Music and the Bauhaus

The following text was published in the catalog of the congress Bauhaus and Greece: the Idea of Synthesis in Art and Architecture was held from 29 May to 1 June 2019 in Athens. It portrays some of the connections of the Bauhaus to music making references to the 1923 Bauhaus Weimar exhibition, renowned composers, and key works. The approach is historical however its author uses theoretic musical terms. Altogether I find it very instructive and it could trigger ideas for developing Phono-Bau.

Since its foundation in 1919 – as the successor of the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School, Weimar and the Grand Ducal School of Applied Arts –the Bauhaus hardly deviated from its preference to design and architecture (within which aestheticism and utilitarianism are inscribed as its inherent ambiguities). However, certain “regional” events organized by the School were offering the opportunity to its students and friends, to get acquainted with modern musical production that followed parallel search paths. Besides, some of Bauhaus’ key members were personally associated with distinguished music creators and shared with them a common artistic reflection based on the Wagnerian idea about a “universal artwork”.
Typical of this was the case of the friendship between Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg, that started with their common engagement with the Expressionist group “Blue Rider”. From the beginning of 20th century’s second decade onwards, the relation evolved into the homologous and almost simultaneous shift of the former towards abstract art and the latter, towards atonal music (since the end of the first decade of the same century). It is no coincidence in this respect, that the first “abstract” paintings of Kandinsky are part of a series whose titles (“Compositions” and “Improvisations”) refer to music, which seems to combine its structural components – its elemental forms and sound colors – according to nothing else but an “internal necessity”.
This expression is repeated constantly in the book Kandinsky published in 1911 under the title Concerning the Spiritual in Art, where the geometrical and chromatic elements that constitute the alphabet of artistic expression are thoroughly described. From his part, in his theoretical study Theory of Harmony, published the same year, Schönberg, ventured the extension of the concept of “melody” from the linear combination of different phonemes towards the linear sequence of sound colors, proposing the neologism “sound-color melody”. Schönberg had already tested his idea in the third part of his 1909 Five Orchestra Pieces, alternating different combinations of orchestral sound colors on a static atonal harmony. It is no by coincidence that this piece was chosen as representative of his work, at a 1920 concert where his music was presented to the Weimar audience for the first time.

Therefore, one would expect that this emblematic representative of the avant-guard in music (who was to participate in the Council of the Association “Friends of the Bauhaus” founded by Gropius in 1924) would be the central person in the musical part that was to frame the great Bauhaus 1923 exhibition, being the most important event in the School’s history. The Bauhaus director personally curated this exhibition, ran from 15 August to 30 September, while the selection of musical works and the organization of the concerts were assigned to Hermann Scherchen, an active defender of the musical avant-garde. Theatrical performances and lectures completed this accompanying circle that covered the first week of the exhibition.
Schönberg was apparently the great absent of this important event: being a Jewish, he, Kandinsky’s musical companion, had been informed (just four months earlier) that his bosom friend had adopted anti-Semitic views during a conversation in the School. In the letter of protest sent by Schönberg on April the 19th, Kandinsky responded apologizing, yet, in a way that convinced neither Schönberg himself nor, still, most of the contemporary commentators of the incident. And according to testimonies of the era, this was the reason why Schönberg canceled his planned participation in these musical events of August 1923. Meanwhile, due to a strike in Thuringia, a “mechanical cabaret” composed (after assignment) by the then young H. H. Stuckenschimdt – a future biographer of Schönberg –, was canceled.

At the first concert during the exhibition, on August 18, pianist Egon Petri, student of Ferruccio Busoni, performed works of his teacher, which were the most conservative” of the whole circle of events: Toccata, Perpetuum Mobile, Prelude and Study in Arpeggios as well as three of the five Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing. This first long-lasting musical program included the performance by the soprano Emma Lübbeke-Job and pianist Beatrice Lauer-Kottlar of the song cycle The Life of [Virgin] Mary composed by Paul Hindemith on the homonymous poetic circle of Rainer Maria Rilke. These fifteen songs, opus 27, are written in a more conservative musical idiom than that followed by the composer in his other works of the era: the melodic line is often extremely simple, while the more complex pianistic accompaniment does not exceed the limits of an extended tonality.

The program of the second concert, performed the next day, included the Ernst Krenek neo-Baroque [First] Concerto Grosso and Igor Stravinsky’s music-theatrical The Soldier’s Tale. Scherchen directed the Weimar State Orchestra in the first work, while the second was played by members of the same orchestra, accompanying actors Karl Ebert (the narrator), Fritz Odemar (the soldier), Hermann Schramm (the devil) and Ilse Petersen (the princess).

The Soldier’s Tale was the result of the collaboration between Stravinsky and the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand de Ramuz. The constant iconoclastic mood of the former and the creative imagination of the latter, along with the limited means for stage presentation, that could, naturally, be anticipated by both co-creators during the Great War, made this hybrid work one of internal (morphological and stylistic) but also external (dramaturgical) originality. The narrative, that somehow refers
to the Faustian archetype, is musically attributed via the incorporation of elements of fashionable dance music –and especially of Jazz in an early osmosis with the fine artistic idiom– combined with distinct doses of modernity (polytonic moments on a basically diatonal substrate) and primitivism (occasional “Russian” folk color in the melodic themes, “mechanistic” rhythmic patterns). Thus, Stravinsky’s music, but in part Ramuz’s text too, are transformed to a sample of a musical modernism at the opposite side of Schönberg’s atonality, analogous to the modern artistic character of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, Léger’s Wedding, and Chagall’s I and the village.

Just for the record, we have to note here that among the earliest performances of the work is its premiere in Athens on January 1926, translated by Nikos Poriotis and under the music direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos: a whole twenty years before its American premiere, with Maestro Mitropoulos again.

The extrovert eclecticism that characterizes The Soldier’s Tale is aligned with the well balanced twofold pursuit of the Bauhaus during the Weimar period: high aesthetic quality and functionality. The School’s subsequent orientation, particularly under the direction of Hannes Meyer, towards mass production and one-dimensional functionalism disrupted the innovative balance and tended to equate “modernity” with the fashionable term “modern”. The musical ideal of such a transformation could no longer be the combination of a modern “high” style with popular forms, but these same forms with some external smear of “boldness”. Let us cite an excerpt from the manifesto that Meyer published in the Swiss magazine “Das Werk” in 1926:

Instead of the accidental strokes of the axe – a chainsaw. Instead of the black charcoal line – the precise straight-edge-drafted line. Instead of the easel – the drafting machine. Instead of the hunting horn – the saxophone. […] Instead of lyrics – the light values of colours. Instead of sculpture – construction. Instead of caricature – photomontage. Instead of a drama – a sketch. Instead of opera –musical revue. Instead of fresco – commercial posters.

If we maintain the “saxophone” as a substitute for the “corno” and consider “dance music” as a co-version of “musical revue” we are transferred to the authentic world of dance jazz, which spread in Europe from the 1920s onwards. Indeed, the most permanent musical genre cultivated actively in the Bauhaus, thanks to an amateur band that appeared from the mid-20s and was established from then on, turned out to be jazz music. Sporadical “dadaist” elements that colored the fixed “beat” rhythm of improvisations (a creaking chair or a revolver shot, in the place of a rim-shot of the drum-stick or a blow to the bronze “plate”) could not form a more permanent self-identity, a musical “Bauhaus style”.

However, the fact remains that, the Jazz Orchestra of the School made a career as one of the most popular ensembles of the genre in interwar Germany and that the attempt to syncretism with the incorporation of middle European folklore motifs was a precursor of the “ethnic” trends of today – an era in which recognizable stylistic elements of Bauhaus have been assimilated as elements of modern decoration and modern life.

© 2019 Haris Xanthoudakis


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