Vienna Revisited – An Introduction by Tom Service

28th August 2014

little giants

Ahead of Aurora’s involvement in the Vienna Revisited series at Kings Place on Saturday 20 September (Little Giants, 7.30pm, Hall One), Tom Service introduces the series highlights:

Why the need to revisit Schoenberg’s circle in the early years of the 20th century? Why the need to go back to that crucible of searing invention, when all of the parameters of music were reimagined, recomposed, reheard, and revitalised? The answer is in the question, perhaps. But it is not just that the music of Arnold SchoenbergAlban Bergand Anton Webern is so seismic in its implications, so rich in its musical and cultural consequences, aftershocks that we’re still working out, a century later. It is because these masterpieces of the creative imagination – the music we present in these four concerts, whose issues we discuss in our roundtable – are only now claiming the place they should, not just in textbooks, but on concert programmes, in the voices, hands, and imaginations of some of the most exciting established performers and the brilliant young musicians who perform in this series – and most importantly of all, in the hearts and minds of their listeners.

And yes, I did say, ‘hearts’. Leonard Bernstein said in his Harvard lectures in 1973 that he found it hard to imagined that anyone could love Schoenberg, especially his ‘atonal’ (a word Arnold hated) and ‘serial’ compositions. This series will show that, more than a generation on, Lenny is simply wrong. That’s because music like Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, which the brilliant Quatuor Diotima will play on their Kings Place debut (19 September), and which the in-demand young soprano Eleanor Dennis will sing in music new to her repertoire, is composed to communicate straight to the nerves, to the emotional solar plexi – to the hearts, in other words! – of its audiences. This piece heralds a world that breathes the air ‘from another planet’, which is not just a poetic metaphor, but something that Schoenberg’s music makes real in sound, traversing a Rubicon from the bounded world of tonality to something richer, stranger, and more fluid. But this music is not written from a desire simply to épater les bourgeois of his Viennese audiences, but instead from an inner emotional compulsion.

And that is what this series is about: showing that we are now, at last, ready as a musical culture to finally understand that Schoenberg and his greatest pupils were finding not a self-conscious modernity but rather a new directness of musical expression in their music of the first three decades of the century. In the pieces that our musicians will play – the ensembles Aurora Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta, collaborating for the first time together in a concert series, and some remarkable soloists – we will hear the sound of the musical and expressive genie being released from the bottle, crossing a threshold into a world in which there is no difference between the experience of an emotion and its embodiment in sound. Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and his ‘Song of the Wood-dove’ from Gurrelieder – performed by Sarah Connolly, who is singing this piece for the very first time (18 September) – teem with a scarcely contained poetic extremity, and his First Chamber Symphony concentrates the symphonic principle to a white-heat of structural integrity and visceral impact. And what Schoenberg begins, Webern and Berg follow in their own hyper-concentrated idioms, in Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces and Berg’s Seven Early Songs (20 September).

But Schoenberg is embedded in music history; he is not some revolutionary projectile who rejected the musical past. So our series also shows how Schoenberg learnt from his predecessors, Mahler, Brahms, and Beethoven, intensifying Brahms’s motivic multi-dimensions, Mahler’s lacerating emotional truthfulness, and Beethoven’s constant reinvention. And in our final concert (20 September), alongside chamber versions of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (with soprano Kate Royal) and Webern’s Six Pieces, players from Aurora are joined by pianist Alexander Melnikov and violinist Anthony Marwood in Berg’s Chamber Concerto (a piece that will have the thrill of discovery for all of these performers), music written after the watershed of Schoenberg’s serial theory of ‘Composing With Twelve Tones’, music which is simultaneously a major achievement of musical structure – and a devastating personal statement.

In making this music their own, the performers in our series – like the conductor Nicholas Collon, who leads both the London Sinfonietta and Aurora Orchestra – will show that the power of this music can have a shattering impact on today’s audiences. Whether at the heights of their career (like Kate Royal or Sarah Connolly) or the heralds of a younger generation (sopranos Eleanor Dennis andAlice Privett) their performances should sear the imagination as much as this music continues to sear the story of music. That’s a living history we will also discover through the unique testimony of Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Arnold Schoenberg’s daughter and Luigi Nono’s widow, who we are delighted is joining us for our panel discussion (20 September). Nuria is joined by historian John Deathridge, composer Alexander Goehr, whose father was a pupil of Schoenberg’s, and Nicholas Snowman, curator of this series, who – as well as co-founding the London Sinfonietta and the Ensemble Intercontemporain – convened the Southbank Centre’s complete Schoenberg series in 1988/9. On a distilled scale, these three days in September will make the case for why ‘revisiting’ Vienna is really about encountering new dimensions in our emotional lives. And incidentally, these concerts will prove Bernstein wrong, too.

Tom Service
Chair of the panel discussion on Saturday 20 September at 6pm.