Mod Con

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Mod Con


Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times


Mod con German modernism: music and the arts Walter Frisch California Studies in 20th-Century Music University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2005); x, 322pp; £29.95, $45. ISBN 0 520 24301 3.

WALTER FRISCH'S TITLE is nothing if not comprehensive, but a glance at the chapter headings makes it clear that some quite severe restrictions have been applied. Clearer guidance to the book's subject-matter is provided by the jacket illustration, which reproduces Kandinsky's Impression III (Concert), inspired by a Schoenberg evening in Munich on 2 January 1911. As it happens, the same painting features on the cover of Christopher Butler's Early modernism: literature, music and painting in Europe, 1900-1916 (Oxford, 1994), one of the more significant texts that Frisch does not mention. Various levels of common ground between Frisch and Butler might be shown, and it would have been interesting to have had the musicologist's views on a study involving music by a Professor of English. But there are fundamental differences too. While for Butler 'early modernism' denotes the early 20th-century avant-garde, Frisch deals primarily with what he sees as attempts to respond to Nietzsche's mandate from around 1880 when, in rejecting Wagner, 'he called for a newer classicism and for a renunciation of the Grand Style'.

Although Frisch is as concerned as Butler with something he calls 'early modernism', he considers its manifestations not as the prelude to modernism's 'high' and 'late' varieties (and still less as the outcome of the kind of modernist resistance to organicism to be found in 19th-century music from late Beethoven onwards), but as something paradoxically enmeshed in the ambivalence that results from particular sensitivity to the pervasive tension between old and new, in society as well as in aesthetics. Indeed, much of the music considered, which ranges from Wagner to Pfitzner by way of Richard Strauss, Mahler, early Schoenberg, and the likes of Schreker, d'Albert, von Schillings, Reger and Busoni, is the kind that one's first instinct deems 'late romantic': or even, as with those takes on Bach by Reger and Busoni which seem especially close to the Nietzschean prescription, 'proto-neo-classical'.

Frisch's main focus is nevertheless on his own particular sub-categories of modernism, whether 'ambivalent' (Wagner - especially Parsifal), 'historicist' (Reger), or even 'regressive' (Pfitzner's Palestrina). He also considers aspects of convergence between music and the visual arts (Brahms and Max Klinger as well as Schoenberg and Kandinsky), in addition to those parallels between musical and literary irony which he sees as contributing vitally to the particular character of Germanic modernism in the early 10th century. I'm not sure that Frisch's new categories are much improvement on the older ones - even 'expressionism' is kept firmly in the background here - but that would matter less if the critical insights on the works discussed were consistently distinctive and illuminating. Some are, some aren't, and this mixed picture is the result of an approach that is very wide-ranging - a collection of separate essays rather than a continuously evolving narrative - but often too selective and concise to do more than outline the kind of detailed analysis and commentary, on some of the most elaborate and intense operas and symphonic works in musical history, that the argument requires. …

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