Bekker, Paul, 1882-1937

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1882-09-11
Death 1937-03-07
Germans
French, German, English

Biographical notes:

German music critic.

From the description of The Paul Bekker papers, 1883-1937 (bulk). (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 702153243

Paul Bekker was a very influential German critic and writer on music. He was born on Sept. 11, 1882 in Berlin and died on Mar. 7, 1937 in the United States.

From the description of Papers of Paul Bekker, 1906-1931. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 316773828

German writer on music.

From the description of The Paul Bekker papers, 1839-1981 (inclusive) (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 82601604

Posterity is not kind to music critics. Their writings are quickly consigned to a limbo reserved for period documents, curiosities of limited perspective whose relative value is gauged against present prejudice. Critical "error" is the subject of tittering censure, while positive insight earns patronizing praise for its prescience. A few critics like Eduard Hanslick stand above their time-bound errors and insights by virtue of the coherence of the aesthetic philosophy revealed in their judgments. Others, like François-Joseph Fétis, make such manifold contributions to musical life that their stature as historical figures overshadows any critical shortcomings. By such measures Paul Bekker, arguably the most articulate and influential German critic of the first third of this century, ought to be triply blessed. Not only have the bulk of his critical opinions been affirmed by posterity, but the keen and original intellect informing his judgments and the range of his contributions to the musical life of his time should assure him an important place in music history. And yet Bekker's ideas and activity, like the culture of which they were so integral a part, have been largely buried by the tortuous course of events in our century. To recover any measure of Bekker's stature and relevance therefore requires a patient archaeology that reconstructs from historical artifacts those links that reveal the path of our passage from past to present.

During the period of Paul Bekker's critical activity in Europe, roughly 1905 to 1935, a world war, revolutions in communications and transportation technology, and an unprecedented politicization of the arts helped transform the critic's function from a chronicler and arbiter in a relatively stable cultural environment to an active participant in an ongoing debate about the very nature and purpose of art within contested cultural terrain. Bekker's influence extended from the reading public of music lovers to the inner sanctums of cultural power; his interlocutors were the composers, performers, conductors, and administrators--men like Ferruccio Busoni, Franz Schreker, Ernst Krenek, Leo Kestenberg, Heinz Tietjen, Werner Wolffheim, and Georg Schünemann--who shaped German musical life of late Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, and who themselves increasingly formulated the premises of their works and activities in print. Whenever Paul Bekker took up his pen, whether in writing essays, lectures, books, or private correspondence, he contributed to elevating this often stormy discourse, eschewing polemics for reasoned analysis, prejudice for imaginative insight. In Bekker's passionate engagement in more than three decades of German musical life (including his years of exile in Paris and New York) his voice was that of a perceptive witness and active participant who both influenced and shaped events.

Born in Berlin on 11 September 1882, Paul Eugen Max Bekker was the only child of Hirsch Nachmann Michel Bekker (1852-?) and Olga Elsner (18??-1943). Bekker's father, a tailor by trade, apparently abandoned his family in 1888 and emigrated to the United States (no further traces of his activities there have yet come to light). Olga Elsner Bekker, who worked in the costume department of the Berlin Court Opera, subsequently married Julius Panse, who was likewise an employee of the Court Opera. Bekker's musical education included piano studies with Alfred Sormann (1861-1913) and violin instruction with Benno Horwitz (1855-1904) and Fabian Rehfeld (1842-1920). He was professionally active as a violinist before being engaged as a conductor, first in Aschaffenburg (1902/03), then in Görlitz (1903/04). Upon his return to Berlin he served a year in the military (April 1904 to March 1905) before turning to music journalism. Bekker's articles appeared in a variety of journals and periodicals, and he served as music critic for the Berliner Neueste Nachrichten 1906-09 and the Berliner Allgemeine Zeitung 1909-11. Along with his essays and reviews, Bekker's monographs on Oskar Fried (1907) and Offenbach (1909), his examination of contemporary opera in Das Musikdrama der Gegenwart (1909), and, above all, his Beethoven study (1911) brought him to national prominence.

In 1911 Bekker was appointed chief music critic of the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, a position he held until 1923. In the twelve years of his activity in Frankfurt, Bekker became Germany's most widely read music critic; his judicious championship of new music, including the works of Busoni, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Schreker, earned him influence and trust in progressive circles but made him anathema to conservatives such as Hans Pfitzner, whose Die neue Ästhetik der musikalischen Impotenz of 1920 was directed against Bekker. In addition to three collections of essays and reviews-- Kritische Zeitbilder (1921), Klang und Eros (1922), and Neue Musik (1923)--Bekker's books of these years include Das deutsche Musikleben (1916), a pioneering work of music sociology, and a landmark study of Gustav Mahler's Symphonies (1921).

These works, written during and just after the First World War, during which Bekker was stationed on the Western front, give evidence of evolving critical perspectives. In his pre-war Beethoven study Bekker attempted to capture in words the poetic impulses of Beethoven's music, which he described as the product of a personality who was "first a thinker and a poet, and secondarily a musician." 1 Beethoven, Bekker maintained, created music out of a poetic idea. "He never subordinated his ideas to the limitations of tone or of his craft. His whole work is ever a struggle of idea with tone-material, which material he made forever more adaptable, more expressive as a vehicle of thought." 2

Das deutsche Musikleben of 1916, in which Bekker proposed an outline for Germany's post-war musical life, significantly broadens the range of his critical thought. No doubt influenced by the communal experience of war as well as by having been forced to view Germany's cultural life from afar, Bekker moves from the poetical hermeneutics of his Beethoven book toward an examination of music's social context. "The laws that shape the material in general," he wrote in his introduction, "rest not on laws immanent within the material itself. They are the result of the interaction between the material and society's perceptive capacity: they are sociologically conditioned. The patterns of sound are a societal image translated into musical material; not an aesthetic, but a sociological sound symbol." 3 Social conditions and society's general "perceptive capacity" establish the parameters within which the artist shapes his or her material according to personal predilection. In an anticipation of the critical theory of Adorno and the Frankfurt school, Bekker postulates that composing is by its nature an act of social commentary. 4

Just a year after Das deutsche Musikleben and in the midst of work that would continue his meditations upon music and society, Bekker published an article entitled "Musikalische Neuzeit" (New Musical Times), in which he identified a basic impulse in new music toward creating autonomous values from properties unique to the medium. 5 In the works of composers as diverse as Mahler, Schoenberg, Rottenberg, Schreker, and Rudi Stephan, Bekker found evidence for a common yearning to create works free from such "extra-musical" influences as poetry, painting, history, and philosophy, just as in modern painting from Cubism and Futurism to Expressionism he noted a "striving for inner independence, toward liberation from the tutelage or collaboration with other arts." 6 Bekker thus argued that in all the arts there was a trend "toward a new solution to the formal problem with elements unique to each art, to regain the organic integrity of the artwork in contrast to Romantic multiplicity." 7 "We must once again learn how to listen to music," Bekker wrote in conclusion, "and wean ourselves of 'understanding' music, that unfortunate legacy of an anti-musical age. Then we will be receptive to the language of the musician who speaks once again not in terms of ideas, but in terms of music; at that point the realization will take hold that 'music making' is the task of the musician, while that of the listener is not understanding music but listening to music." 8

"Musikalische Neuzeit" marks a significant departure from the concerns of Bekker's Beethoven book and Das deutsche Musikleben . In the decade that followed this article he developed a view of music not as poetic expression or the product of social forces, but as sonic material obedient to its own phenomenological laws. This perspective, outlined in a sketch for a new phenomenology of music entitled Von den Naturreichen des Klanges (1925) and in a 1927 essay collection entitled Organische und Mechanische Musik, is given historical amplification in his 1924 reevaluation of Wagner's works and in a series of radio lectures on music history in 1925, published the following year as Musikgeschichte als Geschichte der musikalischen Formwandlungen . Bekker's thought thus anticipates and accompanies the aesthetic of the Neoclassicism and Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s. Indeed, one of the pioneering manifestos of this aesthetic, Busoni's 1920 Frankfurter Zeitung call for a "Young Classicism," was in fact drawn from his correspondence with Bekker.

In 1923 Bekker left his position at the Frankfurter Zeitung in order to devote himself to freelance activity. Since the end of the war he had harbored a desire to give up music criticism for an administrative position within one of the cultural institutions of Weimar Germany. After several frustrating close calls (including an abortive 1919 nomination by the Prussian Ministry of Culture to be the director of the Berlin Staatsoper) Bekker was appointed Intendant of the Kassel Staatstheater in 1925. This was followed in 1927 by an appointment as Intendant of the Wiesbaden Staatstheater, a position he held until 1932. In Kassel and Wiesbaden, whose productions included both opera and theater, Bekker sought to balance repertory staples with historical revivals and new works, many of which he staged himself. In Kassel he inaugurated a chamber opera series that brought imaginative productions of works by Boieldieu, Cimarosa, Dittersdorf, Grétry, Offenbach, Pergolesi, and Schenk, as well as introducing recent works by Busoni, Korngold, Pfitzner, Schreker, Stravinsky, and the world premiere of Krenek's Orpheus und Eurydike . The greater resources of the Wiesbaden theater (with two performance venues) enabled Bekker to pursue a still more ambitious program that included revivals of major works by Berlioz, Gluck, Rossini, Verdi, and Weber, as well as Wiesbaden first performances of newer operas by Busoni, Casella, Delius, Hindemith, Krenek, Milhaud, Pfitzner, Schreker, Stravinsky, Stephan, and Weill. German or world premieres of Bekker's Wiesbaden years included works by Alfano, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Herrmann, Krenek, Lilien, Milhaud, and Schoenberg. During his Wiesbaden years Bekker devoted himself primarily to writing essays for the theater's programs. His one major book, Das Operntheater (1931), reflects the practical concerns of an opera director and administrator.

With the end of his five-year Wiesbaden contract Bekker returned to Berlin and music criticism; his Briefe an zeitgenössische Musiker, a series of open letters to musical contemporaries that appeared at the end of 1932, offers a résumé of nearly thirty years of critical observations and insight. Shortly after Hitler's rise to power Bekker, under the immediate threat of persecution, left Germany. Publishing business and speaking engagements took him to Switzerland and Italy before he settled in Paris in the fall, where he wrote for the Pariser Tageblatt . In the fall of 1934 Bekker emigrated to the United States; there he wrote for the New Yorker Staatszeitung until his death on 7 March 1937. His last books, Wandlungen der Oper, published in Switzerland in 1934, and his English-language The Story of the Orchestra, published in the United States in 1936, are more popularly oriented historical studies that offer an elegant synthesis of the sometimes contradictory themes in his work by situating individual creativity between the conflicting dictates of social and material forces.

Bekker's writings as well as the record of his activities in Kassel and Wiesbaden bear ample testimony to his significance for early twentieth-century musical culture. However, the fortuitous survival of the bulk of his papers adds an unsuspected dimension to this multifaceted career. An indefatigable correspondent with an admirable penchant for preserving the documents of his private and professional affairs, Bekker left the historian an unparalleled source. These documents not only chronicle the intellectual evolution of one of this century's seminal critical minds, but in reflecting the entire spectrum of Bekker's musical experience--from his years as a violinist and conductor in Berlin, Aschaffenburg, and Görlitz to his tenure as a theater director--they allow us to reconstruct the inner workings of a rich musical culture. The range of Bekker's interests and influence make the Yale Paul Bekker Papers a major repository for twentieth-century German music history; the collection also provides the context within which Bekker's own legacy can at last be fairly and accurately judged.

1 "Beethoven ist in erster Linie Denker und Dichter, in zweiter Linie erst Musiker." Beethoven (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1911), 560; published in English as Beethoven, translated and adapted by M. M. Bozman (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1927), 337 2 "Er trägt nie Bedenken, die Forderungen der Idee denen des Klanges unterzuordnen. Sein ganzes Schaffen ist ein Ringen der Idee mit der Klangmaterial, die stetig verfeinert und der Aufnahme zartester Erkenntnisse gefügiger gemacht wird." Ibid 3 "Die Gestaltungsgesetze der Materie überhaupt beruhen nicht auf innerorganischen Gesetzen der Materie. Sie sind Ergebnisse der Wechselwirkung zwischen Materie und gesellschaftlichem Wahrnehmungsvermögen: sie sind soziologisch bedingt. Das Klangbild ist ein in Klangmaterie umgesetztes Gesellschaftsbild, kein aesthetisches, sondern ein soziologisches Klangsymbol." Das deutsche Musikleben (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1916), 24; translation by the author 4 Das deutsche Musikleben, 28 5 "Musikalische Neuzeit," Frankfurter Zeitung (29 July 1917); reprinted in Kritische Zeitbilder (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1921), 292-99 6 "Streben nach innerer Selbständigkeit, nach Befreiung von der Vormundschaft oder Mitarbeit anderer Künste." Ibid 7 "...die neue Lösung des formalen Problems mit kunsteigenen Mitteln, die Wiedergewinnung der organischen Einheitlichkeit des Kunstwerks im Gegensatz zur romantischen Vielseitigkeit." Ibid 8 "Wir müssen erst wieder hören lernen und uns das Musik-"Verstehen", dieses leidige Erbteil eines anti-musikalischen Zeitalters, abgewöhnen. Dann wird auch die Sprache der Musiker zu uns dringen, die wieder Musik, nicht Ideen sprechen, dann wird sich die Erkenntnis Bahn brechen, dass "Musik machen" die Aufgabe des Musikers ist, die des Hörers aber nicht Musikverstehen, sondern Musikhören." Ibid

From the guide to the The Paul Bekker Papers, 1883-1937 (bulk), (Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University)

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Subjects:

  • Music critics--20th century
  • Music critics--Correspondence
  • Music critics--Germany--Correspondence

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  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)