October 18, 2013 7:13 pm

Eine Kleine Airlinemusik

‘My radical suggestion is to replace Strauss and Mozart with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern’

Sometimes, because my work takes me to Vienna, I have occasion to travel on the national carrier Austrian Airlines (I know, I should be using the train, and far more pleasurable, as well as astonishingly expensive, it is). Now before you worry that there has been a confusion of columns, let me assure you that Slow Lane is not looking to challenge Fast Lane’s undoubted expertise.

But Slow Lane does love music and, as a result of the wearyingly predictable selection policy adopted by Austrian for those supposedly relaxing ditties played just before and after take-off and landing, has developed an allergy to Strauss waltzes (especially the Blue Danube and Emperor waltzes) and to Mozart’s Divertimento K 525, known as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

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Harry Eyres

I can imagine the thought-processes which lead to these selections. Austrian Airlines sees itself as not just an airline but a patriotic contributor to the national tourism effort. Tourism is big in Austria, and Austria has certain universally recognised cultural brands, including Strauss and Mozart, which can be flogged ad infinitum. I’ve always been amused by the shameless commercial exploitation of Mozart, especially in his native city Salzburg, which he could not wait to escape from and never returned to after the disappointing visit to introduce Constanze to his family in the summer of 1783.

Maybe Austrian Airlines are right to stick with the tried-and-tested (though they could at least procure livelier-sounding recordings of Strauss and Mozart than the curdled ones that circulate through the cabins). But wouldn’t a touch of imagination ignite answering sparks in passengers and potential tourists? Instead of promoting the Austria people already know – the cliché-ridden land of The Sound of Music, Lederhosen and Mozartkugeln – couldn’t the national carrier promote an equally valid but alternative vision of Austria, birthplace of psychoanalysis as well as Sachertorte? This is a vision currently on show in the flawed but fascinating Facing the Modern exhibition at London’s National Gallery, as well as in Jonathan Franzen’s recent cantankerous The Kraus Project .

My radical suggestion on the musical front is to replace overworn Strauss and Mozart with startlingly fresh Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Yes, Vienna produced a Second School, as well as the incomparable First School of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Vienna even has the Arnold Schoenberg Center, a splendid research and performance institute devoted to the founder of serialism.

The Second Viennese School is not only much closer to our own time than the first, but also more varied in musical utterance than many realise. It ranges from the lush romanticism of early Schoenberg through the anguished expressionism of Berg to the almost Zen-like minimalism of the unfairly neglected Webern.

No wonder that the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, an equally fine exponent of both schools, should have said that she regards the post-Freudian Second Viennese School as in many ways more accessible or immediately understandable to us than the First, with its belief in the victory of harmony and order over the forces of darkness and disintegration. Here we reach a crux. Much of the music of the Second Viennese School is, to say the least, unquiet or angst-ridden.

When Schoenberg decided to break with tonality, the underpinning of all music in the west for centuries, his aim was not to induce complacency among the Viennese bourgeois. Such works as the Five Orchestral Pieces opus 16 can still unsettle us with their emotional brusqueness and sometimes violence; their intimations of insanity.

As Alban Berg’s pupil the musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno put it, modern music “has taken on itself all the darkness and guilt of the world ... all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty”. Well, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a good idea for an airline company to play passengers music liable to get them stampeding for the emergency exits before any accident had occurred.

But even if quite a lot of Schoenberg could be considered off-limits for air travel, the same is not true of Berg and Webern. Berg’s Violin Concerto, “dedicated to the memory of an angel”, an elegy for Manon Gropius who died of polio aged 18, contains passages of great lyrical beauty.

The most suitable of all the Second Viennese School composers for soothing pre- and post-flight nerves, paradoxically, might be the hermetic Webern: works such as his Piano Variations opus 27 can induce a trance-like state of emotional calm in sympathetic listeners.

Take courage, Austrian Airlines, and break with stultifying cliché and convention. You could become trendsetters for a new more radical approach to the promotion of national cultures.

harry.eyres@ft.com

Twitter: @sloweyres

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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Letters in response to this column:

Schoenberg’s break with tonality was quite straightforward / From Dr Charles G V Coutinho

Battling for an armrest to the music of Brahms / From Mr Ludovico Ciferri

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