Kopatchinskaja’s Craft

A return to Viennese modernism.


Theodor Adorno believed that efforts to explain why a specific musical tradition came into being in one place rather than another should strike even the most historically minded reader or listener as spurious. This, he maintained, had nothing to do with the notion that music is, at bottom, an ahistorical art. Rather, it was linked to the effects musical works call forth. The crafting of a new musical dialect, like the unforseeen appearance of a melody in a work’s form, elicits an expressive ‘leave-taking more moving than any words’. Musical tones possess sensual qualities that, when set into motion, push and drive against all boundaries – geographical, economic, social, temporal – that impede their emancipatory potential. Music, for Adorno, aspires to its own autonomy.

We cannot of course speak critically of music without acknowledging the ways in which it is a thoroughly social and political phenomenon. Adorno, for one, would not contest this. His writings assert that modern musical works are intimately bound up with capitalist development. The birth of Viennese modernism under the aegis of Arnold Schoenberg and his two main pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, confirms this principle. From the outset, the energies released by this moment were hemmed in by a conjuncture that absorbs everything – even atonality – into its orbit. Capital demands that old aesthetic forms be recycled and repurposed, and the music of fin de siècle Vienna, a hothouse in full bloom, was always ripe for the picking.

A visit to post-war Vienna prompted Adorno himself to compose a set of reflections of the circumstances that gave rise to this musical idiom. The resulting essay, ‘Vienna’, written in 1960, hinges on a powerful proposition: that the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg mounted a form of resistance to what Adorno calls, in a burst of wit, the city’s ‘musical roast-chicken culture’. At the turn of the century, the capital of the Daube monarchy possessed a societal structure – politically reactionary; artistically orthodox; all but feudal yet reliant on luxury goods – that was openly hostile to innovation. ‘The compact world of Viennese society’, quips Adorno, ‘has made a natural monopoly of musicality that once and for all absolves people from any effort’.


A recording put out earlier this year by the Alpha Classics label gives us a new opportunity to survey this landscape. Its centrepiece is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, an opus featuring an assembly of twenty-one short melodramas for voice and five instruments. Schoenberg premiered his composition in 1912, yet its lavish interplay of aesthetic forms rivals the most advanced mixed-media art of our time. Set to a series of poems by the French symbolist Albert Giraud, the piece is structured around a cluster of lively contrasts: talk of religion mingles with talk of trespass; everyday speech-cadences blur into operatic song; rhythm is mediated by poetic text, which in turn conveys pitch, contour, range, timbre, and tone; cabaret humour is paired with the coolness of classical forms, such as free counterpoint, canon, fugue, passacaglia.

After Pierrot, a series of Viennese confections complete the recording’s programme. Schoenberg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Emperor Waltz gives way to a set of more robust offerings – the Brahmsian Phantasy for Violin and Piano (Op. 47) and Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano – followed by another palate cleanser, Fritz Kreisler’s Little Viennese March. And to end this feast? Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, an intransigent yet playful denouement. A teeming display, albeit one with an obvious omission: Alban Berg, the Viennese sensualist par excellence. Schoenberg’s role, too, as the principal protagonist of musical insurrection remains undisputed.

The leading light of this selection is the Moldovan-born, Swiss-based violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Kopatchinskaja, whose family fled to Vienna from the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989, today resides in Bern, yet her reputation as a consummate instrumentalist has become global in recent years. London, Vienna, Los Angeles, Tokyo have come calling. As an article in the New York Times notes, Kopatchinskaja has been dubbed the ‘wild child’ of an otherwise senescent classical musical scene, in part because she cuts a decidedly unconventional figure. Often taking to the stage barefoot, she has also been known to hum along with the orchestra she accompanies.

It has always been a habit of the bourgeois concert-going public to fixate on such idiosyncrasies. But the recording at hand transcends them. Throughout, Kopatchinskaja forces her own lines of aesthetic interrogation. Rather than setting herself the task of mere historical re-enactment, Kopatchinskaja’s procedure is to draw out the latent challenges that her repertoire poses to our contemporary manners and habits of listening. Her playing aims not to reproduce a slice of history, but to bathe us in the diffusion of attitudes, tones, colours and musical forms that made Viennese modernism possible in the first place.

Critical assessments of Kopatchinskaja’s recording will find much to celebrate. The virtuosity on display is typified by an exacting rigour, yet her attention to detail never instrumentalises the material. On the contrary, it infuses passages with a lyricism that leads into speculative territory. Yet the boldness of approach is not restricted to an expressive shaping of sound. It manifests itself on two other levels. Firstly, Kopatchinskaja, a violinist by trade, assumes the role of singer to perform the solo part of Pierrot. In the world of classical music, such disregard for the division of musical labour is unusual, notions of skill delimited by specific fields of competence. Equally heterodox is Kopatchinskaja’s selection of musical repertoire. Her programme moves pendulum-like from one vernacular to the next, from unruly dodecaphonic expositions to controlled Viennese waltzes, only to swing back to the former.


Unsurprisingly, this interpretative freedom has ruffled some feathers. One critic, writing for The Guardian, applauds the precision of Kopatchinskaja’s rendering of Pierrot yet also finds its extremities – ‘little-girl squeaks’ and ‘faux tantrums’ – to be downright intrusive. A similar principle is applied to her selection of music: while the panorama of musical styles gives way to discrete moments of clarity, the album as a whole is ‘a real mixed bag’. What Kopatchinskaja lacks is a more ‘controlled’ approach: what must be tamed is not her technique, which is of course ‘outstanding’, but her defiance of convention. The tone of condescension here no doubt contains the kernel of a broader cultural allegory: namely, the subordination of the female virtuoso under the capitalist mode of production. It also distils the norms that determine what the performance of classical music ought to be or, for that matter, could be

What we find here is a transposition of Adorno’s dialectic: if music strives to take flight, if a performance surpasses tradition, then its wings must be clipped. What the mainstream critique of Kopatchinskaja’s artistry fails to attend to is, in the end, what is most praiseworthy about it. In her hands a whole range of social antagonisms are brought to the fore. Measured restraint comingles with unapologetic experimentation; the continuity of tradition justifies critical retort; the rationalization of aesthetic criteria provokes flights of lyricism. But if our listening focalizes around the interplay of these elements, it also takes heed of what remains inassimilable, and thereby novel, in their presentation.

Ultimately, the source of Kopatchinskaja’s proximity to Vienna rests on the way her virtuosity evokes the uneven, paradoxical composition of the city. To Adorno’s mind, it was not the task of Viennese modernism to conserve its native components but to devour them, bit by bit. This procedure was never value-free: it kept the past alive by dint of excavating its contradictions. Earlier musical forms – waltz, sonata, bagatelle – surface in this music not as pastiche but as ossified remnants of an undead culture.

The term Bandeln, a now-defunct idiomatic expression, is an Austrian word that connotes idleness. This disposition is not to be confused with lethargy, the vague listlessness of the limbs and mind. It indicates, rather, a lively state of inaction – immersion in an activity that does not yield profit. ‘What is meant’, writes Adorno, ‘are activities with which to pass the time, to squander it, without any evident rational purpose, but also activities which are, absurdly, practical’. In English, the term ‘pottering’ perhaps best captures this productive form of unproductivity, an active yet uninvolved immersion in the futile.

It was the genius of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg to elevate pottering to a compositional ideal. For Adorno, their music evinced a special kinship with the objects of everyday experience: they ‘refined the details of their scores as if they were polishing, cleaning, or sanding furniture’. Schoenberg especially knew what it meant to potter. His diligent arrangements of Strauss’s waltzes scrubbed and worked over popular cultural artifacts, exuding the air of attentive handiwork. This is no surprise, for the ethic of pottering tends to flourish in cities where ‘bourgeois values have not prevailed to the point where time is money’. Vienna was once a breeding ground for pottering. No longer. The Danube, bereft of its timeless flow, is today a reservoir of post-industrial dread.

While the exigencies of capital may have effaced pottering, it has been granted an afterlife in Kopatchinskaja’s musical practice. Her treatment of the Viennese legacy potters in all the right ways. Kopatchinskaja lingers in the fissures of classical music’s divisions of labour. She sings and plays the violin as if these activities were interchangeable, fine-tuning the movement from one to another as if she were loitering in a park to record the sighting of a rare bird. She skips from Schoenberg to Strauss to Webern to Kreisler as if their compositions were pieces of furniture, whose presentation in space must be tinkered with to pay tribute to a room’s ambiance.

The musical consciousness of turn-of-the-century Vienna held forth a promise that could not be reconciled with its surroundings. In it, traces of utopia converged with an ever more hostile social and economic conjuncture. Kopatchinskaja’s achievement is to revivify them. We can begin to hear the fluttering of her wings.

Read on: Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, ‘Towards a New Manifesto’, NLR 65.