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The Weill Project blog: Novembergruppe

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #novembergruppe #expressionism #ottodix #georgesrouault #hannahhöch #georgeantheil #joemabel #berlin
'Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas', etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924

Otto Dix illustrating the horrors of World War I: "Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas", etching and aquatint by Otto Dix, 1924. Dix was among the group of visual artists who formed a left splinter off of the Novembergruppe around the same time Weill joined the group itself.

'The Old King', Georges Rouault

In France, Georges Rouault developed a variant of expressionism that can at times be calmer, almost contemplative, but still with an energy that feels like it could break out at any moment. Rouault, The Old King (begun 1916, completed 1936).

When I wrote earlier this month about the tail end of Weill's student years in 1922-3 and his emergence into the public eye, I remarked that I ought to write something about the Novembergruppe. Here we go.

The Novembergruppe (sometimes known in English as the "November Group") was Weimar Germany's leading organization of left-leaning artists and—eventually—musicians. The group was officially founded 3 December 1918 amidst revolutionary turmoil three weeks after the Armistice that ended World War I, and almost immediately merged with the similar Arbeitsrat für Kunst ("Workers Council for Arts"). Originally aligned with the artistic movement known as expressionism, it soon became more artistically eclectic, united more by politics than by any common artistic agenda.

Expressionism was certainly the leading style among the German avant garde in the years of the First World War and for some time after. I don't claim to have the scholarly chops to say much more about expressionism in general than you can find in the Wikipedia article on the subject 🔗. I will say, though, "I know it when I see it (or hear it)" and I usually like it, especially in visual art and film. Expressionist art is emotional, dynamic, subjective, more Dionysian than Apollonian. It can be angry or exuberant, socially conscious or intensely personal, and it generally lacks the nihilist streak that can be found in Dada, but it is rarely placid and never merely pretty. It risks overcommitment more than excessive detachment, self-indulgence more than impersonality. At its best it can be deeply moving, visionary, polemical, and politically charged; at its worst it can be simultaneously over-romanticized, a bit death-obsessed, and cynical, or can be more a symptom than an artistic expression. And, yes, I know that with that last I am getting worryingly close to the Nazi condemnation of "degenerate art". They were not necessarily wrong to say that certain art represents the uglier side of the human condition; they were wrong to deny that can be a perfectly appropriate function for art (and, of course, even wronger to enforce their artistic verdicts with truncheons, bonfires, and gas chambers). It's no surprise that there isn't a lot of great art by Nazis.

My own favorite expressionists are probably 1920s German filmmakers Fritz Lang (Der müde Tod a.k.a. Destiny, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, Metropolis, M) and F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu). Their edgy visuals and dark themes stand in almost total contrast to even the best American films of the era. In the visual arts Vincent Van Gogh (Netherlands) was more or less the originator of expressionism; Edvard Munch (Norway) was very much an expressionist, and Käthe Kollwitz (German, but not a Novembergruppe member) slowly became one; prominent Novembergruppe members Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Wassily Kandinsky were expressionists (although Kandinsky drifted away from the style in the early 1920s). In Vienna, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka were each in their own way very much expressionists, as was Georges Rouault in France, and (especially in his early years) Marc Chagall (Russia, France). To the best of my knowledge Frank Auerbach (a childhood refugee from Nazi Germany now in his nineties) continues to turn out almost-sculputural expressionist drawings and paintings in his studio in London's Camden Town.

In music, expressionism means, above all, the style of the "Second Viennese School," centered on Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg. There was a clear line of influence from Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss to the Second Viennese School. The term is also applied to the late works of Alexander Scriabin, the early works of Béla Bartók (e.g. Bluebeard's Castle) and here in America in some of Charles Ives' work. Weill started out as something of an expressionist and considered studying under Schoenberg, but ultimately landed pretty far from that, disappointing some of his early advocates (Theodor Adorno, Paul Hindemith) while winning over an entirely different set of fans, interpreters, and advocates that has extended down to the present day (Teresa Stratas, Jürgen Schebera, Stephen Hinton, Dave Van Ronk, Pauline Julien, Marianne Faithfull, Ute Lemper, Nina Hagen, et. al.).

Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany

"Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany", Hannah Höch, 1919. Probably the most prominent female artist in the Novembergruppe, Höch was one of the originators of photomontage.

But again I'm digressing. The Novembergruppe differed broadly in their respective artistic visions, but shared left politics, progressive social views, and a belief that art could change the world. The group began in revolutionary times, and wished to make art an integral part of a socialist revolution. Its members had varied conceptions of what that might mean. Propaganda art? Art as social commentary and criticism? Art as part of the left press? An end to artistic censorship? "Art for everyone," creation of less stodgy public sculpture, welcoming a broader public into their studios, putting on free festivals? Wider dissemination of art education and a radical update of the arts curriculum in the schools? A "perpetual revolution" within the creation of art? All of the above (and more)? Inevitably there were splinter groups, reorganizations, etc., but the Novembergruppe remained a vital cultural force for over a decade.

In any case, in 1922 the Novembergruppe, directed at the time by Hugo Graetz (I'll admit to knowing almost nothing else about him) expanded its scope to include music and musicians. Weill, then in Berlin studying under Busoni, soon joined. I'll venture that by Novembergruppe standards he was seen as a bit politically conservative: he never was a Communist, and the revolution he wanted to make was more artistic and social than political. However, about the same time Weill joined, some of the most explicitly politically visual artists split off: Otto Dix, George Grosz, Raul Hausmann, Rudolf Schlichter, et. al., none of them musicians. George Grosz, by the way, is another interesting case: although very much the committed, propagandistic political artist, and often in trouble for it, he had no use for the Soviet idea of "proletarian culture" let alone the increasingly official "socialist realism." Talent, to him, was "a gift from the muses," not an attribute of the masses. When the Nazis came to power, he presumably didn't waste a moment in deciding to head to New York rather than Moscow.

The musical division of the Novembergruppe was founded by Heinz Tiessen (about whom I knew bupkis before this and now know pretty much exactly what Wikipedia tells me 🔗) and Max Butting, who were succeeded in 1924 by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt. Butting and Stuckenschmidt I can tell you something about. Butting was in his mid-thirties when the musical division was formed. His own works fall a little closer to expressionism than Weill's, but he shared Weill's penchant for Gebrauchsmusik (useful music, music that fills a need: for teaching, for events and ceremonies, etc.), and had no fear of some of his music being thought of as "light." (Speaking of light, I recently learned from Jürgen Schebera's biography of Weill that Butting and Tiessen were the other two composers commissioned, along with Weill, to write music for the Berlin im Licht—"Berlin in Light"—Festival in 1928.) Even after handing over the reins to Stuckenschmidt, Butting continued to help organize Novembergruppe concerts. He was one of the few members of the Berlin avant garde who stayed put throughout the Nazi era. Eduardo Galeano once wrote with reference to a period of dictatorship in Argentina that the people could be divided into "aterrados, encerrados, enterrados y desterrados": "the terrified, the imprisoned, the buried, and the banished." Butting may have been aterrado ("terrified") at times, but he avoided these other fates. He underwent a slow fall from being a key figure in German radio and a member of the faculty of the Berliner Hochschule für Musik to working for the copyright company STAGMA (comparable to ASCAP or BMI in the United States) to trying to make a living from an inherited share of his father's ironmonger business. In 1940 he became a member of the Nazi Party, presumably only in order to protect his business. After the war, he was one of the brighter lights of East German culture, one of the few composers to have his best and most prolific period late in life.

'Composition VIII', Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

"Composition VIII" (1923), one of the major works of Wassily Kandinsky, now in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. There's not much trace of expressionism left in his work by this time: this is pretty pure geometric abstraction. Still, it is set apart from the Russian constructivists and even the suprematists by his subtle use of color: although executed in oils, the piece resembles a giant, very precise, abstract watercolor. No doubt this was the sort of thing that led people like Dix and Höch to distance themselves from the Novembergruppe to define themselves around a more directly politically engaged art.

George Antheil with one of the instruments he invented for the Ballet Mécanique

Eighteen months younger than Weill, Stuckenschmidt was a music critic based in Berlin, writing mostly (but by no means exclusively) for the periodical Bohemia, based in Prague. While Weill was studying under Busoni, Stuckenschmidt had turned himself into a sort of musical foreign correspondent, traveling to the European capitals, reviewing concerts, interviewing and befriending many of the leading avant garde composers of the time. From 1929 to 1933, he spent the last four years before Nazizeit as the music critic at the Berliner Zeitung am Mittag. He went into the inevitable exile during the Nazi years, but came back to Berlin almost immediately after the war, working first in radio in the American Sector of what would soon become known as West Berlin, continuing as a critic, and going on to teach at the Music Department of the Technische Universität Berlin. He died barely a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There could hardly have been a better pair of people to keep the Novembergruppe's concerts on the cutting edge. Their most frequent venue was the Kleiner Saal (literally "small hall") of the Grotrian-Steinweg-Saal. (Digressing again: Grotrian-Steinweg makes pianos. Very good pianos, especially nice in the treble range. In America they are known simply as "Grotrian" or "Friedrich Grotrian" because of a lawsuit brought many years ago by the Steinway company.) Small halls meant full houses and a hot ticket. Novembergruppe shows were events, happenings, part of what made Weimar-era Berlin the capital of the avant-garde. Often the bill included the first Berlin performance of an acclaimed work that had first been performed elsewhere. People came to listen, but also to see and be seen. In those days, there wasn't much way to sell new music (maybe a little sheet music or a libretto, but there really was no such thing as independent recording in the era of shellac 78s, and anything over about three minutes required multiple discs). Socialists know every bit as well as capitalists that you need merch, so there was always an art show in conjunction with the concert. On top of that, musicians were usually paid an honorarium consisting of a work of art, so the artists were guaranteed to be in attendance because if you didn't show up you were liable to find you had just donated several minor works to the cause; since you were going, you might as well bring your friends, and suddenly there are twenty or thirty moderately famous people in the room and everybody else can tell this is the place to be in Berlin tonight. This meant that Novembergruppe concerts drew a more varied public than such "friendly rivals" as the Melos Circle or the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Other prominent Novembergruppe musicians included:

  • Phillip Jarnach, recruited into the group by Weill. Weill was taking advanced lessons in counterpoint from Jarnach at the time both joined the group: counterpoint was the one area in which Busoni thought Weill needed technical strengthening.
  • George Antheil, an American who may have been the ultimate "bad boy" of a music scene that included a lot of boys striving to be bad. He once faked his own disappearance in Africa, and another time offended Igor Stravinsky enough to cause a twenty-year breach. From what I gather, it was hard to offend Stravinsky, about like offending Keith Moon. Maybe Stravinsky didn't like Antheil's Ballet Mécanique causing bigger concert-hall riots than Stravinsky had managed with Rite of Spring. A very solid, if ultra-modernist, pianist, Antheil lived for a while in a room over Sylvia Beach's bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris, where (according to Wikipedia; as for me, "I only know what I read in the papers") Beach introduced him to Erik Satie, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virgil Thomson, and Ernest Hemingway; Pound, in turn, introduced him to Jean Cocteau. In 1930 he translated the Brecht/Weill Lindbergflug into English, so when it was published by Universal the text was provided in Antheil's English as well as Brecht's German.
    Antheil could well be credited as the inventor of Industrial Music. His most famous piece, Ballet Mécanique, was originally scored for sixteen synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren and three airplane propellers, though most performances (including the premiere) have been rather scaled down from that grand conception. Probably a good thing: at Carnegie Hall he got his propellers, and people attending the show got to experience gale-force winds indoors. He later calmed down a bit and wrote film scores for the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Nicholas Ray. Oh, and he was Hedy Lamarr's collaborator in inventing the frequency-hopping technology that is now the basis for cell phones. This was during World War II; they wanted the U.S. to use it to make un-jammable guided torpedoes, but the Navy did not embrace the idea.
  • Hanns Eisler, who had studied under Schoenberg and who would be Brecht's most frequent musical collaborator after Brecht and Weill went their separate ways. I promise an eventual blog post on Eisler. As with Weill, I grew up knowing some of his music; I'm sort of a second-generation "red diaper baby" and my father used to sing Eisler's setting of the Moorsoldatenlied, which my grandparents had on a 78 featuring Ernst Busch. I just discovered that recording is available on YouTube. 🔗
  • Jascha Horenstein. Son of a Russian rabbi, at the time he was assistant to Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a role that included sometimes conducting that orchestra himself. He moved on to the Düsseldorf Opera in 1928 before being forced into exile in the Nazi era. He is now best remembered as a conductor of Mahler (he did the first studio recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, at the remarkably late date of 1952) and was also an important advocate for Alban Berg, Bruckner and Carl Nielsen.

I could go on—Felix Petyrek, Stefan Wolpe—but I'd just be looking it up and reproducing stuff I really don't know. In terms of Weill: his membership in the Novembergruppe showed his commitment to a socialist concept of the role of music; it also made him some of the best connections of his career, as well as some of his most important opportunities for performances of his works. For example, Weill's String Quartet, Op. 9 had been a bit overshadowed by Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat when it premiered performed by the Hindemith-Amar Quartet in Frankfurt in June 1923, and Hindemith's take on the piece was not entirely to Weill's taste. The piece got a more sympathetic performance and a far better audience (and critical) response when it featured in a Berlin Novembergruppe show the following January.

[No idea who best to credit as sources here; Jürgen Schebera as usual, but really not for much of this; various Wikipedia articles in English and German; lots of stuff I "just know", which inevitably means I've emphasized the names that already meant something to me; and Juliana for pointing out where my grammar got tangled.]

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Last modified: 20 May 2021

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