Discuss the social and cultural milieu in Vienna at the turn of the century. Show how this situation fomented change in the various arts.
The final decade of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth saw a thorough transformation of Viennese society. Examination of this transitional period in Vienna reveals a way of life full of paradoxes and contradictions. As new modes of thought struggled to supplant old ones, the Viennese endured one of the most agitated and painful periods in their erstwhile glorious history. Yet out of this struggle came contributions of lasting significance to the cultural arts. Indeed, Vienna was the early center of activity for many of those ideas and movements that were to express Western culture of the twentieth century.
An important figure in setting the scene for these years of social conflict was Austria's Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph. Franz Joseph came to the throne at the time of the Austrian Revolution of 1848 to usher in what apparently promised to be a new age of progress and enlightenment following the reigns of his more or less reactionary predecessors, Franz and Ferdinand. In his own way, Franz Joseph did much to return to Vienna some of its former glory. The city owes to this emperor, who ruled until 1916, many of its beautiful landmarks: The Ringstrasse, a boulevard that encircles the old city; the city hall; museums; the Imperial Palace; and, importantly, the Imperial Opera and Imperial Theater. But even as Franz Joseph reigned, restoring much of the old opulence to Vienna, life was changing in such a way that the emperor once again represented reactionary ways.
The city was growing rapidly. Great strides in industry and the resulting business boom around mid-century caused an enormous increase in population. Unfortunately, the old city was not able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of its new citizens to a life of affluence. Living conditions for many grew intolerable. Severe food and housing shortages were among the many symptoms of a city degenerating in the midst of great progress.
Between the old aristocracy and the new squalor emerged a middle class. Made up of those for whom the business boom had been successful, the bourgeoisie lived comfortably and conservatively. They lived by the rules: they married the right people; they never discussed sex; their ventures into art, literature, and music were at best conservative and at worst academic and trivial.
When their world began to topple, as evidenced by such signals as the stock market collapse of 1873, scapegoats were readily available. In many cases, people turned angrily on the numerous Jews to lay the blame. Anti-Semitism became widespread. A Zionist movement, led by Theodor Herzl, began in response to this. Only over half a century later would this conflict be resolved.
It was primarily the offspring of this generation of bourgeoisie who began to see through the façade: to acknowledge the hypocrisy of a society desperately resisting change as it was crumbling into a heap.
Possibly the best known representative of the new wave of thinkers was the psychologist Sigmund Freud. He developed the theory and methods of psychoanalysis. He analyzed the problems of a sick Vienna, pointing to the artificiality and repression (especially sexual) that were destroying its society.
In the visual arts, the artist Gustav Klimt, in 1897, led fellow artists and architects in the Secession movement away from the philosophy of Makart and his associates at the ultraconservative Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Secessionist art was full of bold color and was often based on fantastic themes ranging from the macabre to the sexual. Secessionist architecture was at once decorative and functional, as exhibited in the Secession building.
The new literary movement was embodied in such groups as Jung Wien, which included writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Hermann Bahr, Richard Beer-Hoffman, and Arthur Schnitzler. Preaching "art for art," Jung Wien literature was often expressed through the feuilleton (literary or cultural essay); other genres, such as poetry and plays, were, however, well represented. Schnitzler's work, which exposes the decadence and meaninglessness of Viennese society with a style at the same time bitter and witty, was applauded by Freud, who considered Schnitzler his "double."
In music, the old and new movements both boasted important figures. Traditional musical values were represented by such institutions as the Imperial Opera House. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde brought music closer to the people, but still embodied the musical establishment (although in its Conservatory were educated a number of future musical revolutionaries). Eduard Hanslick, a powerful critic, was a leading figure in the battle against new modes of musical expression. He found his "hero" in Johannes Brahms. Brahms preserved traditional forms and techniques of instrumentation; he was a master of melody and motivic and thematic development according to established practicesyet he blended these ingredients with a somewhat expanded harmonic vocabulary and a wide range of emotion (but never to deliberate extremes). He is thus justly regarded as one of the greatest composers in history. Johann Strauss II was loved by nearly all: his waltzes represented a Vienna gone by and provided an escape from the troubles of the time. Few of their contemporaries were so kindly treated by Hanslick. The Germans Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss were dismissed by the critic as inept and overblown. Closer to home, Hanslick lashed out at fellow Viennese Bruckner, Mahler, and Wolf. Anton Bruckner was traditional in many ways, yet his expansion of forms and his large orchestra were important ingredients in the new current. Mahler was perhaps the epitome of the new revolution. As conductor of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic, he brought new music to what had been bulwarks of conservatism. His own music expresses perfectly the contradiction of simultaneous joy and suffering, beauty and ugliness that was Vienna at this time. Hugo Wolf in his songs depicted much of the same despair, and in the process began slipping away from tonality. Arnold Schönberg pushed still farther from tonality and in a few years would usher in a new epoch in music history with his ventures first into free atonality and then into serialism.
By the time World War I swept through Europe, the old Vienna with its imperial grandeur was little more than a memory.