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CD Review

Entartete Musik

Tanz Grotesk

  • Franz Schreker: Geburtstag der Infantin
  • Ervín Schulhoff: Der Mondsüchtige
  • Paul Hindemith: Der Dämon
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig/Lothar Zagrosek
London 444182-2
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The Nazi exhibition "Degenerate Art" had a less-notorious sib, "Degenerate Music," featuring the work of the composers here, among many others. From what I can tell in the liner notes, London plans this disc as part of a series. I can hardly wait for the next one. The CD contains some wonderful, almost-unknown music. More composers wait their turn, including Weill, Krenek, and Toch - masters all and almost unplayed today.

I've never particularly cared for Expressionist artists. I react in much the same way to Satan-worshippers: "Get a real life" - a mingling of pity and contempt. Expressionism seems to me fin de siecle decadence, with a large dollop of necrophilia thrown in. It is a glorification of the id. The id may be powerful, but it is also, as shown by comic artists from Aristophanes to R. Crumb, very often obsessed to the point of trivia. As Woody Allen writes, "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends." Expressionism misses this duality, seeing itself (falsely) as powerful all the time. Expressionism shares with Decadence the thrilling shiver of the illicit, only there really is no high available to the expressionist, as there is to the decadent, for the expressionist realizes that the decadent's high is a brief, pitiful thing.

Both essentially take off from one aspect of Romanticism, or, to say it another way, both plunge into the Romantic's doom, without achieving Romantic transcendence, for the two main myths of Romanticism are God as artistic creator and Resurrection (Richard Strauss hit it right on the head in Tod und Verklärung). Mahler, despite his influence on Expressionists, can handle the themes of degradation and death as a Good Romantic. He almost always transcends the grotesque or doomful. The "devil's fiddle" leads to the blazingly simple vision of heaven. "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod" (Life is dark, as is death) eventually comes to an ecstatic vision of the eternal beauty of the world and of one's leave-taking as a Goethean eternal approach to (without meeting) God. While I love the music of Bartók's Wunderbare Mandarin or Copland's Grohg or Weill's Vom Tod im Wald or Hindemith's Cardillac or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire or Berg's Lulu, I pretty much have to block out the scenarios.

I must admit that I expected something different than the music I finally listened to. For me, musical expressionism comes out as an anguished chromaticism, much like Weill's Violin Concerto and first symphony. With the possible exception of Hindemith's Dämon, which I knew before, none of the music is particularly Expressionist, and even the Hindemith is closer to the German 20s neue Sächlichkeit (new objectivity) than to, say, Berg. Schulhoff I've known for years, although not this particular piece. At this point, he takes off from Stravinsky's "jazz" stylizations, much as his compatriot Martinů did in Paris at the same time (Le Jazz, Revue de cuisine, etc.). Later (as does Martinů), he becomes less concerned with jazz and more concerned with his own brand of Stravinskian neo-classicism in works like the Concerto for flute and piano.

Schreker was for me the single unknown. Musically, the work is about as Expressionist as Bruckner, although taking the subject matter from Wilde's "Birthday of the Infanta," shows at least some decadent influence. But the music tells another story. This is lush, gorgeous orchestration, with a clear, straightforward melodic gift, similar to Korngold's. It all seems a less complex, more polished version of Richard Strauss, but still very beautiful.

Indeed, all of these composers are artistically split. In terms of subject and inspirational source, they are Expressionist. Schulhoff's "Moonstruck" title echoes the Expressionist preoccupation with madness as well as dreams and sonambulism (à la Caligari). But, again, the music sings a Stravinskian song. Hindemith uses somewhat lurid libretti, but his music sounds more Bauhaus than Kokoshka. I think it significant that all these composers eventually dropped even the Expressionist subject matter, and so easily too. This means it was really not part of their artistic psyches, but a whim. Hindemith does indulge a musical expressionism very briefly in such works as the piano Suite 1922, but it's a brief sneeze in his enormous output. The Dämon comes much closer to something like Weill's Jasager in its restraint and in its clarity of texture and form. It misses sounding like the Hindemith We Know mainly in the comparative breathlessness of its themes and in the monumental quality lent by Hindemith's later quartal harmonies.

The Schulhoff struck me, as I've said, very similar to Martinů's contemporary output, down to the same turns of syncopation. I don't know if this is a case of who got what from whom or simply something to do with the way Czech dance music syncopates (compare to the last movement of the Dvořák Violin Concerto, for example, or to the second movement of Janáček's Sinfonietta). The movement for percussion alone shows the 20s and 30s obsession with percussion (to me, reaching its apotheosis in Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses, 2nd movement, and Varèse's Ionisation). Schulhoff is one of those "musical" composers like Mozart and Schubert. He seems incapable of writing something really ugly. The percussion movement is enjoyable and even delicate, without calling undue attention to itself or, unfortunately, breaking ground. The suite on the whole is delightful, but it's not really substantial.

The performances struck me as at least tasteful. The Schreker seemed the best done – wonderful sound, clear textures, and it kept moving. The Hindemith seemed a bit too smooth. I would have preferred a rougher articulation, particularly from the strings, but again Zagrosek had clarity going for him. I would have preferred a less hesitant Schulhoff as well. Maybe there's such a thing as too much good taste.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz