A portrait of Kessler by Edvard Munch.
In last week's New Yorker, I wrote about Journey to the Abyss, Laird Easton's English translation of the early diaries of Count Harry Kessler. As promised, I have typed up some music-related passages from the diaries — namely, Kessler's dinner with Mahler; the origins of Der Rosenkavalier; Shaw on Mozart; the androgynous Schoenberg-Nijinsky ballet that never was; the premiere of The Rite of Spring; a glimpse of Richard Strauss's anti-war stance during World War I; and the Mahler performance in Zurich that seemed to herald world revolution. There are more musical gems to be found in the diaries, which, in a better world, would have been a runaway bestseller.
March 18, 1907, Vienna:
Sat with the Mahlers in the loge for the premiere of Iphigenie in Aulis. Afterward stayed up late at Hartmann's with the Mahlers, the Molls, Burchardt, etc. Someone said that good art is never popular. I replied, "Not true! For example, Wagner." Then someone asked why certain great artists had found a public and others not. Mahler said that with Wagner it was because he had been the first great composer who painted nature. The romantics, Weber, etc., made a beginning, but Wagner had carried this to completion. With him as in nature everything remains in flux. Nowhere is there a conclusion, nothing returns in exactly the same way as in earlier music. This is what distinguishes post-Wagnerian, modern music above all from pre-Wagnerian music. One brings back the same motifs, to be sure, but in a completely new performance [Kessler writes Durchführung; "development" might have been preferable]. So you can avoid boring the public and you have the same flux as in reality.
Feb. 9, 1909, Weimar:
Lunched alone with the Hofmannsthals. Rode out with Helene Nostitz to Tiefurt and went for a walk in the snow-covered park. Hofmannsthal asked me about Claude Terrasse's Travaux d'Hercule, which Elias described to him so well. In conclusion I told him about Terrasse's Faublas operetta. Hofmannsthal was enchanted. That is precisely what he would like to write for Strauss. He wanted to take that up immediately and see if there was something there. If it worked then he had enough material for years. With the money that such a merry comic opera would earn him and Strauss he would be able to educate all his children. He would then be much freer to create other things.
Feb. 10, 1909:
[After Hofmannsthal and Kessler thrash out the scenario, with many of the best ideas coming from Kessler:] So Faublas and Pourceaugnac [aka Octavian and Baron Ochs] stand opposed to each other not only as youth and age, beauty and ugliness, bad and good manners, but also as clumsiness and esprit. This antithetical quality is perceived clearly. As in the world stupidity is the driving force, which esprit, however, makes use of.
Jan. 9, 1912, London:
Had lunch at Bernard Shaw's ... About Mozart, Shaw said that he had kept his music flowing by little impulses, sforzando passages, "little kicks." When the completely different, broad melodies of Beethoven and Wagner arose, conductors played Mozart as well in this style and killed him. Only Richard Strauss, whose style is related to Mozart's, rediscovered the correct style to present Mozart.
Feb. 19, 1913, London:
Craig and Diaghilev and Nijinsky had lunch with me so that we could agree on a ballet. Craig proposed as an idea that Nijinsky should appear in the same ballet sometimes as a man and sometimes as a girl. He should embody the ideal figure of the woman. Diaghilev wanted Schönberg to compose the music. He and Nijinsky believe that Schönberg's ultramodern, peculiar manner was as if made for the fantastically poetic subject. Craig was, when I translated their view to him, completely crushed, because one thinks of his work as "strange" and ultramodern. "I had hoped I was quite normal and traditional." That's why he prefers Vaughan Williams as a composer.
May 29, 1913, Paris:
In the evening the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music. Nijinsky's dancing style as different from Fokine's as Gauguin's from _____ [Laird Easton's note: "Kessler wrote 'Delacroix' and then crossed it out"]. A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos. The public, the most elegant house I have ever seen in Paris — aristocracy, diplomats, the demimonde — was from the beginning restless, laughing, whistling, making jokes. Here and there some stood up. Stravinsky, who sat with his wife behind us, raced outside like one possessed after scarcely five minutes. Suddenly a stentorian voice cried out from the gallery, "Okay, whores of the Sixteenth (the Sixteenth Arrondissement, that of the elegant world), are you going to shut up soon!" [All sources agree that this is Florent Schmitt.] The reply came from a loge: "Voilà those who are ripe to be annexed." At the same moment D'Annunzio and Debussy in Astruc's loge got into a quarrel with a neighboring loge, screaming into their faces, "What a bunch of imbeciles!" Now the commotion became general. Astruc was heard crying, "Wait for the end, you can whistle afterward!" and as a reply from the parquet: "How long?" whereupon Diaghilev replied, "In five minutes." Pautrier behind me shouted, "Play a tango for them"; Marie Murat had a loud argument with her brother. Gide, Ghéon, the entire Nouvelle Revue Française stood like a phalanx at the entrance to the loges, bottling up with shouts, the parquet and the loges of the Polignacs, Rohans, Murats, etc. And above this crazy din there continued the storm of salvos of laughter and scornful clapping while the music raged and on the stage the dancers, without flinching, danced fervently in a prehistoric fashion. At the end of the performance, the monde and demimonde went at it until a frenetic applause triumphed so that Stravinsky and Nijinsky had to come on stage and take repeated bows.
We went to Larue's and had a late supper, the usual crowd, and in addition Fried [Oskar Fried, the conductor], Tata Golubeff, the countess Souboff. Finally at three a.m. Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Bakst, Cocteau, and I took a taxi and did a wild tour through the city at night, looking almost dead under the moonlight, Bakst waving his handkerchief on a walking stick like a flag, Nijinsky in tails and a top hat, silently and happily smiling to himself. The dawn was breaking as the wild, merry party set me down at the Tour d'Argent.
March 4, 1915, Berlin:
Had lunch with the Strausses. They were alone. Strauss uttered very sharply and irascibly his view that the war was nonsense, an "atavism." That ten "gangsters" like Grey, Delcassé, [Grand Duke] Nikolai Nikolaevich, etc., could let millions be murdered, that must stop. Whether a strip of land like Alsace-Lorraine belongs to Germany or to France is fundamentally a matter of complete indifference, but in any case not worth hundreds of thousands of lives. Strauss does not want to permit any goal outside of and above the individual. I opposed him with equal vehemence.
Jan. 10, 1918, Zurich:
Evening in the Music Hall the concert by Fried. Mahler's Second again unleashed storms of applause. Maria Freund, my old acquaintance from the Clemenceau circle, sang the alto part. Freund, Annette Kolb, Fried, the Schickeles, Fritz and Curt Unruh, Paul Cassirer, Professor Rüdd, Heinz Simon, Stransky, and I remained afterward in the Baur au Lac, and later, after the curfew, at Cassirer's in the Schwert. He lives there in Goethe's room, on the walls of which he has hung Cézannes and van Goghs. The triumph of Fried and of the Berlin Cathedral choir has created a highly excited, nervously electric atmosphere. Through the windows you look down in the snow-covered city at the black waters of the Limmat, glittering with lights. The van Goghs and Cézannes in Goethe's rooms, the strangely mixed, cosmopolitan society, almost like before the war; the moment — this moment — when Trotsky is trying to extend the Russian Revolution into a world revolution, when the conflict between the military and civilian authorities at home becomes dangerous; the echo of the colossal Last Judgment by Mahler; the jumble of so many different feelings, experiences, intuitions, people, has something dreamlike, unreal, fantastic about it....