by Ute Margaret Saine
Today, music, both classical and popular, is exuberantly global. Soloists and orchestras perform, today in Tokyo and tomorrow in Johannesburg: an Argentine composer such as Oscar Golijov is performed equally in Moscow and in Los Angeles. But music was not always so cosmopolitan.
In 1957, we were visiting the house of a young architect in Celle near Hanover. I was thirteen years old, when I heard Vivaldi for the first time, it was like a shock, I instantly fell in love with this music. Until then, and before 33 and 45 rpm long-playing records became available, I had been raised on a diet of German composers, mostly Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms. Family members either played them on the piano or I listened to them on the radio, an important source of music for me. Not bad, but national composers, considered German. Other than they, there was Chopin, indispensable for the piano, and perhaps at Christmas, the radio would play the Corelli concerto grosso “Natale”. We will return to this strange postwar musical ghettoization after a look at music history.
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, European music was international in the sense that there was a flux North-South, in both directions. In addition to the outflow of Italian musicians to other European capitals, or rather courts, Flemish composers like Josquin des Prés worked in Italy, in Ferrara, while Germans, like Schütz and Pachelbel, had come to Italy in their youth to study music in Venice. In fact, Pachelbel’s “Canon” is arguably more a part of the Venetian “canon,” than any German one.
The great music whirlpool was unleashed in the Baroque period and continued through the eighteenth century. Musicians went from everywhere to everywhere. London had Bononcini and later Handel, as well as Johann Christian Bach; Domenico Scarlatti worked in Lisbon and Madrid, in the latter city with the castrato, Farinelli; Leo Hasse went to Naples, Willaerts and Lassus both worked in Italy. In Rome, Cardinal Ottoboni was able to organize a contest between two international musicians who happened to be in town at the same time, Scarlatti and Handel: Handel won on the organ, Scarlatti on the harpsichord. Many Italian musicians, as well as painters, gathered in Dresden. Salieri was in Vienna. Gluck worked in Vienna, Milan, and Paris. A pro like Johann Sebastian Bach would compose harpsichord concertos in the Italian style, orchestral suites in the French style, and the Brandenburg concertos in a supposedly new German style, plus making many transcriptions, from Vivaldi to Rameau, which were not considered a plagiarism, but an homage to the original composer. All this in addition to a highly mathematical personal idiom, found in “The Art of the Fugue”.
French music was not as well-integrated with that of other countries. To be sure, Paris had a strand of so-called “Italian musicians“, mostly operatic, but someone like Lully, though originally having come from Italy (Lulli), was thoroughly gallicized. [It's ironic that the current EU fanfare would be by Charpentier, during a time when France war relatively isolated musically. Contemporaries from other European countries would not have heard this music, which squarely belonged to the court of Louis XIV.]
At that time, composers collaborated with international opera librettists, Gluck had count Ranieri Calzabigi and, somewhat later, Mozart used padre Lorenzo Da Ponte; all four of whom greatly contributed to internationalizing the opera repertoire. During this time, music was still largely financed by the courts, but began to attract growing bourgeois audiences.
During and after the French Revolution, musicians were largely spared any grief and continued being mobile. Countries such as Russia would still remain somewhat aloof, but occasionally received guest composers, performers, and orchestras, such as Berlioz and Clara Schumann. Boccherini worked in Madrid, Rossini cooked in Paris, composing only under duress, Cherubini went to Paris to head the Conservatoire. Paris was also the haunt of the German-Hungarian Franz Liszt, as well as of Wagner. Berlioz was regularly premiered in Weimar from 1843-1863, and Spontini was in Berlin. It was during this time that the great music halls were build in European capitals and big cities hired musicians for their “modern orchestras” of the nineteenth century, such as the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig and the London Philharmonic orchestra, but really every major city had a concert hall and an orchestra. Symphonies and solo-instrument concertos became the preferred medium. Opera houses also became larger and were frequented by a large bourgeois public: from the tiny Cuvilliés Theater in Munich, built 1751-1753, to the huge Garnier Opéra in Paris, 110 years later for a public of 1.900, the change is striking.
Change came in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: pushed by nationalism and colonialism, the horizon of music shrank. To be sure, great European music radiated out, and famous performers, such as Adelina Patti, Enrico Caruso and Benjamino Gigli would still travel, now including the United States, or at least Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in their tour circuit. In fact, Caruso had sung in San Francisco the night of the earthquake and the great fire of 1906, and some had jokingly blamed it on his powerful voice. Sometimes even composers traveled: Dvořák lived in New York and Indiana for some time. Enrique Granados went to New York for a premiere in 1916, of an opera based on his famous ‘Goyescas’ for piano, only to be killed upon his return, when his ocean liner was struck by a German submarine.
There was now “exotic” music, such as Brahms’s “Hungarian Dances”, where the folklore of a non-sovereign nation became fodder for a descriptive music that would purport to give the public some relief from the more rigorous symphonies and concertos. Composers of these conquered nations themselves would follow suit, such as Dvořák, with his “Slovakian Dances”, Smetana with “My Fatherland” (Má vlast) and “Moldau” (Vltava). Mily Balakireff’s “Islamey” is the composition of a St. Petersburg resident check evoking the mysterious Islamic Inner Asian regions of Russia.
Only the opera repertoire remained international, but it did not concern itself with contemporary political reality, taking refuge in a largely escapist content instead: orientalism, nationalist mysticism as in Wagner, and love in all its forms became the grand operatic themes. Verdi’s operas, some of which for Italians had a political, Risorgimento content (Nabucco), were not so understood by the non-Italian public, but reduced to a fancy, pseudo-historical orientalism. “Aida”, though Verdi did not write it on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, was premiered in Cairo in 1891 and was appreciated merely as mythologized oriental historicism with a love theme.
With sporadic exceptions during the Twenties, the large horizon of music began to shrink, especially in Germany, until the dark hour in which the Nazis overlaid music and art with their sordid mythologemes. For example, Beethoven’s luminous “Sixth symphony”, the “Pastoral”, was seen through the narrative glass darkly of atavistic Germanic “folk” urges, rising like blood from the earth, the so-called Blut-und-Boden [blood and soil] ideology. That blood did not usually cover the earth, until the Nazi wars made it so, was overlooked by these Barbarians. Musicians collaborated actively or merely tried to survive the brown surge, many emigrated, among them the 80 German, Polish, and Hungarian Jewish musicians, whom Bronislav Hubermann brought to Palestine to form the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in 1936.
The postwar music scene was still heavily compartmentalized, in that many Jewish musicians (Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Yasha Heifetz) would boycott Germany, some of them for their entire lifetime, while at the same time, German musicians viewed as collaborators, such as Walter Gieseking, were not welcome abroad (the photograph of a New York poster, reproduced in Life International, famously read: “Geiseking Go Home”). Switzerland proved the neutral hunting ground where musicians from both camps would sometimes meet.
The besmirching of music by fascist narrative motivated a fourteen-year-old German girl in the Fifties to play for a long time only Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”: finally pure music! At the time, I was unaware of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” parody of the first prelude in c-major of the first volume.
©Ute Margaret Saine