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On page 10, Ross recounts one of Alma Mahler’s memories after the scandalous, yet well-received, first performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome, and it appears to contain an essential, recurring theme of the book:

“On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over his colleague’s success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece–‘one of the greatest masterworks of our time’ he later said–and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God–Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question.”

This paragraph has given me much to think about as I read on into the second chapter dealing with the Second Viennese School and Schoenberg in particular. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on these topics:

*What is your stance on Vox populi, vox Dei? Do you find it to be a valid point of departure for discussing this history of the world and music? What parallels do you find in contemporary culture? Are we still looking for the answer to this question?

*As an artist, is it enough for you for the audience to appreciate your art? Or vice-versa, can you enjoy critical success when the audience is puzzled or even outraged?

*As an audience member, are you ever outraged? Do we still have the kind of theatrical scandals described in these first two chapters?

*Strauss is described as approaching “the transcendent ideals of the Romantic era with a philosophical skepticism that he got from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche” (18). Can you hear that in his music? Was Mahler right to treat his Strauss’s “black hole of irony” with some apprehension?

*Is Strauss’s struggle for the individual against the collective relevant today? Or is there a need for a new kind of collectivism in music/art/culture? How does either struggle relate to the modern day vox populi? Could you define what the voice of the people is right now?

Schoenberg's famous Self Portrait. 1911

*As evidenced by the above self-portrait, Schoenberg’s disdain of the vox populi is quite clear. And yet, art is made to express the self, to communicate truths and emotions. Without an audience, is the communication lost? Likewise, great explorers of any art or place make their way often without the support of the community. But ultimately, aren’t they going against the grain to search for a more essential way to communicate through art?

*Likewise, young Debussy was interested in the mystery enshrouded Symbolists and even “propose[d] the foundation of a ‘Society of Musical Esotericism…’ “(44). Is this just the pretension of youth or does it speak to an ongoing gulf between artist and audience?

*Near the end of Chapter 2 one of Schoenberg’s own disciples, Alban Berg, uses the opera Wozzeck to “contradict [his] utopian notion that the new language could replace the old. Instead, Berg returns to the method of Mahler and Strauss, for whom the conflict of consonance and dissonance was the forge of the most intense expression” (76). Which do you prefer: the complete abandon of the “old language” into atonality or this forge of old and new? How much does the execution and talent of the composer/artist play into whether one or the other is more compelling? What parallels can be drawn from other art forms?

Discuss, pose questions, bring up points overlooked. There is much meat to feed on here and all viewpoints are welcome!

(And don’t forget, this week’s schedule has us reading Chapter 3. Email any questions or topics to [email protected] by Sunday if you are so inclined.)


Written by Candice Thompson

After more than a decade in Brooklyn, Candice Thompson is now an Atlanta-based artist and writer. Prior to dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and ad hoc Ballet, she trained with Kee Juan Han at the School of Ballet Arizona and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She founded LOLAstretch Dancewear in 2000 and has designed costumes for a variety of theater and dance companies across the country. She recently received a masters degree in Literary Nonfiction from Columbia University’s Creative Writing Program and more of her dance writing can be found in the pages of Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Teacher.