Vienna, 1913

The sensation of being slowly pulled apart is strongest in the evening. I liken it to that feeling when nails are painstakingly, unapologetically dragged across slate.

The view through the chipped frame, the Kaerntnerstrasse, is one of two worlds superimposed. Neither the rubbing of eyes nor the grim gritting of teeth dispels it.

Outside, beneath the glow that hovers around every lamp, glasses clink and voices laugh. Two couples call to each other across the street.

Their words, bold and smiling, bounce off the cobbles and dark facades, giving away nothing. Only the corners of their mouths, twisted, tight and white, betray them.

As they disappear the glasses chime once more and the laughter peels out. Brittle and jagged this time, far too loud for the silences between.
Inside, beneath glittering chandeliers, pearls flash and waltzes play. Dawn breaks and the great doors are flung wide. Flushed young faces, breathless and blinking, fly out and into their carriages, vanishing with the night.

Only the cigar smoke they leave behind does not vanish. It lingers on, no longer the musk of dark tobacco, but the stench dark decay.

Unnoticed the light creeps in through the windows and, like a mould, sinks deep into the plaster, bleaching the silk, cracking the walls.

It is a strange new world. A world of splendour grown uneasy, opulence grown rotten. It teeters, unsteady, like the two men staggering down Naglergasse and out into the new day. Arm in arm, still singing their drinking songs. Merry. Desperate.

It is a world that needs a new music. Even the cow bells that chime from the blue and purple fields are dull now. Too heavy, too exhausted to be born away with the breeze.

It must be a music of double vision, of quiet terror. A music that does not flinch. A music that is prepared to stand at, or perhaps sink into, the abyss.

And so that music is born.

* * * * * *

This is Anton Webern’s Funf Stucke, written in Vienna, 1913.
I know that music of the 20th Century can be a daunting prospect. That’s why I wanted to play you this piece.

It’s 5 movements, and each in no more than 90 seconds. So you can give yourself wholly to each, knowing you won’t have to do so for more than a minute and a half.

I also know that music of the 20th Century can seem bewildering, bizarre. I wrote the post above to try and prevent that, to give it some context.

The great philosopher Adorno wrote ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz’. And whilst he later recanted on this absolute view, it remains a valuable point.

Art is a tool for making sense of our experiences. Our most impossible, complex, unthinkable experiences.

Imagine standing in 1913, amongst the crumbling ruins of Grand Old Europe, nervously tiptoeing ‘on top of a volcano’, as Rachmaninoff once said.

What music would you write?

I hope, with that in mind, you’ll find this piece as moving and as terrifying as I do. I hope you’ll embrace it and not dislike it for that.

I also hope, with that in mind, you’ll find yourself discovering an extraordinary new era of great music.

Because there can be no doubt that this is great music.

Ps. I took inspiration for this from the style of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Its the story of Oskar, a magic dwarf, who decides never to grow up, for fear he might have to become a grocer like his father.

Oskar narrates his experience of the war from his bed in a mental hospital. He uses his drum, a magical instrument that can see across great tracts of time and space.

Through Oskar’s absurd hammering, his occasional conversations with Satan and Jesus, and his piercing voice which can break glass at will, the Tin Drum delivers one of the most powerful and brutal snapshots of war’s atrocities ever written.

Go read it and tell me what you think!