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Kitsch and confusion reign in Carnegie Hall’s Vienna video

Don’t miss Vienna Philharmonic chairman Clemens Hellsberg: ‘Maybe we get here a glimpse of a better world, a world that never existed – except in this music.’ One could deconstruct that sentence in multiple ways. Many of the other ‘explanatory’ statements are no less equivocal.

‘There is a reason Sigmund Freud came from Vienna,’ says Carnegie’s curator – oh, really? I hear the bones of Jacques Barzun turning in his grace.


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  1. Clyde McConnell says:

    The usual clichés, deployed with minimal conviction.

  2. Isn’t every year a Vienna Festival at Carnegie Hall?

  3. The usual clichés, yes. I love Vienna but I detest the recycling of these empty ideas. FWM, too, is a brilliant conductor and I gladly pay top dollar to hear him conduct, but “Vienna is a city of dreams”? REALLY?

  4. This is the usual wine-and-cheese-under-candelabras Romanization of Europe that creates a one-sided and self-serving view of Western culture for New York’s social elite – though the fundamental issues go far beyond New York City’s hokey classism.

    Vienna’s heavy, neo-Gothic, Imperial architecture serves as an aristocratic antidote to the brutal, dehumanizing monoliths of NYC’s cowboy social Darwinism (hence the idea of Vienna as a “City of Dreams.”) And to make it even richer and more tantalizing the ad agency throws in tangy allusions to Vienna’s dark side. For those a bit more informed, ironic thoughts bounce from Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” to Adorno’s discussions of the irony of culture in the context of genocide.

    When I lived in NYC as a young man I believed in these highly idealized views of Vienna (and Europe) that are still a common part of New York’s intellectual atmosphere. Then I went to Vienna and witnessed attitudes that appalled me, beliefs that I had falsely assumed were part of a past left forever behind. I have spent the rest of my life trying to resolve questions of how beauty and unspeakable ugliness can exist hand-in-hand as part of culture. One interesting juncture came when the VPO performed Beethoven’s Ninth in the Mauthausen concentration camp, not so much as an act of reconciliation, but as an act of public relations.

    In so many ways Adorno was right. To create monuments to the culture that produced Auschwitz will be fraught with irony and inevitable forms of denial for centuries to come. It is also important to understand that today his words apply to all members of Western culture and not just Germans and Austrians. No one has yet been able to explain how we can proceed. Hence the cringing ironies in the above video.

    There is a good and readable explanation of Adorno’s thoughts about culture after the Holocaust here:

    (Speaking of Freudian slips, I like the comment above about “Barzun turning in his grace.” When culture becomes impossible, we all turn in our grace.)

    • Some of the work I have done for years has obligated me to examine many of the preconceptions revealed in the above video, so I would like to add a few more thoughts about it — though they are perhaps not well-suited to this forum.

      Post war Europe developed what might be termed a “culture of avoidance.” Most are aware that composers, for example, sought to avoid tonality, but this was just a small part of circumventing the whole cultural milieu that championed it. On one hand, the chauvinistic worldview of heroic, patriarchal, Romantic cultural nationalism produced great art, but on the other, it also produced Hitler. In the simplest terms, Romantic cultural nationalism eventually became an embarrassment as embodied in concepts like America’s Manifest Destiny and Germany’s concept of the Herrenvolk. Romantic cultural nationalism became part of the foundation of various forms of imperialism and genocide.

      The consequences of this type of Romanticism created an ethos of abhorrence and evasion that still affects Europe’s new music world to this day. We don’t know where to go so much as where not to go. For many cultured Europeans, the idealized aspects of the above video would thus be an object of derision at best described as Walt Disney’s Europe. And yet it is an advertisement targeted at New York City’s clueless, cultured elite.

      Postmodern Americans have take a slightly different approach and have developed what might be termed a “culture of detritus.” We take the cultural artifacts of our past and couch them in an irony that serves as an alibi. We distance ourselves from reality through the practices of our media. We laugh at the quaint Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody as if that made the slaughter of Native Americans and the brutal theft of about half of Mexico’s territory somehow better, even if similar imperialistic practices continue.

      As in the above video, the ironic and the real merge until reality becomes a dream-like simulation. Vienna, the City of Dreams, becomes an ironic fantasy. Iraq, a country of “smoking gun mushroom clouds” becomes a pretense to justify an illegal invasion. These simulations of reality have become a central aspect of American culture.

      Between America and Europe, we are, in the broadest terms, thus presented with two choices: the evasion of reality, or the simulation of reality, though usually an impenetrable combination of both. The above video is a good example.

      In many respects, we have no choice to but live in these delusions. As Adorno tried to explain, continually facing the full reality of our culture would be crushing and essentially undermine the will to live. I wonder if we will ever find better solutions than the forms of evasion, irony, and simulation that characterize the denial of both victims and perpetrators.

      • “There’s a large strain of irony in our human affairs… Interwoven with our affairs is this wonderful spirit of irony which prevents us from ever being utterly and irretrievably serious, from being unaware of the mysterious nature of our existence.”

        ― Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom

        • Thank you for the interesting quote by Muggeridge. I’m not really well informed, but I think most of the moral thought about the Holocaust (theological, philosophical, and historical) has centered around attempts to define conceptions of responsible behavior in individuals and societies. (E.g. Sartre, Camus, Fromm, Arendt, Adorno, and countless others.) The Holocaust seems to be a poor context for Meggeridge’s definition of irony “which prevents us from ever being utterly and irretrievably serious.” The Holocaust seems to demand nothing less. I think his idea of irony is related to Christian conceptions of sin and forgiveness that the Holocaust threw into question, at least in their practiced forms, hence the title of his book, “The End of Christendom.” Perhaps there are people here who are better informed about his work and ideas who could clarify this for us.

      • Get a grip. It’s just a promo clip for a few concert and opera performances with the usual suspects, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss/ß, Berg etc. Sure it’s a bunch of clichés – Vienna the city of imperial splendor and hidden dark undercurrents, the gilded illusion and the corrupt reality, the clash between old and new, blablabla. But it’s still just a brief promo clip, not a historical-philosophical essay. That that triggers all this babbling about Barzun and Adorno and post-modernism and, of course, the holocaust, we have to have that in there so you feel more dramatic and important is just very telling.

        • I found it very interesting and refreshing instead. Thank you, Mr. Osborne.

        • Besides, “romantic cultural nationalism”, whatever exactly that may be, did not “produce Hitler”, nor did it produce imperialism and chauvinism. Those had been around forever in one form or another, and people like Hitler were produced by the political tensions of their time, not by “romantic cultural nationalism”. That’s just a vague term for a wide range of artistic vocabulary derived from local cultural traditions that he and other nationalists may have selectively employed for their own propaganda needs, but it also served many less sinister artists of the time, like Dvorak or Mahler. Mahler, for instance, was a very “romantic nationalist” composer in the sense that he took most of his inspiration from German folk and high culture, from the musical tradition, from everything ranging from folk poetry and fairy tales to philosophy and high literature, from folk songs to lieder to the entire central European symphonic and operatic musical tradition from which he developed a highly complex and diverse language of musical and romantic symbology which is deeply rooted in the contemporary German cultural landscape in which he lived, and that makes him a very “nationalist” composer in a sense. Which, obviously, makes the later banning of his music based on “racial” grounds all the more bizarre and idiotic. But there is a very significant difference between “nationalism” in the sense of being rooted in a national culture and “nationalism” in the sense of using elements of a culture selectively to serve an ideological or political propaganda purpose.

        • Of course it is “just a promo clip…” And yes, a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. But why insult someone by referrring to their comments as “babbling,” when those comments are as carefully thought out as Mr. Osbornes? The guy at the corner bar will call me a babbler if I try to explain to him that the Super Bowl and the NFL are laden with social meaning and cultural implication far beyond what is immediately apparent in the national broadcast of a game. “Get a grip! It’s just football.” I gather that there are people here who are “tired” of all roads of discussion leading to the Holocaust. It has been 70 years, and we’re still trying to process it. Yes, there have been other genocidal atrocities, but when you are dealing with things Austro-German, it’s inevitable that this topic will keep reappearing. Abstraction and “off-topic” contribute to making this blog the interesting discourse that it is.

  5. Embarrassing. They should at least have read Carl Schorske, “Fin de Siecle Vienna”

    • Problem is – they have read Schorske, they just try to look as cliché-ridden as humanly possible to avoid looking educated (i.e. elitist), because where would we be if people were actually proud of intellectual achievement?

      Remember Tony Blair’s Desert Island Disc choices?

      If anybody can find me a picture of a politician or ‘media personality’ going to the opera, a concert, or giving an interview in which this person talks at length about her/his love for Schubert, Berg et al I’ll open a bottle of Champagne.

      In this market you have to sell yourself as good as possible – maybe they should offer BBQ’s in Carnegie Hall?!

  6. Petros Linardos says:

    Call me naive, but I am saddened to see Carnegie Hall associated with this cheap piece of advertising. I think that most of its audience deserves better than that.

  7. What is the problem ? The video is trying to sell a series of performances in a difficult climate. Why is it necessary to turn everything around and mention the holocaust or the events of 15-20 years of German history ? Let us be thankful that for whatever reason Vienna or Austria/Hungary was the crucible out of which came such great music and art.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Reductio ad Hitlerum aside, I wish a marketing expert could explain with what audience that garbage could close the sale.

      • I am not a marketing expert, but I think I may be able to answer your question: people who live in or near NYC who like to go to concerts with “classical” music and who would like to hear one of the most famous orchestras in the world live in repertoire they play better than most other orchestras. I don’t think the video tries to convince anyone to go to the concerts who wouldn’t be interested in them anyway. It just lets people know that the concerts are happening. It’s just a high gloss flyer in video form, nothing more. Nothing to get too upset about.

  8. What garbage ? Simply perpetuating the romantic and popular image of Vienna so the public will be encouraged to go and enjoy the classics ? Selling tickets is not easy these days and for a majority of the public the enjoyment of music need not be accompanied by the inclusion of irrelevant historical arguments.

  9. Bob Burns says:

    I have been reading this thread with great interest. I am, admittedly, a late comer – and a complete amateur – to this whole discussion. I come to it through one through a serendipitous discovery of the “Adagietto,” years ago, which set me on what I kid my family (who all think I’m nuts!) as being my “Mahlerquest.”

    Until I read the entire De la Grange tome I knew not much about 18th and 19th century Vienna. That work filled incredible gaps in my knowledge of the music of Central Europe, connecting me to the culture of the day and, of course, of Mahler himself.

    Perhaps nothing illustrates what’s going on in this thread than Mahler’s marriage itself. Alma Schindler was a shameless anti-Semite who married two Jews – even fled Austria after the anschluss with Franz Werfel – and whose writings about her husband(s) shocked people like myself on first reading.

    Sure, the above is just an advert, but it obviously set off latent feelings and sensitivities many of us feel in this ultimate irony of beauty co-existing with ugliness. I think we’ll all be pondering this irony of ironies for decades.

    When I went to Vienna for the first time in my life last October, I was quite taken with the beauty of the old city center area but the quotations from the anti-Semitic press of late 19th and early 20th century reminded me that all is not as it seems. The VPO, for all its success must also live with its skeletons. I figure if Lenny Bernstein (among other prominent Jewish conductors) could live with it, so can I. In the end they serve the music. Bravo!

    So, Mr. Osborne makes some very valid points – things to chew on, as it were. And for that I offer a thank you.

    • Do you also think of the skeletons when you stroll through other metropoles? There isn’t one which wasn’t built on blood and bones. If you are, for instance, in London, do you think about the *tens of millions* of Indians that were systematically starved to death while the British Empire sucked the life out of the country? Every time something about Germany or Austria comes up in this blog, somebody drags the Nazis in. Why doesn’t the same happen with British colonialism every time a subject that has to do with Britain comes up?
      I don’t think the Wiener Philharmoniker have any skeletons to live with because of things that happened before any of the current members were even born. Not more or less in any case than we all have plenty of skeletons in our collective past, no matter what country we are from.

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