The Modern Era in Central Europe (Part 2)


“Concert” by the Hungarian painter and graphic artist, Gyula Derkovits, shows elements of Expressionism, Cubism and Constructivism, mirroring the heterogeneity of Central European music in the Modern Era

The years leading up to the First World War in Central Europe were replete with rapid social, political and cultural change, which contributed to a generalized anxiety about the future.  Small wonder that the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis—a method to excavate and treat trauma buried in the unconscious—in Vienna, a city memorably dubbed “the laboratory of the apocalypse” in the antebellum period.  The tumult and uncertainty in early 20th century Central Europe led to a crisis of the self—or, a “reshuffling of the self,” as the historian Carl Schorske put it—that was readily evident in the artistic realm.  Expressionism—a Modernist aesthetic that privileged subjective experience and the filtering of reality through an inner world of emotion—became a key paradigm for painters and composers, who sought the unmediated expression of the unconscious in their work.  In music, Austrian composers like Anton Webern and Alban Berg—students of Arnold Schoenberg—along with the Hungarian Béla Bartók, created works of such emotional intensity that the very fabric of the tonal system was rent, using all of the pitches of the chromatic scale to explore the darkest depths of the human soul. 

In the wake of the war, however, the Expressionist movement floundered: the relentless emotional intensity required to fuel it was ultimately unsustainable; and the horror, desolation and chaos wrought by five years of murderous and ultimately fruitless trench warfare left composers seeking greater coherence and structural consistency in their work.  For some, a turn towards the past—via neo-Classicism—provided that coherence.  For the Schoenbergians, it was dodecaphony, a quasi-mathematical manipulation of the chromatic scale, which imposed logic on atonality.  For a number of composers outside of the Austro-Germanic orbit—in a Central Europe of shifting borders and no longer part of an empire under Habsburg rule—the incorporation of national folk music traditions provided the way forward.   

The music of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1880-1959), and of Hungarian composers Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) exemplifies the paradigmatic shift towards a synthesized folk and art music tradition outside of Austria.  Martinů was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of these three composers, having been born in Moravia and studied with Josef Suk in Prague, only to come under the influence of Debussy and modern French music, eventually moving to Paris and adopting an experimental ethos that embraced the innovations of the ballet music of Igor Stravinsky, Dada, jazz, and Parisian cabaret music.  Martinů did compose nationalistic music using Czech folk idioms, but after the First World War moved gradually towards a neo-Classical aesthetic, exemplified by the driving, agitated Stravinskian ostinati of the Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani (1938) and by the blending of lush, Romantic orchestration with a Haydn-esque lightness in the Symphony no. 4 (1945).  The music of Bartók and Kodály, by contrast, is largely defined by its integration of scales, melodies, rhythms and harmonies derived from folk music.  While Bartok’s music of the pre-war period approaches the radical Expressionism and chromaticism of the Viennese atonalists—especially his short, one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), which is often paired in contemporary performances with Schoenberg’s atonal Freudian psychodrama Erwartung, op. 17even at this stage his music began to be permeated with folk music.  Bartók’s folk music research—in collaboration with his countryman Kodály, both of whom were instrumental in establishing the discipline of ethnomusicology—continued in earnest during the First World War, and in the decades after he sought to synthesize the influences of a disparate collection of art music composers—including Debussy, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg—with Eastern European folk traditions.  Unlike his 19th century predecessors, such as Liszt and Brahms, who treated folk music in a stylized way, Bartok sought to create an original and personal musical style—perhaps most clearly evident in his string quartets—by fully synthesizing folk, classical and modernist elements.  Bartok’s colleague and friend, Zoltán Kodály was likewise a folklorist, but is perhaps better remembered today for his innovations in music pedagogy, which continue to be used as the foundation for musical training in schools throughout Europe and North America.  As a composer, Kodály did not enjoy much public success until the early 1920s.  His Psalmus Hungaricus, op. 13 (1923), a choral work celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the unification of Budapest, does not directly quote any folk tunes, but incorporates modes and pentatonic scales derived from regional folk music in its setting of a Hungarian translation of Psalm 55.  It was among Kodaly’s earliest major works and led to his recognition as a composer of significance in Hungary.  His Variations on a Hungarian Folksong ‘The Peacock’ (1937-39) offers perhaps one of the best examples of Kodaly’s deep integration of folk materials—using an ancient Hungarian folk melody—but also of his ability to capture and express the liveliness and jocularity of the regional folk music traditions he had been collecting and studying since the beginning of the 20th century.

Leo Weiner (1885-1960), also a Hungarian-born composer, is less well-known than Bartók or Kodály. While he did incorporate some folk music elements in his compositions (as is evident in his Divertimento No. 1), he did not do so systematically, or with the aim of fully integrating folk elements to create a personal style.  Weiner was also a much more conservative composer, especially compared to Bartók, and drew his inspiration from the composers of the early 19th century, notably Beethoven and Mendelssohn.  His charming, light-hearted and strongly tonal early work Serenade for Small Orchestra in f minor, op. 3 (1906) sounds like it could have been composed a century earlier, and is strikingly different from the expanded chromaticism of the fin-de-siècle modernists.  Like his fellow countrymen Bartók and Kodály, Weiner also made significant contributions to Hungarian cultural life as an educator.  Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is regarded as the most important Polish composer of the early 20th century, and is even considered by some to rank among the most important—if unheralded—composers of the entire century.  Given his interest in Polish folk music—and especially the music of the Goral people of southern Poland and northern Slovakia—and his incorporation of a variety of Modernist approaches, including atonality, it is tempting to think of Szymanowski as the “Polish Bartok”; however, Szymanowski’s compositional language is unique, blending the idiosyncratic harmonic looseness of composers like Alexander Scriabin—that is, using tonal chords unmoored from the tonal system—and Bartok’s integration of folk elements.  His Violin Concerto no. 2, op. 61 (1932-33) provides a vivid example of Szymanowski’s striking individuality: the work, a virtuoso tour-de-force cast in a single movement, is thematically lyric and ostensibly tonal, in stark opposition to the dodecaphony of the Second Vienna School; but at the same time, its tonality is nebulous and slippery, frequently inflected by elusive modal digressions. 

Key members of the Schoenberg circle in Vienna, Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935) number among the most influential composers of the 20th century.  While both composers laboured under the titanic shadow of their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, they quickly emerged as first rank composers in their own right.  Berg would be celebrated a major opera composer for his dark, Expressionist masterpieces, Wozzeck and Lulu,  while Webern—who remained largely obscure during his lifetime—would provide a huge and lasting influence on the aesthetic of the post-1945 generation of European composers, for the extreme compression of his music.  Berg and Webern began studying with Schoenberg in 1904, and became fast friends.  Both composed early works nominally in the tonal tradition of the late 19th century—Berg’s Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1909) and Webern’s Passacaglia, op. 1 (1908)—but the young composers, under Schoenberg’s powerful influence, were already stretching tonality to the breaking point from the start.  Shortly thereafter, they would adopt Schoenbergian free atonality, along with their teacher’s aphoristic aesthetic: Berg’s tiny Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op, 5 (1913) exemplify this trend towards brevity and concision.  Berg would go on to develop a much more lush, expansive, even quasi-Romantic approach to atonal composition, going so far as to incorporate tonal elements into Schoenberg’s 12-tone method: his Lyric Suite for string quartet is a curious example of a hybridized approach that combines 12-tone serialism with residual sonic gestures and techniques from tonal music.  Webern, on the other hand, truly absorbed Schoenberg’s Expressionistic, aphoristic aesthetic: most of his pieces—including his delicately pointillistic String Quartet, op. 28—are exquisitely crafted miniatures, brutally brief but intensely expressive and deeply felt.  As Schoenberg would write of Webern’s music, “Every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel in a single gesture.”   Ironically, in spite of the Oedipal tensions that characterized the relationship between Berg and Webern and their teacher, Schoenberg outlived his precocious pupils, who both died tragically: Berg was stung by a bee and died from sepsis at the age of 50; Webern was accidentally shot and killed at the age of 61 by an American solider a few months after the end of the Second World War.   

The Viennese composer Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) also studied with Schoenberg, but unlike Berg and Webern did not adopt Schoenberg’s compositional methods.  Indeed, Schoenberg never taught his students his methods, but rather instructed them using the composers of the Classical canon as models, encouraging them to find and develop their own voices as composers (Berg and Webern, following directly in their teacher’s footsteps, happened to be particularly capable and devoted disciples—slavishly so, in Webern’s case).  Wellesz’s music is modern, much like the music of his contemporaries, insofar as it is tonally vague; however, the influence of the late 19th century—especially the music of Mahler and Bruckner—remains apparent in many of his works, including his Five Symphonic Pieces after Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest (1934-36).  Like Webern, Wellesz was also a musicologist.  He has been lauded for his contributions to the study of Byzantine chant, and for possessing the unusual ability to combine creative and scholarly activities at the highest level.

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.

Bohuslav Jan Martinů
Born: 8 December 1880, Polička, Bohemia
Died: 28 August 1959, Liestal, Switzerland
Concerto for two Pianos and Orchestra
Katia and Marielle Labeque, piano
Orchestra dell'Accademia Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Live from the Accademia Nazinale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 5 May 2012 

Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Marina Thibeault, viola
Pronto Musica Chamber Orchestra
Alexis Hauser, conductor
Live from Pollack Hall, McGill University, Montreal, 10 March 2016 

Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani.
Radom Chamber Orchestra (ROK) and Beethoven Academy Orchestra (OAB)
Maciej Żółtowski, conductor
Recorded at the Krzysztof Penderecki Concert Hall, Radom, Poland, 18 March 2012. 

Sinfonietta "La Jolla"
Prague Chamber Orchestra
Antonín Hradil, concertmaster
Live from the Congress Center, Villach, Austria, 14 August 2006
Carinthischer Sommer Festival, 2006 

Symphony No. 4
Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 9 December 2016 

Béla Bartók
Born: 25 March 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Banat, Hungary
(now Sânnicolau Mare, Romania)
Died:  26 September 1945, New York
String quartet Nr. 4 in C major, Sz 91
Quatuor Ebène
Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violins;
Mathieu Herzog, viola; Raphaël Merlin, cello
Live from the Nef Cultural Center, Wissembourg, France, 26 August 2013 

String Quartet No. 6, Sz 114
Tesla Quartet
Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, violins;
Edwin Kaplan, viola; Serafim Smigelskiy, cello
Live from the Banff Center for the Arts, Banff, Alberta, August 2016
12th Banff International String Quartet Competition 

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Live from the Radio France Auditorium, Paris, 16 March 2019 

Concerto for Orchestra
Frankfurt Radio Symphony ∙
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 9 June 2017 

The Miraculous Mandarin, Ballet Suite
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Live from the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 30 August 1992 

Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major, Sz 119
András Schiff, piano
Hallé Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder, conductor
Live from Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 July 2011 

Duke Blubeard's Castle, opera in one act
(A kékszakállú herceg vára)
Robert Lloyd (Bluebeard), Elizabeth Lawrence (Judith)
John Woodvine (Speaker of the Prologue)
Leone Amis, Abigail Zealy and Natasha Zukas (the wives)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Adam Fischer, conductor
Television movie, 1988 

Zoltán Kodály
Born: 16 December 1882, Kecskemét, Hungary
Died: 6 March 1967, Budapest, Hungary
Háry János Suite, Op. 15 (1927)
Christopher Deane, cimbalom
University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra
David Itkin, conductor
Live from Winspear Hall, College of Music
University of North Texas, 25 September 2013 

Dances of Galánta
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Live from Royal Albert Hall, London, 26 July 2011 

Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, 'The Peacock'
Hungarian State Opera Orchestra
Tamas Vasary, conductor
Live from the Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest, 14 March 2015 

Psalmus Hungaricus for Tenor, Mixed Choir and Orchestra, Op. 13
István Kovácsházi, Tenor
Internationale Chorakademie Lübeck
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös, conductor
Live from the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 18 January 2018 

Karol Szymanowski
Born: 6 October 1882, Tymoszówka, Kiev Palatinate, Russian Empire
Died: 29 March 1937, Lausanne, Switzerland
Masques, Op. 34
Piotr Anderszewski, piano
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 19 December 2007 

Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Janine Jansen, violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle, condutor
Live from NHK Hall, Tokyo, 27 September 2018 

Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61
Tasmin Little violin
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, 13 November 2015 

Symphony No. 3 "Pieśń o nocy" (Song of the Night), Op. 27
Dmitry Korchak, tenor
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir
Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor
Live from Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, 13 November 2015 

Anton Webern
Born: 3 December 1883, Vienna
Died: 15 September 1945, Mittersill, Salzburg, Austria
Passacaglia, Op. 1
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor
Live from the Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany, 12 June 2015 

Im Sommerwind
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor
Live from the Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany, 12 June 2015 

"Four Pieces," for violin & piano, Op. 7
Linda Eun Jeung Choi, violin
Fadi Deeb, piano
Live from Stony Brook University, New York. September, 2012 

String Quartet, Op. 28
Psappha Ensemble
Benedict Holland and Sophie Rosa, violins;
Vicci Wardman, viola; Jennifer Langridge, cello
Live from Hallé St Peter’s Hall, Manchester, UK, 28 November 2019 

Alban Berg
Born: 9 February 1885, Vienna
Died: 24 December 1935, Vienna
Violin Concerto, 'To the memory of an angel'
Alina Pogostkina, violin
Gothenburg Symphony
David Afkham, conductor
Live from the Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden, 12 September 2013. 

Lyric Suite
Secession Quartet
Stephanie Ko and Makiko Iwakura, violins;  
Chia-Chun Hsiao, viola; Kenta Uno, cello
Live from the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, Norway, September 2017 

Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Live from Moscow State Philharmonic Hall, 4 April 2013 

Vier Stücke (Four Pieces) for clarinet and piano, Op. 5
Martin Adámek, clarinet
Dimitri Vassilakis, piano
Live from Cité de la musique, Paris, 4 Septemver 2018 

Wozzeck, opera in three acts, Op. 7
Franz Grundherber (Wozzek); Hildegard Behrens (Marie);
Walter Raffeiner (the Drum Major); Philip Langridge (Andres);
Heinz Zednik (the Captain); Aage Haugland (Doctor); Adolf Tomaschek (Innkeeper); Peter Jelosits (Madman); Viktoria Lehner (Marie’s boy); Elmar Breneis (Soldier); Alfred Šramek (First Apprentice); Alexander Maly (Second Apprentice)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Live from From the Vienna State Opera, 1987 

Leó Weiner
Born: 16 April 1885, Budapest
Died: 13 September 1960, Budapest
Serenade for small orchestra in F minor, Op. 3
Dohnányi Symphony Orchestra Budafok
Dian Tchobanov, conductor
Live from Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa, Budapest, April 2013 

Divertimento No. 1, Op. 20
Arpeggione Kammerorchester
Robert Bokor, conductor
Live from the Teatro Civico, Vercelli, Italy, 26 November 2011
14th Viotti Festival 

Egon Wellesz
Born: 21 October 1885, Vienna
Died: 9 November 1974, Oxford, UK
Five Symphonic Pieces on Shakespeare’s “Tempest”
Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa
Jörg Birhance, conductor
Live from the sala de conciertos Tlaqná, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1 February 2019 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!