Archive for vienna

1912 No. 1: Oskar Kokoschka writes to Alma Mahler

Posted in 1912, Culture with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by Robin Gosnall

In 1912, the artist Kokoschka embarked on a passionate three-year affair with Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler, and wrote her many letters. The recipient asked for her own letters back and destroyed them; we now see this tragic love affair only through the eyes of the disappointed artist who must have expected and demanded more than she was able to give.

Here’s how it started:

Vienna, 15.iv.1912

My dear friend,

Please believe this resolution, as I believed you.

I know I am lost if I continue in my present unclear way of life, I know it is the way to lose my gifts, which I ought to direct towards a goal outside myself, the goal sacred to you and to me.

If you can respect me, and are willing to be as pure as you were yesterday, when I recognized you as higher and better than all other women, who only made a savage of me, then make a real sacrifice for my sake and become my wife, in secret, for so long as I am poor. When I no longer have to conceal myself, I shall thank you for being my consolation. You shall keep your joyousness and purity for me as a source of strength, so that I do not fall into the savagery that threatens me. You shall preserve me until I can be the man who raises you up instead of dragging you down. Since yesterday, when you asked me to be that man, I have believed in you as I have never believed in anyone except myself.

If you will be the woman who gives me strength, and will thus help me out of my spiritual confusion, the beauty we honour, which is beyond our understanding, will bless us both with happiness. Write and tell me that I may come to you, and I will take it for your consent.

I remain in reverence, yours,

Oskar Kokoschka

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1911 No. 3: Gustav Mahler

Posted in 1911, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Mahler’s second season with the New York Philharmonic opened on 1 November 1910. He conducted his own Symphony No. 4 in New York on 17 and 20 January 1911. In February he became seriously ill with a severe, ultimately fatal, streptococcal blood infection. Today penicillin would have saved his life. He returned to Paris in April (where Chantemesse, a celebrated bacteriologist, told Alma Mahler “I have never seen streptococci in such a marvellous state of development – it’s like seaweed!”) and died in a Vienna nursing home on 18 May 1911.

Alma describes his last days in her book Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe:

After a time he lay completely still. His mind was becoming confused. [Mahler’s sister] Justine paid him another visit and at the sight of her his eyes dilated unnaturally:

“Who is this woman?” he stammered. She fled.

[Dr. Arnold] Berliner [who had taught Mahler English in his Hamburg days] arrived from Berlin, true to their old friendship, and Mahler recognized him and grasped his hand. “My dear friend,” he said, and then turned to the wall, perhaps to hide his emotion.

During his last days he cried out: “My Almschi,” hundreds of times, in a voice, a tone I had never heard before and have never heard since. “My Almschi!” As I write it down now, I cannot keep back my tears.

When Gucki [Anna, the couple’s surviving daughter, known as Guckerl] came to his bedside he put his arms round her. “Be my good girl.”

Did he know? Or not? It was impossible to tell. He lay there groaning. A large swelling came up on his knee, then on his leg. Radium was applied and the swelling immediately went down. On the evening after, he was washed and his bed made. Two attendants lifted his naked emaciated body. It was a taking down from the cross. This was the thought that came to all of us.

He had difficulty in breathing and was given oxygen. Then uraemia – and the end. [Professor Dr Franz von] Chvostek [the celebrated Viennese doctor] was summoned. Mahler lay with dazed eyes; one finger was conducting on the quilt. There was a smile on his lips and twice he said: “Mozart!” His eyes were very big. I begged Chvostek to give him a large dose of morphia so that he might feel nothing more. He replied in a loud voice. I seized his hands: “Talk softly, he might hear you.” “He hears nothing now.”

How terrible the callousness of doctors is at such moments. And how did he know that he could not hear? Perhaps he was only incapable of movement?

The death-agony began. I was sent into the next room. The death-rattle lasted several hours.

The ghastly sound ceased suddenly at midnight on the 18th of May during a tremendous thunder-storm. With that last breath his beloved and beautiful soul had fled, and the silence was more deathly than all else.

I was not allowed in the death-chamber. I was removed that night from my room next to his. The doctors insisted. But I felt it a humiliation not to be allowed to stay near him. I could not understand it. Was I alone? Had I to live without him? It was as if I had been flung out of a train in a foreign land. I had no place on earth.

I can never forget his dying hours and the greatness of his face as death drew nearer. His battle for the eternal values, his elevation above trivial things and his unflinching devotion to truth are an example of the saintly life.

Let’s all listen to Schoenberg …

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I enjoy a lot of Schoenberg’s music, in the broadest sense of “enjoy”. It’s not really music to relax or wind down to, it can be so intensely personal and subjective, especially the works of the free atonal period, exhibiting a plethora of intense emotions which tend towards the dark side. I don’t expect any more than a minority of classical music listeners will ever want to listen to it on a regular basis, but I think it is unique and meaningful music (if very much a product of a particular time and place) and does have an importance for that reason.

Certainly all art is very much a product of its time and place – the question is whether it still has anything to say to people here and now? That sort of sensibility that comes through in Schoenberg – rootlessness, alienation, inhabiting a certain precipice within “high culture” and the social world it inhabits, etc., certainly speaks to me, but I don’t find it wholly surprising if many others don’t find it relevant to them.

Schoenberg’s life beyond the concert-hall – his listing by the Third Reich as “degenerate”, his escape to the United States, his life as an émigré, his teaching there, his prominent position as a Jewish refugee – brought his name to a greater prominence than many of his contemporaries. His name became a byword for a kind of purposed complexity and intellectual rigour in music … to a wider public who’d never heard a note of it, but had heard of Arnold Schoenberg.

And they fervently believed that this Schoenberg man represented the very summation of everything they wouldn’t like in music, and should be avoided like the plague.

Anton Webern

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This piece was composed in 1908.

When I started to listen to the music of Anton Webern 35 years ago the most modern music I could stand was Tippett’s piano concerto, a very tonal work.

I resolved to unplug my conditioned expectations about cadences and resolution of discords, and simply listen as carefully as I could to one sound after another. And click! It suddenly fell into focus. This was the Fünf Sätze für Streichquartett, Op. 5. I never had any trouble listening to Webern after that.

Webern believed that his music was as natural as the flowers in the field and that is, I am sure, how he would have liked people to listen …

10 things to know about Webern

In the 12 years between 1908 and 1920, he moved house 27 times.

He wrote nearly thirty pieces before the Passacaglia, his official Op. 1.

He wrote the shortest piece in the world, ever: Op. 11 No. 2, for cello and piano, which lasts less than 30 seconds.

His great passion in life other than music was mountain climbing.

He loved nature and was a keen gardener.

Though his music sounds very modern, he regarded it as a continuation of the Viennese romantic tradition from Schubert to Mahler.

He was a fine conductor, and worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on many occasions in the 1930s.

He taught music at the Jewish Cultural Institute for the Blind in Vienna.

He was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in 1945 by a chef in the American army, after he had stepped outside to smoke half a cigar obtained on the black market.

Posthumously, he was possibly the most influential composer of his generation, heralded as the new Messiah by composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

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