On 21 March 1933, Kurt Weill fled Berlin, having heard he was on a Nazi blacklist following a wave of arrests of prominent intellectuals that coincided with the Reichstag fire in late February. In his single suitcase was a completed draft of the opening movement of his Second Symphony (or Symphonic Fantasy), his first effort at large-scale instrumental composition in ten years, and what would prove to be his final symphonic composition.Footnote 1 A commission from the eminent Parisian music patron Princesse Edmond de Polignac in 1932 and originally destined to be premiered in her private salon, it represented the tentative promise of further work in France. Perhaps this was what in part determined his course to Paris. Visiting the previous year, he had been warmly received as the latest bright young thing from Germany. In Berlin he had been hiding out at the home of the couple Caspar and Erika Neher – the former Weill’s colleague, the latter Weill’s lover – since the beginning of March. Whether Caspar was aware of his wife’s liaison with Weill is unclear. The couple drove him across the border; it is hard to imagine the emotional charge in the vehicle.
One of the many people to be tossed out of the political maelstrom of Berlin 1933, Weill then completed his symphony in exile on the outskirts of Paris in 1934, drawing on material from his stage works. According to conventional music-historical scripts, Weill, the socialist and populist theatre composer internationally famed for his works with Bertolt Brecht, should have been an unlikely contributor to this genre; he was negotiating territory historically considered the pinnacle of ‘high art’ music and home to Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, a genre encumbered by specifically Germanic idealist nationalism, at least since its reception by nineteenth-century ideologues.Footnote 2 What is more, the work is challenging for Weill biographers.Footnote 3 As a salon commission from a wealthy heiress, the symphony was written for a bourgeois world that Weill had previously critiqued.Footnote 4 The Symphony No. 2 provokes several questions: why, suddenly and seemingly uncharacteristically, write a symphony of all things?Footnote 5 And why, to put a finer point on it, at this precise moment turn to the symphonic genre as the darkening German political regime precipitated his escape?
From a broad perspective, this is a book concerned with symphonies in the interwar period. Its more specific concern, though, is how people imagined selfhood in and around a specific year. It argues that, given the symphony’s lively intellectual history of entanglement with ideas of the self (or selves), it is a genre uniquely placed to illuminate what thinking about people’s sense of self meant in 1933, at a moment of great international insecurity. By taking a number of symphonies composed or premiered in 1933 and applying a transnational lens, it is possible to reclaim some of the fine grain of the cultural and political landscapes of that incredible, uncertain historical moment. The book begins by tracing the international journey of Weill’s symphony in exile from its conception to its transatlantic premieres. The present chapter thus serves two functions: it is both the book’s initial case study and its introduction, weaving in and out of the two registers. Then, via a series of five other main symphonic case studies, the book will revisit the Symphony No. 2’s international settings to build a sense of the stakes for the genre in those places. The chapters traverse Berlin, Paris, and a slightly more fluid US East Coast nexus centring on New York and Boston, with pit stops in Mexico City and Chicago, to consider some music that today is hardly known, whether by concert-goers or the bulk of musicologists: Hans Pfitzner’s Symphony in C♯ minor, Roy Harris’s Symphony 1933, Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony, and Arthur Honegger’s Mouvement symphonique n° 3.
Subjectivity will be a recurrent term in this volume. It is taken to mean a sense of selfhood or consciousness that operates at both individual and collective levels – something that symphonies and symphonic discourse (here meaning written commentary responding to symphonic music) grappled with throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Alongside illuminating subjectivity in 1933, a central claim is that these largely forgotten symphonies and the specific cultural anxieties they produce offer insights into how people thought about an area with close ideological links to subjectivity – namely, political and aesthetic notions of space.
The nation-state, itself a particular kind of imagined space, has strongly orientated much existing scholarship on symphonies.Footnote 6 Symphonies are taught as German or Russian, or American or French, for example. Weill’s symphony forms the starting point for this volume because the nation-state so evidently fails it as a hermeneutic frame. A work that reveals the symphony circa 1933 as swept up in political events which had a global reach, Weill’s symphony demonstrates clearly that the genre at this time was an international phenomenon. Yet, while looking globally, the composers I consider simultaneously held a critical mirror to their local contexts. Furthermore, Weill’s symphony puts a focus on the Germanic aesthetic and philosophical heritage that was the genre’s ideological centre of gravity – and, in so doing, on how that heritage policed contemporary ideas about symphonies, particularly about who was allowed to compose them. I suggest that only if we widen our viewfinder beyond the nation-state and bring these works from 1933 into contact with one another can we understand the deep anxieties they reveal about the genre, and what its instability at this time tells us about corresponding ideas of selfhood and space. After all, this was an era characterised by international mobility and displacement, exchange of ideas and cultures across borders, globalised uncertainty, and international antagonism, when politics brimmed with anxieties about space, personal freedom, and international boundaries. Just what was the symphony in 1933? And what do we think it is today?
When Weill used material from his own expressly political stage works in his symphony, he underlined the genre’s status in the early twentieth century as something far beyond a purely musical object. The symphonic genre was a tool of political critique, both embedded within and sceptical of social discourses about exile, high art, internationalism, political reform, and popular culture. These social discourses were transformative for modern notions of subjectivity. In some ways, Weill’s work foregrounds the genre’s typically modern self-awareness. The symphonic genre itself had become a vehicle by which to reflect at a distance on both the suffocating geographical determinism and the nationalist self-aggrandising that had come to plague it, as well as to lampoon symphonic monumentalism’s role in establishing political hegemonies.
Since the genre was no longer one that could sustain the nineteenth century’s unabashed idealism, to decide to write a symphony in 1933 was necessarily to negotiate social discourses about mass tastes and markets. Previous scholars have suggested that Weill’s work was simply a swiftly turned-out money-maker at a time of dire financial need.Footnote 7 His assets in Germany, of course, had been frozen, so the economic case must have been intense. But there is also a sense in which the work seems profoundly sincere. The symphonic genre retained much of its allure and prestige as the litmus test of a composer’s capabilities: to what extent, then, was the work a conscious transition of musical register and a bid for elevated respect and recognition? Having studied with Ferruccio Busoni, Weill had credentials that rivalled those of any of his more ‘serious’ orchestral composer contemporaries, and, as he confided cryptically to Lotte Lenya the day after he finished the sketch, he was confident about the work: ‘I’m very happy that I can also do something like this better than the others.’Footnote 8 Considering the fraught political context and the work’s lengthy gestation – uncharacteristically protracted for Weill – some commentators have suggested that his self-quotation from stage works with an overt socialist agenda points towards a reading of the symphony as a powerful social commentary on changing relations between citizens and the State.Footnote 9 Why shouldn’t this be commensurate with the genre’s historically lofty ideals? It is hardly incompatible with financial motivation. Yet, if secondary literature on Weill’s work at large has resisted such an interpretation, then this is revealing about the remarkable persistence of twentieth-century perceptions of true symphonic idealism as decontextualised, universal, and, above all, divorced from quotidian economic imperatives.
In the work’s programme note, Weill took a playful and non-committal position on the musical content of his symphony, despite its flagrant borrowing from the stage. Perhaps this was a knowing gesture towards just some of these problematics of absolute music – after all, absolute music has always been a category steeped in ideology.Footnote 10 As Weill explained:
It is not possible for me to comment on the content of the work since it was conceived as pure musical form. But perhaps a Parisian friend of mine was right when she suggested that an appropriate title would be a word that expressed the opposite of ‘pastoral’, should such a word exist. I do not know.Footnote 11
Weill’s remarks, particularly the reference to ‘pastoral’, also hint at the work’s clear dialogue with the Germanic symphonic tradition. Following eighteenth-century classical symphonic models, the symphony is in three movements – Sonata (Sostenuto – Allegro molto), Largo (titled ‘Cortège’, referencing the funereal slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica), and Rondo (Allegro vivace) – and is unified by motivic interactions (described by one commentator as ‘Lisztian thematic transformations’Footnote 12). These, however, are disguised on the surface level by a sense of disjunction (bear in mind the theatrical Verfremdungseffekt developed with Brecht) resulting from the abrupt succession of orchestral gestures and almost cinematic cuts between diverse musical materials that reference multiple historical and contemporary forms. Indeed, Weill’s integration of dance structures, march, sonata form, Cortège, and lyrical song invites comparison with Mahler’s famed all-embracing attitude to the symphony.Footnote 13 Adorno’s commentary on Mahler could equally apply to Weill: ‘All categories are eroded … none are established within unproblematic limits. Their dissolution does not arise from a lack of articulation but revises it: neither the distinct nor the blurred is defined conclusively; both are in suspension.’Footnote 14 Also noteworthy – and again referencing the Mahlerian model – is the bittersweet humour with which the work is invested (Adorno calls its Mahlerian instantiation ‘gallows humour’):Footnote 15 the grotesquerie of the trombone and woodwind glissandos; the faux-militant trumpet fanfares; the impossibly quick triplet motif of the closing bars.Footnote 16 The bald repetition of the march for winds in the final movement creates a particular moment of generic fluidity, manipulating the forces present in the orchestra to create a popular-sounding marching band. Given that commentators have hypothesised that the march alludes to the paradox of the menacing yet ludicrous appearance of ‘goosestepping Nazis’, does the repetition critique the mindlessness of political complicity and critique popular forms as channels of mass propaganda?Footnote 17 A question mark similarly hangs over the C major ending. To tack on a gesture towards notions of purity and simplicity is farcical, and seems to function in the same way as Igor Stravinsky’s critique of C major and the assumptions it carries in Symphony in C (1938–40). Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 of 1924 notwithstanding, that no symphony could really end in C major with a straight face by 1934 confirms the self-consciousness that haunted the genre.
Initially, a premiere for the symphony was not forthcoming. It was not until August 1934 that Bruno Walter, exiled from Berlin in the same week as Weill, agreed to take up the symphony for performance (under pressure from Weill’s advocate and pupil from Berlin Maurice Abravanel).Footnote 18 (The events surrounding Walter’s exile from Berlin are given further attention in Chapter 2.) Walter was quick to get the ball rolling; the inaugural performance took place in Amsterdam on 11 October 1934, with immediate subsequent performances in The Hague and Rotterdam.Footnote 19 A few weeks later, Walter took the work to the United States, presenting it at Carnegie Hall in New York on 13 and 14 December. Weill could not have hoped for a more prestigious opening for his first piece of absolute music in ten years; as he wrote to Lenya, ‘I’m afraid the gods will be envious’ (the ‘envy of the gods’ being a jinx).Footnote 20 Early insecurities about his ability to develop the right style (‘den richtigen Stil’) for an orchestral work were long forgotten.Footnote 21 After attending the rehearsal for the performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, he appeared to have every reason to remain buoyant, reporting to Lenya: ‘Just a quick note. The rehearsal [of the Second Symphony] was wonderful. Walter does it marvellously and everyone is really enthusiastic, especially the entire orchestra! It’s a good piece and sounds fantastic.’Footnote 22
‘I Had Prepared Myself for Much Worse Things!’
Weill’s optimism, however, was misplaced. He misjudged the complex and restrictive discourses used to police the symphonic genre. The work animated and agitated reviewers, provoking divisive and inconsistent responses, and, if anything, it seemed his Dreigroschenoper success stacked the odds against his symphony’s chances.Footnote 23 Juxtaposed in the programme with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a mainstay of the repertory, the yardstick against which Weill’s symphony was to be measured was especially diminishing. The reviewer for Eemlanden reported snidely: ‘That was not so bad! I had prepared myself for much worse things! … Modern, very modern, but funny and fluent, and without sentimentality.’Footnote 24 For the most part, however, critics came down even harder on Weill, and a Maastricht newspaper spelled out some major and recurrent qualms:
Kurt Weill is the composer of the Dreigroschenoper, and I fear that will remain his fate for years to come. It is no disgrace, of course, though it would be better for him to accept it, rather than attempting to force his talent in this pretty hopeless direction. Because, to be honest, Weill’s Symphonische Symphonie is not much more than a number of expanded songs. The result? Rather ridiculous. And not only is the song style ill-fitted to symphonic forms; the nature of Weill’s music is little suited to absolute music. Weill is a man of the theatre … .Footnote 25
As many questions as the reception raises about the nature of Weill’s music, it raises still more about the nature of ‘absolute’ music. Ultimately, these questions about nature or character seem to point to insidious underlying questions and assumptions about Weill himself – and to judgements about the kinds of people who listened to his music. When, as we will see towards the end of this chapter, the reviewers gendered his ‘popular’ music as feminine to argue it did not belong in the concert hall, when they criticised his supposedly superficial thematic development, and when they questioned his motivations for writing a symphony, these critics were not reacting solely to aspects of ‘pure’ music; rather, they were responding to social discourses relating to Weill’s popular status and fame, political discourses linked to the socialist message of Die Dreigroschenoper, racial discourses bound up with his Jewish heritage, and to the perceived internationalism of Weill’s musical voice (at odds with symphonic, and specifically Germanic, nationalism). What is more, the reviewers did so while communicating their unease about Amsterdam’s fringe relationship to Germanic symphonic culture: cultural anxiety about being on the margins.
Crucially, as will be shown by the critical reception of Weill’s symphony in Amsterdam, the story of the Weill premiere indicates how symphonies and their discursive contexts blur the borders of those aesthetic, subjective-interior, and political spaces where subjectivity plays out and in relation to which it is reflexively assembled. Yet, since existing literature on symphonies and their discursive contexts in this period lacks a comparative perspective, we begin on the back foot, ill-equipped to approach the Amsterdam reviews, and still less able to compare their subtleties with the reception of Weill’s work in New York a few weeks later, where a whole raft of different localised histories and concerns – not to mention attitudes towards Germany – were at play. As the reception begins to disrupt inherited conceits about the symphonic genre’s universality, it reveals that serious foundational work piecing together a fuller, more globalised picture of symphonic discourse is still required.
The Symphony in 1933
Weill’s Symphony No. 2, Pfitzner’s Symphony in C♯ minor, Harris’s Symphony 1933, Copland’s Short Symphony, Honegger’s Mouvement symphonique n° 3, and Price’s Symphony in E minor make up a constellation of works that complement one another aesthetically, ideologically, and biographically, overlapping and contrasting in complex and unexpected ways. Together, they hatch more finely a sense of what it is that we are dealing with when we talk about ‘the symphony’ in the interwar period, and specifically in the pivotal year 1933, when Germany pulled the trigger on a political upheaval whose shockwaves would be felt globally through the twentieth century and beyond. They capture a keener sense of the era and communicate a more capacious vision for the symphonic genre than previous studies. Steering away from the mode of aesthetic survey, as this volume explores how the genre uncovers localised ideas about subjectivity, space, and exclusion, it pursues connections with diverse cultural and political areas: fascism, liberal ideologies, exile, gender, race, imagined geographies, post-colonial anxieties, as well as recording technology, ballet, Classical Greek sculpture, Weimar dialectics, Pan-Americanism. The kaleidoscopic scope of the symphony’s cultural history becomes a way of illuminating the book’s central themes.
The transnational dimension here is vital. This book spotlights how fundamentally a transnational perspective is needed fully to understand both the symphonic genre and the localised political and social issues shaping the written discourse emerging in response to symphonies in the years around 1933. Far from a hermetically sealed, purely musical topic, as many previous studies have characterised the genre, in 1933 the symphony was clearly an interdisciplinary phenomenon and a window onto the cultural and political contours of the moment.Footnote 26 The focus, therefore, is at times less on the musical works themselves than it is on what the idea of the symphony and people’s responses to it tell us about the works’ settings. I am interested in the symphony as a locus around which a set of critical rhetorics and discourses continually re-emerge and are reconstructed.
Utopian Enlightenment (and typically Germanic) philosophical narratives about sovereignty and space have long been wedded to the symphonic genre. In 1933, political developments applied particular pressure to them, often taking them to breaking point. The year in which Hitler took power and the Great Depression reached its peak, 1933 was a fraught one for politics and economics, concentrating far-reaching social questions that intersect with ‘symphonic’ issues about selfhood, society, power, and spatial expansionism. This points to the symphony’s darker, authoritarian side: to think of the symphony is often to conjure connotations of nationalistic power display or monumentality. Indeed, symphonic ideals have proved flexible allies for both free will and totalitarianism at different times and in different places. The spectre of Germany and Austria and the genre’s liberalist-idealist Germanic heritage looms large throughout this volume. To spotlight the year fascism took hold in Germany brings those Germanic social and political discourses historically associated with the genre to the fore – after all, to quote Karen Painter, ‘the symphony was the most German of musical genres’.Footnote 27 And yet symphonic monumentalism is only a small part of the story. Spotlighting 1933 is also to spotlight a key moment of contingency, to allow us, if we look closely, paradoxically to see alternative possibilities and critical potentials in this music and in the discussions it generated. This is music that, even if it cannot exceed or overpower some political shifts taking place, may also dissent, music that can communicate visions for alternative realities. Investigating the legacies of Germanic liberalist-idealist discourses in different sociocultural contexts, each chapter investigates how different local political ideologies produce different visions of space and subjectivity, and how the case study symphonies allow us to explore them, along with their contradictions.
By 1933, political news travelled fast through vast cross-continental communications networks, shaping an increasingly globalised cultural consciousness. This generation of composers often seemed just as mobile: US composers Harris and Copland both studied – although they did not overlap – in Paris in the 1920s with Nadia Boulanger; Copland spent 1931–3 hopping between Germany, Morocco, the United States, and Mexico; Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chávez, a prominent figure in Chapter 4, divided his formative years between New York, Paris, and Mexico City; Price had planned trips to France and England in the early 1950s to hear her works performed and meet with publishers, although ill heath, and then her untimely death, meant neither went ahead; Honegger was a Swiss-German working in Paris; even arch-German Pfitzner frequently conducted abroad (although the Nazi government put limits on his travel from 1933). But for the symphony, things were perhaps moving too fast, and too far. It was a genre that had lost confidence in its ideals; for many, symphonies seemed culturally out of time – a closed chapter, locked to cultural worlds and values that had died as the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth. Other symphonic composers expressed this distance with self-reflective critique. The year 1933 thus seems a particularly problematic and unstable moment for a genre so insistent on its absolute, self-contained status, and for pervasive narratives about the symphony as nationally particularised and geographically deterministic. Yet that sense of instability is also invigorating, giving us pause to look anew at how the symphony can be unfolded into transnational, cross-disciplinary spheres, inviting corresponding methodological approaches. By reframing the symphony, scholars can mine the genre and its discursive contexts for the social information they reveal. A methodology that opens up a contact point with 1933, moreover, lights up how this historical-ideological crossroads has legacies that shape the twenty-first century, too.
1933 as Epicentre
Viewed from a historical distance, the year 1933, where the symphonies in this book coalesce, was remarkable. The totalising Nazi political apparatus jerked into motion, tightening legal control over the German state as much as it did over spurious biological definitions of the German race.Footnote 28 Creative talent drained from Germany. Albert Einstein moved permanently to the United States after his university position in Berlin evaporated. German universities terminated the employment of Jewish academics. Aside from Weill and Bruno Walter, further musical figures to leave Germany in 1933 included Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Egon Wellesz, and (although not Jewish) Ernst Krenek, whom the Nazis had decried as a cultural bolshevist. Likewise, 1933 saw the emigration of writers and cultural theorists such as Brecht, Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Hannah Arendt, and Siegfried Kracauer. Many German exiles, like Walter Benjamin, spent 1933 in Paris, the French economy having largely withstood the 1929 economic crash.
Across the Atlantic in the Depression-struck United States, however, quite a different mood prevailed. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office as the 32nd president of the United States, the country began its most intimate flirtation with socialism. It was a rocky time. The Midwest saw the first storms preceding the dust-bowl crisis. Prohibition ended (although not until December). In Chicago, wealthy spectators from around the globe marvelled at the Century of Progress International Exposition. And 1933 was a fulcrum moment for Pan-American relations (at least from a US perspective): Roosevelt launched the Good Neighbor Policy, and it was the year that saw the term ‘Mexican Vogue’ coined in the New York Times for the growing attraction of everything south of the border.Footnote 29 John Rockefeller commissioned a mural from Diego Rivera for the foyer of the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan; Rivera tested the boundaries of US socialist inclinations when he insisted on including an image of Lenin and it all ended in scandal (see Figure 1.1). The destroyed work was recreated in the newly opened Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall in Mexico City in 1934 with the revised title Man, Controller of the Universe.
But a year cannot be remarkable all the time. For many, despite shifting political sands and economic hardships, things went on as normal. Cinema-goers would see Ginger Rogers get her silver screen break in 42nd Street and King Kong scale the newly completed Empire State Building, advertising a modernist emblem in the New York skyline. Arguably the most iconic film from 1933 today, King Kong was not among the ten top-grossing films in the United States that year; the homoerotic German import Mädchen in Uniform was, however. This was Hollywood’s swansong period of forthright woman, sexual innuendo, and semi-nudity before stricter enforcement of the Hays code stopped all the fun and 1934 ushered in a more conservative cinema.Footnote 30 All-star musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 took not only full advantage of the latitude, but also box offices by storm.Footnote 31 It featured hit song ‘We’re in the Money’; less well remembered, though, is the risqué duet ‘Petting in the Park’. Gold Diggers of 1933 also had a clear political subtext, and made 1933 synonymous with Depression hardship. It staged the class warfare characterising the early 1930s, ennobling the ‘forgotten’ workless common folk – his dole queues, her empty days staying warm in bed – and endorsing their mistrust of academic and economic elites.Footnote 32 It is a telling portrait of US social tensions and aspirations.
In this ‘Century of Progress’, people chipped away at the limits of human endeavour. The Nobel prize in physics went to Erwin Schrödinger for breakthroughs in quantum mechanics – his cat-in-a-box thought experiment came two years later. The first man to fly solo around the world achieved the feat in seven days, eighteen hours, and forty-nine minutes.Footnote 33 An aesthetic revolution in day-to-day transit took place when the London underground launched Harry Beck’s redesigned tube maps, still iconic today, replacing scaled distances with bald, digestible angles in a modern colour scheme (see Figure 1.2). This design became the global prototype for city transport mapping. Elsewhere, US board game pioneers were busy developing Monopoly, which would reach stores in 1935. And while things went on relatively undisturbed for some, for others things ended: notable deaths included ex-US president Calvin Coolidge and Austrian architect Adolf Loos.
The year 1933 is the epicentre of this book, but not its hard limit. It is the historical trigger point – the year whose political events set in motion the course of Weill’s Symphony No. 2, inextricably entwined with his life in exile – and this book spills beyond it in both directions. It is the synchronic point of overlap for all the case studies, featuring prominently in the genesis of each. All were either composed or premiered in that year, but their stories exceed it, too. Therefore, as in the opening vignette that outlined Weill’s escape to Paris and work on his symphony in 1933, and its 1934 premiere, the book’s discussion will often move from 1933 to the months on either side. Furthermore, in opening up a series of windows onto this moment, sometimes we find they cast new light on even less obviously proximate histories. The book will use the events of 1933 to catch other historical threads, which lead us further back, or to uncover and recombine historical snapshots of preceding eras.
To explore a tightly focused time period is to emulate a historical approach that in recent years has captured the imaginations of scholars and the public alike. Although as early as 1955 Raymond Postgate presented a single year as the focus for a historical study, chronicling month by month the politically momentous year 1848, it is only in the last decade or so that the ‘year study’ approach has really taken off, around ten years after Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s 1997 study 1926: Ein Jahr am Rand der Zeit.Footnote 34 The approach has been having its moment in popular non-fiction and documentary broadcasting, too: take BBC Four’s Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities (2014), which lit up three cities in three ‘exceptional’ years – Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951Footnote 35 – or art historian Florian Illies’s international bestseller 1913: The Year before the Storm (2013).Footnote 36 More recently Sam Mendes’s Hollywood blockbuster thriller 1917(2019) immersed audiences in the messiness and futility of the First World War, using the technical cinematic means of what seemed like two unbroken takes.Footnote 37 A common trope within year studies is to focus on a year that demarcates some kind of shift.Footnote 38 The year 1933 falls squarely within this category. Such studies, however, are at their most successful where they resist writing as if change already hung in the air, emphasising instead the contingency of historical events and the provisional status of human experience. Given what we know now, it is easy to filter our responses to 1933 through a sense of grim inevitability, forgetting that at the time the future was uncertain. This book thinks about the year’s cultural landscape as one shaped most strongly by memory and other processes of weaving the past into the present.
If there is a genre that cannot help but look back, it is the symphony. Indeed, the symphony has often been about the social mechanisms of memory, about commemorating. The years after the Great War, therefore, presented a problem for composers seeking to grapple with the genre’s blend of large-scale thematic integration and populism. After Europe had witnessed tragedy of unprecedented proportions, the symphonic genre’s pre-war expansionist ideals, spearheaded by those like Mahler or Scriabin, or its earlier heroic narratives rang hollow against the senselessness of mechanised destruction. Even its tumultuous stories of Romantic introspection seemed out of place in the face of post-war nihilism. What was left to celebrate? Could either the symphony’s nationalism or its opulent universalism be rescued? The symphonic dream as it had once been conceived seemed in tatters.
In 1933, looking back was in the foreground in other ways. A great number of composers died around this time: Alban Berg, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Franz Schreker. The passing of these composers who had bridged the late Romanticism of the twentieth century with interwar Europe – another figure was Frederick Delius, whose death fell in 1934 – perhaps contributed to the feeling of the curtain falling on the symphonic tradition, particularly in Austria and Germany. The anxieties that caused such cultural nostalgia were indeed especially acute in Germany – a reaction, as Pamela Potter puts it, to a ‘fear that Germany’s musical strength was about to fade into oblivion’.Footnote 39 On top of the symphonic silence from Sibelius and Nielsen from the mid-1920s, the ideological torch many still wanted to hold for a certain pre-modernist utopian conservatism was being gradually starved of fuel. The male lead in Gold Diggers of 1933 was an unlikely figure to have hit the nail on the head: symphonies had become something that in many people’s eyes – as the Boston heir turned Broadway songwriter Brad (Dick Powell) put it – ‘you have to be half-dead to compose’.
Others struggled to escape the symphony’s aesthetic history. Those serialist composers seeking symphonic relevance went inwards, attempting to rationalise and compress the genre. Indeed, for some historians the ‘pointillistic canons’ of Webern’s 1928 two-movement Op. 21 mark the nihilist self-erasure of the nineteenth-century Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition and even went so far as to ‘obliterate the nineteenth-century concept of the word “symphony”’.Footnote 40 Reinhold Brinkmann makes a similar point about how Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 9 solved the nineteenth century’s problem of symphonic form, integrating the genre’s traditional four movements into one tightly wrought, compressed structure.Footnote 41
So far, we have a clear sense of an ending. Or, at least, this is what conventional historical narratives tell us. Symphonic surveys suggest a period of lull and stagnation had set in right around 1933. It is understandable but misleading: the tacit assumption is that not only was the genre dwindling after its nineteenth-century heydayFootnote 42 but that it had become something of a poisoned chalice, given the marked anti-German political sentiment following the Great War. In that climate, the genre’s public muscle-flexing was in dubious taste. Many contemporaries were afraid sonata form had had its day. For instance, a historical touchstone such as the 1928 international Columbia Gramophone competition for a new lyric symphony – a commercial attempt to re-energise a flagging field – does nothing to dispel a narrative of crisis (and simultaneously indicates the stakes for the genre – namely, that it was still worth cultivating). It is true that 1933 was a moment when many of those twentieth-century composers whose work in the genre is best documented turned their attention away from the symphony. Symphonies by Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Kurt Atterberg, Howard Hanson, Roger Sessions, Stravinsky, and Ernst Krenek, to name a few such composers, are conspicuously absent in this year. And if, as symphonic surveys also have it, from the early 1930s a new symphonic current influenced by the Nordic frugality of Sibelian tonal logic began to stimulate symphonic production in the United States and the United Kingdom, 1933 arrived just at the tipping point, before that counter-narrative of re-emergence really gained momentum.
Despite falling in the no-man’s land between two monolithic symphonic narratives – one of decline, the other of regrowth – this aesthetic climate was nonetheless enormously productive for symphonic composition. In 1933 and the years immediately either side of it, works emerged across Europe and in the United States from seasoned symphonic composers as well as from more unlikely quarters, focusing tensions between the genre’s nineteenth-century ideological legacies and wide-ranging, but typically modernist anxieties. The selective list in Figure 1.3 illustrates the magnitude of this body of works, as well as their geographical distribution. And that is not to mention unfinished works (for instance, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s Choral Symphony, begun in 1931) or planned symphonies from composers who died before their works could be completed (Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 3 and Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu).
|Argentina||Juan José Castro, Symphony No. 2 (Sinfonía Bíblica) (1932), Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonía Argentina) (1934)|
|Estonia||Eduard Tubin, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1931–4)|
|Hungary||Ernő Dohnányi, Szimfónikus percek (Symphonic Minutes) (1933)|
|Italy||Gian Francesco Malipiero, Symphony No. 1 (in quattro tempi come le quattro stagioni) (1933)|
|Mexico||Carlos Chávez, Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), Llamadas, Sinfonía proletaria (1934)|
The table demonstrates that a number of women were writing symphonies in the years either side of 1933: apart from Price, to whom we will turn in Chapter 6, listed here are Frida Kern and Johanna Senfter. Taking a feminist perspective on symphonic contribution in the period likewise makes it difficult to argue that in 1933 the symphony was a genre past its sell-by date. Austrian composer and conductor Kern, who composed Symphonische Musik Op. 20 (1934), began her training at the Musikakademie in Vienna at the fairly late age of 32; after finishing her studies in 1927, she established a women’s orchestra, which toured Europe and North Africa. Senfter is another largely forgotten composer, and the symphony she wrote in 1933 has a significant part to play in her historiography. Her Symphony No. 6 quoted the National Socialist hymn ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ as a counterpoint to ‘Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme’. Following the end of the Second World War, this symphonic quotation made Senfter’s music ineligible for public performance, and Senfter herself politically toxic. A pupil of Max Reger, Senfter wrote music of the later Romantic tradition, strongly influenced by the vocal polyphony of Bach and Brahms, and in some ways her story parallels Pfitzner’s, a composer who similarly ingratiated himself with the Nazis and whose Symphony in C♯ minor is the subject of Chapter 2.
Casting the net more broadly over the early 1930s, we also find symphonic works by Ethel Smyth, Elsa Barraine, Ina Boyle, and Elizabeth Maconchy. Smyth’s choral symphony The Prison (1930) was premiered in 1931 in Edinburgh.Footnote 44 Barraine, who had won the Prix de Rome in 1929, wrote her first symphony, twenty-five minutes long, in 1931, and in 1933 came her six-minute orchestral work Illustration symphonique pour ‘Pogromes’ d’André Spire.Footnote 45 Irish composer Boyle’s Symphony No. 2, The Dream of the Rood (named after the famous early medieval poem found in the Vercelli Book tenth-century manuscript), in three movements, dates from 1929 to 1930.Footnote 46 Vaughan Williams had examined the whole score during the composition lessons she took with him and liked it.Footnote 47 Only the first of her three symphonies, Glencree (1924–7), ever received a performance, however; it was another three-movement work ending, unusually, with a meditative slow movement.Footnote 48 Boyle sent out the manuscript of The Dream of the Rood to many conductors – Adrian Boult, Henry Wood, and Ernest Ansermet among those who received it – but none showed interest in performing it.Footnote 49 Maconchy wrote her first symphony in 1929–30; although it was later withdrawn, it received a play-through by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1932, conducted by Aylmer Buesst. In 1933, Constant Lambert considered her, alongside Britten, one to watch on the British music scene. ‘There are regrettably few young composers of any personality in England today’, he wrote, ‘but in Miss Elizabeth Maconchy and Mr. Benjamin Britten we have two whose future development should be of the greatest interest’.Footnote 50
These many, varied symphonic works from the years around 1933 channel a range of sociopolitical concerns that are differently amplified in different contexts: about the twentieth-century bourgeois subject, about dislocation, about institutionalised and politicised forms of violence, about the lines of power along which art is divided and articulated as low or high, about mass production and expanding international markets. Like Weill’s symphony, many of these works evince an ambivalent stance towards the genre and towards the idealist and nationalist discourses with which it was caught up: no longer playing by nineteenth-century rules, they manipulate or critique the form. If it has been argued that the twin starting points for the twentieth century’s symphonic production are the aesthetic dualities of Mahlerian world-building and Sibelian logic, then, aesthetically, this body of works suggests the need to expand such a model.Footnote 51 Diverse further influences include Neue Sachlichkeit and Zeitoper, theatre, ballet, cinema, jazz, African-American musical traditions, and spare South American modernisms. An abundance of archival sources, moreover, make it clear that the symphony and its supporting institutions in the period were a thriving, if contested, international phenomenon. Considered as a body, these symphonies undoubtedly demonstrate the currency and immediacy of the form, in spite of the continuing dialogue they evince with its classical and Romantic heritage and ideals. But the ways in which they respond to the aesthetic and political climate are far from straightforward.
Amidst the Black literary, artistic, and musical innovation spurred by the Harlem Renaissance,Footnote 52 African-American intellectuals took on the symphonic genre in the years around 1933 as part of the movement’s call to invest existing artistic forms with new, consciously racial meaning.Footnote 53 William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (completed in 1930), whose primary theme derives from a twelve-bar blues, was premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under Howard Hanson. Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor, a work she had begun in 1931, was finally premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This was the first symphony by an African-American woman to be performed by a major US orchestra. It was well received, but was not published during her lifetime. William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1934) was heard over the radio in a National Broadcasting Company production performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1935; by contrast, at his own graduation ceremony, as the music school’s orchestra played music Dawson himself had written, he had only been allowed to sit in the gallery, and a white proxy had received his diploma certificate.Footnote 54 What connected Still, Price, and Dawson was a project that aimed first and foremost at ‘the elevation of the Negro Folk idiom – that is spirituals, blues, and characteristic dance music – to symphonic form’.Footnote 55
As with the other works in Figure 1.3, these works evidence a careful weighing-up of both the symphonic genre’s historical baggage and its scope for critique and renewal. Yet the symphony might seem an unlikely vessel for the United States’ Black Renaissance, given the bare realities of racial segregation, which affected US concert halls and orchestras in ways that varied between cities and states: in the South it was enshrined bluntly in law through Jim Crowism, while no less powerfully determining the psyche – and, importantly, infrastructure and public spaces – of Northern cities.Footnote 56 It was not just about what had been put into law; there were also many documented instances of extra-legal racial policing of concert halls through day-to-day individual behaviours – for instance, ushers seating Black audience members only in the balcony or ticket collectors refusing Black patrons entry despite having a ticket.Footnote 57 The importance of African-American symphonic accomplishment and propagation was overstrained, carrying the weight of the hope for a basic universal human dignity that did not yet exist (and that it would take far more than aesthetics to achieve). Harlem Renaissance thinkers sought racial justice by demonstrating the equal nature of Black intellectual achievement within ‘respected’ cultural forms like the novel. As such, symphonic composition became a form of resistance to the status quo that nonetheless held Black artists in the binds of acquiescence, appeasing cultural institutions and value structures from which they had been systematically excluded. Necessarily, the trajectories of these symphonies were negatively impacted by the racist landscape onto which this music initially emerged, as well as – perhaps also playing some part in the Jewish Weill’s symphonic reception – the racialised (white) subjectivities concert-goers and critics implicitly associated with absolute music and had in mind as they policed the genre. Additionally, symphonies by African-American composers are harder to recover from history than those by their white contemporaries. For example, on 7 January 1933, just three weeks before Hitler seized power, Hanson performed the third movement of Still’s Afro-American Symphony in his Berlin Philharmonic concert of new American music. However, it was not listed on the concert programme; only favourable reviews in the German music journal Die Allgemeine Musikzeitung and in some US press coverage indicate that it was played and heard.Footnote 58 Not only did African-American composers face exceptional challenges in achieving performances, but, even when performances did take place, there is no guarantee today of straightforwardly finding a material trace.
Why have the works in Figure 1.3 dropped through the cracks of standard symphonic periodisation?Footnote 59 Sometimes they have been historicised (or even missed out on being historicised in the first place) in ways that excise them from the canon and from standard definitions of the symphony. The impulse retroactively to define the symphony, alongside twentieth-century commercial impulses to create a core concert repertory, has had a negative impact on this period and has led to it rarely figuring in history books or on concert programmes.Footnote 60 The fact that many of these works were antagonistic to the idea of the symphony or were testing its limits has been damaging for how the period has been remembered. It has remained a way of policing musical value ever since. Yet, social and aesthetic value judgements are hard to disentangle. As my primary interest is in the ideological legacy of discourse around symphonies, in this volume I am not preoccupied with the aesthetic question of what makes a symphony a symphony. For a musical work to be included in Figure 1.3, it is enough that the composer called it a symphony or symphonic. Neither is the primary aim of this book to show that a more diverse range of people than previously assumed or accounted for in terms of, for instance, gender or racial identity were writing symphonies in the early 1930s; that important research is work for a different project. More interesting to me is why a particular composer might choose to use such a freighted title, and what this might uncover about the status of the symphony by 1933.
Freighted it was. Beethoven proved a tough act to follow after the German idealist critical turn raised the experience his symphonies offered to listeners to the plane of the infinite. Coupled with preoccupations about looking back, then, was the idea of the symphony as a vehicle for expressing or exploring subjectivity. After all, in 1933 both the Depression and German fascism’s reformulation of selfhood in relation to the collective put questions of modern subjectivity in the political foreground. Definitions and the drive to categorise cannot shoulder the blame alone. Interrogating the general absence of this body of works isolates some fault lines and pervasive intellectual frames that have grown up within the symphony’s post-war intellectual history – in both scholarly networks and geographical asymmetries. Largely, these have responded to or aligned with contemporary intellectual currents and value systems. Disciplinary insistence on the autonomy of music from sociopolitical concerns has hit studies of the symphony particularly hard, and is partly responsible. So, too, is a cultural mainstream that sidelines geographies and national traditions outside hegemonic and political power centres.
Symphonies have always been about space; indeed, space and subjectivity come hand in hand. The concert hall, as an archetype of the so-called public sphere, seems a good place to start thinking about these relationships. But alongside their performance spaces, the works considered in this book bring a host of other kinds of spaces with them, both physical and imagined: interior subjective space, the often politically charged cities outside, intimate aural worlds of chamber music, the nostalgic agrarian spaces on which collective national or even transnational identities imaginatively coalesce; the industrial spaces over which Romantic and coherent senses of selfhood seem to fracture; the colonial fantasies of simplicity and possibility to which those anxious about modernity turn. These spaces may seem disparate. Nonetheless, they are all focused by the symphony and the messy, shifting configuration of ideas and tropes with which it has become imbricated in the course of its intellectual history. Whether, at one extreme, the intangible internal spaces where we imagine selfhood resides or, at the other, those that charge entry and have cloakrooms, all these spaces are ideologically constructed. All, from acoustically designed concert hall to pastoral idyll, capture aspects of the universal; the quasi-Platonic, abstract idea-form that leaves its shadows on the cave wall; the reproducible. Ideologies associated with symphonies can deepen the conceptual furrows engraving these universalised spaces in our collective imaginations.Footnote 61 Here, I investigate how symphonies conspire in these fantasies that orient us within the world, and particularly those spatial fantasies that collectivise selfhood.
Symphonies, Subjectivity, and Space: E. T. A. Hoffmann to Paul Bekker
By exploring the nexus of subjectivity and space in the symphonies of 1933, this book is part of a project to cultivate a more advanced understanding of the genre’s deep entanglement with nineteenth-century Germanic philosophies of subjectivity, as well as its sociopolitical stakes.Footnote 62 On the one hand, the symphony is an idealist, expansionist project – starting around the beginning of the nineteenth century, aestheticians and musicians alike reconceived it as a ‘manifestation of the infinite’.Footnote 63 On the other hand, it directs its lens inwards onto subjective interiority, familiarising the listener with a universalised notion of selfhood.Footnote 64 E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1810 review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a famous initial landmark in this trajectory of symphonic aesthetics. As Mark Evan Bonds demonstrates, however, Hoffmann’s review was only made possible by a generational shift in how instrumental music was conceived around the turn of the nineteenth century. Suddenly, influenced by the ideas of those like Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Johann Gottfried Herder, critics’ perceptions of instrumental music changed, with it coming to be seen as a uniquely sublime and elevated art form rather than merely sensually pleasing. Beethoven’s contemporary reception has intimately linked the symphonic genre as a whole to the Romantic subjective turn. Hoffmann argued that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opened up a transcendent ‘unknown realm’ quite apart from the physical world of the senses, allowing listeners to access that yearning for the ‘infinite’ that went far beyond conventional expression and signalled the dissolution of bounded selfhood.Footnote 65 Margaret Notley and others have shown how, as the nineteenth century went on, symphonic discourse struggled with questions about the relationship between individual sovereignty and mass publics, and about community-formation and the national imaginary.Footnote 66 Other scholars have made similar observations, while turning the spotlight on the genre’s ethical ambivalence. As Daniel M. Grimley emphasises, ‘simply “sounding together” has not always been an easy or politically straightforward task, and the idea of community that the symphony has often seemed to elevate can swiftly become more exclusive than inclusive’Footnote 67 For instance, the Germanic intellectual heritage of the idea of subjectivity bound up with the symphony is one that in 1933 was most straightforwardly available to communities who saw that philosophical tradition as theirs.
People thinking critically about music around the early nineteen thirties did so in a climate in which ideas simmered about the symphony as a phenomenon integrally linked to both society and to space. The notion of an infinite realm achieved through Romantic introspection was still a pervasive current of thought. But in 1918 a new perspective entered the fray when Berlin music critic Paul Bekker theorised the symphony from a sociological angle. Written as the German imperial government began to crumble after the First World War, his treatise Die Sinfonie von Beethoven bis Mahler represents a useful starting point for unravelling the most salient conceptual areas for the case studies considered in this book.Footnote 68 Situating the genre within libertarian discourses, Bekker’s optimistic vision of the symphony’s intended audience – the Hörerschaft, or utopian assembly of listeners who come together for the duration of the work and, in so doing, reflect a perfect democratic social body – can be traced back to the genre’s Enlightenment origins. The idealised public of listeners is quite literally composed by the music, and Bekker thus made the case for an intimate and reflexive connection between music, space, and listening community.Footnote 69 This seemed a radical departure from the kind of heroic symphonic narratives and Beethoven idolatry evinced in, for example, Felix Weingartner’s roughly contemporary and enduringly successful Die Sinfonie nach Beethoven, first published in 1898 and revised for a fourth edition in 1926.Footnote 70
Indeed, the fraught relationship between the individual and the collective in democratic thought has always been central to symphonic discourse. Writers in the early nineteenth century drew parallels between the composite, yet multi-voiced functioning of the orchestra and the idealised mechanisms of democratic social orders governed by ethical values of individual freedom and autonomy. They pointed to how the orchestra was a harmonious (understood literally) analogue to the needs of the autonomous individual and the collective requirements of the social order.Footnote 71 Bekker’s text shows that the positive moral value invested in the symphonic genre in the nineteenth century seemed to have lost none of its potency by 1918, or if it had, then post-war republican optimism was the climate in which it could be resurrected. But the symphony has not always channelled egalitarian impulses. Frequently, the symphony and the orchestra have been put to politically dystopic use: in fascist Germany, for instance, the stratified organisation of the symphony orchestra modelled the Führerprinzip (leader principle): gathered around the central authoritarian figure of the conductor, the large ensemble needed to perform a symphony as one body mirrored Nazi ideology.Footnote 72 Or, as Jacques Attali noted in 1977 in his critique of the capitalist ideological function of the orchestra as ‘total spectacle’, its hierarchically ranked, anonymous musicians fulfil ‘the image of programmed labour in our society’.Footnote 73 The conductor, ‘simultaneously entrepreneur and State’, models the invisible, necessary power of the economic order. As Attali put it: ‘Power is; it has no need to impose itself and the technique of conducting evolves from authority to discretion.’Footnote 74 Either way, whether utopian or dystopian, or something more ambivalent, the symphony simulates – or even stimulates – the political imagination.
Alongside politics, the symphonic genre came with an expansionist spatial impulse. For Bekker, the articulation of musical ideas that embraced all layers of society required a vast unfolding of energy, which in turn demanded a correspondingly vast physical space.Footnote 75 Put less prosaically, what he meant is that symphonies can be loud, and volume travels. Bekker wedded the symphonic genre to an idealisation of public space as a site for rational consensus, similar to the liberal coffee-house culture Jürgen Habermas later theorised in The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere.Footnote 76 Notley and Benjamin Korstvedt have worked on the liberalist underpinnings of symphonic space, and signalled the value of more thorough critical attention to Habermas’s social theory in relation to the symphony.Footnote 77 Yet Bekker’s ideal symphony, epitomised – in one of the more pedestrian aspects of the treatise – by Beethoven’s works, represents a direct, one-way conduit from the composer to the mass listening public, and such rhetoric perhaps uncovers an anti-democratic and coercive aspect to the symphony’s power over the community it creates, which Bekker does not adequately reconcile. Indeed, symphonic space has been inflected differently in different ideological contexts. For instance, Alexander Rehding has excavated the strong fascist ideological charge to the massive imagined spaces conjured up by the symphonic genre for 1930s German musicologists.Footnote 78 In line with totalitarian ideologies that renounced selfhood, these were expansive virtual arenas in relation to which the individual disintegrated.
Nations, Geographies, and Absolute Music
Since the Second World War, it has been common for many strands of scholarship on the symphony to reflect the qualities historically ascribed to symphonies themselves. If symphonies are monumental, so too have been the ways we have historicised them. Vast, grand, expansive, transcendent: symphonies, and their development and decline, have often been awkwardly wedded to other grand narratives, particularly political ones, or to privileged geographic regions. Indeed, until recently, much writing on the symphonic genre has been survey-type work, delimited by country and carefully periodised.Footnote 79 Through the twentieth century, the tendency of those general English- and German-language surveys of the symphony was towards the strongly uncritical and canonising, made all the more troubling by highly selective historical and geographical coverage.Footnote 80 Particularly in anglophone scholarship, the foundations of these approaches can be traced back to the post-war period: the legacy of the canon-forming, class-building music-appreciation guide is keenly felt, and the chronological life-and-works or nationally determined organisational principles of these guides have proved tough to shift. In addition, the genre’s popularity meant the potential for a broader market appeal was prioritised over academic rigour in the mid-twentieth-century popular press. Of course, it is worth noting that studies and surveys of the symphony are not the only areas of scholarship in which works dealing with the genre can be found.Footnote 81 But as the place where the most explicit curation of the genre itself takes place, they shape many structures in our thinking and expectations about how information is located.
The nation, underlying the discursive field of much symphonic commentary, has profoundly determined much writing and thinking about symphonies. Since the nineteenth century, the symphonic genre has been intimately packaged up with nationalism and nationalising impulses and agendas. Creating a unique national symphonic style carried high stakes for the identity of many nation-states.Footnote 82 Like the geographical landscape, this is a terrain that has never been neutral or evenly weighted. Broadly put, the symphonic landscape and its scholarly representation crystallise around Austria and Germany: in the nineteenth century, around their political hegemony; in the twentieth century, around their decline. The hybrid Austro-Germany is a particularly problematic imagined space – one that only really existed, under the darkest possible conditions, for a brief while after the Anschluss. Douglas Shadle elucidates this centre of gravity in his book on the nineteenth-century symphony in the United States.Footnote 83 It is hardly surprising, then, that in twentieth-century symphony scholarship these national discourses (orientated by German-speaking nations) continued keenly to influence the territorialisation of discussions about the symphony.Footnote 84
Related to the problem of geographical organisation, examining 1933 and the years immediately adjacent points to the politicised periodisation that plays out in how we narrativise the symphony, and how its close associations with Germany have been disruptive. If many studies match this narrative of symphonic decline, particularised to Austria and Germany,Footnote 85 with an emphasis on symphonic rejuvenation in anglophone countries especiallyFootnote 86 ‘as the Roaring Twenties gave way to the more sober-minded thirties’,Footnote 87 it is troubling how neatly this opposition mirrors the lines along which early twentieth-century global conflicts were drawn.Footnote 88 How impartial were our historian-narrators? The era suffers from being framed as a bookend moment in standard symphonic narratives. Additionally, Nazi cultural policy was directly or indirectly responsible for the critical silence surrounding some works composed around 1933. Some were too closely affiliated with the new regime for comfort. Others either were never rehabilitated after a poor initial reception in Nazi Germany or never fully recovered from being identified with entartete Kunst (degenerate art).
There are broader issues, too, with more immediate stakes. Strongly influenced by the thought of another central figure in the symphony’s intellectual history – namely, Eduard Hanslick – symphonies have been a key historical archetype of ‘absolute’ music, considered adrift from localised political and social concerns.Footnote 89 Perhaps more so than other genres, they have invited decontextualised analyses that focus on the hermetic world of musical construction.Footnote 90 As symphonic reception and criticism veered towards ideals of ‘absolute’ musical autonomy, the symphony’s connection with privileged subjects became troublingly implicit, integrally embedded within the autonomous musical work, such that to elevate autonomous music as ‘universal’ became insidiously to elevate a certain kind of personhood as ‘universal’. The musical information such approaches yield is rich; the scope of the social information symphonies could yield, however, has not yet been adequately explored. Such work betrays a persistent assumption that has changed little over the past several decades: that engagement with the symphony requires no social or political context.Footnote 91
Such emphasis on musical autonomy does not bode well for the symphony’s resilience as new curricula are developed. Since the symphony, with its origins in sonata form, was claimed to be the most abstract of orchestral genres, it has remained one of the genres most impervious to the radically changing intellectual currents of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century humanities, and to altering priorities of musicology as a whole. Despite the revisionary efforts of those like Susan McClary and Rose Rosengard Subotnik,Footnote 92 or by James Hepokoski,Footnote 93 some major subsequent scholarship on the symphony has continued to be haunted by past disciplinary insistence on music’s special autonomous aesthetic status, reifying ‘music’ into its ‘value-free object of study’.Footnote 94 Studies such as A. Peter Brown’s from the early to mid 2000s, for instance, seemed immune to (new) musicology’s incorporation of post-colonial, post-structural, queer, and feminist perspectives, which have enriched opera studies in particular over the last three decades.Footnote 95 New musicology’s strong bias towards opera suggests the diagnosis that opera is just more obviously interdisciplinary and hard to contain than so-called ‘absolute’ music, and also that the kinds of professional networks shared by scholars working towards the new musicological project had little in common with those working on the symphony. In addition, it is interesting – or telling – that, in the main, the symphonic genre continues to attract interest from only a limited scholarly demographic, with few people of colour or women.Footnote 96 The symphony continues, perhaps, to be revealing about particular kinds of subjectivities.
Confronted with the changing emphases of modern musicology, this has left the symphony particularly vulnerable. Opera studies and film music studies, for example, had to fight the essentialising impulses that have historically structured the discipline. To assure a place in academia, they developed bold critical frameworks around the 1990s.Footnote 97 However, the merits and significance of the symphony as the pinnacle of Western art music and its work concept may have been assumed a priori. Now the tides have turned; what once seemed self-evident appears weak in current scholarly contexts, particularly in light of the shift of emphasis in the discipline towards addressing overdue ethical questions about colonial legacies, and towards popular musicology.Footnote 98 In this revised context, scholarship on symphonies now needs to prove just why we should devote our energy to what might be perceived as a privileged relic of the nineteenth century.Footnote 99 Perhaps its ongoing absence from the (post)-new musicological project, for instance, derives from its image as comparatively conservative, anachronistic, and also oppressively masculine in relation to other twentieth-century genres. Unfortunately, the cultural norms and assumptions that ensured the symphony’s place on the scholarly agenda have ultimately proved an obstacle to producing a legacy of work that stands up to intellectual and methodological scrutiny by contemporary academia. For instance, there has been little activity in uncovering and collating sources and critical writing that build a sense of the ideological implications for the symphony in the early twentieth century.Footnote 100 If the current musicological climate is still highly receptive to the collaborative energy and interdisciplinary messiness that opera stages, perhaps scholars are overlooking possibilities for applying similar approaches to other genres and areas.
An Alternative History
This book begins that project. Those ways of engaging with the genre that became entrenched throughout the twentieth century have allowed particular periods, repertoires, and (national) voices to slip from history. The early 1930s is just one of them. Framing the neglected and politically tumultuous year 1933 gives us access to a more finely calibrated plane on which to reformulate our understanding of the genre: one that invites interdisciplinary perspectives; one that disrupts linear narratives of individual composers and national traditions, setting the symphony in negotiation with contextual networks; one that tackles the important legacies of the idea of Germany and Austria for the genre head-on. As far as symphonies are concerned, it seems many new musicological agendas, in particular, have lost none of their urgency. Perspectives inspired by that movement still offer productive starting points for scholarship on the twentieth-century symphony, particularly since this body of music largely missed out on treatment in the first place. Issues like (post-colonial) power, gender, and race deserve to be put front and centre more often when we approach the symphony; their cross-disciplinary literatures offer ample theoretical underpinning.Footnote 101
A key motivation for refocusing the lens on the genre is to come back to those core symphonic reception issues of subjectivity and space that many have observed are in need of more sophisticated analysis, and which were pressing issues in the cultural ferment of 1933. By this means, we can generate a higher resolution image of the genre’s social and political role in different but coexistent sociocultural arenas. Building on established scholarship that considers how social practices at the symphony concert perpetuate hegemonic identities and value systems, I examine the symphony as a mechanism by which particular kinds of subjectivities asserted their status and maintained their power.Footnote 102 This is partly about how social, community-forming, and spatial rhetorics associated with the genre have aligned with particular political movements or ideologies – for example, fascism in Germany, US liberalism and Pan-Americanism across the Americas. In addition, however, this volume has a musical focus, examining how sound can play an active part in sustaining or undermining political impulses.
With these broad aims in mind, the six case studies serve the book’s narrative and thematic coherence first and foremost. Although this is an overlooked repertoire, my curation of the 1933 symphonies does not attempt to represent every musical language and aesthetic theory of the moment. Nor does it attempt to demonstrate the diversity of contributors to the symphonic genre in 1933. For the most part, I am more interested in shining a light on where power is structurally located and exploring how the symphony might be an aesthetic and political mechanism deeply embedded in upholding the status quo. As such, a range of works have been selected for what they reveal about particular coexistent places, framed by the transatlantic story of Weill’s Symphony No. 2. The approach fosters biographical, musical, and other kinds of connections between composers, the works, and the surrounding commentary that are contingent and unexpected – Pfitzner brushes shoulders with Copland and Price with Weill – and that traverse national boundaries – Copland goes to Mexico and Honegger is premiered in Berlin. More than a project of rehabilitation, it takes these neglected works and configures them differently in relation to one another, to see what kinds of knowledge are yielded.
Casting the geographical net across oceans is a rarer approach to one year than, say, concentrating on one, more focused, sense of place, but it suits the comparative history of a concept like the idea of the symphony. Detailed historical work on one particular place and period has been pervasive in much recent music scholarship.Footnote 103 This book adopts an alternative, but complementary transnational methodology. It seeks to tell a different historical narrative, but one that is clearly necessary if we are to understand a complex international phenomenon like the symphony. In common with those recent place-centred approaches, the scope of this volume is concerned with challenging musicology’s inherited value systems and historical orthodoxies, as well as its geographical delineations entrenched by political asymmetries that have shaped the discipline. Likewise, it responds to some contemporary anxieties in music scholarship that have prompted renewed interest in actor-network theory (ANT);Footnote 104 methodologically, however, it aligns itself more closely, not with such object-oriented approaches, but with transnational historical ones like histoire croisée (or entangled history): the symphonies considered here – those of Weill, Price, Copland, Pfitzner, Honegger, and Harris – present a clear opportunity to ‘follow topics beyond national boundaries’.Footnote 105 This shadows a move in the last fifteen years or so in historical disciplines to emphasise ‘the cultural and social connections between nation-states’. For historians Deborah Cohen and Maura O’Connor, ‘methodological approaches, historical evidence, and categories of analysis inherited from the past need to be historicized. Rather than proceeding on the basis of established categories of “nation”, “state”, or “society”, histoire croisée orientates itself around problems.’Footnote 106 Musicology has been diagnosed as needing this kind of perspective with real urgency; according to the authors of a 2014 volume on transatlantic music culture, it is a discipline which ‘has traditionally been approached from within the category of the nation, often centring on composers and their works as representative of national achievements’.Footnote 107 If studies of the symphony have internalised these structures particularly rigidly, transnational approaches create opportunities to dismantle the category of ‘nation’ and geographical determinism so enmeshed in symphonic histories, while acknowledging their historical significance.
What the symphony in 1933, at this uncertain moment for the genre, precisely was is just the kind of ‘problem’ a transnational methodology can tackle. It is helpful, therefore, to re-imagine symphonies using ideas inspired by transnational thinking: as ‘“entangled” products of national crossings’ and systems of aesthetic or cultural-political relations.Footnote 108 Unlike many place-centred or ANT-influenced studies, however, this book does not reject the work concept as a methodological starting point, but it does come at it critically. To understand the power structures in which the symphony, as an archetype of the work concept, is complicit, it helps to begin with the work concept in clear view.
‘[Weill] Doesn't Give the Impression That a Symphony Was Burning inside Him’
Jinx or no jinx, at the Amsterdam premiere of his symphony in 1934 (see Figure 1.4), Weill came up against an inflexible set of beliefs about symphonies. His initial excitement about the excellent rehearsal had been short-sighted. Before we depart from the Netherlands, let us first delve further into the specifics of Weill’s exclusion from the reception to gain a more concrete initial sense of how space and subjectivity were entwined in symphonic reception at this time. What critics had to say about the ‘nature’ of Weill’s ostensibly theatrical music, alongside the way the reviews foregrounded the aesthetic legacies of ideals associated with nineteenth-century absolute music, is revealing for how this book’s major themes are coupled. Unpacking it uncovers that critics’ problems with the work had less to do with ‘purely’ musical aspects, and more to do with Weill and whether he, as a Jewish, socialist, supposedly popular theatre composer belonged in the reified space of the concert hall.
Several writers commented on the ‘banality’ or ‘emptiness’ of Weill’s music, implicitly contrasting it with the depth of true symphonic language.Footnote 109 L. M. G. Arntzenius, writing in the Telegraaf, addressed this directly: ‘[O]ne could not trace any symphonic art in the normal sense of the word. Symphonic art requires an orchestra that has been more deeply touched and worked on.’Footnote 110 Such aesthetic legacies had clear nationalist-ideological correlates. Alongside metaphors of depth came those of organicism, another key Germanic symphonic ideology that embedded music in other social, scientific, and aesthetic discourses of the nineteenth century. Together, depth and organicism helped make music about subjective interiority and encumber it with the burden of national identity construction.Footnote 111 The reviewer in the socialist paper Het Volk, initialled P. F. S., suggested that ‘all the “songs” that are interweaved in the piece display the same kind of primitive melody, which does not lend itself to the distinctive character of symphonic style: the development’.Footnote 112 Likewise, far from finding it to be a paragon of organic unity, the reviewer for the Dames Kroniek wrote uncharitably of Weill’s thematic development that ‘it all sticks together like dry sand’, acidly describing the themes as simply ‘appearing’ rather than the more symphonic or organic ‘developing’.Footnote 113 In a similar rhetorical vein, but with a more contemporary geneticist bent, another reviewer indicated that the music ‘all remained in an embryonic state’.Footnote 114 Arntzenius summed up the supposed problem with the musical themes: ‘Sometimes they have a song-like character, sometimes they appear to be a bit heavier, yet they never swell to become an actual piece, to become the foundation for, indeed, a symphonic sound. No, never will they reach the level of a true symphony.’Footnote 115
If Weill’s work was not a ‘true symphony’, how, then, should reviewers account for the obvious delight of the listening public in the wake of Weill’s Dreigroschenoper fame: the fact that Weill bridged so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms and audiences? ‘On the slippery floors [of the concert hall] he made the occasional clumsy gambol and he winked amicably and jovially at the distinguished ladies Rhythm and Melody, something which does not belong in a dignified symphonic milieu!’Footnote 116 Note the gendering of popular theatrical music’s ‘Rhythm and Melody’ as feminine, reiterated in the gendering of a star-struck audience: ‘There was a lot of applause for the piece by Kurt Weill (the young ladies in particular were very enthusiastic – of course because of the Dreigroschenoper!).’Footnote 117 Here, the symphony’s community-forming impulse – a legacy of its Enlightenment origins – was inflected by specifically twentieth-century concerns.
Weill’s exclusion shows how powerfully the idea of the symphony had been shaped by Romantic conceptions of creative authorship. As one anonymous reviewer observed, Weill ‘doesn’t give the impression that he had to write a symphony because it was burning inside him’.Footnote 118 But it is uncertain whether those inherited narratives about the feverish symphonic generative process still fully convinced. Equally uncertain is the status of the antisemitic stereotypes that peppered the reviews without ever quite rearing their heads explicitly. This suggests how notions of symphonic authenticity continued to be congruous with ideas of racial purity. After describing Weill’s melodies as ‘primitive’, the reviewer for Het Volk went on:
Initially, coming from the schooling of Busoni, [Weill’s] work displayed great seriousness. Abruptly this changed. Instead of increased intensification, stagnation set in. The composer had found a genre which promised him comfortable success. … Only those of a strong nature know how to avoid the dangers that the flush of victory brings along.Footnote 119
The writer hints at weakness of character, popularism, and commercial success: this may have been how they felt about Weill’s development as a composer, but note how this trio of tropes used to distance Weill from the supposedly pure and cerebral world of Germanic symphonic idealism (a world for ‘those of a strong nature’) converge with antisemitic ones. Such ambiguity characterised much of the language used by reviewers. It suggests the presence of insidious underlying ideas about how evolutionary theories determined racial hierarchies (e.g. ‘intensification’ versus ‘primitive’ ‘stagnation’). There is a parallel with racialised responses to Mahler’s supposedly song-like, theatrical symphonies twenty years earlier.
Just one reviewer briefly mooted – and discarded – the idea that the work might be a conscious critique. (‘Is this a deliberate revolution? Difficult to believe: the unity seems too weak to destroy the fundaments of the existing literature.’Footnote 120) Thus, the notion of symphonic critique was completely overlooked by most. It would seem that Weill had overestimated the reviewers’ readiness to hear his work as positioned critically within the problematics of absolute music when remarking in the programme note that:
It is not possible for me to comment on the content of the work since it was conceived as pure musical form. But perhaps a Parisian friend of mine was right when she suggested that an appropriate title would be a word that expressed the opposite of ‘pastoral’, should such a word exist. I do not know.Footnote 121
It is hard to say whether Weill’s tongue was in his cheek or not. Weill suggests that it is impossible for a symphonic composer to engage discursively with the meaning of a ‘pure musical form’. But by introducing the voice of a – clearly modern – Parisian ‘Freundin’ (the Princesse de Polignac perhaps?), he immediately undercuts that absolute position. It seems that ventriloquising thoughts about content through a feminine alter ego avoids threatening absolute music’s (or his) masculinity. Weill reiterates that he himself did not know, hardening up his masculine, absolute stance. Furthermore, with a nod to ‘the opposite of “pastoral”’, Weill satirises the Beethovenian idea of the symphony and its nostalgic agrarian spaces, where people fantasise fully coherent versions of themselves, supposedly realised through authentic modes of being and quiet contemplation in nature. Instead, primed by the reference to Paris, city-dwelling readers were reminded of some home truths. Those modern subjects did not enjoy boundless fields and fresh air, but cramped urban living, micro-managed production lines, and neon-lit nights. Weill’s (or his urban Parisian friend’s) comment disrupts a long trajectory of German idealist thought about symphonies, coherent subjectivities, and infinite, universalised spaces. Christian Kuhnt locates this reading of ‘the opposite of “pastoral”’ more specifically within the political context. While thoroughly non-programmatic, via self-quotation and corruption of themes from Weill’s existing works that bring the anxiety, poverty, and political perils of the late-Weimar era into the symphony’s atmosphere, the work transports the listener to an anti-idyll.Footnote 122
Either way, Dutch reviewers did not respond to any of Weill’s knowing reflections on the fraught discourses of absolute music. It was as simple as this; Weill and his music, Dutch reviewers concluded, did not belong within the concert hall’s reified walls. Race, political inclination, how popular aesthetics were gendered: these all seemed to play a part in his exclusion. So, too, did the idea of the symphony, which became an agent in policing those norms. But would this reception have differed elsewhere? Different contexts channel different cultural ideas about subjectivity and space. It follows that what we learn from Weill’s exclusion is in some ways specific to Amsterdam. The reception pivoted on localised concerns, but was still shaped by an imagined sense of a symphonic ideal – the Weill criticism was shot through with a sense of deference to Germanic symphonische values. Were symphonic anxieties more pronounced in Amsterdam than they might have been in a more culturally assured city like Berlin or Vienna? Seductively fine-grained but, lacking comparative context that accounts for the symphony’s internationalism, frustratingly hard to parse, this Amsterdam concert isolates and clarifies one of the key problems inherited from existing thought on the symphony. It is time some of those blanks were filled, creating a more robust sense of the social stakes for the genre. That is the task of the rest of the book, in which the chapters elucidate how particular symphonies focus ideas of subjectivity and space in a network of transnational contexts animated by the stories of particular musical works, which roughly overlap with those highlighted in the story of Weill’s symphony: Berlin, Paris, Boston, New York, Mexico City, Chicago. Only then will some context be provided for the reactions to Weill’s symphony two months later when Walter took the baton once again, this time in Carnegie Hall, New York, a concert that we will visit at the beginning of Chapter 6, before exploring the legacies of works from 1933 across the twentieth century and for the present day.
Ultimately, approaching the symphony in 1933 seems to be a matter of refining a critical framework capable of mediating the multiple and freighted historical layers that the discourse collapses together, and of dealing in a sophisticated way with the localised conditions for, and implications of, so-called universal values. Evidently a site at which cultural exchange takes place, the symphony in this period discloses anxieties about intercultural relations, but is also a vehicle for engaging imaginatively with other nations and identities and for formulating a sense of selfhood and community. Offering a glimpse into people’s sense of their place in the world, symphonic discourse was a means of defining who they were, but equally, and often more revealingly, who they were not. The symphony may be a genre of privilege, but that is exactly the point. Attending critically to symphonies and their social discourses, a genre with high status despite its acute ethical ambivalence, remains a vital project.