ssexcellent and elegantly written study.