The Making of Music (Part 4)

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a boiling pot of innovation, writes James Naughtie, as he continues his journey through the history of music
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If you were trying to think of a time and place to witness one of the great periods of musical celebration and innovation, where would you direct your time machine?

You might think of Venice in the last decade of the 16th century (to watch Monteverdi’s arrival), or Vienna in the 1820s where you might run into Beethoven and Schubert in the coffee houses, or Paris in the 1920s where jazz and neo-classicism were working on each other.

I wonder whether Vienna at the turn of the century mightn’t be one of the most exciting of all. Mahler was at the opera house. Bruckner had just died, leaving his nine symphonies. Schoenberg was beginning to think of how 20th-century music might be fashioned. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Freud was arguing that the inner life could be revealed; in art Gustav Klimt and others were ‘seceding’ from the mainstream and Nietzsche’s gloom was fashionable. This conservative city, temple of the Germanic musical tradition, was prosperous and confident, though it was the hub of an empire that would soon pass away.

But now it was in ferment. From the moment that Schoenberg produced his string sextet Verklärte Nacht in 1899 it was a boiling pot of innovation as well as a stage on which the greatest music of the 19th century was performed. Schoenberg went on to dismantle the scales that everyone knew and injected a revolutionary spirit into the new century’s music. But Vienna looked backwards as well as forwards, the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner remaining the greatest expressions of German Romanticism. The city’s celebration of its musical history had reached a peak.

In 1945, Richard Strauss, who had spent time in Vienna, was in the German capital when the Allied troops arrived. When the GIs doing house searches asked him to identify himself, the weary Strauss thought back to the Vienna that he knew before World War I. ‘My name is Richard Strauss,’ he said. ‘I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier.’

The Making of Music was broadcast on Radio 4 and is now available as a BBC Audiobook

Audio clip: The Making of Music – Vienna 1899

Related links:
The Making of Music (Part 1)
The Making of Music (Part 2)
The Making of Music (Part 3)