The Last Davidsbündler?

In Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, it is theorized that the universe was created through an act of musical composition, and scientists in the Platonic tradition have continued to think this way throughout history. Kepler described his application of musical principles to his breakthrough discovery of the planetary orbits in his Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the Worlds). Albert Einstein, when asked about his Theory of Relativity, said:

It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.

It follows that if the universe is organized by musical principles, then musical principles must be organized by the universe. Music cannot be arbitrary; it must express truths about the physical world, and musical ideas must develop and evolve in the way that the universe does.

It was the great Moses of music, J.S. Bach, who emancipated music from the mere sentimentality of folk music, and gave to it the capacity to touch the highest cognitive functions of the mind by creating ironies, by posing paradoxes that only the mind’s poetic resources can solve. He did this with what is called tonal counterpoint, where musical ideas are reiterated in different contexts which transform their meaning. This provokes the mind of the listener to grapple with the principle which orders this succession of changes, a principle which has the character of a metaphor, something which cannot be expressed as a mathematical function or a logical proposition. Classical music in the tradition of Bach challenges the listener to re-experience the creative process by which the composer made the composition. That every human has the capacity to do this, is what Moses meant when he wrote in the book of Genesis that “God created man in his own image.”

The European oligarchy perceived the emergence of this art form as a grave threat to their cherished way of life. A society made up of individuals who are conscious of the god-like creative spark that is present in each human mind will not be content to behave as docile beasts of burden. They will insist upon innovation and progress, and the sovereignty of the individual.

From the standpoint of the oligarchs, the most nearly perfect form of society was the feudal system, typified by Europe of the 11th through 14th centuries. Why? Because social relations were entirely static. There was no “upward mobility.” A feudal lord could reliably assume that his progeny would also be lords, generation after generation, while a man who had the misfortune to have been born a serf would know with the same degree of certainly that his great-grandchildren would also be serfs. There was no social tension; this form of society was entirely “sustainable.” All human knowledge, including even the ability to read and write, was confined to a small, carefully chosen group of courtiers and clerics. To Europe's “noble families”, this represented a blissful sort of stability, to which today's oligarchs, whose tax-exempt foundations shape the trending ideas in academia and popular culture, hope to return, through the “green” ideology and the “Great Reset.”

Bach's discovery was one of many revolutionary developments that came with the Golden Renaissance, which began the process of liberating Europe from the cultural dungeon of feudalism. Other composers followed Bach and made their own unique contributions using his method, but the one who carried it to its highest, most perfected form was Ludwig van Beethoven. Following Beethoven’s death, a political battle erupted between the heirs of Beethoven such as Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms on the one side, and the Romantics, typified by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, on the other.

Romanticism is a school of thought that became fashionable in politics and the arts, beginning especially in the 19th Century, and continuing up through the present day. Lyndon LaRouche described it as “simply the idea that the acceptance of blind passion, as such, must rule.” The Romantics derided the cognitive, ironic, Socratic approach of Bach's method as stuffy and artificial. They preferred an “all-natural” approach where music would simply bathe the listener in sensual stimulation, or even better, unleash that “blind passion” in the above-cited quote from LaRouche.

This battle has continued to the present day, and sadly, it has not gone well for the Beethoven faction. The composers of the 20th Century, for the most part, decisively chose the Wagner-Liszt path — or worse. The supposedly “natural” approach of the Romantics was displaced by a new and more nihilistic approach: existentialism. Instead of a beast-like image of man ruled by his passions, they preferred a psychotic one; the universe was said to be arbitrary, irrational, and meaningless. Consequently, the arts gradually took on those same characteristics. This was called modernism.

A German think-tank, the Frankfurt School, had aggressively applied existentialist doctrine to music and the other arts. Following the Second World War, it moved to the U.S. and made the questionable claim that it was now a bulwark against a resurgence of fascism. The School’s leading spokesman on musical matters was Theodor Adorno, who made himself a champion of modernism, attempted to recast Beethoven as an existentialist, and was fond of issuing pithy quotes such as “Behind every work of art lies an uncommitted crime” and “Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage.”

So, by the latter part of the 20th century, the cultural landscape in Europe and North America had become a desolate one. However, the classical idea had not entirely died out, as we shall see.

1. Robert Schumann and the Davidsbündler

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wore two hats; in addition to being one of the greatest classical composers, he was also a music critic and journalist. In the latter capacity, he was keenly aware of a threat posed to the science of classical music composition. This threat came in the form of Wagner's “Music of the Future,” which robbed music of its autonomy as a pure art form, and relegated it to being merely a soundtrack to dramatic productions, like modern film music. Instead of engaging the mind of the listener in a Socratic dialogue, Wagner assigned to music the banal task of manipulating the emotions.

Schumann wrote prolifically on this topic in his music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In a manner reminiscent of Plato's dialogues, his journal often took the form of a discussion among several half-fictional characters, based on his real-life friends and artists whom he admired: among them were "Chiarina", who represented the piano virtuosa Clara Wieck (1819-1896), who later became Schumann's wife; "Felix Meritis" was Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the composer, pianist and conductor; and "Florestan" and "Eusebius" were two contrasting aspects of Schumann's own personality. Schumann called this semi-imaginary group of literary artists/philosophers the "Davidsbündler" or "League of David," after the biblical King David, who played and composed music, wrote poetry, and slew the Philistines.

With his witty, aphoristic articles and reviews, Schumann deftly but diplomatically exposed the barrenness and pomposity of Wagner's philosophy, and the shoddiness of his compositions. His wife Clara, however, was more plain-spoken; She wrote: "I decided to go to see Rheingold. I felt as if I were wading in a swamp the whole evening. The one good thing about the opera is that one is not deafened by the brass as one is in his other operas.... The boredom that one must endure, however, is dreadful. In every scene the actors on stage are in a cataleptic trance in which they remain fixed for such a long time that one cannot look at them any more. The women have just a few measures to sing in the entire opera and just stand around forever; in general they are all nothing but tattered, villainous gods."

Despite the efforts of Schumann and his colleagues, the “Music of the Future” continued to gain ground. At a certain point, the weary Schumann retired from editing his journal, but he came out of retirement in 1853 to pen an extremely important article called “New Paths,” in which he commended the young Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) to the world as a "chosen one." "We welcome a strong champion in him," Schumann concluded, exhorting his followers, "Ye who belong together, close your ranks ever more tightly, that the Truth of Art may shine more clearly, diffusing joy and blessings over all things." Three years later Schumann was dead. Mendelssohn had died nine years earlier. Clara continued to fight for the good in music, mainly by promoting it through her career on the concert stage, where she was one of the most celebrated pianists of her century. In this she was sustained by her deep friendship with Brahms, who had emerged as a towering figure in classical musical composition, in defiance of the growing hegemony of the “Music of the Future.” Unlike the Schumanns, Brahms was extremely reticent about making public pronouncements about music, despite his deeply-held views on the subject. However, he had an eye for talent, and there were three young musicians who became his protegés and went on to keep the standard of classical music aloft during the bitter struggles of the 20th century.

2. 1878 – Brahms and Antonín Dvorák

Brahms was one of the committee members in Vienna who decided on the allocation of government grants when the young Czech composer Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) was applying for his second state scholarship. The committee gave him the first prize, and Brahms was quite impressed with his talent. In December 1878 Dvorák traveled to Vienna, which is probably when their personal acquaintance began. Brahms was in the audience that month when Dvorák's “Symphonic Variations” was first performed in Vienna. Brahms took a particular interest in the variations form, and had very exacting standards. Dvorák was developing the method of using thematic material derived from Bohemian folk music, as did his predecessor Bedrich Smetana, but more intensively combining this material with the classical forms championed by Brahms, such as the variations and sonata forms. Brahms himself had shown a strong interest in the use of folk music, both in his “Hungarian Dances” and in his many settings of German folk songs.

It is important to recognize that all classical music has its origins in folk music. Bach developed a method for taking simple folk material, such as in the many traditional hymns that were incorporated into his cantatas, and elevating them through tonal counterpoint. This has political importance; the common folk could hear the familiar melodies that were an integral part of their culture, undergoing a metamorphosis into something more potent, something that made them conscious of their own cognitive powers. This suggested a pathway for the transformation of the rest of the society around them into one more progressive and humane. The “nationalist” movement in 19th century music composition, which included Dvorák, Edvard Grieg of Norway, Mikhail Glinka of Russia, among others, sought in the folk music of their respective nations the material to be transformed into classical compositions. Meanwhile, in the United States, a wealthy New Yorker named Jeannette Meyers Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885. She sought an internationally known musician to lend prestige to the project, and with a very substantial salary she managed to lure Dvorák away from his beloved Bohemia to head her conservatory for the next three years. It was a mutually beneficial relationship; because of Thurber's enlightened admissions policy, the student body included women, African Americans, and Native Americans, and brought Dvorák into contact with the African American composer Harry Burleigh who was studying there and who became his assistant. From Dvorák, Burleigh learned classical composition. From Burleigh, Dvorák was introduced to the Negro Spiritual, which he praised: "The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies...This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."

It has often been suggested that Dvorák incorporated material from the spirituals into his compositions, but Dvorák himself insisted that this were not the case. Dvorák continued to use the musical vocabulary of his native Bohemia. But ironically, the largo movement from his “New World Symphony”, composed in the U.S., was arranged with lyrics by one of Dvorák's students to make the popular song “Goin' Home,” which is now often regarded as a spiritual, and which was performed at memorial events for Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford.

Back in Vienna, Brahms had agreed to make corrections to Dvorák's works, due for publication while he was in the United States. When Brahms first read the score of Dvorák's mighty 'Cello Concerto, he grumbled, "Why on earth didn't I know that one could write a violoncello concerto like this? If only I had known, I would have written one long ago!"

3. 1887 – Brahms and Gustav Jenner

Gustav Jenner (1865-1920) was a German composer, educator and conductor. His compositions are rarely performed today, but they deserve far more exposure. As a young man his talent was recognized by Brahms, who took him on as his only composition student. Jenner kept meticulous records of what Brahms taught him, and also enjoyed a ten-year close personal relationship with Brahms. All of this found its way into Jenner's book, Johannes Brahms als Mensch, Lehrer und Künstler (Johannes Brahms as Man, Teacher and Artist). The result is an invaluable insight into Brahms' compositional and pedagogical methods, and his attitudes toward music. On the personal side, Brahms emerges as a kindhearted and occasionally mischievous curmudgeon. But as a teacher, a different side of him emerges: ruthlessly frank in his criticism, and unyieldingly strict in his approach to teaching. Brahms' relentless dissection of Jenner's compositional efforts caused Jenner some moments of anguish, but to his credit, he had the maturity to recognize that Brahms' approach was highly beneficial to him, and he chose it over a competing offer from Tchaikovsky, who offered general, vague praise for Jenner's “lovely mood of expression.”

There were three musical forms of particular importance to Brahms that Jenner, too, sought to master. These were the art song (commonly referred to by the German term, Lied), the variations form, and the sonata form. Regarding the Lied, Jenner reports:

Whenever he discussed a Lied with me, it began with an inquiry into whether the musical form corresponded in every detail to the text. Mistakes in this area he reproved in an especially caustic way, as a defect in artistic understanding, or a consequence of an insufficient mastery of the text. In general, he demanded that when the text allowed a strophic treatment, that such a treatment be employed. In order to be clear on this question, as to which texts might be handled strophicly, and which not, he recommended an exacting study of the collected songs of Franz Schubert, whose sharp artistic insight into such things revealed itself even in those Lieder where it seemed least apparent: “There is no song by Schubert from which one cannot learn something.”
...Brahms demanded from the composer, to start with, that he know his text exactly. Next, it was taken for granted that the structure and meter of the poem were thoroughly clear to him. Then he recommended to me that before composing, I should carry the poem around in my head and frequently recite it aloud, and while doing so to pay exact attention to how the declamation should be approached, and especially to note the pauses and to keep them in mind afterward during the work.
...it was certainly in no way sufficient for Brahms when there was nothing more present than a pretty, well-accompanied melody. In a case where, for him, my melody did not meet the requirements of the text, he said: "Compose another text for yourself under this." Brahms set great store by that, which one can call, for short, "word-expression." Often one finds in his Lieder pregnant turns of melody, that are clearly brought about by single, particular words of the text. Far from disturbing the melodic flow, these turns are essential components of the melody, indeed they are often like motivic seed-crystals, from out of which the entire melody appears to grow. It is instructive to study which portions of the text Brahms treats this way in his songs, while passing over others, that to another composer might seem no less deserving of such characteristic treatment. One will find that his sharp gaze has always differentiated the essential from the non-essential. But he has never composed the so-called "mood-poems," that are just thrown together from an accumulation of word-painting. If the direction of the melody was excessively oriented to the particular word-expression, this he would rebuke with the words, "More from the whole!", thereby penetrating to the heart of the matter.

The variations and sonata forms are often referred to as “absolute music,” or in Jenner's term, “pure instrumental music.” They are called this because they are entirely self-sufficient, not dependent upon a text, a story line or any other external element. What is more, as Jenner points out:

In no art form does the spirit of nature come to expression in a manner so pure and concentrated, so decoupled from the world of appearances, as in music, and especially in instrumental music. Its realm begins beyond the realm of the world of appearances, at the point where the realm of the remaining arts, that cling to the physical world, ceases. It was precisely this “decoupling from the world of appearances” that was attacked by Wagner, who insisted that music play a subordinate role to drama, evidently thinking ahead to such modern-day masterpieces as “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.”

Brahms emphasized the variations as a jumping-off point:

"Writing variations is the most intelligent thing you can do, for the time being,” Brahms had said to me, right at the beginning of the lessons, and so one of the first works that I brought to him, was a theme and variations for piano.

For learning sonata form, Brahms prescribed a very interesting and fruitful procedure: take a sonata movement by Mozart or Beethoven, analyze how the theme is developed as it passes through different keys, and then write a movement with your own original themes, but always keeping exactly to the development scheme of the sonata you are studying. Brahms said that he had done this himself, to learn to compose. This author tried this exercise with a sonata by Mozart, and it produces a very eerie sensation of inhabiting another person's mind, but the mind of a very great and instructive person. Jenner writes:

Near the beginning of my studies, Brahms recommended to me, as mentioned earlier, that I ought to subject the sonata-movements of Mozart and especially Beethoven to the closest scrutiny, so as to dissect their construction down to the smallest detail, to account for every note, and finally to make the attempt to faithfully re-create it with my own themes. Naturally he did not expect that something valuable would come to light in this way, but rather he sought, through this work of re-creating, to sharpen my understanding, refine my musical sensibility, and develop my sense of form: in short, I should to learn think musically logically.

More or less unconsciously, every beginner attempts to recreate that which has made the strongest impression on him. But precisely in this way, by doing it consciously, he learns. All of the great masters have naturally taken this path, without exception. Bach wrote in the style of his predecessors, despite the fact that they were so varied, like Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Frescobaldi. “As you know, I can tolerably adopt and imitate all kinds of styles and compositions,” it says in one of Mozart's letters. With Beethoven it was no different. This is the natural path of development, as it is natural that a great man attracts the imitation of a successor, and there is no reason that it should be any different.

The Wagnerians and kindred Romantics took the position that the sonata form was now useless, either because it had been superseded by Wagner's concept of the music-drama as a new “universal art form”, or because Beethoven's revolutionary contributions to the sonata had taken it as far as it could go. Here is Jenner's commentary:

Often today one can hear it said, that Beethoven, with his forceful works, had shattered, scattered, or in some way annihilated the form of the sonata, as it is frequently said, with more imagination than insight. I don't know which marvelous fantasies are behind these sayings. One thinks instinctively of the wild man; one can literally see how he bangs with a club until the shards of the sonata form fly off like fragments of a broken vase.

Jenner devotes the latter part of his book to an impassioned essay in defense of the sonata form along with its predecessor, the fugue, arguing that these forms are not arbitrary, but rather they spring, of necessity, from the “essence of music” – Jenner argues, in effect, that the revolution effected by Bach, the reiteration of a musical idea in different contexts to create paradoxes which the mind delights in resolving, required these forms. He also argues that the great achievement and legacy of Brahms was to make a new and original contribution to the history of music, using these very forms which the Wagnerians had insisted were no longer viable.

Jenner concludes by saying:

Certainly, Brahms received a rich inheritance, but only he who has inherited greatness can create greatness, says Goethe. May the twentieth century put the inheritance it receives to good use!

Ay, but there's the rub.

4. 1895 – Brahms and Ernst von Dohnányi

Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960 – Hungarian name: Dohnányi Ernö) was born in Pozsony, Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary, the city which is now Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia. This area of the world has suffered through frequently shifting borders and nationalities. Nonetheless, it has produced some great musicians, including Joseph Haydn, who was born in nearby Rohrau, Austria, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who was also born in Pozsony, although at that time it was called Pressburg under Habsburg rule.

As a young man, Dohnányi showed exceptional aptitude for music, graduating from the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music while still in his teens. By the time he was 20, he had toured Europe as a piano soloist, performing his signature piece, the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven. He had also published his Piano Quintet op. 1, which earned instant acclaim, including from Brahms, who said, “I could not have written it better myself.” The quintet shows the unmistakable influence of Brahms, but with certain distinctively eastern European characteristics, such as use of a 5/4 time signature in the finale movement (Frédéric Chopin had used this quintuple rhythm in his first piano sonata, and the Bohemian composer Anton Rejcka had earlier used it in a flute quartet.)

Brahms heard the quintet performed in 1895, when Dohnányi was just eighteen years old, and arranged for the composer to come to Vienna to perform it as the pianist. Dohnányi called on Brahms at his apartment and the two became fast friends, although sadly, Brahms would die two years later. Dohnányi was chosen by the Royal Hungarian Academy to speak at his funeral as its representative.

The following year, 1898, he visited the United States, again performing Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. That year also marked the completion of Dohnányi's own Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 5, a very significant work which he first performed in January 1899 in Budapest. He would go on to perform it all over Europe that year, and during a tour of the United States during 1900 .

The opening of the concerto immediately brings to mind the opening of Brahms' first symphony. The second theme has a motivic resemblance to Schubert's gripping Lied, “Der Atlas”. The piece, overall, again has a Brahmsian flavor, but Dohnányi's unique voice is clearly evident; the distinctively Hungarian aspects of his musical vocabulary are joined to the classical form in a way that would certainly have earned the approval of Brahms.

Not everyone approved, of course. The 20th century had dawned, and the “Music of the Future” was on the march. However, Dohnányi was not deterred by critics who called his compositions “conservative”. Later, he would make some of his views known on this subject:

...the so-called modern music has only a small group of enthusiastic admirers, and it seems like the same audience is at every concert of this type. Although the masses despise it, many of them don't dare to admit it openly; they rather say evasively that they don't understand it.
...Because the composers of “modern music” have overthrown every rule, this kind of music gives ample opportunity for untalented composers in displaying their ideas.
...We are now in a period when creating has great difficulties. It seems that almost everything has already been expressed. This is, of course, not quite so; geniuses can still find ways of showing originality without destroying all the rules of the past. The striving for originality at all costs, which may easily lead to many errors, is the refuge of the less talented composers. “Modern music” is desperately seeking originality, where there really is none. I am afraid that the time is not very far off when our whole culture will come to an end, if this lack of self-understanding spreads.

By this time, Dohnányi had become world famous as a composer, pianist and conductor. Like some other giants of classical music, he had a remarkable memory, from which he could play all 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven. He continued to compose; his lovely Symphony No.1, op. 9 appeared in 1901, which concludes with a grand orchestral fugue in the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms. He was a prolific composer and performer of chamber music. In 1905, he was invited by Brahms' close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, to teach at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, where he remained until he returned to Hungary in 1915. But now his stellar career was about to be disrupted by something beyond his control: two world wars.

During and following WWI, Hungary underwent a number of convulsive transformations, as its borders and political leadership changed frequently. There were power struggles within the music community which intersected these political events. Dohnányi had been made, at various times, director of the Budapest Academy and the Budapest Philharmonic Society, and these appointments made him enemies among other musicians who were competing for these positions. The instability grew worse with the accession to power of the Proletarian Dictatorship in 1919, and ultimately Dohnányi made the decision to flee with his family to Norway, which was a very difficult and exhausting journey. The dictatorship lasted only one year, and the Dohnányis returned.

He became once again extremely active in the musical life of Hungary, continuing to teach and compose, and giving hundreds of performances as a soloist and conductor. He began to tour again, including highly successful tours of the U.S. during 1921 and the years that followed. He went on to resume his leadership of the Academy and the Philharmonic, but then, beginning in 1939, he became more and more preoccupied with combating the growing Nazi influences. He resigned his directorial post at the Academy rather than submit to anti-Jewish legislation. In the Philharmonic he managed to retain all Jewish members until two months after the German occupation in March of 1944. Rather than submit to demands that he fire Jewish musicians, he disbanded the ensemble. Later that year, the Dohnányis once again abandoned their homeland to become refugees.

What followed was an odyssey that took them to Austria, England, Argentina and finally the United States. Dohnányi was by this time on his third marriage. His son Hans von Dohnányi, from his first marriage, had become a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, working closely with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose sister Christel he married. Hans was executed by the Gestapo in 1945. One of Hans' sons, Klaus, went on to become the Mayor of Hamburg, Germany during the 1980s, while another, Christoph, became a world famous conductor.

However, in a great historical irony, Ernst von Dohnányi found his attempts to find a new home stymied by mysterious rumors that he had been a war criminal and Nazi collaborator. Apparently these rumors originated with jealous musicians in Hungary who wished to prevent his return, because they had their eye on positions that might be given to him. None of this could be confirmed, and the charges were never specific. It was learned, however, that the Music Officer in Salzburg, a man named Otto Passeti, had issued a formal charge, which he refused to clarify or explain. These rumors continued to surface at various stages of the Dohnányis' journey as refugees, causing mass cancellations of public performances and interfering with their search for a permanent residence.

Finally, with the help of many Jewish leaders and US military officers, Dohnányi and his family settled in Tallahassee, Florida, where he and his wife became American citizens, and he taught at the Florida State University Music School for the final decade of his life. His grandson, Christoph von Dohnányi, studied with him there, and went on to a very successful career as a conductor.

Dohnányi continued to compose until his death in 1960. In 1953, he composed his American Rhapsody, op. 47, for orchestra. In this piece, he did what Dvorák did not do: he incorporated American folk melodies. The composition is reminiscent of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, which is a somewhat serious, somewhat humorous piece with extensive quotes from student drinking songs. In the American Rhapsody, Dohnányi uses “On Top of Old Smokey,” “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “Turkey in the Straw”, and “Sweet Betsy from Pike” in a similar way, demonstrating how these familiar folk melodies can be varied, developed and ironically transformed to reveal unexpected meaning.

Was he the last of the Davidsbündler? Certainly no one of his stature as a composer has emerged in the 125 years since he made his appearance, and Dohnányi himself, once one of the leading lights of the music world both in Europe and in the U.S., has faded into obscurity, largely due to the calumnies that were directed against him in the post-war period (similar to the better-known case of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler), but also because he refused to join the musical lemmings who succumbed to modernism. The fact that he resolutely continued to compose music using classical methods should buoy our spirits. There are hopeful signs of renewed interest in his compositions; these should be encouraged, and the method of Johannes Brahms, as preserved in the writing of Gustav Jenner, should be studied and once again put into practice.

Homepage