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Lies and Epiphanies

Lies and Epiphanies: Composers and Their Inspiration from Wagner to Berg

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 196
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  • Book Info
    Lies and Epiphanies
    Book Description:

    Lies and Epiphanies' offers case studies of "inspiration" in five composers -- Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss, and Alban Berg. Their own tales of their "epiphanies" played a determining role in the reception history of their works: the finale of Mahler's Second Symphony was supposedly inspired by a "lightning bolt" of inspiration at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, while Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was purportedly his direct response to the tragic early death of Alma Mahler's daughter. Chris Walton looks behind these lightning bolts to explore instead these composers' dual roles as author and self-commentator, laying bare the fissures and inconsistencies within their testimonies and revealing how the supposedly extra-rational world of creative inspiration intersects with the highly rational world of money and politics. It has often been the composer himself who was intent on imposing on his audience an interpretation of a work and its genesis that was as superficial as his score itself is not. This study seeks to answer why. Chris Walton lectures in music at the Musikhochschule Basel in Switzerland and Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is the author of 'Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works' (URP, 2009) and 'Richard Wagner's Zurich' (Camden House, 2007).

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-843-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Chris Walton
    (pp. 1-10)

    Given the importance that Schoenberg placed on the notion of inspiration, it is ironic that he found this topic so awkward to discuss. He was on other occasions more cogent and less fragmentary than in the sentences quoted above,¹ but his hesitation here serves to remind us that “inspiration” is a concept as vague and difficult to define as it is widely used. Yet it is also a concept as old as the arts to which it supposedly gives birth. Inspiration was to Plato the origin of poetry, and artistic creation itself a kind of divine possession, mysterious and extrarational....

    (pp. 11-30)

    Richard Wagner was not the first German composer to write an autobiography. As a body of scholarly publications on music became established from the mid-eighteenth century onward, composers began to record the facts of their lives for posterity, often prompted by the authors and compilers of the newly emergent encyclopedias and dictionaries. Johann Sebastian Bach might have refused to write anything autobiographical when urged to do so by Johann Mattheson, but others proved more willing. Georg Telemann and Joseph Haydn were among those who provided brief autobiographical sketches for various editors. As the century progressed, composers needed less and less...

    (pp. 31-54)

    It is one of the best-known epiphanies of the romantic era. Some five years after writing a vast movement for orchestra entitled “Todtenfeier” (Funeral rite), Gustav Mahler decided it should open his Second Symphony. He began work on the middle movements in the summer of 1893 but came to a halt at the finale, uncertain as to how to finish the thing. On February 12, 1894, Mahler’s mentor Hans von Bülow died in Cairo, whither he had gone in hopes that the climate might repair his fragile health. It didn’t, he died, and his body was embalmed and shipped home...

    (pp. 55-93)

    Here are the facts as given, virtually uncontested, throughout the literature. Commissioned in February 1935 to write a concerto for the Ukrainian-American violinist Louis Krasner, Berg found the project at first intractable. Tragedy provided the inspiration that he needed when on April 22, 1935, Alma Mahler’s eighteen-year-old daughter Manon Gropius died of polio. Work proceeded quickly thereafter, and the concerto was finished the following August.¹ But as he was putting the final touches to the full score—with its title-page dedication “To the memory of an angel” [Dem Angedenken eines Engels] as promised—Berg was stung by an insect. His...

    (pp. 94-109)

    The creative silences of artists have been a matter of continuing fascination for the past two hundred years. Pondering the drying up of the springs of inspiration—Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s manic-depressive blocks, Harper Lee’s withdrawal after theMockingbird, Salinger’s post-Ryecatching seclusion—seems to have an appeal equal to that of pondering them when fully flowing. Our postromantic world still tends to view the source of inspiration as mysterious and unknowable, but its inverse, a creative block, seems by contrast to be finite and thus more easily comprehensible. Hunting for the source of the Nile is a strenuous exercise that...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE HERE COMES THE SUNSET: The Late and the Last Works of Richard Strauss
    (pp. 110-126)

    Lateness was the saving grace of Richard Strauss. With a dash of hyperbole one might even say it saved him from a fate “worse” than death, for it allowed him to avoid a postmortem reception history dominated by moral revulsion. Posterity has not always been kind to Strauss but it would have been a lot less so had he died, say, in 1934 when still president of theReichsmusikkammer, or in the early 1940s when courting the Nazi functionaries Hans Frank and Baldur von Schirach while his son’s Jewish in-laws, the von Grabes, were being slaughtered in the death camps....

  10. POSTLUDE: The Telephone Call
    (pp. 127-134)

    In an interview for theParis Review, the writer Anthony Burgess once remarked: “I can’t understand the American literary block—as in Ellison or Salinger—unless it means that the blocked man isn’t forced economically to write.”¹ If a lack of economic necessity can prevent an artist from writing, then one might infer the reverse and suggest that an artist’s “inspiration” can be prompted by the very prospect of money. This is contrary to the romantic image of an artist starving for his art in a garret and deriving his or her inspiration from adverse circumstances, an image that has...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 135-146)
    (pp. 147-158)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 159-168)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 169-171)