Online festival: “The Golden Twenties”

Modern Times

The music scene of the 1920s

The "Watschenkonzert" with Arnold Schoenberg as conductor; caricature in "Die Zeit", 6 April 1913
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

By the 1920s, many of the legendary controversies sparked by the music of Modernism were already a thing of the past. These included the dress rehearsal of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, which was accompanied by rioting in the audience; the highly controversial performances of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies; the concerts of works by Arnold Schoenberg and his students, where angry reactions from the audience were the rule rather than the exception; and, of course, the scandal surrounding Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps in Paris in 1913. Richard Strauss’s Salome, rejected by the Vienna Court Opera on “moral” grounds, would also have to be included in the series as a scandal if the Dresden premiere of the musical drama had not turned out to be something of a succès de scandale in 1905.

Young generation of composers

The years between 1910 and 1920 saw the deaths of Mahler, Debussy, and the esoteric extremist Alexander Scriabin. Since his Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss’s music only provoked more avant-garde-minded colleagues, who accused him of a “betrayal of Modernism”; Alban Berg, whose Altenberg Lieder had caused the uproar at the famous “Watschenkonzert”, enjoyed the greatest success of his career with the premiere of the opera Wozzeck; and Igor Stravinsky, with his turn to Neoclassicism, had converted to an at least seemingly more accessible and conciliatory tonal language. The scandals in the 1920s were caused by the composers who followed: the uncompromising disturber of the peace Edgard Varèse, who although he was only a year younger than Stravinsky, only attracted lasting attention with his orchestral work Amériques, premiered in 1926; Paul Hindemith, whose desolate trilogy of short operas, Das Nusch-Nuschi (1921),Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (1921) and Sancta Susanna (1922), particularly enraged religious and nationalist minds; and Béla Bartók, whose ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, characterised by depictions of sexuality and violence, was removed from the repertoire after its premiere in Cologne. And Schoenberg? There was no controversy about his music between 1917 and 1923 for the simple reason that the composer did not publish a single new work during this period. These years were the incubation period of the twelve-tone technique, which, along with Stravinsky's Neoclassicism, became the key style of the new music (which by then had ʻcome of ageʼ).

Berlin, a metropolis of music

In addition to Paris and Vienna, Berlin, with its outstanding opera houses and symphony orchestras, had now established itself as a musical metropolis. In the 1920s, the city was home to Ferruccio Busoni, who had surpassed the radicalism of his colleagues, if not in his works, then at least in his theoretical writing Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music); Franz Schreker, who was successful as an opera composer; Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, who introduced elements of light music into “serious” music; and, from 1925, Arnold Schoenberg, who held the post of composition professor at the University of the Arts after his third move from Vienna. Richard Strauss, however, had left the German capital in 1918 after almost 20 years. With five music dramas that have remained in the standard repertoire of opera houses to this day, the Berlin period was probably the most productive period in the composer’s oeuvre; he was unable to build on these successes in the following decades.

Berliner Philharmoniker – keeping pace with the times

A glance at the performance statistics of the Berliner Philharmoniker shows not only the impressive presence of the Second Viennese School, but also that of the other central international currents of new music in the German capital: from Alban Berg, whose Wozzeck was also premiered in Berlin, the orchestra gave the first performances of no less than three key works: two of the three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6, the Chamber Concerto and the orchestral version of the Lyric Suite. Chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler often included works by Paul Hindemith on the programmes of his concerts; a commitment that was later to lead to a dramatic conflict with the National Socialists. But Furtwängler also conducted when Stravinsky performed as the soloist in his Piano Concerto in 1924. As pianists, Béla Bartók and Sergei Prokofiev also performed their own compositions with the orchestra during this period. The world premiere of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra op. 31 in December 1928, conducted by Furtwängler, saw the return of the usual reaction to the world of new music: although Alban Berg insisted that there had been applause, music history records the performance as one of the many scandals that punctuated the career of possibly the most radical composer of modern music.

Feruccio Busoni im Kreis seiner Schüler, darunter Kurt Weill (links)
(Photo: Akademie der Künste)
Arnold Schönberg 1927
(Photo: Arnold Schönberg Center/Wikimedia commons)
Paul Hindemith