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German Modernism: Music and the Arts.

German Modernism: Music and the Arts, by Walter Frisch. California Studies in 20th-Century Music. Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 2005. x, 322 pp. $45.00 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).

Walter Frisch is one of the foremost musicologists of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, author of both specialized and general studies of, principally, Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schoenberg, and Franz Schubert. In German Modernism: Music and the Arts, he has provided a synthetic analysis of the general phenomenon of modernism, extending his characteristically penetrating insights into musical form and meaning to a cross-disciplinary consideration of poetry, drama, philosophical texts, movement manifestos, and works of visual art. The book redresses the somewhat baffling neglect of music in general histories of modernism, while--not coincidentally at the same time--bringing the creative artists of Germany fully into the modernist story.

The result is an essential book for understanding the modernist phenomenon. Although he states at the outset his determination not to engage in the definitions game, he has provided us with a new understanding, if not definition, of modernism, one that is richer and less implicitly triumphalist than many a previous celebration of its status as a rebuke to the interminable bourgeois century. Frisch's modernism, in its distinctive (but not freakish) German form, is characterized by ambivalence, reluctance, and regret, perhaps even more than by the familiar iconoclasm, innovation, or edgy critique. Taking his cue at least in part from Schoenberg's pathbreaking essay on "Brahms the Progressive," published now fifty years ago, Frisch finds the modernist tendency in unexpected places, and by so doing he erases the distance between it and the condition of modernity itself. If previous historians of modernism have seen this "ism" as a kind of title to bestow on those daring few who heroically cast off the constraints of the past, Frisch is drawn to Nietzsche's image of the creative artists of ancient Greece "dancing in chains": that is, projecting spontaneity and joy while weighed down by their adherence to self-imposed and to some degree inherited forms. Modernism is to be found both in the ways those inherited forms are changed and in the consciousness of their weight--that is to say, in the ways in which they still make themselves felt. And as a result, not only do many more artists and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century become modernists, but modernism altogether usefully extends to the age and in particular to its characteristic ambivalence about moving ahead. Perhaps ironically--the modernist mode par excellence those who embraced progress and change in the modern world without regret or fear or a shadowed sense of loss are the only ones who cannot be called modernists.

With richness of detail and subtlety of analysis, Frisch lays out this interpretation of modernism in six chapters. Pushing back the origins of modernism to the 1870s, he begins with the primal confrontation between Nietzsche and Wagner, both of whom embodied the ambivalence of modernism in their radical departures from conventional form (of academic discourse and music) and in their tortuous compulsion to revisit past values and past moral systems. His second chapter sheds startling light on German naturalism by arguing that it was an early but defining moment of modernist aesthetic development. This chapter productively integrates the self-understanding of the creative artists of the time with analyses of their works. Refusing to get hung up on the conventional, seemingly non-modernist aspects of these works, Frisch shows the efforts of such little-known (to the general public) composers as Franz Schreker to escape the Wagnerian legacy, experiment with new forms, and explore the depths of psychological man. If the second chapter emphasizes the interactions of literature and music, the third turns fully to the modernism of the visual arts, telling the compelling and little-known story of its fascination with the visual depiction of music. From Max Klinger's drawings inspired by Brahms's Lieder to Wassily Kandinsky's painting "of" Schoenberg's compositions, we see how essential music was to the modernist drive toward abstraction, symbolism, and a kind of metaphysical disengagement with the material world. The remaining three chapters all place music more firmly back at the center of the analyses. Chapter four looks at how composers like Marx Reger and Gustav Mahler appropriated Bach into a modernist aesthetic; chapter five shows the presence of what Frisch calls "ironic discourse among German artists working around 1900," inspired, it seems in equal measure, by ambivalence about Wagner and ambivalence about the bourgeois audience on whom the artists depended (p. 213). Thomas Mann is, of course, central to this analysis of the "ironic discourse," but as he did in the first chapter, Frisch is able to escape the familiar (Nietzsche and Wagner, Mann and Wagner) by turning to the musical, in this case producing a brilliant, sensitive analysis of Mahler symphonies. The final chapter explores the "dancing in chains" theme explicitly, through the rich texture of allusions to Moliere, Mozart, and Wagner (the chains, presumably) in the sometimes-dancing creations of Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Hans Pfitzner.

Celia Applegate

University of Rochester
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Author:Applegate, Celia
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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