The anxiety of influence: As the Towards the Millennium retrospective reaches the 1930s, Bayan Northcott wonders whether it is tackling the central issue

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The Independent Culture
Well, yes, there was a lot of worry and distraction about in the Thirties - Hitler and Hollywood and all that. And if Simon Rattle and his colleagues had devised a coherent set of concert programmes around such themes for the latest leg of their annual trek Towards the Millennium (with events in Birmingham, London and Cardiff till the end of the month), one might not have questioned their slogan 'The Thirties - Anxiety and Escapism'.

They could, for instance, have plunged in with that mordant Brecht-Weill show, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), which anatomises escapism far more saliently than Berg's belated fin de siecle phantasmagoria, Lulu (1934). They could have carried on with Honegger's art deco oratorio, Les Cris du monde (1931), which is precisely concerned with the anxieties of modern individuals in deteriorating times, instead of falling back on Walton's biblical knees-up of the same year, Belshazzar's Feast. And so on. The trouble is, the subtitle could equally apply more or less to any decade of the century, certainly since the invention of the Bomb - or even to the years before the First World War: for what could be more anxious than Schoenberg's Erwartung, or more escapist than Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier?

In the event, the period is being represented by the usual, slightly haphazard selection of mostly standard repertoire. Granted, the performances themselves are likely to prove pretty superior, and it would be ungrateful not to welcome certain relative rarities: Copland's lithe and luminous Short Symphony (1933) and Varese's atavistic Ecuatorial (1934), for instance, in next Wednesday's London Sinfonietta concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The South Bank's visual and literary contributions also look quite searching and at least some of the musical gaps are being plugged in Radio 3's concurrent Thirties season - but then, it has not limited itself to anxiety and escapism.

The real cultural issue that emerged more urgently in the Thirties than ever before was surely the relation of the individual to the masses. Admittedly, certain earlier arts and artists had already accumulated something like a mass public; one has only to think of the social centrality of opera in Verdi's Italy, or the huge Victorian readership that hung on every instalment of the latest Dickens novel. But it was the development of radio, recording and the talkies that truly revolutionised the dissemination and reception of music. Back in the 1900s, the audiences that had rioted over the first modernist masterpieces of Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky still mainly comprised the smart or the genuinely musical - people who had some reason for going to a performance in the first place. By the early 1930s, those same composers were being invited to London to have their works broadcast on the BBC's Home Service - the precursor of Radio 4 - to a potentially national audience, whether excited, outraged or plain indifferent.

In one sense, the burgeoning patronage of the new media was fortunate for artists, since the old private sources of support had taken a heavy knock in the Great Crash of 1929. But the ensuing Depression exerted its own influence, especially on younger composers, who began wondering whether the aims of high modernism were not cruelly indifferent to the cultural needs of ordinary people. And both the media explosion and the Slump fed into the third great pressure of the period, the rise of the ideologies. For it was a special irony of the Thirties that the communists, fascists and, in their own more benign way, the liberal democrats, all turned out to want much the same thing from their composers: a safe, upbeat populism easing assent to the powers that be. In Russia, this took the form of the doctrine of Socialist Realism, beefed up after Stalin had taken a personal dislike to the young Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (1936). In Germany, it ran to kitsch Olympic fanfares and an 'Aryan' heartiness which, mercifully, survives in little more than Orff's Carmina Burana (1937). In the United States of the New Deal, with its Federal Music Project, it culminated in the all-American manner of Copland's Billy the Kid (1938).

Of course, the tendency to backtrack on modernism, to try to resuscitate more traditional ways, suited some natural conservatives very well; helping the young Messiaen, for instance, strikingly to re-animate the apparently moribund French organ tradition, or Walton to produce a full-blooded neo-romantic Symphony in 1935. Even some of the classic modernists were to bow to the zeitgeist: the exiled Schoenberg turning aside from 12- tonery in 1935 to write a Suite for Strings in solid G major he hoped would be taken up by American high- school orchestras, and Varese, more sadly, retreating from his futuristic tirades into a depressed silence for the next 10 years.

But then what seems to have haunted so many thinking composers of the Thirties, indeed to have divided some down the middle, was the question of whether the individual committed to self-expression was any longer a tenable stance or whether it was now his inescapable duty to serve some collectivity. Most of those who threw in their lot unequivocally with the fascist Right have been swept away in embarrassment. An equally unequivocal Leftist, such as Schoenberg's pupil-turned-communist, Hanns Eisler, remains more interesting. After the Nazis had rolled over the German Left, he must sometimes have wondered, in the same way as Auden was to wonder about the effect of his early writings, whether all his workers' marches and agit-prop songs had succeeded in saving the life of a single Jew. Yet after the war he continued to keep face with the communist East German regime, while admitting to his young Western friend, Alexander Goehr: 'In the end, all I can say is that I prefer our problems to your problems.'

Between the extremes of Left and Right there were, of course, those who attempted more or less complicated balances between personal concerns and commitment. On the mild Left there was Copland, who published a May Day song for the masses in 1934 which, 20 years later, was to get him hauled before Senator McCarthy, and the young Britten, who produced some of the fiercest writing of his career in such anti-fascist protests as Our Hunting Fathers (1936); on the mild Right, a light-hearted celebrant of French life such as Poulenc sobered by the darkening situation into a more serious commitment to civilised and sacred values, or a good German like Hindemith, with his opera Mathis der Maler (1937), exalting art over action, yet ultimately realising he had to defy Hitler and leave.

But there also remained the select few who simply refused to see matters as a conflict between self-indulgence and communal use, cleaving to an objective faith in music as such: Bartok, for instance, balancing the constructivist symmetries of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1937), Stravinsky proclaiming his eternal principles of order in Persephone (1934), or Webern refining sonorous syntax to the edge of silence in his Variations for Piano (1936). The fact that we continue to value their music as much as any from this period should give pause to those who might like to draw a facile comparison between anti- modernist trends in the Thirties and present pressures towards accessibility. For while the aesthetic and ideological concerns then were real, even matters of life or death, today they are more likely to boil down simply to what the almighty market will bear.