Schoenberg began Gurrelieder in 1900, but he didn’t hear it until 1913. By then, he’d moved on, and he ostentatiously refused to acknowledge the applause for what (as it turned out) would be the greatest public triumph of his career. Radical artist snubs ignorant masses: it’s a gesture that could stand for much of classical music’s post-1913 history. Even today, you won’t get far into a discussion with contemporary music buffs before someone declares that concertgoers need to be ‘educated’. Which always reminds me of a friend’s account of the night at Reading when Guns N’ Roses decided to play new material instead of the hits that the audience felt they’d paid to hear. I forget the exact details, but it involved Axl Rose being pelted with bottles of urine: an altogether less ambiguous relationship between creator and public.
Meanwhile, audiences have by and large repaid Schoenberg by avoiding him as if he were Ebola — until now, anyway. Mark Elder’s Manchester Gurrelieder was one of the great events of last season, and this Proms performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle looked pretty much sold out. It’s not merely star power, either: there were plenty of tickets going begging when Daniel Barenboim conducted Birtwistle last month. Audiences do finally seem to have twigged that Gurrelieder, at least, offers the kind of high-octane, high-cholesterol fin de siècle thrill previously only available from Mahler, Wagner or Richard Strauss. (‘It’s like Tristan und Isolde times ten!’ commented the chap in front of me to his companion on the way in.)
As if to test that theory, the BBC programmed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony the previous night. It made for an interesting controlled experiment: both pieces demand huge vocal and orchestral forces, and both aim for transcendence (Mahler’s symphony famously climaxes with a musical depiction of the Day of Judgment).