Academic journal article Notes

Symphonic Aspirations: German Music and Politics, 1900-1945

Academic journal article Notes

Symphonic Aspirations: German Music and Politics, 1900-1945

Article excerpt

TWENTIETH-CENTURY MUSIC Symphonic Aspirations: German Music and Politics, 1900-1945. By Karen Painter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. [vi, 354 p. ISBN-13: 9780674026612. $49.95.] Index, bibliographical references.

The title of Karen Painter's most recent book can be read to imply a lot of things, but few readers would be likely to divine from it the book's stated purpose: namely, "to recover the listening habits and aesthetic values these writers [music critics] aspired to instill in the public, along with the political and cultural values they passionately believed were at stake and at risk" (p. 2). The "symphonic" in the title alludes to Painter's intention to study critical reactions in the German cultural sphere to the German symphonic tradition. None of this is strictly maintained for long. Soon one reads that "[a]s a study of the symphony"-not the reception history of the symphony-"in Austria and Germany in the twentieth century, this book goes against the grain" (p. 4), and in fact, her book does on occasion shift perspective from that of the critic to that of the composer. This is to some degree unavoidable and even necessary, as symphonies continued to be written throughout the time period in question, and a composer's words about his music are just as much a part of its reception history as anyone else's. In order to explain the decline in symphonic production in that time and place, some consideration of the composer's perspective is certainly in order.

Much more troubling are Painter's notions, sometimes stated outright and sometimes implied, concerning the nature of the symphony and the limits of the German symphonic tradition. To some degree this can be attributed to her frequently and astonishingly clumsy prose, which throughout the book serves, however unintentionally, to either obscure the dubiousness or compromise the validity of an assertion. In three successive sentences, the symphony progresses from inanimate locus ("an open arena to be invested with meaning") to animate victim ("prey to the broadest cultural and political claims") to human agent ("the symphony promised a transcendence of its own sonority," p. 4). There are contexts in which any one of these metaphors can be useful, but in a work on critical reception and listening habits, the latter two serve only to obfuscate. One sees this with regard to specific works as well as with the genre as a whole. Taking a cue from its earliest critics and, to be fair, from the composer himself, Painter describes the last movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony as "a rejoicing finale" (p. 1) and "effervescent" (p. 25), and refers to the "strict form" of its "jubilation" (p. 105). She mentions Adorno's characterization of the movement ("a poor yea-sayer," p. 1) only to dismiss it without comment; she takes Julius Korngold's initial praise of its " 'ecstatic jubilation' " (p. 1) and its " 'singular inebriation of joy' " (p. 112) in a 1909 review at face value while locating his more skeptical reaction of 1930 (it " 'forcibly throttles the listener' ") in what Painter calls the "bleak winter of 1930." Korngold's later critique could also be seen as a deconstruction of his earlier one, which noted that the finale " 'roars [rauscht] too much and runs the risk of dissipating [verrauschen]' " (p. 2).

Attributing an unambiguity of expression or even essence to a complex (and, to many observers, problematic) movement, to say nothing of dismissing dissenting interpretations, is incautious enough but fairly trivial compared to identifying the meaning and essence of an entire genre. "By its very nature, the symphony thematized and affirmed the relationship between individual and society," one reads (p. 5), and no doubt because "[n]o art form, indeed no genre of music, better captured the idea of striving than the symphony" (p. 6). So much for the Bildungsroman, one supposes; in any case it should be apparent by now that Painter is not referring to the history of the symphony, or even the sum of the symphonic canon as manifested in actual performance from the fin de siècle until the defeat of the Third Reich, but to a specific symphonic tradition. …

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