Chamber music as the opposite of modern concert life

Arthur M. Abell, the Berlin editor of the Musical Courier from 1893-1917, was a violinist and prominent figure in Berlin music circles. He relied on the journalistic technique of sharing insider knowledge: (supposedly) personal conversations and gossip from the best sources, as exemplified in his infamous book Talks with Great Composers.  In a column dated December 15, 1906, he reported that many great musicians wouldn’t perform if they didn’t need the money. He named Richard Strauss and Eugen d’Albert, two of the most prominent musicians who had been very popular in Berlin over the past twenty years. Then he took his readers “behind the scenes” after a concert by the virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe:

“After Ysaye’s magnificent rendering of two Bruch concertos here last week, he was overwhelmed with applause, and several celebrated musicians who had attended the concert, including Leopold Godowsky, went into the artists’ room to congratulate him. It was one of those supreme moments in the virtuoso’s career, one of those moments for which he is most envied by an admiring world. Ysaye received the congratulations with great nonchalance, and then, seating himself, and lighting his pipe, he said, partly in German, partly in French: “Es ist doch langweilig–tourjours la mème chose.” It was not so much what he said as the tone in which he said it that carried conviction and impressed me. One felt how tired he was of it all. These great artists who are so desirous of getting away from professional life, are not tired of their art per se, their inherent love for it which compelled them to become professionals is too strong for that. It is the public exploitation of their art for the purpose of money that disgusts them. Were they independent they would still live largely in their music at home, surrounded by friends and connoisseurs.”

This column shows that while chamber groups participated in the commercial public concert scene, the genre continued to symbolize the opposite, which was music at home, “surrounded by friends and connoisseurs.”

Abell’s news item also demonstrates one way performers negotiated the contradiction of high art and commerce: give a journalist exclusive access to your secret disgust for the public, thereby selling more tickets to your concerts to the people who identify with the elite, as connoisseurs who would be your friends if you knew them.

As written in Harry Graf Kessler’s journal on November 26, 1907:

What is special of the age itself is the simultaneous saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to modern reality….they are the two sides of modernity….You cannot understand it if you only see the one side.

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