Performance Saturday, May 4, 2013 | 7:30 PM

Vienna: Window to Modernity

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The finale of Renée Fleming's Perspectives series, Vienna: Window to Modernity is a thoughtful tribute to the time and place where the European musical tradition, under the influence of literary and visual arts, gave way to the 20th century.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

Drei Lieder der Ophelia, Op. 67


Strauss's Op. 67 songs were written in 1918 as a petulant response to a 1906 contract his publisher insisted he fulfill. They are full of psychotic twists and leaps as they chart the self-destructive insanity of Ophelia. In the first song, Ophelia confronts Hamlet's mother, then in the second, she offers Claudius a rendition of the saucy "Guten Morgen, 's ist Sankt Valentinstag."  The third song portrays her emptiness, punctuated with manic waltz-time interjections that end in the emotional vacuum that leads to her suicide. Few ideas are more associated with Vienna than that of self-destructive neurosis, which Strauss accentuates with his use of the stark translations by Karl Simrock.

Brahms's five settings from 1873 of the classical Schlegel translations could hardly be more different. They are the essence of the Viennese salon and were composed for the wife of Vienna's preeminent actor Joseph Lewinsky. The year of composition is significant as it marks a stock market crash that would shape the social and cultural fabric of fin de siècle Vienna. It damaged the standing of Austria's ruling Liberal Party, which was supported not only by Brahms, but also by a large Jewish bourgeoisie. Brahms's Ophelia-Lieder were not published until 1935, adding "Sein Leichenhemd Weiss wie Schnee" and "Und kommt er nicht mehr zurück?," to the three that were set by Strauss. Brahms's settings resemble fragmentary musical thoughts. They focus on the simplicity and, above all, the innocence of Ophelia rather than her madness, thus suggesting a fitting close to a genteel age.

—Michael Haas


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4

Paris and Vienna differed fundamentally in their understanding of Impressionism. If today, Impressionism is seen as quintessentially French, offering musical transliterations of light, air, and water, the Viennese variant is dark and mysteriously threatening. One need only compare the treatments by Debussy and Schoenberg of Pelléas and Mélisande,  both premiered in 1902.  To Austrian composers, Impressionism was evident in the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold or even Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. They took Tristan und Isolde as their template with its chromatic undulations, serving as a welcome release from Brahmsian Classicism. Yet Viennese Impressionism contained the seeds of its own destruction. The woman in Dehmel's poem, on which Verklärte Nacht is based, is a close relation to the solitary female in Schoenberg's Expressionist Erwartung, composed a decade later. As James Simon explained in the 1920 journal Anbruch, "Impressionists compress the world into the idea of 'I,' whereas Expressionists explode 'I' into the outer universe." Verklärte Nacht was composed in 1899 at the time of Schoenberg's infatuation with Mathilde von Zemlinsky, the sister of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky. There is a fatal eroticism in Austrian Impressionism, which the opening of Dehmel's poem clearly conveys:

Two people walk through the cold, bare wood,
They are shadowed by the moon in which they gaze
The woman speaks:
"I carry a child—but it is not yours
I walk in sin beside you"

The five stanzas of the poem are replicated in the music in the manner of a "new school" tone-poem in which content determines form. It was premiered by the Rosé Quartet, led by Gustav Mahler's brother-in-law Arnold Rosé with the addition of Franz Schmidt on cello and Franz Jelinek on viola.

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Im Treibhaus" and 'Träume" from Wesendonck Lieder, WWV 91

If any single work germinated the neurotic energy of fin de siècle Vienna, it was the love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the seeds of which are found in his earlier setting of Mathilde Wesendonck's poem "Träume."  Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck were wealthy Zurich patrons of Wagner; in 1857, Mathilde offered him five of her poems to set. Wagner's infatuation with Mathilde would become the seed for Tristan, though it is unclear how intimate their relationship was. "Im Treibhaus"  is another Tristan antecedent that offers the same material as the opera's  third-act prelude. Composed for voice and piano, all five songs were later orchestrated by Felix Mottl and have subsequently been treated in a number of arrangements, from chamber orchestra to the sextet version heard tonight.

—Michael Haas


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Intermezzo in A Minor, Op. 118, No. 1
Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2

Wagner's musical antipole was Brahms, who was seen as the flag-bearer of the conservative old German school. Wagner, the new-school revolutionary, was a generation older than Brahms, which added a certain piquancy to the musical dynamic of the age. Brahms's piano works—opp. 116-119—were composed in 1892 and 1893. They are classically structured, though the first Intermezzo from Op. 118 seems influenced by Wagner with its restless search for a tonal center. It meanders through various keys and briefly but definitively settles in A minor. The second Intermezzo (in A major) is one of Brahms's most poignant melodies. These late works are intimate and their designation as intermezzos tells us little of Brahms's musical intentions. They are inner reflections of moods that seem intensely private, melancholic, and tinged with regret.

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Trost" and "Regenlied" from Five Songs for Soprano and String Quartet, Op. 44

Karl Weigl was a pupil of Brahmsian Robert Fuchs, who also taught Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, and Franz Schmidt. All of his pupils went through periods of composing in the manner of Brahms, but struck out in different directions afterwards. Weigl's transition, however, was more organic. Julius Korngold wrote, "He tended not to make the mistakes of composers today, but to make the mistakes of composers of yesterday," though he admired Weigl and referred to the "outer glow" of his music.

His Five Songs for Soprano and String Quartet were composed in 1934, with an earlier piano version of "Trost" dating from 1932 and its theme appearing again in his Fifth Quartet in 1936. "Regenlied"is set to a text by Klaus Groth, a north German poet who died in 1899. "Trost"  is more controversial. Poet Ina Seidel had been a committed supporter of National Socialism and was placed on Hitler's "chosen by God" list towards the end of the war. The songs, as with Verklärte Nacht, were performed by the Rosé Quartet in November 1937 with soprano Elisabeth Schumann at Vienna's Musikverein, though their premiere was six months earlier with the Kolbe Quartet and Zoë Prasch-Formacher.

Unlike his friends and colleagues Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky, Weigl preferred not only to remain in Vienna after 1919, but carried on composing in the familiar sensual language from Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Works composed in American exile became more expressive and even dissonant, though he tended to stifle deliberate ugliness. As Julius Korngold wrote in 1910, "When Weigl tries to write violent music, he seems like a gentleman being forced to shout."

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Mir scheint, das Angesicht der Welt verging," from Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett-Browning, Op. 52

Few of Vienna's exiled composers were as multifaceted as Egon Wellesz. Julius Korngold praised him as a young composer and fellow critic—a rare honor that Wellesz did not return, referring to Korngold as a highly divisive and destructive figure within Vienna's fractious musical biotope. Wellesz was an extraordinary polymath. He was not only a noted composer, but also penned the first Schoenberg biography and was equally celebrated as a musicologist who, together with H. J. W. Tillyard, encrypted the notation of ancient Byzantium. He was the only opera composer (other than Richard Strauss) for whom Hugo von Hofmannsthal would write a libretto, and second only to Stravinsky in his output for ballet. After fleeing Austria in 1938, he taught at Oxford University and at the age of 60 composed the first of his nine symphonies. His works were written in a multitude of styles, which make it impossible to place him firmly in any specific camp. Though the sonnet we hear tonight is highly expressive and free-tonal, he wrote much that was late-Romantic, Impressionistic, or even proto-minimalist, a style that much impressed Bartók, who facilitated the publication of his earliest works.

His settings of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese were officially premiered at the same Barcelona Festival as Alban Berg's Violin Concerto in 1936. Its first performance, however, took place a year before at a concert organized by Anton Webern for Wellesz's 50th birthday. It was composed in 1934 and originally conceived for string quartet with Schoenbergian Sprechgesang ("sing-speak"). He later changed it to be sung, while still allowing Rilke's translations to be conveyed clearly. As he wrote upon the occasion of a performance in England:

Rilke's rendering of the Sonnets into German preserves the beauty of the original; he even adds to it by the perfection of his poetical language. I set five of the poems for voice and strings in the summer of 1934. … The concluding piece, "The face of all the world is changed," compresses the emotions of the foregoing [songs]. The music leads to a climax in Rilke's beautiful ending line "hat nur in dir noch Melodie."

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Drei Stücke (1913)

Anton Webern is the only 20th-century composer on the program not born into a Viennese Jewish family. His studies with Schoenberg tainted him to the extent that his music was banned by the Nazis. Yet it is intriguing to compare the number of Jewish followers of the anti-Semite Wagner and the number of non-Jewish followers of the Jewish Schoenberg. Wellesz, a close friend of Webern, tells us in his memoirs that Webern was as important an influence on Schoenberg as the other way around. According to Wellesz, Webern drove Schoenberg to greater extremes of musical abstraction. Webern, however, wished to achieve ultimate clarity in musical thought, removing all extraneous clutter. The three pieces from 1913 represent some of his most reduced concepts. In a letter to Alban Berg, Webern writes that nearly all of his work to date related to the death of his mother. The song "Schmerz, immer Blick nach oben" ("Pain, always arising") set to his own words, forms the centerpiece of these three perfectly crafted miniatures.

Webern's death at the hands of an American soldier, his high degree of musical clarity, and views on the ethical purposes of music made him a figurehead of the post-war avant-garde, often at the expense of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. During his lifetime, he was the least performed Schoenberg pupil, though he was much admired as a conductor and organizer of Vienna's Workers' Concerts. Despite his ban by the Nazis, he remained in Austria, sympathetic to National Socialism. This ambiguity remains an intriguing biographical mystery. It was through the Nazis that he lost his teacher, most of his friends, his public, and ultimately—with the Nazi defeat—his life.

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Der Mond steht da" from Mondbilder; "Komm, süsser Tod"; "Gigerlette"

Eric Zeisl was a generation younger than the other composers featured this evening—which was also his tragic undoing. At the time of his expulsion from Austria in 1938, he was only starting to establish himself as one of the region's more promising talents. Doors to Jewish composers were closed in 1933, meaning the opportunities left to the 28-year-old were only in Austria itself. His teacher, Richard Stöhr, created an environment in which it was believed that music could develop organically from 19th-century Romanticism. Zeisl was part of a group of composers—such as Egon Kornauth, Kurt Pahlen, Franz Mittler, and Ernst Kanitz—who formed a small but significant counterbalance to the progressive trends dominant in pre-Hitler Berlin. With the exception of Kornauth, all of these young composers would be forced into exile.

Zeisl subsequently studied with the more progressive composer Hugo Kauder, leading to some of his most significant works that adopted a surrealist quality, similar to that of several Czech composers like Erwin Schulhoff. "Der Mond steht da,"  with its Dadaesque text by Christian Morgenstern, is taken from the song cycle Mondbilder, one of the works from this period. Zeisl was predominantly a composer of song, and his close relationship with the German language resulted in dozens of perfectly crafted miniatures.

Exile meant not just loss of his native country, but also loss of the language that had been his most important creative tool. His setting of "Komm, süsser Tod,"  written virtually on the eve of his departure and to an unknown text, is a painful farewell. He would never write another German art song. Following his expulsion, he landed on one of Hollywood's musical conveyor belts, arranging, orchestrating, and occasionally providing original music credited to someone else. At the end of the war and like his compatriots Erich Korngold and Ernst Toch, he left film work, sensing that years of composing on demand had dulled his natural gifts. His death in 1959 at age 54 left us with a short but distinctive list of works, confirming that a very important personality was stifled for much of his creative life. His daughter Barbara married Arnold Schoenberg's son Ronald, bringing the two composers' families together, thus creating a traversal of half a century of music history.

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Galathea" and "Gigerlette" from Brettl-Lieder

Our view of cabaret is fairly set by what we imagine was predominant in Berlin during the inter-war years. Yet cabaret developed in the 1880s and was a Parisian offshoot of Naturalism. It attempted to create a counterculture salon of pickpockets, pimps, prostitutes, artists, and bohemians. By the end of the 19th century, the concept had spread to Barcelona and Munich. Otto Julius Bierbaum published a volume of verse called Deutsche Chansons, including writers like Gustav Falke, Richard Dehmel, Frank Wedekind, and himself. He hoped that set to music, they might entice the working class away from the Tingeltangel, the name given to seedy proletarian dives. It was a noble but misguided idea. Schoenberg set eight of the poems in 1901. The designation Brettl-Lieder refers to songs to be sung on what roughly translates as "rickety boards," in reference to the makeshift stages at such venues.

Though Schoenberg worked at Berlin's first cabaret, Überbrettl, only one of his Bierbaum settings was probably performed: "The Somnambulist."  The founder of Überbrettl, Ernst von Wolzogen, explained the name as follows: "We have the Übermensch. Why can't we have Überbrettl? It implies a superior set of boards—a Tréteau supérieur,  if you will—an above board." Cabaret had come to Berlin. It would probably have disappointed Bierbaum that Berlin embraced its salon of pimps, pickpockets, and prostitutes with such gusto that one of its most famous inter-war venues would be called "The Tingeltangel."

—Michael Haas

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Perspectives: Renée Fleming

Part of

You May Also Like

Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Emerson String Quartet
Yefim Bronfman

Sunday, November 16, 2014
The MET Chamber Ensemble

Friday, December 5, 2014
The Philadelphia Orchestra

Load Testing by Web Performance