The Modern Era in Central Europe (Part 1)


“The Red Gaze” is a starkly expressionist painting by the composer, Arnold Schoenberg, who believed that art should express the subconscious.

Central European composers born in the latter part of the 19th century faced significant aesthetic, cultural and political challenges.  Along with the continuing decline of the Habsburg Empire, which meant a continuing decline in aristocratic patronage of the arts, musicians were divided by the twin legacies of Romanticism: the progressive “music of the future” of Richard Wagner and his acolytes, and the relative conservatism of Johannes Brahms and the purveyors of “absolute music.”  Emerging out of this internecine struggle was a sense of the gradual exhaustion of the narrative and harmonic traditions of the 19th century, and the awareness of a dawning crisis of tonality.  By the first decade of the 20th century, three responses to this crisis appear: a syncretic approach, featuring a turn towards folk traditions as a means to revivify the European classical tradition; a revolutionary approach that seemed to abandon tonality entirely, in favour of a radically dissonant and deeply subjective “modern” mode of composing; and a middle road that sought to carry the post-Romantic tradition into the new century.  But, as the “arch-modernist” Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg would later insist, “the middle road is the only one which does not lead to Rome.”

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), among the best-known Czech composers in the classical music canon, was born in Hukvaldy (Hochwald)in Austrian Silesia.  Initially influenced by fellow Czech Antonin Dvořák, Janáček would become a proponent of folk music, at a time of burgeoning folk music revivals throughout Europe.  But Janáček—like Bohuslav Martinů, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály who would soon follow him—was more a folklorist than a revivalist, collecting and studying the folk music of his native country to forge new approaches to composition via an organic synthesis of classical and folk music.  While Janáček was trained in conservative institutions—the Prague Organ School and the Vienna Conservatory—and he was considerably older than the emerging generation of young modernist composers of fin-de-siècle period (indeed, older than the last generation of the late Romantics, including Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss), his music nonetheless demonstrates many of the sensibilities of the early 20th century, rather than the preceding one.  Janáček’s early folklorist investigations, beginning in 1888, culminated in his opera Janufa in 1904, which premiered in Brno.  In this work, two key elements of Janáček’s evolving style are evident: the increasingly free treatment of key and harmony, in which a somewhat contingent diatonicism is intermixed with modal and octatonic elements from Moravian folk music, and the introduction of Janáček’s concept of “speech melodies”—melodies created from and reflecting the expressive dynamics of the natural idioms of everyday speech.  Josef Suk (1874-1935) was, like Janáček, a Czech composer strongly influenced by Dvořák early in his career.  Unlike Janáček, Suk was not directly influenced by folk music, though he did compose “dumkas”—introspective, melancholy ballads or laments common in the folk traditions of Central Europe—and drew inspiration from popular Czech dance forms.  After a stylistic shift away from Dvorak in the late 19th century, Suk’s music begins to show the influence of the harmonic centrifuge of late-Romanticism, with its chromatically altered harmonies, tonal ambiguity and use of polytonality. 

The music of Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) has only begun to be appreciated in the last few decades.   A reputedly modest and meek person, Zemlinsky and his works have long been overshadowed by the bigger personalities and reputations of late Romantics like Gustav Mahler, and by the nascent rebels of early modernism like his brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg.  But Zemlinsky was highly regarded by his contemporaries—indeed, he was a successful conductor, and is well-known for being Schoenberg’s only composition teacher—and his music is a compelling if mercurial blend of meticulous Brahmsian construction and powerful, effusive emotional expression.  His first string quartet, composed in 1896, is at once quintessentially Viennese in its vivacity and clarity, but its sometimes-audacious chromaticism also foreshadows the radical expressive innovations of the Second Viennese School in the early 20th century.  Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born the same year as Josef Suk, but the two composers could hardly be more different, with respect to their compositional aesthetic and legacy.  Schoenberg was born in Vienna, and while he moved back and forth frequently between Vienna and Berlin, and ultimately emigrated to the United States in 1933 after the rise of Nazism in Germany, it was his birthplace that left a lasting imprint on the composer.  Around 1900, Vienna was already a volatile, boiling pot of politics, ethnic and religious tensions, provocative modern art, and intellectual ferment across disciplines.  Musically, however, Vienna was extremely conservative and sought to preserve and protect its golden heritage from the ravages of an emerging aesthetic modernism.  This very resistance to progress, however, ultimately catalyzed a small group of composers, centred around Schoenberg, to develop what would be called “atonality”: music unbounded by the restrictions of key and functional harmony.  Schoenberg—whose early works, including perhaps his best known composition, the tone poem Verklärte Nacht op.4 offered a synthesis of Brahmsian counterpoint and lush Wagnerian harmonies—would describe his efforts in kind of politicized language, insisting that his approach exemplified the “emancipation of dissonance,” effectively unfettering the concepts of “consonance” and “dissonance” in a new kind of music, wherein which each note derived its meaning from its unique context and relationships with other notes in the composition, and not from an overarching hierarchical tonal system.  The composer’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 exemplify this “free atonal” and highly intuitive approach.  In the aftermath of the First World War, however, Schoenberg sought a way to achieve greater logic and coherence in atonal music, and in the early 1920s developed his “method of composing with twelve tones,” in which the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are pre-organized into a row, which forms the basis of the composition and is treated in serial fashion.  Schoenberg’s new method subsequently facilitated the creation of large scale instrumental and dramatic works, notably his Violin Concerto op. 42 and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron. 

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was another exact contemporary of Schoenberg and Suk.  Born in Pressburg (now Bratislava), Schmidt also came of age in Vienna’s heady fin-de-siècle period, playing cello in the Court Opera Orchestra under Mahler, and working alongside fellow composers like Zemlinsky, Franz Schrecker and Schoenberg.  Schmidt never adopted the radical aesthetic of Schoenberg and his acolytes, and continued to compose tonally, in the tradition of the later 19th century.  His music, especially his four symphonies, reject the dark and often pessimistic tone of his modernist peers, hinting at neo-Baroque and neo-Classical elements and remaining uncompromisingly committed to the symphonic tradition as it was passed down through Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.  Schmidt—who was apolitical and friendly with many Jewish musicians and composers in Vienna—was unfortunate to have had his music co-opted by the Nazis in the late 1930s following the annexation of Austria.  The taint of this association caused lasting damage to his reputation and legacy.  Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) was also born in Pressburg, but lived and worked for most of his life in Budapest.  A contemporary and close friend of Béla Bartók, Dohnányi devoted himself to the development and flourishing of musical culture in Hungary, as a pianist, conductor and composer.  While he is perhaps best remembered as a world-class concert pianist, influential teacher, and relentless promoter of young, talented composers such as Bartok, Dohnányi also composed a substantial amount of music in a wide variety of genres, especially works for solo piano, chamber music, and orchestral works.  Stylistically, Dohnányi is regarded as a conservative composer, eschewing the nationalistic approach of Bartók and Kodály and taking cues instead from late Romantics like Brahms.  Among his most frequently performed works is his light-hearted Variations on a Nursery Tune, op. 25, based on the French folk song “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”—better known as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—which Mozart also famously used in a set of variations. 

Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was born in Monaco, and lived abroad for several years before his family finally returned to Austria, settling first in Linz and then in Vienna.  Schreker studied violin and composition at the Vienna conservatory, but aspired to be a conductor: he formed and conducted the Philharmonic Chorus from 1907-1920, a successful ensemble that premiered works by Mahler, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg (with whom he had a life-long friendship).  As a composer, Schreker enjoyed early successes with his operas in Germany and Austria: at one point, the German music critic Paul Bekker famously heralded him as a natural successor to Wagner.  His reputation as a composer began to decline, however, following his move to Berlin in 1920 to assume the role of director of the Hochschule für Musik.  There, he found himself caught between antipodes: he was insufficiently radical for the new generation of young, modernist composers—Schreker remained largely rooted in a tonal, post-Romantic style, never adopting atonality but exploring chromaticism, polytonality and the lavish orchestration heard in the music of Debussy and the French Symbolists—but was regarded as a “degenerate” avant-garde Jewish musician in the eyes of the emerging Nazi movement.

Introductory Essay by Professor Alexander Carpenter, Chairman of the Wirth Institute Academic Advisory Board

(N.B.: The composers in this posting are listed in chronological order by date of birth) 

Online Performances

Musical selections curated by our founding director, Professor Franz Szabo with the assistance of Professors Alexander Carpenter, Gregor Kokorz, Guillaume Tardif and Dr. Mikolaj Warszynski

The selections for this posting have been constrained by what is available in live performances on YouTube.  Listeners are encouraged to follow up on the composers mentioned with other, audio-only listings.

Leoš Janáček
Born: 3 July 1854, Hukvaldy (Hochwald), Austrian Silesia
Died: 12 August 1928, Ostrava

Sinfonietta (1926)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Live from Barbican Hall, London, 19 September 2018 

Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra
Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 10 June 2016 

String Quartet No. 1 "Kreutzer Sonata"
Meccore String Quartet
Wojciech Koprowski and Aleksandra Bryła, violins;
Michał Bryła, viola; Tomasz Daroch, cello
Live from the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic, Łódź, Poland, 28 May 2019 

String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters”
Alexi Kenney, violin 1 (ChamberFest Cleveland Young Artist) David Bowlin, violin 2; Dimitri Murrath, viola; Julie Albers, cello
Live from Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio, 24 June 2016 

Glagolitic Mass
Eva Urbanová (soprano), Bernarda Fink (soprano), Leo Marian Vodička (tenor), Peter Mikuláš (bass), Jan Hora (organ)
The Prague Philharmonic Choir under the direction of Pavel Kühn
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor
Live from Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, 21 March 1996 

Jenůfa (Její pastorkyňa), Opera in three acts
Nina Stemme (Jenůfa), Eva Marton (Kostelnička Buryjovka),
Viorica Cortez (Stařenka Buryjovka), Jorma Silvasti (Laca Klemeň),
Pär Lindskog (Števa Buryja), Rolf Haunstein (Stárek), Enric Serra (Rychtář),
Begoña Alberdi (Rychtářka), Christiane Boesiger (Karolka),
Carole Marais (Pastuchyňa), Sandra Galiano (Barena),
Ana Nebot (Jano), Annett Andriesen (Tetka)
Orquestra Simfònica i Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu
Peter Schneider, conductor
Live from Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain, 2 June 2005 

Alexander Zemlinsky
Born: 14 October 1871, Vienna
Died: 15 March 1942, New Rochelle, New York

Quartet Nr. 1 A major, Op. 4
Zemlinsky Quartet
František Souček, Violin I, Petr Střížek, Violin II
Petr Holman, Viola, Vladimír Fortin, Cello
Live from the Nef Cultural Center, Wissembourg, France, 31 August 2016 

Sinfonietta, Op. 23
Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 11 Dezember 2015 

Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid), Symphonic Fantasy
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Live fom the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 9 December 2016 

Josef Suk
Born: 4 January 1874, Křečovice, Bohemia
Died: 29 May 1935, Benešov, Bohemia

Serenade for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 6
Academy Chamber Orchestra
Claudio Vena, conductor
Live from Mazzoleni Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, 13 December 2014 

Asrael, Symphony for large orchestra in C minor, Op. 27
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek, conductor
Live from Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, October 2014 

Arnold Schoenberg
Born: 13 September 1874, Vienna
Died: 13 July 1951, Los Angeles, California

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op.4 
Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Live from the Salle Pleyel, Paris, 20 February 2009. 

Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 5
Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Live from the From the Musikverein, Vienna, Easter 2006 

String Quartet No. 1 in d Minor, Op. 7
Escher String Quartet
Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violins;
Pierre Lapointe, viola; Brook Speltz, cello
Live from Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 25 June 2018 

5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Live from Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 18 October 1997 

Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21
Mathieu Dufour, flute and piccolo
J. Lawrie Bloom, clarinet and bass clarinet
Robert Chen, violin and viola
John Sharp, cello
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Kiera Duffy, soprano
Cristian Macelaru, conductor
Live from Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 24 February 2012 

Phantasy for Violin and Piano, op. 47
Glenn Gould, piano
Yehudi Menuhin, violin
CBC television broadcast on 18 May 1966
with introductory comments by Goold and Menuhin
Performance begins at 7:07 

Arrangement of Strauss’ Emperor Walz
Irena Grafenauer, flute; Eduard Brunner, clarinet;
Gidon Kremer, and Isabelle van Keulen, violins;
Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Boris Pergamenshchikov, cello;
Oleg Maisenberg, piano
Live from Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 12 May 1989 

Cantata for five vocal soloists, narrator, chorus and large orchestra
Jessye Norman (Soprano); Brigitte Fassbaender (Mezzosoprano);
George Gray (Tenor); Helmut Wildhaber (Tenor);
Hartmut Welker (Baritone); Barbara Sukowa (narrator)
Enrst Senff Chor Berlin
Philharmonischer Chor Berlin
Wiener Jeunesse Chor
European Community Youth Orchestra
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Live from the Philharmonie, Berlin, 8 August 1988 

Moses und Aron, Opera in three acts
Dale Duesing (Moses), Andreas Conrad (Aron),
Ilse Eerens (young girl), Karolina Gumos (sick woman)
Finnur Bjarnason (youth), Michael Smallwood (naked youth),
Boris Grappe (Man/Ephraimit), Renatus Meszar (priest),
Ilse Eerens, Hanna Herfurtner, Karolina Gumos and Constance Heller
(four naked virgins)
ChorWerk Ruhr
Bochumer Symphoniker
Michael Boder, conductor
Live from the Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum, Germany, 22 August 2009 

Franz Schmidt
Born: 22 December 1874, Pressburg/Pozsony, Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia)
Died: 11 February 1939, Perchtoldsdorf, Lower Austria

Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals)
Herbert Lippert, tenor (Johannes); Franz-Josef Selig, bass (voice of God);
Simona Šaturová, soprano; Marianna Pizzolato, alto;
Mauro Peter, tenor; Tareq Nazmi, bass
Michael Schönheit, organ
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Fabio Luisi, conductor
Recorded at DR Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark 

Symphony No. 4
Frankfurt Radio Symphony ∙
Paavo Järvi, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 27 April 2018 

Intermezzo from the Opera “Notre Dame”
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 14 January 2001 

Ernst (Ernő) von Dohnányi
Born: 27 July 1877, Pozsony/Prešporok/Preßburg, Hungary
(now Bratislava, Slovakia)
Died: 9 February 1960, New York

Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 12
Julian Schwarz, Cello
Northwest Sinfonietta
Gerard Schwarz, Conductor
Live from Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 1 June 2012 

Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1
Jordana Palovičová, piano
Moyzes Quartet
Stanislav Mucha and Fratinšek Török violins;
Alexander Lakatoš, viola; Ján Slávik, cello
Live from the Levoča Festival, Levoča, Slovakia,15 September 2019 

Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25
Mauricio Vallina, piano
Orchestra della Svizzera italiana
Alexander Vedernikov, conductor
Live from the the Lugano Festival 2015 

Franz Schreker
Born: 23 March 1878, Monaco
Died: 21 March 1934, Berlin

Suite for Chamber Orchestra, “Der Geburtstag der Infantin”
(based on Oscar Wilde’s novella "The Birthday of the Infanta" inspired by Diego Velázquez' painting "Las Meninas”)
University of Toronto Symphony
Lorenzo Guggenheim, conductor
Live from University of Toronto, Walter Hall, 18 November 2019 

Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony)
Wibert Aerts, violin
Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen
Jonas Alber, conductor
Live from deSingel, Antwerp, 24 November 2013 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!