Is there an Austro-German (A-G) tradition still? Most A-G composers would say not. It is an outdated idea that takes us back to fin de siècle Vienna and cocky moustachioed hussars brandishing sabers. Anyone who has talked to these composers or examined A-G musical culture of the present day will be struck by a very curious fact. There is still a sense of ownership, however residual, of a great tradition. But presume from this that these composers are interested in your latest symphony or four-movement quartet and you make a false move. They are not interested. They think the avant garde is the only garde.
This odd bi-polarity goes all the way back to Schoenberg who as theorist guarded the flame of tradition watchfully, but as composer vilified any hint of tonal retrogression, calling Ravel’s music, for example, second-rate kitsch. This is the prickliness of revolutionists everywhere, of course. The possibility that their innovations might not be good (from the statistical standpoint, the overwhelmingly likeliest, after all) means that what they write is generally likely to be bad. (Revolutionism by its nature rules out middling estimations.) Hence their intolerance of the slightest deviation. A vote for the middle is a vote against them. As Schoenberg said, the middle road is the only one that does not lead to Rome. Why did Schoenberg increasingly dislike Berg’s music? Because it committed exactly this crime: Berg’s music (especially after Wozzeck) was the work of a disciple that embodied a criticism of the whole revolutionist ethos, and Schoenberg was, I believe, canny enough to sense this.
Then the Nazis, WW II and its aftermath. These events skewed the picture so much that we still have not straightened it out. Schoenberg’s tendentious claims about extending the dominance of German music for a century would in the ordinary course of events have been exposed for the nonsense they were. But in the meantime he had become Germany’s musical martyr and messiah, with Webern functioning as pope, and there was no hope for a more balanced view to take hold. Messiaen tried, exposing the so-called death of tonality for the wishful thinking that it was and referring to Schoenberg (I think with much truth) as ‘not a great composer, but a great destroyer.’ But Messiaen was French and lacked the leverage that a place within the A-G tradition would have given him. Within the tradition the main voice of sanity was Hindemith, but his reputation was in severe decline after 1950 and there were few listeners. Composers like Hans Werner Henze who deviated form the revolutionist line simply got out. (Peter Maxwell Davies told me that Henze remained bitter about this until the end of his life.)
And so came Darmstadt and all the rest, comfortably institutionalised by now as ‘the new music’. Schoenberg quipped that emancipating the dissonance meant that everyone could now be a composer. In the 1950s, his disciple John Cage completed the job by making everyone a genius.
And now? I sense a change in the weather. With the post-Darmstadt composers, Wolfgang Rihm and the hectically talented Jorg Widmann among them, one senses a greater ease with Germany and things German, at least where music is concerned. Rihm has admitted that he writes German music: what other kind of music would he write? I hope this development continues. The strident internationalism of Darmstadt, by denying German composers their Germanness, made it difficult for composers from other traditions to embody the local, the eccentric and the individual. Darmstadt turned an all-embracing humanist project into the new totalitarianism, a declension that has proved dispiritingly common in our age. Imagine Janacek trying to function there. But these events themselves are now history, and even Germanness can be discussed again.
These perhaps abstruse historical reflections seem to me important, because Germany and the Austro-German legacy are important. The Germans may not be musically pre-eminent any more, but we cannot get along without them.
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