Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music: Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

by Peter Franklin

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Why are some of the most beloved and frequently performed works of the late-romantic period—Mahler, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius, Puccini—regarded by many critics as perhaps not quite of the first rank? Why has modernist discourse continued to brand these works as overly sentimental and emotionally self-indulgent? Peter Franklin takes a close and…  See more details below


Why are some of the most beloved and frequently performed works of the late-romantic period—Mahler, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius, Puccini—regarded by many critics as perhaps not quite of the first rank? Why has modernist discourse continued to brand these works as overly sentimental and emotionally self-indulgent? Peter Franklin takes a close and even-handed look at how and why late-romantic symphonies and operas steered a complex course between modernism and mass culture in the period leading up to the Second World War. The style’s continuing popularity and its domination of the film music idiom (via work by composers such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and their successors) bring late-romantic music to thousands of listeners who have never set foot in a concert hall. Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music sheds new light on these often unfairly disparaged works and explores the historical dimension of their continuing role in the contemporary sound world.

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Notes - Erinn Knyt

"A valuable new perspective to late-romantic repertoire . . . a 'must read.' "

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University of California Press
Publication date:
Ernest Bloch Lectures Series, #14
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music

Singing Devils and Distant Sounds

By Peter Franklin


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95803-6


Setting the Scene

Grandiose Symphonics and the Trouble with Art

Within the period 1890–1914, and especially in the German-speaking lands, modernism chiefly manifested itself ... as a radical intensification of means toward accepted or traditional ends (or at least toward ends that could be so described). That is why modernism of this early vintage is perhaps best characterized as maximalism. The cultural phase ... was called the fin de siècle not only because it happened to coincide with the end of a century, but also because it reflected apocalyptic presentiments.... The acceleration of stylistic innovation, so marked as to seem not just a matter of degree but one of actual kind, requiring a new "periodization," looks now, from the vantage-point of the next fin de siècle, to have been perhaps more a matter of inflated rhetoric than of having new things to say.

—Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music

Having invoked the autobiographical mode as a tool in my introduction, I should confess at once that this book is one in which I intend to indulge my passion for this period of Western musical history that I love and which, I suspect, many secretly cherish even as they avow that they probably shouldn't. As we have seen, it has accordingly been labelled transitional, decadent, over-inflated, and characterized by a desire always to be satisfying what Richard Taruskin has described as its apparently obsessive drive toward "maximalism." In putting it this way—by confessing a more than modestly scholarly interest in a period so weighted with the concrete boots of critical put-downs—I inevitably invoke the politics of my subject even as I nervously prepare my apologetics for an era that is additionally awkward in that it fits no neat chronological box. Too many "periods" overlap here, across stretches of two adjacent centuries.

When these thoughts were originally presented as a series of public lectures, I perhaps eccentrically, but deliberately, described the era from which my examples were drawn as "the age of Leverkühn." The reference is to the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, whom Thomas Mann offered up in his 1946 novel Doktor Faustus as a sacrificial victim to the inexorable rise of high musical modernism of the "difficult," Schoenbergian kind. Since it is also a difficult novel that is as much admired as read, I should explain that Leverkühn was born in 1885 and died in 1940. The "difficulty" of the high modernist works that crown his tragic career, and which were meticulously imagined by Thomas Mann, was closely related to that of music by real-life composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky; indeed, Leverkühn develops a synthetic compositional technique so like Schoenberg's technique of "composition with twelve tones" that the novel's publication led to rancorous exchanges between Mann and Schoenberg which resulted in the former eventually agreeing to include at the back of all subsequent copies an explicit acknowledgment that the technique apparently alluded to was "in truth the intellectual property" of Schoenberg.

The difficulty of such music stemmed directly from its avoidance of the more conventional harmonic and melodic manners employed in late-romantic works that were being positioned by Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School Marxist philosopher and critic who was Mann's adviser on Doctor Faustus, as exemplifying the troublingly manipulative and ideologically compromised excesses of Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian symphonic and operatic music. Modernist and left-wing critics like Adorno considered such music to be commodified false consciousness, designed for easy consumption; what was being consumed they associated directly with the problems and ideology of an imperial, culturally bourgeois Europe rolling toward and through the revelatory disaster of the First World War. We "know where it all led," as commentators have been prone to put it, with darkly knowing emphasis. Late-romantic musical manners, as I shall call them, were thus critically consigned to guilty historical irrelevancy, and perhaps worse things still in the decades of fascism. Interwar modernists and avant-garde artists seemed advisedly to be seeking a different direction and different goals. They too nevertheless owed much to Romanticism, whose contradictory character I invoked in the double image that appeared on postersadvertising my lectures in Berkeley in 2010: Liszt conducting the first performance of his Legend of St. Elisabeth (Die heilige Elisabeth ) in Budapest in 1864, overlaid with Caspar David Friedrich's famous 1818 painting of The Wanderer above the Mists on a lonely rocky outcrop in the mountains. This composite image is reproduced here as figure 1: the private moment of brooding or ecstatic reflection set against a public show of musical force in Liszt's grand urban concert-entertainment—the latter looks and was probably intended to be somehow religious and communally "improving" in the standard manner of Great Music in the West—"classical music." How were these two modes of aesthetic experience and cultural practice, public and private, actually linked? What aesthetic, subjective, and intellectual work accompanied that linkage?

The problem I shall be confronting here is really the problem of art and its audience in the age of modernism. Can bourgeois art survive its own self-criticism in public works that seem to fill the same spaces as the artworks of old, albeit "maximalized" in some way, while also advertising their desire to be liberatedly "something else"? This leads me back to Richard Taruskin and the thought-provoking introduction to his Oxford History of Western Music. As philosophers once used to write footnotes to Plato, so musicologists are bound to be writing footnotes to Taruskin for some time to come. What he does in his introduction, subtitled "The History of What?" is to frame one particular subspecies of a broader problem: namely the problem of talking and writing about art historically. He sets out an ideological distinction between the historian and the critic, indicating that where the latter may be permitted partiality and bias in favor of this or that, the former (the historian) will not take sides. Turning away from what he rightly regards as futile, self-renewing theoretical debates about whether and what music "means" to what it demonstrably has meant, he seeks to balance the more familiar history of production with a judicious history of reception that can only broaden the range of what is considered and the way it has been considered. Distancing himself from "new musicology" (which he mocks as aging "with stunning rapidity") and what he believes to be the baleful influence of Adorno on its authoritarian practice of "hermeneutics," he addresses the alternative Cold War dominance of "internalist," notes-on-the-page approaches whose ideological character was perhaps informed by a desire to avoid the suspected tendency toward totalitarian co-option of all more socially or contextually orientated historical approaches to music. Here Taruskin cites as a victim of that suspicion the East German Communist Party member Georg Knepler, Carl Dahlhaus's "equally magisterial East German counterpart," whose music-historical work is consequently much less widely known than that of his almost tiresomely over-translated West German counterpart. Taruskin has few words of praise for Dahlhaus, whose prestige he finds "otherwise inexplicable," his work given obsessively to "empty binarisms."

A set of curious coincidences and connections led, as it happened, to Knepler being the external examiner for my own doctoral thesis on Mahler, long ago. I well recall the viva voce examination in his home in what was then, decisively and memorably, East Berlin—as I recall his startling opening comment ("Of course I have not read all of this"); and then there was the hassle of getting in and out of the GDR via the Friedrichstrasse border crossing. I was enormously impressed by Knepler and his clearly and directly expressed political idealism, but would have to say, albeit with admiration, that both he and Dahlhaus were equally creatures of their own time and place: objects as much as subjects of legitimate political-historical study—as we all are. But let us beware falling into the trap of appearing to permit those who have become "historical" no greater intellectual stature than what we can see "over," than what we can "survey," as other historical textbooks put it. That, of course, is too crude a manifestation of the discourse of modernism.

Provoked and inspired by Taruskin's magisterial history, I am moved to revisit one of his own objects of cautionary historical comment—Mahler's Second Symphony—for my initial example of the grandiose symphonics signaled in my chapter title. Given the association of "grandiose" with both grandiloquence and even maximalism, that very phrase, of course, flirts with allegiance to the historical superiority that I actually want to problematize in revisiting critical and historical anomalies that hedge both scholarly and popular discourse about so-called late-romantic music. The reasons for doing so are at once personal and historical: properly historical, in Taruskin's sense of wanting to avoid authoritarian pronouncements and pursue evidence of experienced musical meaning beyond abstrusely transcendent aesthetic theorizing. This may, of course, lead us back to Bourdieu on music's role in the "consumption of cultural goods" as "one of the primary means of social classification" and, almost inevitably, of social division.


Two writers not so far mentioned, two specific books, will help to further locate the aims and intellectual terrain of this project as involving at least three overlapping disciplines: art history, musicology, and the literary and philosophical history of modernism. The first two of these came together in Richard Leppert's remarkable, and too little celebrated, 1993 book, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body. While avowedly associated with the aims and methods of New Musicology in the 1980s, Leppert sought here to move somewhat beyond the pioneering work "on particular musical texts" by his colleagues Susan McClary, Lawrence Kramer, and Rose Subotnik ("necessary" as he accepted it to have been). What he offered as "even more than this" took the form of a virtuosic interpretation of music's cultural-historical development and meaning as, and in, social discourse—specifically as represented in paintings of musical activity, roughly from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth. In a sense he ends in and overlaps with the period that will occupy me here.

Leppert was concerned with what Kramer subsequently called "music as a cultural trope." Where Kramer may turn to the hermeneutic elucidation of specific works, Leppert turns to paintings: representations of music-making in the center or at the periphery of some social or mythological scene. Early in the book he chooses Antwerp painter Abel Grimmer's Spring of 1607, in which foregrounded peasants work in a formal garden while in the background, across a winding river, a group of leisured aristocrats enjoys a performance by some musicians: "To the extent that this music is listened to, it is a passive engagement; but because passivity functions here as a sign of social division, it is a means of valorizing social difference. Not accidentally, it recapitulates the ancient Boethian precedence of the critic/auditor over the producer."

In this way, Leppert extends the more usual iconographic and historical interest that musicologists might have in paintings. Sociocultural criticism here leads him, via Gramsci, to propose that this passively consumed music, as a sign of social difference and privilege, is also a form of activity "whose valorization is organized by rendering the body static": "Music in this guise acts as a sonoric surveillance on the body, holding it captive to contemplation with the social prescription of physical reaction. Not accidentally, whether the auditor actually contemplates is perfectly irrelevant to the demand."

Leppert's subsequent course leads through a pictured series of binaries that he sees as constructing the history of Western music: high-status "culture" versus peasant passion and vitality, the assertion of order over the threat of lower-class music and anarchy. As he moves into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he turns increasingly to the gendered opposition of musical contemplation (masculine) and the permitted domestic practice of it by women. Male reason (fueling Romantic idealism) is opposed to musical pleasure, as something problematically feminine and "embodied." Leppert's fascinating history ends a little bleakly. The possibility arises of musical activity in the Victorian parlor violating "what it intended to inscribe" as music comes increasingly to be confronted critically "in its divides across cultural lines, gender lines, and the lines separating high art from popular and mass culture." But the final painting discussed, Fernand Khnopff's Listening to Schumann of 1883, inspires a disconcerting reading of the painter's mother, seated in her parlor, her hand raised to hide her face from our view as she listens to a pianist, whose right hand alone is visible as he plays Schumann to her. Leppert's interpretation is harsh: "The averted eyes of the painting's listener register the horror of the body, and a plea for something that cannot—ought not [to]—be: Schumann without loving, Schumann qua thought."

As I move into the territory of the nineteenth-century concert hall and opera house, where the listener is not only feminized but reduced to becoming a member of an audience, a "mass," my tendency will be to want to disagree with this reading and add a rather different perspective on what might really have been happening. Khnopff's mother, in Leppert's reading, may internalize the patriarchal requirements of domestic and social order—but is her hand shielding her eyes from the pianist or from us, and the painter? Might they have revealed a different and more passionate reaction? Here I turn to a second source of inspiration and guidance: John Carey's wonderful, and still rather shocking, 1992 study The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880 –1939. Not only did Carey move further into what is precisely my period of interest here; he, like Leppert, confronts high art and the masses in a rather unusual way.

The primary subject of Carey's book was late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British intellectual culture and its fear, often amounting to detestation, of "the masses," whose pleasure it feminized in the standard fashion alluded to by Leppert, one of whose persistent topics was the patriarchal association of reason with male intellectuals, as opposed to embodied pleasure and performance, familiarly associated with women. A passage in which Carey describes an attack by Holbrook Jackson on the early-twentieth-century invention of tabloid newspapers, with their reliance upon pictures, conveniently links some of Leppert's preoccupations with the kind of music history I shall be concerned with here: "Holbrook Jackson held female readers responsible for the new evil of pictorial journalism. Women habitually think in pictures, he explains, whereas men naturally aspire to abstract concepts. 'When men think pictorially, they unsex themselves.'"

Carey's intellectuals are many and various, their number including writers associated with Bloomsbury (Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster) as much as F. R. Leavis and his hero D. H. Lawrence. And then come T. S. Eliot, Ortega y Gasset, George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, and Wyndham Lewis—to name but some of the more prominent figures whose preoccupations, prognostications, and anxieties Carey finally, and devastatingly, compares with those of Adolf Hitler. Their anxieties were directed at suburbia and the middle-class masses (and the hated clerks) that populate its ever-extending sprawl, covering the woods and fields of Merrie England and infecting its cultural values. A secondary theme of Carey's is artistic Modernism and the lengths to which the intellectuals went to make "modern" art incomprehensible and inaccessible to those same masses: "The principles around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity."

We might think that he goes too far here, but the cumulative power of his examples (based on wide reading of the novels and other, sometimes "scientific," writing of the period) is as startling as his larger strategy of attempting to reclaim and understand mass cultural practices. This leads him, for example, to offer two chapters on H. G. Wells: "H. G. Wells Getting Rid of People" (the famous writer harbored clearly expressed thoughts about the need to control population by exterminating the fecund masses) and then "H. G. Wells Against H. G. Wells," in which the writer is seen to argue against himself, appearing anxious, in much of his later fiction, "to put forward ideas but not to be held accountable for them." Carey suggests that he "makes it hard to guess his standpoint by putting what seem to be his views about the individual and the masses in the mouths of decidedly sinister characters."

Carey's underlying critical project is not all negative, however. The novelist Arnold Bennett was mocked by Bloomsbury for his accent and manner as much as for the down-to-earth subject matter of his novels; he came, Carey points out, "from the provincial shopkeeping class": "The Bennett home, though beneath contempt from the viewpoint of metropolitan culture, seems to have been lively and artistic. The family enjoyed papers like Tit-Bits and Pearson's Weekly. Bennett later recalled his 'principal instrument of culture' was The Girl's Own Paper, which advised on aesthetic matters. He also devoured best-sellers."


Excerpted from Reclaiming Late-Romantic Music by Peter Franklin. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Franklin is Professor of Music at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. His books include Mahler: Symphony no.3 (1991), The Life of Mahler (1997), and Seeing Through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Score (2011).

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