The 1964 BBC documentary The Golden Ring gathers together many of my enthusiasms into one 87-minute film: Wagner, Vienna, analog recording, and whatever pleasures all of these entail. Nearly sixty years later, it’s now a historical document of a particular moment in time, art, and technology, a portrait of one of the greatest recordings ever made of one of the great artistic achievements of the nineteenth century and, indeed, all of Western music: The Solti Ring cycle.
The Golden Ring covers the recording of the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung; Das Rheingold had been released in in 1958 and Siegfried in 1962, with the second opera, Die Walküre, to come in 1965. All of them were recorded in Vienna’s Sofiensaal, originally built in 1826 but which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 2001 (it was finally rebuilt and renovated in 2013 and re-opened as an event space). The documentary is a rare behind-the-scenes look at a classical music recording, most notable perhaps for the ability to eavesdrop on conductor Solti and producer John Culshaw as they negotiate the daily difficulties of the project.
It’s a pleasure to watch, especially if, like me, you have the records on hand, and I must admit I’ve got them all now except, ironically, Götterdämmerung. I’ve purchased used versions of all of them from Discogs, and must say been delighted with their condition. They sound great, even now, sixty years after their release, and I’ve gotten near-mint-condition vinyl at bargain-basement prices, far less than I would have paid when I first listened to the Solti Ring in the early 1980s. I can only assume that this is because (1) they were very well taken care of, and (2) there’s little market for them. Capitalism works for me.
Earlier iterations of the journal featured Vienna’s Burgtheater in their banners; it disappeared for a while, now it reappears again. I can’t say that Vienna is the city in which I feel most at home; that Vienna is long gone. (Besides, my German language skills are, if not non-existent, laughable.) But I appreciate the reminders that it was, for a brief moment, a place in which I would have enjoyed spending some time.
Uneasy obsessions with sensuality, elegance, and manners; a growing sense of its own decay, mortality, and irrelevance; a recognition of the power of irrationality — all of these characterize fin de siècle Vienna. Vienna in 1900 was both symptom and landmark of modernity. The self-conscious and ironic grace of Viennese culture both obscured the role of the irrational and made it possible for that same irrationality to spring forth in the novels and plays of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, the psychiatric work of Freud on dreams and neurosis, the paintings and drawings of Klimt and Schiele, the atonal music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. All of these figures were reviled to some greater or lesser extent by the traditionalists among the Viennese, but from nowhere else, and at no other time, could these figures have emerged. By 1918, the Habsburg monarchy and this same Vienna were dead, though its phosphorescent decay would glow in both Austria and in Germany until 1933.
Freud recognized Schnitzler (also a medical doctor) as a colleague and observer, and along with Schiele and Klimt perceived eroticism within this Old World elegance as inescapable but, unlike our own time, fully cognizant of the body’s own mortality. Klimt’s serpent-women rendered eroticism a part of sensualized nature; Schiele’s crabbed but vulnerable and provocative bodies stared out at the viewer, daring that viewer to look away rather than enter the perspective of the subject. That the suppression of this eroticism would give rise to hypocrisy was obvious; but there was a special appeal, erotic itself, to bearing in mind constantly and simultaneously the activities that went on in the ballroom and behind the closed doors of the bedroom. Social elegance suggested sexual and erotic elegance — but this was the culture of the shared secret, not the exploitation of the erotic and sexual for public titillation. Perhaps there was greater sensual freedom as a result. And, contrary to the arrogant assumptions of our contemporary cult of youth, the more an individual matured, the greater his or her ability to appreciate the possibilities of sensuality, which could be said to mature as well.
Design and style were central obsessions to the Viennese of the turn of the century; the care taken with simple household objects by the Wiener Werkstätte paralleled the care taken with the self-conscious design and style of the human bodies that inhabited those households: the body (both male and female) as aestheticized display object, adorned and unadorned. Few of Klimt’s and Schiele’s figures are wholly nude; they are draped in gold, or wear stockings, though the unadorned figures are easily imagined, even suggested by their apparel. No wonder either then that theatre was, of all the arts except music, of the greatest importance to the Viennese — it was there that styles were set, that self-presentation achieved its greatest mastery and mystery. The Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most theatrical architectual feature, is itself a masterpiece of duplicity — the Baroque to Classical to Gothic to Jugenstil buildings were all constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Vienna was, simultaneously, dream and nightmare. Perhaps that is its dangerous attraction.
Fin de siècle Vienna, c’est moi? No, that’s foolish. It is of both greater and lesser comfort, though, to recognize something of oneself in a dead historical era. It explains affinities, intellectual and emotional, even if ultimately I can come to no final conclusions.