Blood, tears and musical scores

Like a violent centrifuge, the middle of the 20th century threw music into chaos, scattering composers in all directions across the map. The most unfortunate of them, like Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff, died in concentration camps. Many were exiled, such as Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek, and notably Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, who became unlikely neighbours in Los Angeles. Everywhere music was in flux.

There was, however, one notable exception. At a time when so many composers had been fleeing Europe, the young Benjamin Britten was heading in the opposite direction. In 1942, after a controversial stay of three years in the US, Britten decided to make the treacherous sea voyage back to the UK – an almost symbolic act that sums up the gulf in the wartime experience between British composers and those from the rest of Europe.

Throughout 2013, the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival “The Rest Is Noise” aims to explore how war, race, sex and politics shaped the music of the 20th century. Among other themes, the programme will illustrate how differently the events of the 1930s and 40s would affect composers in Britain and in the rest of Europe, with profound results on the music of the second part of the century. For continental composers, the second world war was a dramatic hiatus that led, after 1945, to an urge to repudiate the recent past, and fuelled a consequent outburst of innovation in the postwar years.

In the UK, by contrast, composers who had not experienced a cataclysmic overturning of their national culture saw little reason to make a decisive break with the past.

Politics and music have always had to maintain a working relationship. Whether it was the church or the aristocracy, composers needed to stay close to the sources of patronage that would guarantee them work. Not until the 20th century, though, did those who wielded power use their influence with such hands-on, and sometimes catastrophic, results. The history of this century is written in blood and tears through many a musical score.

It is where politics and music meet that Alex Ross’s 2007 book The Rest Is Noise, from which the festival takes its inspiration, is at its most gripping.

“The story of what happened in the 1930s and 40s fascinates me,” says Ross. “In the 19th-century music gives an impression of standing apart from politics. That is, of course, an illusion, as music is always political – just look at Wagner and Verdi. But in the 20th century you see events on the world stage having immediate and dramatic consequences in music. It is almost impossible to name a composer who remained untouched.

“This is an essential subject for anybody who wants to understand the wider picture.”

In the Soviet Union, cultural life from the 1930s on plunged into a long permafrost. Stalin’s totalitarian regime dictated not only farm collectivisation and steel production quotas, but what kind of music could be written. Anybody who failed to toe the party line was silenced or worse, and only Shostakovich managed to weave and duck the regime’s bullets to retain an individual voice.

In Germany, Hitler’s ascent to power resulted in the avant-garde composers being expelled. “We have to go back to Wagner,” says Ross, “to understand this corruption of music for the sake of political ideology.”

No wonder that after the war German composers rejected anything that smacked of a “national” style. Politics had hijacked the great German musical tradition for its own ends, and that would never be forgotten.

The odd man out was the UK. Here, music retained its time-honoured place as part of a national inheritance worth fighting for. Even at the height of the war Vaughan Williams was composing his “morality” opera The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Symphony No.5, works that share a visionary quality of light and peace that feels quintessentially English. Britten followed his return to the UK with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a song cycle that sets mostly classic English poems and which radiates a sense of “coming home”.

After the war there would be innovations, of course, but few composers in the UK went so far as to tear up all links to the past.

“As an outside observer,” says the American Ross, “what strikes me is that there is not the same sense of a colossus needing to be overthrown as there was in Germany, the need to break away from a giant like Wagner. Even Birtwistle, a more radical voice, somehow has a rooted Englishness about him. The pressure to reinvent the musical language was simply not so strong.”

The Southbank Centre’s “The Rest Is Noise” aspires to reflect as much of this as it can. Among the weekend programmes of talks and music is “The Rise of Nationalism” in the first week of February, covering folksongs, eugenics, the music of Bartók and Vaughan Williams. At the start of March, “Berlin in the 1920s and 30s” includes Alex Ross in discussion, music by Weill, Hindemith and Berlin cabaret. “Art of Fear” in May brings together Shostakovich works written under Stalin, the composers of Terezin concentration camp, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written while he was a prisoner of war.

“The most dramatic account of the relationship between art and politics in the 20th century is to be found in music,” says Ross. “Whether in triumph or tragedy, composers were in the thick of things, not shut away experimenting in some laboratory. The wonderful thing about the 20th century is how vividly it demonstrates that music does matter in the most immediate, visceral way. This is the idea that lies behind the book, and I hope audiences at ‘The Rest Is Noise’ concerts will take that away with them.”

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