“Dear Professor, I have just heard your concert here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course. However, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common ... [the] independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings…”
With these words, Wassily Kandinsky introduced himself to the composer Arnold Schönberg, and a historic friendship was born. Schönberg, living in Vienna, was beginning to invent and explore the world of atonal music that would earn him a unique place in the history of modernist music. Kandinsky was a Russian avant-garde painter who had emigrated to Munich, on the brink of creating the purely abstract paintings that would help usher in a radical new era in modern art. Both men were trying to shed the principles of conventional artistic representation and composition, a process that at times history has made seem rather more effortless than it actually was.
Their shared projects were products of the central European culture in which they lived. The pace of industrial production, the problematic power of commodity culture, the advent of psychoanalysis, the emergence of the New Woman’s movement … these historically specific experiences shaped both Kandinsky’s and Schönberg’s hopes for their art. Perhaps naïvely, they envisioned a modernist language, in sound and form, that could rise above the mundane circumstances of contemporary life, with its department stores and multiplying factories, in order to offer a more spiritual and instinctive experience, characterized by what Kandinsky called “inner necessity”. Kandinsky’s and Schönberg’s writings reveal fascinating attempts to describe precisely what they hoped to achieve in their adventurous art, and the intersection of visual and musical goals (not always seamless in these exchanges) represents an intriguing intellectual moment in the history of twentieth-century culture.
Works with “inner necessity” shrugged off the conventional artistic practices of the day, and, as it turns out, also distanced themselves from those art forms and cultural practices seen as feminine. This presented a problem for Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s romantic and painting partner, whose own art work has often been overlooked in historical accounts. Her role in this story is crucial, not only because her art represents an important moment in the story of twentieth-century painting in its own right, but because Kandinsky’s and Schönberg’s accomplishments stemmed, at least in part, from a desire to produce works that were as masculine as they were modern. The articulation of gender positions within central European culture is not at all incidental to the epic friendship of Kandinsky and Schönberg. If there is an inner necessity to these works, it is created at the conceptual expense not only of industry and tradition, but women as well.
Based on a libretto by Sergio Costola, Kim Smith, and Jason Hoogerhyde, Hoogerhyde’s musical score (for three soloists, orchestra and chorus) animates the complexities of the Kandinsky-Münter-Schönberg story. The friendship between these three figures is recounted with dramatic and historical integrity, offering a view of this pivotal moment in twentieth-century culture.
- Kim Smith