Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year 
by Hugh Macdonald.
Boydell, 208 pp., £25, June 2012, 978 1 84383 718 3
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In Judith Weir’s pocket Chinese opera The Consolations of Scholarship, the hero discovers the truth about his father Chao Tun’s unjust disgrace while researching old philosophical texts, and is consequently able to avenge his father and restore the family fortunes. It would be good to feel that one’s own dusty cogitations might have some such tangible, uplifting result. But there isn’t much hope. For the modern scholar, the consolation is a good score in the latest research assessment, some nice trips at someone else’s expense, and a few reassuring footnotes in the publications of other, reciprocally unconsoled rummagers.

This is what’s called disinterested scholarship; but it occasionally breeds internecine quarrels that can seem anything but disinterested. In musicology, the analytical theorist despises the biographer for his apparent preoccupation with non-musical matters; the biographer regards the theorist as not much better than an unconfessed autobiographer. Their stock in trade diverges ever more towards particular details: bar 147 of some symphony or other, as against what happened on 23 June 1750. The hope is that from the one as from the other some critical perception will come that enriches our understanding of the music, or at least of the musician. But there comes a point when the scholar is left with the sole comfort of knowing that, even if his discoveries are of little or no conceivable interest to anyone but himself, they are at least factual. This point is reached by Hugh Macdonald’s Music in 1853.

Macdonald might not need consolation. He is the author of books that palpably enrich and illuminate. His Master Musicians Berlioz is one of the best volumes in that series. He has been a brilliant editor of several of Berlioz’s biggest and most textually challenging works, and his English edition of the Traité d’instrumentation, one of the most instructive of 19th-century composers’ texts (at least as much so as anything by Wagner), is indispensable. He has written widely on 19th-century music in general, and his short monograph on Scriabin, now more than thirty years old, remains the only decent introduction to that underrated composer in English, or perhaps in any language.

In all these writings, Macdonald brings to bear that rarest skill of any serious writer on music: the ability to talk about it not as some arcane technical discipline but as a direct articulation of thought and feeling, and the defining activity of those who practise it. He has never been the kind of biographer who would preface a Life of a composer with the disclaimer offered by a recent biographer of Schumann: ‘This is a book about the lives Schumann led, not about the music he wrote,’ as if it made any sense to separate the two. Or not, at least, until now. Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year is precisely a book about events in the lives of a number of musicians, hardly at all about the music they wrote. ‘Biographers,’ Macdonald reminds us at the start, ‘are rarely able to enter into the minutiae of daily life such as those I present here, whereas my aim has been to recapture the events of the year in as vivid a manner as possible.’

‘Why 1853?’ he at once asks himself. Because, one might expect the answer, it was a year of extraordinary masterpieces or decisive changes in the language of music. One might think of 1859 (Tristan und Isolde, Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, Franz Brendel’s invention of the New German School, not to mention On the Origin of Species), or 1912-13 (Pierrot lunaire, The Rite of Spring, Jeux, the riotous Vienna premiere of Webern’s Op. 6 orchestral pieces and two of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder). But 1853? Wagner at last composes the first notes of Das Rheingold, Schumann writes some interesting but marginal chamber works, Brahms his early F minor Piano Sonata, Berlioz part of his most discreet choral work, L’Enfance du Christ, Liszt one of his least notable symphonic poems, Festklänge. Musically, the great event of 1853 was the Venice premiere of La Traviata; politically, it was the start of the Crimean War. But Macdonald is not very interested in Italian opera, which gets only a walk-on part; and he is definitely uninterested in politics. What interests him are itineraries and concatenations.

His chapter headings say it all: Brahms Leaves Home; Berlioz and Spohr in London; Brahms and Liszt in Weimar; Wagner and Liszt in Zurich; and so on to the end of the year, with Brahms, Berlioz and Liszt in Leipzig and the Schumanns in Holland and Hanover. I imagine him poring over train timetables, hotel registers and concert programmes, trying to imagine who might have met whom when and where. Lists proliferate: lists of German towns and obscure musicians and pieces of music that nobody has heard, or wanted to hear, since 1853. Might-have-beens abound. Wagner ‘had probably never heard of Chopin’ in 1835 (a rare excursion out of Macdonald’s title year), and ‘might not have known’ Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt when he visited the Walensee in 1853; the pianist Constance Geiger ‘would have been horrified if she knew the great Liszt was in the audience’ at a concert in Carlsbad: but then a might-not-have-been (‘perhaps she did’). Characters pop in and out, like fellow guests one would like to get to know but who don’t wait on the pleasure. The lovely Countess Kalergis appears at a Baden-Baden soirée. Berlioz admires her piano-playing, but then gets into conversation with his host, Heinrich Ehrlich, about truth and beauty, and we hear no more about the beauty herself until she pops up 46 pages later as Liszt’s hostess (to put it no more strongly) at the spa town’s Hôtel de l’Angleterre.

Casual simultaneities are endowed with an almost mystical significance. Wagner gives a reading of the libretto of Lohengrin in Zurich on the same day Joachim rehearses with Schumann in Düsseldorf and Berlioz crosses the Channel to England. Little do they know about this or that: little did Brahms know ‘that he passed through Frankfurt between the two days on which Berlioz gave concerts’ there; nor could he have known ‘that he would write no more sonatas for the piano’ after the F minor. Liszt ‘did not yet know he would be receiving Reményi and Brahms as guests’: unsurprising, as he hadn’t heard of either of them until they arrived. On the other hand, ‘no one, least of all Wagner himself, had ever doubted that there were great works yet to come,’ a statement obviously false to the extent that it has any meaning at all. Finally, ‘they all turned the calendar page to 1854,’ in anticipation, I suppose, of fresh adventures.

This sort of stuff is easy to mock, I know. But Macdonald’s problem is that while he can tease out the crissings and crossings and even chronicle the meetings, he can hardly ever tell us what, if anything, was actually said. We have the composers’ letters and in some cases their diaries or memoirs. We know that Berlioz was cordial and complimentary to young Brahms when he played his E flat minor piano scherzo at Brendel’s in Leipzig, because Brahms wrote to Joachim and told him so. We know (or thought we knew: Macdonald casts doubt on the story) that Brahms fell asleep during Liszt’s playing of his B minor Sonata at their first meeting in Weimar. What we don’t know in either case is what they said to each other, Brahms in his high-pitched, barely broken voice (he was 20), Liszt in his heavily accented German; perhaps in the former case the language barrier defeated Brahms (who had a little French) and Berlioz (who knew no German). In any event, the flavour of these extraordinary meetings continues to elude the most painstaking chronicler, as Macdonald most certainly is. It’s one thing to know that they happened, to map them in the mind’s eye, to wish oneself present, quite another thing to take the emotional temperature, catch those fleeting glances, the smiles and the awkwardnesses, the verbal nuances that form the texture of conversation. The truest thing we know about these composers is the music they bequeathed us. How much would any of us give to listen to Brahms playing his sonatas or Liszt playing anything at all, or to hear Wagner or Schumann talking about their music? Yet the music is the one thing that Macdonald refrains from investigating. Like the parties and the railway journeys, it takes its place in the chronicle, but it hardly ever provides the substance of the narrative. We read a lot about performances, not much about the thing itself.

This is a disappointment, not least because Macdonald’s choice of date and locale implies a historical view that is highly specific in musical terms. For a start, his title conceals an evasion. Apart from a few sidelong glances and token waves at the periphery, the ‘music’ in question is merely what a reasonably progressive German critic in the 1850s would have understood as the contemporary repertoire. To be more precise, it reflects the historical analysis of the critic Franz Brendel, Schumann’s successor as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and the inventor of the concept of the New German School in a speech in 1859. Brendel is no more than an attendant lord in Macdonald’s story, but his view of the great musical tradition conditions it at every turn. A year or so before the one in which Macdonald sets his scene, Brendel had published his History of Music in Italy, Germany and France, a work which already in this first of several editions promotes the idea of a strong progressive line in German music. Brendel identified a new tendency arising out of Beethoven, initially in the piano music of Schumann, and particularly freewheeling, suite-like works such as Papillons, Kreisleriana, Davidsbündlertänze. The point for Brendel was that Schumann had evolved his large-scale designs not out of preset classical forms, but out of the poetic ideas behind the music itself. There was an organic connection between the imagery and the discourse, a connection which gave the musical language a new suppleness and a new richness of expressive potential.

Schumann’s later works – symphonies, chamber music and so forth – had proved something of a disappointment to Brendel, at least as far as the ‘progressive’ tendency was concerned (he admired the music). Instead, he traced the tendency forward through the operas and more particularly the theories of Wagner, and the symphonic poems of Liszt. In 1852 Wagner had written nothing towards The Ring apart from the prose essays in which he worked out its method and philosophy. As far as his music was concerned, Brendel was basing himself on Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and their predecessors. Liszt had by this time composed six of the 12 symphonic poems he would eventually write during his Weimar years, and Brendel was so impressed with them that, in the later editions of his History, he placed them at the very forefront of what he had by that time labelled the New German School, conveniently taking ‘German’ as a synonym for ‘serious’ and ‘progressive’. One other defining event of 1852 for Brendel had been Liszt’s performances of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet and the first two parts of The Damnation of Faust in Weimar. They led him to revise his original view of Berlioz as a superior kind of conman whose music was nothing but a brilliant façade. He still found Berlioz too prone to exaggerate what he called the ‘poetic idea’ (for want of a better word, the programme) at the expense of the purely musical; but he acknowledged that this was only half the picture. He now recognised in this crazy Frenchman ‘a poetic, creative artistic nature, gifted with greatness and passionate energy, excelling in high intelligence’, in fact an honorary German. The discovery enabled him to propose a kind of pre-Leavisite Great Tradition in the form of a ‘sequence of high points of the latest artistic developments’ – Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt – and to call it, unblushingly, the New German School.

The list includes most of Macdonald’s dramatis personae. Only two figures of any significance are missing: Brahms, because in 1852 he was too young to have come to Brendel’s notice and by 1859 had effectively excluded himself with a series of abstract, classically based masterpieces in which there was no detectable poetic idea in Brendel’s sense; and the violinist-composer Joseph Joachim, a vital catalyst in Macdonald’s story because of his friendship with all the others and his great stature as a musician, even if he was creatively a very minor figure. The case of Brahms is more interesting than that of a mere juvenile misfit, however. The New German School was the way forward, what a later age would call the avant-garde. Liszt not only invented new poetically derived forms, he painted strange harmonic landscapes, sometimes extremely dissonant, sometimes so consonant and tensionless as to be practically comatose. He explored the sonorities and technical possibilities of the piano in unheard of ways that would later be picked up by such radical figures as Scriabin and Debussy. Wagner expressed his admiration for the symphonic poems in a famous letter of 1857 addressed to the daughter of Liszt’s mistress, and he borrowed and extended aspects of Liszt’s harmonic language in his own much greater music dramas (though Brendel failed to grasp their superiority, partly because he died too soon, in 1868, partly because he remained wedded to the idea that ‘pure instrumental music’ was the highest form and an essentially German one). Berlioz broke away completely from classical conceptions of form, not to mention of the orchestra, and he subordinated harmony to melody in a way that subtly realigned the academic idea of structure controlled from the bass-line upwards.

Brahms did none of these things, and was widely regarded in his own time and subsequently as an unregenerate conservative, endlessly rehashing the old classical genres and formal procedures, in an individual style maybe, but without the exploratory force of the ‘progressives’. When Brendel promulgated his NGS in 1859, he pointedly omitted Brahms, who was so incensed that he persuaded Joachim and one or two others to sign a letter of protest to the Berlin Echo. Macdonald touches on this issue only in his very brief epilogue, reasonably enough, since it falls outside his title year. But it could be seen as directly relevant, since it provides a clue to the interweavings of these various characters in 1853, which emphatically are part of the book’s subject matter. After the notorious encounter with Liszt at the Altenberg in June 1853, Brahms proceeded, by way of an extended walking tour down the Rhine, to visit Schumann in Düsseldorf at the end of September, and it was after hearing the young man play his C major Sonata that Schumann noted laconically in his diary ‘Visit from Brahms (a genius),’ then announced the event publicly in what would turn out to be his final Neue Zeitschrift article, under the significant title ‘Neue Bahnen’ (‘New Paths’). ‘In every age,’ he concluded, ‘there presides a secret league of kindred spirits,’ like – he might have added – the Davidsbund, or League of David, which he had portrayed in his own early piano works in the guise of an alliance against the untalented, anti-progressive Philistines.

The NGS, precisely, was a Davidsbund. Schumann would not have tolerated the exclusion of Brahms, and he would have been right. Brendel’s modernism was a splendid but blinkered, stereotyped creature, like the ‘avant-garde’ of our time, full of hidden stipulations and restrictions that presumed to instruct composers in what did or did not count as valid style, technique or even content. Brahms, a conscious traditionalist, did not fit, even though his music had experimental elements of rhythm, metre and form, and a motivic design no less complex than Wagner’s in The Ring, but without the ‘poetic idea’ so crucial for Brendel. The mere fact that he composed four-movement symphonies and non-programmatic chamber music was enough to damn him as irretrievably academic in the eyes of the Zukunftists – the apostles of the ‘Music of the Future’ (after Wagner’s 1860 essay of that name). It had to wait for that arch-modernist Arnold Schoenberg to elevate Brahms to the ranks of the chosen to which he patently belonged, in a brilliant late essay, ‘Brahms the Progressive’, which gave chapter and verse on Brahms’s originality in every musical dimension, including – surprisingly enough – harmony.

Perhaps one shouldn’t criticise a book for not being something the author obviously didn’t intend. Macdonald has written a chronicle; I’m arguing for a critical study. But the fascination of a year in which so many paths crossed surely hangs on where the paths led; otherwise one is reduced to ephemera and anecdote, on some of which, as a conscientious scholar, Macdonald is compelled to cast doubt. This is the detritus of research, the bits and pieces left over from the last book and the one before that. Expertly and elegantly, interestingly and aimlessly, it tells us everything, and nothing.

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