Is Music Composed Before 1961 old?

The Klangforum’s Festliche Tage Alter Musik – with works composed between 1908 and 1961 – show us how old (and beautiful) modern music really is.

It’s like needing reading glasses: the closer something is, the harder it is to see. Indeed, many consider listening to “new music,” by definition close to us in time, notoriously hard to do. The avant-garde is regularly rejected out of hand, with pain thresholds often starting somewhere between Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky.

This is something the contemporary ensemble Klangforum Wien believes that is more than a shame. Internationally renowned for interpreting the newest of the new, three years ago they started treading new territory with a festival for works composed between 1908 and 1961, the Festliche Tage Alter Musik (Festive Days of Old Music). Is music composed before 1961 old?

Yes it is, according to Sven Hartberger, Klangforum’s artistic director. That’s why he chose the festival’s title, although it was hotly contested and, to a certain degree, still is: “I get emails complaining that I misled someone into buying a ticket for what they thought would be Renaissance music.” That is exactly his point: People need to be shaken out of their presumptions regarding “new” music. As Hartberger describes it, he is “realigning the boundaries.”

The majority of what concert houses present and ensembles play was composed before 1900. Ask someone on the street the name of a composer, and the answer will probably be Beethoven or Mozart, both born well over 200 years ago.

While other arts have seen their avant-garde enter the mainstream in due time, music lags seriously behind; the term “modern music” is still used to describe works a century old. In other eras, people only listened to the latest; they would have never dreamed of performing something even twenty years old. In his later years, Johann Sebastian Bach had to deal with contemporaries who thought his compositions hopelessly old-fashioned.

Gaining Perspective

The music from the first half of the 20th century has somehow been lost: Rarely played, many of its composers have been forgotten. It was a period marked by the birth of music unpleasantly “modern,” with protests in concert halls and people pushing their way quietly (or not) to the exits. But is the harmonic language of those works still incomprehensible today?

No, it is “very, very beautiful,” says Hartberger. His reaction is clearly sensual: It is music like a smooth wine, it is an “epicurean feast.”

Each of the festival’s four concerts has its own title and theme. On February 14, Epizentrum (epicenter) presents works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and others who were part of the earthquake that was the Second Viennese School. On February 20, the Wien Museum hosts Voix Étouffées (suffocated voices), devoted to composers who were victims of the 20th century’s fascist regimes. The final concert on February 24 – 360° – looks in all directions, with multilingual and multi-ethnic composers born in China, Budapest, Great Britain, Finland and Vienna.

The concert closest to my heart is on February 17, Transatlantics, compositions by the American pioneers who taught me to keep my ears open: Charles Ives, with his multiple layers of harmonic keys and patriotic tunes; the jazzy bad-boy George Antheil; Californian Henry Cowell, who already performed on the piano with fists and forearms in 1912; or Conlon Nancarrow, whose driving, enormously complex works for (player) piano swept me off my feet back as a teenager.

While the beauty of old modern music “has to be uncovered and detected,” Hartberger is quick to add that “it touches us very deeply. It offers us something precious.” And it gives us occasion to reflect on what “the music we can’t tolerate or understand today will someday mean.”

Feb 14, 17, 20 & 24, various locations. klangforum.at

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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