FIN DE SIÈCLE: TRANSFIGURING ROMANTICISM

Our story starts in Vienna, 1857, when the emperor Frans Joseph I decrees the demolition of the old defensive walls of the city and orders the construction of the Ringstrasse boulevard. This boulevard will become the architectural showcase of the romantic, nationalist, and traditionalist Zeitgeist, a movement called Historismus (Historicism), shaping the face of the city with neo-gothic, neo-baroque, and neoclassical buildings - a search for the new by drawing inspiration from the past.

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Brahms visited Vienna in 1862, settling permanently there the following year after being appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie, thereby witnessing the whole process of transformation which the city was undergoing. He arrived in the city with his freshly composed String Sextet no 1, op. 18. Two years previously the young Brahms, struggling with string quartets attempts, compositions which he subsequently destroyed, sought the novelty of the string sextet (his eventual string quartets would only come a decade later) resulting in the creation of a milestone in the chamber music repertoire and inspiring many future composers to equally explore this formation, including the young Schoenberg, 39 years later. Certainly, the young, newly arrived Brahms, witnessing the climax of that conservative society shaped by Victorian morality, would never have expected the turmoil of the contrasting revolutions in social, sexual, and aesthetic values to come decades later, close to the end of his life, in that fin de siècle, from which the young Schoenberg would choose the thematic grounds to build on his own string sextet.

In 1896, the German poet Richard Dehmel published a collection of poetry called 'Woman and World' (Weib und Welt) whose main theme was love and sexuality (Eros) - one of its poems is “Verklärte Nacht”, in which an unmarried woman confesses to her lover that she is pregnant by another man, “a stranger”. Dehmel was discredited by many of his contemporaries because he explored human sexual self-determination. A year later the poet was summoned into a Berlin courtroom to defend himself against charges of blasphemy and immorality, to which he responded with an open letter: “To be sure, the book shows how a human being, contrary to his holiest principles, abandons himself to a sensual passion and is thereby driven by the most painful emotional turmoil, finally to a disgraceful death. Clearly, it cannot be the artist's task to disguise or conceal the seductive charms that lie naturally within every passion. But I believe that anyone who helps the human soul open its eyes to its bestial urges serves true morality better than many a moralistic accuser.”

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Certainly, the echo of these words was felt among those willing to ‘help the human soul open its eyes to its bestial urges’: Sigmund Freud in Vienna, in that same year, introduces the term psychoanalysis and publishes The Aetiology of Hysteria.

To portray even better to what level of sexual oppression this Vienna pre-fin de siècle was immersed in and therefore understand better what a scandal Dehmel's work created, I quote here the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, from his autobiographical book ‘The World of Yesterday’ (Die Welt von Gestern):

“Our century (...) looked upon sexuality as an anarchical and therefore disturbing element, which had no place in its ethics and which was not allowed to see the light of day, because every form of free and extra-marital love was in opposition to middle-class “decency.”

"(...)middle-class usage strove frantically to uphold the fiction that a well-born woman neither possessed sexual instincts nor was permitted to possess any as long as she remained unmarried—anything else would have made her an “immoral person,” an outcast from the family(...)".

Back to 1896, the socio-artistic turmoil continues: Gustav Klimt together with eighteen other artists split from the Wiener Künstlerhaus to found the Secession movement a year later; Otto Wagner publishes “Moderne Architektur” stating that ‘modern art must offer us modern forms that represent our age and our way of life.’

Brahms passed away in 1897, and Schoenberg had the opportunity to show his freshly composed D major quartet to the master before his death. Called the “0” quartet, it was posthumously published - a very Brahmsianic composition, still anchored in the romantic tradition. 

In 1898 Schoenberg converted from Judaism to Protestantism. The fact that Schoenberg professed to be a Protestant should not lead to the fallacy that from then on he submitted to the yoke of bourgeois prudery: in that same period, he became obsessed with Dehmel’s work and, after composing a whole song cycle (op. 2) completely based on ‘Weib und Welt’ poems, in 1899 the composer decides to compose his first major instrumental work based on another poem from that same volume: Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night).

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The poem’s tribute to an unmarried mother undoubtedly represented a break from common moral concepts. Dehmel's efforts to liberate human sexuality from social shackles, advocating for a contemporary gender dialogue and the progressive approach of its setting, corresponded to the musical material and construction of the composer’s newest masterpiece: admittedly, Schoenberg - in the spirit of the »Neudeutschen« (New Germans), of Wagner or Liszt - opted for a large one-movement form, but he had conceived his work (and this was a novelty in the history of program music) not for orchestra but as a string sextet. In the field of harmony, the composer also broke new ground: he marked architecturally important passages by inverting the dominant-ninth chords: constructions that were traditionally forbidden because they obscured the tonality. And from a stylistic point of view, too, Schoenberg offered something unusual, for he had succeeded for the first time in meaningfully merging elements of Brahms and Wagner.

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When Schoenberg submitted his Verklaerte Nacht op. 4 to the Vienna Music Society for performance, they rejected it on the basis of its unprecedented extension of traditional harmony and singled out a pivotal chord - the dominant-ninth chord in the 4th inversion - as “uncategorizable.” Schoenberg later quipped on their wobbly logic that it couldn’t be performed “since one cannot perform that which does not exist.” And, when it finally received its 1902 premiere, three years after its completion, the audience reportedly met it with hisses and gasps. The sexual moralism of the time wasn’t restricted only to the verbal content and theme of Dehmel’s poem: musically, Schoenberg’s composition was censured also because of the ‘sensuality’ of its chromaticism.

 

Fin de Siècle: transfiguring romanticism. Brussels Muzieque and the Phoenix Sextet invite you to experience musically the rise and fall of Victorian morality and the cry for human sexual self-determination through two of the most beautiful masterpieces ever composed.

text by Eduardo Tonietto

 

native English language

proofreading by Sarah Oates

 

historical proofreading by Huub Kurstjens

(historian and text expert at CITO)