From chaos to order and back again

Wilhelm Gauseː Court Ball in Vienna (1900).

In his study of fin-de-siècle Vienna, Carl Schorske turned not to Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern to introduce his themes, but to Maurice Ravel’s 1920 La valse. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny,” Ravel said, and Schorske wrote:

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligensia of the fin-de-siècle. How had their world fallen into chaos? Was it because the individuals (in Ravel, the musical themes) contained in their own psyches some characteristics fundamentally incompatible with the social whole? Or was it the whole as such that distorted, paralyzed, and destroyed the individuals who composed it? … These questions are not new to humankind, but to Vienna’s fin-de-siècle intelligentsia they became central. Not only Vienna’s finest writers, but its painters and psychologists, even its art historians, were preoccupied with the nature of the individual in a disintegrating society.

As, I would add, am I. It is small comfort to realize that we’ve been here before, but we must take our comforts as they come.

To while away a few minutes today, you may wish to hear La valse itself. I’m quite fond of eccentrics; they are the spice of society, so long as they don’t shade into sociopaths, which they too often do. Below you’ll find Glenn Gould’s re-arrangement of Ravel’s solo piano arrangement of La valse in his 1974 series for the CBC, Music in Our Time. His introductory remarks are of interest as well.

Guten morgen, Wien!

I’m not much for social media but I still maintain a Facebook account, primarily to announce new posts from this journal, and this morning I was glad to do so. Marion Eigl, the morning host on radio klassik Stephansdom, walked us through her arrival at the station in the wee small hours of the day — just as the sun is rising above the Stephansdom, in the shadow of which the station broadcasts — and it reminded me of just how beautiful the city is in those very early daylight hours, when the streets are nearly deserted and the sky brightens through a series of glorious blues. One of the great pleasures of listening to the radio is the knowledge that, at the other end of the connection, there’s another human being sharing in the music with you from the broadcast booth, something that isn’t the case with streaming music services. So guten morgen, Marion. The city looks lovely at that time of day.

The programming at rkS also caters to my increasingly eccentric taste in music (though I should also mention here that rkS broadcasts high mass at the Stephansdom a few times a week, which also caters to my increasing eccentricity). When I was younger I used to enjoy orchestral music much more, but now, at 62, I’m drawn more to vocal and chamber music, especially medieval and renaissance composers like Hildegard von Bingen and Heinrich Schütz, then skipping over a few centuries to the Second Viennese School, with a brief but significant sidetrack to the classical era of Mozart and Beethoven. There is a spiritual aspect to this as well, which may also be tied to aging. As we get older, it is said, we grow more into our more mature selves. My mature self finds more affinity in this music than it used to. Don’t get me wrong — I’m as prone to slip on an album by Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley as the next Joe, when the time seems right. Still, it seems to be that the music of hundreds of years ago pleases my ear and my meditations more than most.

The geographical basis of these meditations is more centered in Vienna and environs than anywhere else. There is something about the Danube, I suppose, and Central Europe as I’ve mentioned here before was after all the original home of my ancestors. My recent listening is paralleled by my recent reading, too — the contemporaneous Nibelungenlied and Hildegard again, and the literature of Musil, Doderer, and Kraus, all writers contemporaneous with Schönberg, Webern, and Berg. The spiritual center of all this work seems to be the Austrian capital, itself an architectural museum with exhibits spanning from Fischer von Erlach to Adolf Loos. I don’t believe that I’ll ever be able to spend an extended amount of time there to probe these meditations in situ, as it were. But I will make do with what I have, even as I continue my studies in the German language; as Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and fortunately I can still broaden those limits and maybe broaden my meditations through an assiduous attention to my language lessons.

At the moment, I’m turning my attention to radio klassik Stephansdom, though — right now host Eva Reinold is treating me to a few Beethoven bagatelles, and I think I’ll have a listen to those. I do want to note that rkS is continuing its fundraising drive, and if rkS suits your streaming fancy you should make a donation here. And turn up the volume.

A toast to …

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250. Owned by Landesbank Baden-Württemberg and Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Permanent loan to the Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe (Codex Donaueschingen 63).

Reflecting the increasingly Austria-centric concentration of this journal, I posted items this week about the late Professor Marjorie Perloff and the holiday offerings of radio klassik Stephansdom.

In addition, I raise my glass today to the Nibelungenlied; as part of my continuing education and immersion in all things German and Central European, I’m reading the Penguin Classics translation by A.T. Hatto, a rather interesting fellow himself. A page of the manuscript, from a 13th century codex, is above. I’m just past the midpoint now, as Kriemhild  stopped at Melk and then proceeded to Vienna for her marriage to Hungary’s King Etzel. As it happens my family and I were in both Melk and Vienna just a few months ago; no sign of Kriemhild, but that was some time ago.

Compared to the much older epics of the Mediterranean Sea — the Iliad and the Odyssey for starters — the Nibelungenlied is far sparer and relatively god- and goddess-free, with more of an emphasis on the internal lives of its characters; apart from Siegfried’s cloak of invisibility, there’s very little supernatural about it. I suppose you could say that, like the climate from which it emerged, it’s much colder than Homer’s poems, but I rather like that; although of course there’s considerably more Christian and chivalrous material, there’s also an awareness that paganism was still an element in social, cultural, and religious life (indeed, a Christian Kriemhild marries a pagan Etzel, a point made by the anonymous Nibelungenlied poet). In addition, both Brunhilde and Kriemhild possess much more agency and are far more energetic than Homer’s female characters — the Nibelungenlied is much sexier and erotic, for want of better words, than the earlier epics. Wagner’s Ring operas have a rather scant resemblance to this poem, relying more on the Volsung Saga, but the Nibelungenlied itself is still quite a wonderful read.

Reading the rest of it is how I’ll be spending much of this weekend.

Streaming Easter from the Stephansdom

Easter is the most important holiday of the Christian year, and those with a taste for Viennese culture may wish to take advantage of the program offerings from radio klassik Stephansdom this weekend, even if German is not their first language. The station will be presenting a variety of events, including a Pontifical Mass on Easter Sunday with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and a Vespers Service later that day, both live from the Stephansdom in Vienna, as well as a Good Friday service and other holiday related programming and music through the weekend. You can read about all of the special programming and stream everything through the web site here.

Radio klassik Stephansdom continues its fundraising drive; I encourage you to donate. I recorded a message of support that was broadcast on the Austrian station on March 11; you can listen to that message below.