Christian Heindl: A look behind the scenes of the Austrian music scene

Musicologist Christian Heindl personally knows lots of Austrian composers, has become an expert of contemporary music of Vienna as a concert organizer and independent journalist published in various journals (ÖMZ, Wiener Zeitung, Opernwelt, nmz, das mica und die Pressburger Zeitung). He is also an author of radio shows in ORF (Pasticcio, Opernkonzert, Aus der Welt der Oper, Studio Neuer Musik, Zeit-Ton, Alles über Musik, Aus dem Konzertsaal) and a lecturer. Ona Jarmalavičiūtė interviewed this expert about the music of the past and the present in Austria.

How would you describe the musical situation in Austria?

Compared to Germany or the United States, Austria focuses only on one city – Vienna. It has two million inhabitants and six million people lives elsewhere in the country. So the musical scene is split into two parts. Artists living in Vienna think only about themselves and think that Vienna is the only one place in this country. That is the reason why other regions do not like Vienna. And the truth is somewhere in the middle. On the other hand, it is quite impressive how many music events take place in the capital, as much work has been done on the prosperity of modern music and composers, although many believe that more should be done.

How would you describe the formation of Austrian music in the 20th century?

The history of Austrian music was determined by political and historical events, especially the Second World War and the rise of the Nazis. As we know, the Jewish composers had to leave Austria to avoid the death and concentration camps. Natural growth in art and culture has been disrupted then. After the war, the young generation had to start everything new. The most impressive thing for me is how the musical life of Austria recovered in about fifty years after the Second World War. Then there was the old generation of composers who had recovered their work at universities. But I must say that most of their works, and their values, were very conservative. I’m not the one who admires experimental music, I prefer to listen to tonal music, but even for me their work seemed hopelessly conservative. So it goes without saying that the younger generation felt an obligation to create a freer and more individualistic compositional tradition.

Who influenced those younger generators?

The principal teacher in Vienna at that time was Alexander von Zemlinski (1871-1942). He is considered a post-romantic composer who wrote tonal music, although he has written ten or twelve dodecaphonic compositions that I do not like. However, I value this person because of his liberal thinking and the values that allowed his students to create something new. Everyone who wanted to compose modern music at the university had his class. He has consistently invited his students to festivals and conferences abroad to get to know what is happening outside of Austria. Most of his students became famous composers, and this was the “new generation” that was born in the 1930s.

The musical scene of Vienna has fundamentally changed since the 1990s or a little later. At that time, one of the main organizers and authors of the Wien Modern festival was the distinguished representative of tonal music, Kurt Schwertsik (b. 1935). An unexpectedly conservative composer became the leader of a modern music festival! This partly resulted in the young, twenty, thirty-year-old creators refusing to belong to one or another tradition.

What other personalities encouraged the individuality of the creators?

Particularly important was one of Zemlinsky’s followers, Heinz Karl Gruber (b. 1943), who demanded authenticity and individuality from his students, trained personalities and bright creative characters. Stronger class graduates have distinctive features that can often be heard and recognized by listening to their music. I think this is an interesting and rare feature of modern modern music. Of course, not all Gruber students have become bright composers, but many of them have chosen the path of the teacher and have contributed to the education of the younger generation. Many generations of electronic or graphic music makers have grown from this generation.

What is the latest generation of composers like? What phenomena accompany or inspire their creation?

For those who are now 30-40 years old, it is important to create music for a variety of media – movies, television or radio. Many composers would like to work in this area. And of course, every composer living and working in Vienna would like to write an opera. However, the rare gets the commission to do so. By the way, the opera in Austria is still a main genre of composers. On the other hand, it is a historical genre. If you would like to talk about opera with the people of Vienna, they will be happy to do so, but you will talk about Wagner and Strauss. Not really a modern opera.

In fact, there were some organizations in Vienna that specialized in building modern operas, but after a while they were closed, mainly because of financial troubles. Some still works. For example, one Neue Oper Wienn season will feature three world premieres of contemporary operas. But most of the time, contemporary music is performed at music festivals such as Wien Modern. The operas there are usually performed as concerts. In recent years at the Wien Modern festival, the opera by composer Olga Neuwirth (b. 1968) was set up in this format, and on the stage a film was shown on which she also once created alternative music.

What is an Austrian sound or an exceptional feature of Austrian music?

Austria is not very different from other countries. But there is one nuance. Every musician or composer feels the responsibility of tradition. In that “backpack” all the great powers are put – Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schönberg, Berg, Webern, and all of the musicians who have grown or studied in Austria. Even in the contemporary music market, composers are still competing intensively with them. That is the aspect that Austria is exceptional.

I think most Austrian composers, whatever their genre or musical style, would not willingly learn and draw ideas from their classics. Listening to Austrian music, I sometimes hear some subtle or Malaysian sound, but it is just a feeling that is difficult to describe. But we also find the Malaysian features in the works of composers from other countries. If we really had a “national sound” from countries like Russia or Hungary, when we could recognize folklore motives from several sounds of a work, we should also rely on our Austrian folklore. The question then arises: what defines Austrian folk music?

Indeed, how did Austrian folklore influence music? What are the main features of this phenomenon?

As a person born and raised in Vienna, I am mostly associated with the folklore in the Vienna neighborhood and the nearby villages. The sound of music that is heard in such places, really inspires Austrian composers. For example, Schubert wrote “German Dances” – they are Austrian rather than German and based on the Austrian folklore tradition. Or the famous Johann Strauss waltz. Strauss grew up playing Schubert’s “German Dances” and basically his high school compositions are based on the same folklore rhythm formula. Another example would be Mahler’s work. Mahler comes from a small village near Vienna. Undoubtedly, in his childhood, he heard traditional or synagogue-sounding Jewish music. The music of both the Austrian people and the synagogue is very simple, understandable and tonal. They can hear similar melodies and other vocal performances. We find the same melism or the same tonal simplicity in Mahler’s music. Particularly Austrian is the second, slow, part of the First Mahler Symphony, which resembles the music played by a bohemian Jewish village near Vienna. So, in his works, he used what he heard in childhood, both Jewish and Austrian folk music. On the other hand, the Jews are part of Austria and these two traditions should not be separated.

If Austrian composers today want to look for a national musical sound, they may discover it at least by some means. But is it really interesting and useful for Austria and its musical progress? I think that today, the national Austrian sound does not exist.

We know such a phenomenon as the Vienna Composers’ School. What role do they play in today’s music context?

This is a rather difficult question. We basically understand our entire music history with schools, and more precisely with the Wienese school. So, there is the ‘first school in Vienna’, which includes Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the ‘Second School of Vienna’, which includes Schönberg, Berg and Weber.

However, the problem is that the “first” school was not really a school, and for a long time the “second school” was the only really existing school in Vienna. Of course, such an assessment is not entirely correct. Of course, Mozart learned a lot from Haydn, and Beethoven learned from Mozart and Haydn, and they all knew each other well. And that could be a school in some ways. The Second School is also not fully in line with the school definition standards, as there is a large proportion of Schönberg pupils who did not write a dodecaphonic technique. So it cannot be categorically defined in any way.

A Vienna school associates to me with such great educators as Heinz Carl Gruber, Alexander von Zemlinski, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and they have grown a generation of modern music makers. The most interesting thing is that their students are already teaching at the university and they belong to this great teacher-student historical chain continuing from the 20th century second half to now. Perhaps it would be more conservative in terms of style than other European countries. However, the entire Viennese musical community has grown substantially from the same pedagogical tradition. Indeed, there is something that links all Austrian composers. They are quite sociable and consider each other as colleagues rather than enemies or competitors. They really do not get angry if the music of their colleagues is performed, as long as their own music is also on the stage.

How is the profession of composer perceived in Austria today?

The most interesting thing is that people do not really have the slightest understanding of what the composer’s profession is and why it is needed. They think, well, Mozart is a composer, Strauss is a composer, but what can a composer do today? Maybe after a while he remembers that the music sounds in the movies, so you need a composer who can write music for movies. But this is not about serious (academic) modern music. Of course, the audience is visiting classical music concerts. However, rare without additional musical education, really knows what contemporary music is. Is it too difficult for people to create contemporary art? Are the creators and the contemporary music community too closed of? Maybe we just need to invite people and say: Here’s what we do, I’ll explain everything to you, I’ll tell you. Maybe the stage of modern music would get more attention?

Do you think classical music is still part of Vienna’s identity?

Yes, it really matters when it comes to the identity of Austria, especially Vienna. Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that the people of Vienna are listening to a lot of classical music in their daily lives. I can set an example with a state opera in Vienna. It is funded by the state, which means that every taxpayer pays for a state opera. However, probably more than ninety-nine percent of the city’s population does not visit the state opera, most have not been there throughout their lives. However, these people are not offended by paying for the State Opera. Why? Because it is a part of the city identity and we have to pay for this identity to be preserved. Just as it is paid for university and other state institutions. If you ask any resident of Vienna what should you visit, when you come to this city, everyone would answer – of course go to the State Opera.

How do you think Vienna’s musical situation will look like in the future? What are your insights on this topic?

Sometimes, of course, I think about it, but the more I think about it, the clearer I see how unpredictable the future is. It is very difficult to determine which direction music will move in the future. Everything is constantly changing.

When I think of “musical revolutions”, I think they were not a real revolution, changing things fundamentally. Maybe when computer, electronic music came into being – but then basically nothing changed, only the tools and the creative principles remained the same as those of Monteverdi. I remember how thirty years ago I was in a concert where a piano stood on the stage and performed itmself, there was no musician. Did it fundamentally change the principles of music performance? Really not. It was a nice experiment, and we still want to see the human musicians on the stage playing the way they played during those four hundred years. Or, people are now listening to music on various media and on the Internet. Has this fundamentally changed the way people create and perform music? No, it’s just a different form, but the music itself doesn’t really change. Even having the opportunity to listen to music online, people will not stop walking to concerts, and concerts will not lose their value. So I think this tradition will continue for some time.

Thank you for conversation!

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