On Monday evening I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the Mannes Orchestra, under the baton of its Music director David Hayes perform one of the most ambitious programs I've encountered this season. Two of the works performed, the first and the last, can rightfully be said to have been turning points in the history of Western music.
The concert opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857-1859). After having just heard last week Act II of the opera performed in concert at Carnegie Hall, I now had an opportunity to hear the Prelude that opens Act I complete with its famous "Tristan chord" as well as the Act III Liebestod the concludes the opera.
The next work was the piece I had really come to hear, the Konzertmusik for Wind Orchestra, Op. 41 (1926) by Paul Hindemith. When one thinks of German music in the 1920's the works that first come to mind are those of Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School. And in 1924, in fact, Schoenberg had completed his own Wind Quintet, Op. 26 that was among the first works to utilize the twelve-tone system. The problem, however, at least as far as Hindemith was concerned, was that such works had nothing to do with popular German culture but were almost exclusively the province of musicologists. Hindemith's great interest, in contrast, was in Gebrauchsmusik, that is, music that was accessible to the general public and could easily be performed by amateurs. He saw his great opportunity to further the cause of such music in the 1926 Donaueschingen Festival on whose committee he served; he accordingly issued invitations to composers to submit works of this type for performance while at the same time writing for it his own Op. 41. In the event, the Festival failed in its aims when none of the amateur wind musicians who had been invited decided to take part. It was probably just as well since the pieces that had been written for them, including Hindemth's own, ironically proved too advanced for the skills of amateurs. The various composers' efforts were not entirely in vain, however, for when they emigrated to the US in the 1930's while fleeing the Nazis, they found American wind orchestras that were much more receptive to their compositions than had been the amateur ensembles in Germany for which these pieces had originally been written.
After intermission the musicians returned onstage to perform Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (1913). So fixed a place in the repertoire has this monumental work now attained that it's difficult to believe it could once have been as controversial as its history suggests. Everyone knows the story of the infamous premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that ended in a riot, though there were those who claimed at the time that this was a response to Nijinsky's choreography rather than Stravinsky's music. (Years ago I saw a recreation of the original production staged by the Joffrey Ballet and thought it magnificent.) What can't be denied, however, is that this was one of the earliest triumphs of modernism no matter that it had its roots firmly in the Russian folk tradition. Even now, despite its familiarity, there is something deeply unsettling in the savage rhythms that burst out of nowhere and challenge the sensibilities of the audience. There are very few other works in the repertoire so gripping as this.