February 25, 2003

Nazis, the Bourgeois, Haydn and Beethoven hang out

It was, perhaps, the archetypically bourgeois moment. Before the world-famous Alban Berg Quartet embarked upon performing Joseph Haydn's C major string quartet--itself famous for presenting, as its second movement, variations upon a theme which was later to become the German national anthem--violist Thomas Kakuska stood to address the Chicago audience. He briefly asserted that he and his colleagues had chosen to play the quartet "only because it is a wonderful piece," its second movement being "wonderful variations on a wonderful theme." Commenting on the disrepute that this theme has fallen into--having, after all, served as Adolf Hitler's national anthem in the Third Reich--he then asked the audience members to appreciate the piece as "only a beautiful piece of music by the great master Haydn--and not more."

If I may be brutal: this is precisely the attitude that contributed to making National Socialism possible in the first place. It is best captured by the term "bourgeois inwardness." The historic Austro-German bourgeoisie, so the story goes, after formulating utopian hopes for national unity and cosmopolitan grandezza early on and in widely differing ways, by men like Kant, Goethe, Beethoven, Fichte, and Kleist, quickly suffered a number of harsh disappointments to its aim at political participation. During the reactionary regimes of the post-1815 period, and then again after the failure of the liberal revolution in 1848, the bourgeoisie was widely disenfranchised and consigned to its original purpose of accumulating surplus value and continuing the revolution of the means of production. And so one turned inward, seeking one's salvation in self-ennoblement: through the contemplation of fine art, through participation in private discussion clubs, and through reformulating the emancipatory aims of the Enlightenment in terms of a liberal education programme rich in eternal humanist values yet less acute when it came to social critique. To skip a few steps in the historical process, this essentially apolitical stance unfortunately, though not coincidentally, readily avenged itself in the Third Reich. Beethoven's Fidelio, that great utopian call for human liberation from chains and serfdom, was now performed under a sky filled with swastikas; yet such incredible perversion of musical utopia troubled only a few, as the very notion of liberation had been successfully narrowed to mean no more than liberation of the soul. And, again unfortunately, and with bitter irony, it turned out that free-spiritedness was most conducive to the pursuit, during one's working day, of a genocidal project. "Every document of culture is at once a document of barbarism," Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939, alluding to the gross amount of exploitation and repression that was necessary in the past, and still is, to create the leisure time of the few with which works of high culture can only be created. In the years following, his radical claim rang ever truer, acquiring a second dimension that not even the unorthodox Marxist Benjamin may have had in mind. More than ever before, the cultured man and the barbarian were one and the same person and, after the collapse, the German bourgeoisie stared not only at the ruins of so many cities, but at the collapse of the entire humanist project itself. To the Nazi bureaucrats, music and the other fine arts had indeed been beautiful and wonderful--and not more.

The reader will, I hope, excuse my brief historical excursus. The point is not, of course, to throw out the baby with the bath water. But it also cannot be the point, to go with the metaphor, to drain the bath water and pretend the baby is now clean. For, as Benjamin noted, the baby and the bath water are two sides of the same cleansing effort. The utopian and emancipatory hopes of the bourgeoisie must be preserved, lest emancipation be yet another form of barbarism. And yet this cannot be done by leaving its works of art in the heaven of eternal ideas into which they were originally installed. They must be brought back to earth, united with lived experience, their utopian content revitalized and actualized. Those who wish to abstractly detach the one from the other, culture from barbarism, anticipate the hope expressed in the works of art themselves, yet forget that such detachment must result in contemplation as long as it remains a mere promise.

Though not as critical theorists, the Alban Berg Quartet have come a long way in bringing new life to old forms. After hearing them innumerable times, yet only on frozen recordings, how marvelous to see with what seeming ease these four old men from the Old World attain their warm, impeccable sound, their unerring togetherness, their sensitivity for a work's every moment. If they seemed to be taking slightly more liberties than usual--first violinist G√ľnter Pichler's phrasing especially was a bit unorthodox at times, perhaps taking its inspiration from the moment--this was of no consequence for their precision. I felt that not even letting them play with eyes shut would have been.

Their Haydn was right on the mark, energetic and witty, unpretentious above all, played with just the kind of simplicity that saves Haydn from falling into banality. The above mentioned second movement, that politically dubious yet musically glorious glorification of Emperor Franz II, solemn and finely subdued, rising into ever more ethereal heights towards the end, volatilizing itself into those heavens from which the Emperor supposedly received his order of rule. Unforgettably tender those almost Schubertian moments of solace in the trio of the Menuetto.

After the intermission came Beethoven, the Alban Berg's long-standing specialty. What came was Beethoven's Quartet Op. 95, a quartet that stands between epochs of Beethoven's creative life, mediating between the so-called middle and late phases. It remains to this day a shocking and troubling piece, one that articulates its passion with unprecedented, perhaps even excessive, directness. Beethoven, who in the Fifth Symphony had fate still loudly knocking on our doors to make itself heard, is now, so to speak, tumbling into the room along with the door, opening his tirade without waiting for anyone to fasten their seatbelts. In such an internally torn piece, where moments of rest and quiet lament give way to their fate-ridden opposites with a speed almost too high to allow for the listener's comprehension, a quartet must be especially concerned to demonstrate how such diverse musical characters follow from one another, how they constitute a dialogue, with or without ultimate reconciliation. There it seemed to me that the Alban Berg played too undialectically, opposing musical episodes abstractly with their admittedly fine and nuanced sense of contrast, yet perhaps failing to tie them together in all their difference. I had a similar feeling about the slow second movement, though its somber mood was evoked masterfully.

The finale was perhaps most successful. Beethoven begins with a too short elegiac introduction before embarking on a restless rondo movement that recalls the terrors of the first movement. After some rhetorical moves, displays of a dialectic of uncertainty and overcoming, the music arrives at rest for a moment. Instead of an ending that would try to resolve any of the issues posed by the piece, Beethoven then gives us--opera buffa. The piece dissolves in a witty fugal ending in presto that has nothing at all to do with anything that came before. What in the only seemingly happy ending of Don Giovanni was a moralizing chant about the just fate of the womanizing wrongdoer, becomes in Beethoven a swansong to the sonata-form itself. Beethoven's trouble with writing adequate endings for his great works was in retrospect nothing less than the early and acute sense that the sonata-form had become mere convention, devoid of new life, a reified form that had to be overcome historically and replaced by a more adequate one. Beethoven then, of course, proceeded to conclusively explode that form from within during his late period, presenting the musical world with a set of works that nobody could fully understand until the sonata-form had been finally destroyed by Schoenberg and his dodecaphonic friends.

Let me assert once more my almost unconditional admiration of these musicians, coming from afar to enchant us with their art. This was their first appearance in Chicago in nine years--may their next one be less far in the future. At any rate, more good news from Vienna is approaching soon. This Wednesday night, February 26, at 8:30 p.m., Nikolaus Harnoncourt will lead the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, and the ever-inventive Gidon Kremer will come to their assistance in Alban Berg's Violin Concerto.