Vienna’s Society for Private Musical Performances, 100 Years Later

Mar 18, 2021

A century ago, as Europe was coping with both the aftermath of World War I and the influenza pandemic, concerts were pretty far from most people’s minds. But amidst the chaos and uncertainty, one Viennese composer saw an opportunity. In the fall of 1918, Arnold Schoenberg and his students founded a bold, new organization – a Society for Private Musical Performances – to promote contemporary music by reinventing the concert experience altogether. 

Like any good underground club, the Society for Private Musical Performances had strict rules: concerts were members-only, no programs would be announced in advance, and cheering and applause (or booing and hissing) were forbidden. Over the next three years, their programs encompassed a veritable who’s who of early 20th century music, including Bela Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, and Claude Debussy. They even gave their members a few surprises – like an evening of waltzes from the Strauss family.

With so much new music to choose from, there was really only one thing that limited the Society’s ambitions: money, or rather, the chronic lack of it. Initially, they overcame this by focusing on chamber works, and by arranging orchestral pieces down to just two pianos. But eventually the group hit upon a unique chamber ensemble, consisting of a string quintet plus three or four winds, a piano and a harmonium (a kind of chamber organ). This ensemble debuted in February 1920 in Schoenberg’s own arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and became one of the Society’s most distinctive legacies.

This Friday, March 19, I’ll pay tribute to the Society for Private Musical Performances on Classical Tulsa with an hour of these unusual arrangements, including a movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, an elegy by Ferruccio Busoni, a Strauss waltz, and even a movement from a symphony by Anton Bruckner.

And if you’d like to know even more about the Society, their highly idiosyncratic repertoire, and what ultimately happened to them a hundred years ago this year, you can join my special interactive Zoom presentation on the subject on Sunday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m. as part of my regular Mocha Merlot with the Musicologist series for Chamber Music Tulsa.

The Society for Private Musical Performances only lasted for a few seasons, but it represented a milestone in music history. Could it even be a blueprint for our future?

Jason Heilman hosts Classical Tulsa, Fridays at noon on Classical 88.7 KWTU HD-1.