Schönberg for Eight Hands in 20 Minutes

News from 04/28/2020

The Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung is the secret star of the new Netflix series "Unorthodox" – so before your next binge-watching session, why not check out what the institute itself has to offer online?

Junge Frau sitzt allein in einem Konzertsaal
Protagonistin Esty im Curt-Sachs-Saal des Musikinstrumenten-Museums, in der Netflix-Serie der Konzertsaal des "Chalhulm Conservatory of Music" © Anika Molnar/Netflix

By Julia Spinola

If you’re planning on binge-watching Netflix to forget the pandemic after a long day at the home office, you might unexpectedly find yourself inside the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Musical Instrument Museum). It is there that Esty, the young protagonist of a new mini-series, Unorthodox, listens entranced to a rehearsal by music students. After breaking out of her ultra-orthodox Jewish religious community, Satmar, in New York, she enrolls at a fictional music academy in Berlin and begins to find the way to her true self. When film-maker Maria Schrader asked about a permit to film on the premises, she met with an enthusiastic reaction from Thomas Ertelt, the director of the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research, SIM). Ertelt already knew and appreciated the autobiographical story by Deborah Feldman, which served as the basis of the screenplay. “It was Hans Scharoun’s progressive post-war architecture,” says Ertelt, “that prompted Maria Schrader to choose our premises as the backdrop for this story of emancipation and self-discovery. In the film, they symbolize renewal and freedom.” The film was not shot in the museum’s exhibition spaces, which would simply not have been possible with a film crew of around a hundred people, but in the Curt Sachs Hall and in the Folklore Hall of the building on Potsdamer Platz. One scene was set in the institute’s library and one even in Ertelt’s office. There are plans to continue the series, so it will be interesting to see how Esty’s music studies progress in the setting of Scharoun’s architecture.

The Corona crisis has largely paralyzed cultural life in Germany. The shutdown has not spared the SIM either. Events have been canceled or postponed, and the Musikinstrumenten-Museum has had to close temporarily. Yet beyond the world of streaming entertainment, music lovers have the opportunity to benefit nevertheless from the institute’s scientific, archival and public services. The range of digital content on offer is enormous. What better time than the present for taking a virtual walk through the archive of concert life and stopping for a break at some of the popular centers of musical life in Berlin between 1880 and 1945 – all without face masks and social distancing!

Here you can stroll online through one of the world’s most musical cities and encounter a wealth of outstanding artists, performance dates, venues, concert programs, and compositions. The SIM’s program collection, for example, contains around 12,000 concert, opera, theater, and revue programs from 1770 to the 1990s. Some of them are the last physical trace of venues that today are completely forgotten. Interestingly, says Thomas Ertelt, some of the gaps in our knowledge were filled during the work on the interactive map of Berlin (which you can access via the link to the topography of concert life at the end of this article). Berlin had about fifteen concert halls in 1920. Among them were distinguished performance venues such as the old Philharmonic Hall, which stood in Bernburger Strasse from 1882 to 1944, next door to the Stern Conservatory. One of Berlin’s earliest permanent concert halls was the one built for the Singakademie in 1827, which is now home to the Maxim Gorki Theater. The interactive map also points out smaller halls that played a significant role in the musical life of their times, whose locations were unknown for a long time.

As a specialist in the music of the Viennese school, Thomas Ertelt is interested, for example, in the Harmonium Hall at 35 Steglitzer Strasse, which no longer exists. At a concert held there on February 4, 1912, a few months after Arnold Schönberg’s second move to Berlin, some of his songs and his piano pieces op.19 were performed, as well as the orchestral pieces no. 1, 2 and 4 of his op. 16 – in an arrangement for eight hands, in other words for four pianists sitting at two pianos. Anton Webern and Eduard Steuermann were among the performers, and the pieces were arranged for eight hands by Erwin Stein. In the audience was the composer Ferruccio Busoni, who vividly described the playing of the pianists and the intensity of Schönberg’s conducting in a review of the performance (F. Busoni, Wesen und Einheit der Musik [Essence and Oneness of Music], ed. J. Herrmann, Berlin 1956, pp. 211–212).

The building that contained the Harmonium Hall is no longer standing. It is possible, however, to guess where it once stood. The SIM’s digital presentation links to an informative booklet issued by the Harmoniumhaus Carl Simon, which offers a detailed description and praise of the 190-seat hall, which it says has been created within the premises “by the Berlin architect Ed. Bangert in a highly artistic manner.” “Particularly worthy of recommendation,” it emphasizes, are the “comfortable cloakrooms, to which great importance was attached in the design.” In addition to performance venues, the topography of Berlin’s concert life includes other locations important to the music scene, such as instrument makers’ workshops, centers of the music industry, and the homes of important figures such as Josef Joachim in Tempelhof and Wilhelm Furtwängler in Steglitz. This produces some interesting connections: you find out, for example, that Ferruccio Busoni could have walked to Schönberg’s matinee concert from his last residence in Berlin (an apartment at 11 Viktoria-Luise-Platz) – it would have taken him no longer than twenty minutes. By the way, the film director Billy Wilder moved into the same apartment building three years after Busoni’s death – but that would take us back to the world of streaming services.

The number of agents representing performers also rose steadily from the turn of the twentieth century onward. In 1920, in addition to the well-known agency Konzertdirektion Hermann Wolff & Jules Sachs, there were Konzertdirektion Robert Sachs, Konzertbüro Ludwig Loewenson, and Konzertdirektion Hans Adler, which is still in business today.

One key source, which has been scanned digitally in its entirety as searchable text, comprises the very handy, small, gray booklets that were distributed free of charge in Berlin until 2012. Totaling around 1900 issues, they record the dates of concerts in Berlin from 1920 to 2012. The founder of this promotional publication was the singer and music lover Gotthard Schierse, who died in 1970. Upon his death, his company, Berliner Konzert- und Theaterreklame, was converted into a nonprofit foundation. The surplus income generated by the concert guide business was used “to promote young musicians ready to take the stage, by organizing concerts and competitions in Berlin.” Since the late 1980s, these have mostly been held in the Curt Sachs Hall of the Musikinstrumenten-Museum.

One of the highlights in the archive of concert life is the feature on the Viennese School. Based on correspondence between various figures in the Viennese School, it uses keywords to link to passages in which they mention particular rehearsals or performances. It isn’t limited to concert reviews or critical comments about performances; you can also find letters about planning performances and holding rehearsals. A large amount of the source material is relevant to an ongoing research project on the history of musical interpretation. The series of publications under this title is to be continued with two further volumes in the spring of 2021. One of them contains letters exchanged by Alban Berg and Anton Webern, while the other focuses on correspondence between the pianist Eduard Steuermann and several other figures in the Viennese School. The extensive collection of sound recordings related to the performance teachings of the Viennese School is not yet available in digital form.

If, however, you would like to get an idea of the advantages of digital publications with audio samples, we can recommend Mark Lindley’s research into matters of tuning in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in the online publications section (Valuable nuances of tuning for part 1 of J. S. Bach’s ‘Das wohl temperirte Clavier’). There you can hear how the unequal temperament that Lindley suggests as a tuning system for Bach’s work sounds in contrast to equal temperament. Also intended primarily for scholars is the flagship of the SIM’s digital content, as Thomas Ertelt puts it: the Bibliography of Musical Literature. This contains more than 415,000 entries, all of which can be accessed free of charge. Its success as a service is shown by the fact that it handles around a million requests each year.

The SIM’s digital content isn’t only for experts, however: there is also plenty for music lovers and people who are merely curious. The digital guide to the Musikinstrumenten-Museum caters for visitors with different depths of interest, offering brief information about the exhibits on its first level with the option of clicking on a second level to obtain detailed explanations and samples of music. So far, it has only been possible to access the guide via the in-house wi-fi network. It is now planned, however, to present parts of the guide, such as the virtual Beethoven tour, externally via the website. So instead of settling down for the next binge-inducing mini-series, you can set out on a journey through Beethoven’s audio cosmos and hear, for example, how the Prestissimo from the Piano Sonata in E major, op. 109, sounds on a replica of the fortepiano that Beethoven was given by the English piano maker John Broadwood & Sons in 1817.

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