chapter  9
35 Pages

Fin de siècle Chamber Music and the Critique of Modernism

In the penultimate chapter of his magisterial history of nineteenth-century music (Die A1usik des 19. Jahrhunderts), Carl Dahlhaus grapples with the vexing problem of hitting upon the term that best captures the essence of European art music at the turn to the twentieth century. Drawing on the historiography of Hermann Bahr, Dahlhaus ultimately decides in favor of modernism as the designation for the musical era bounded by Richard Strauss's Don}u(J1I and Gustav Mahler's First Symphony (1889), on the one hand, and the advent of atonality in Arnold Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11 (1909), on the other. Characterized structurally by a will to monumentality and affectively by a heightened, feverish intensity, musical modernism emerges most clearly in the tone poem and the postWagnerian music drama. I

While chamber music figures little (if at all) in this scheme, Dahlhaus goes on to note the curious reversal in which the genre was implicated in the twentieth century's first decade. Turning to a persistent theme in the writings ofTheodor Adorno, Dahlhaus argues for the centrality of chamber music as the "carrier genre" of the New Music. An enclave of conservatism in 1860 or so, chamber music would furnish the medium for the innovations wrought by Schoenberg and his colleagues near the close of the first decade of the twentieth century. Coterminolls with the rise in importance of the chamber idiom was the plummet in prestige of the tone poem and other programmatically motivated forms. Within about a twenty-year period, in other words, the "carrier genres" of musical modernism came to be viewed as trivial and obsolete. 2

How and why did this extraordinary reversal take place? For some writers, the flowering of chamber music around 1910 represents a reaction against the gargantuanism cultivated so vigorously in the previous century.l According to Dahlhaus's characteristically dialectical reading, chamber music was able to provide, through its pervasive employment of thematic-motivic development, a logical counterforce to the threat of incoherence inherent in a style where dissonance has been emancipated. 4 Psychological reasons might be adduced as well. Carl Schorske writes:

As his sense of what Hohnannsthal called das Glellende, the slipping away of the world, increased, the bourgeois turned his appropriated aesthetic culture inward to the cultivation of the selt; of his personal uniqueness. This tendency inevitably led to preoccupation with one's own psychic life. It provides the link between devotion to art and concern with the psyche.-'

It may well be that chamber music best reflected this inward turn of fin de sieele bourgeois sensibility.