Classic FM’s Graham Abbott explores Beethoven, Mahler and Schoenberg as illuminated in a new exhibition.

Gustav Klimt’s most substantial and opulent decorative undertaking was inspired by another great work of art: Beethoven’s Ninth. The painter’s lavish, sprawling Beethoven frieze features prominently in the National Gallery of Victoria’s major survey of turn-of-the-century Viennese art, which opened on Saturday as the crowning glory of the gallery’s 150th birthday celebrations.

ABC Classic FM’s Graham Abbott narrates the exhibition’s recorded audio guide, a comprehensive introduction to Viennese society and the glittering, intimate milieu that saw artists and composers of the day draw inspiration from one another.

Klimt’s vivid wall feature, a richly imagined “symphony” in itself, stands today as his monument to the human spirit: its struggles and its ultimate triumph as he heard it in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It was completed in 1902 for the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition, dedicated entirely to Beethoven with tributes from 21 artists on the 75th anniversary of the composer’s death. The event culminated in a performance of the Ninth Symphony conducted by Gustav Mahler.

The subject gave rise to one of Klimt’s grandest designs and one of the earliest in his oeuvre to use the lustrous gold-leaf for which he is celebrated. At 34 metres wide and two metres high across multiple panels, the wall detail dazzled all who saw it in the Secession entrance hall, scandalising Viennese critics who objected to some of the demonic, erotic representations in Klimt’s epic vision.

The frieze escaped bombing in the Second World War and remains in the Secession building – the replica that appears in Melbourne was painstakingly produced using Klimt’s techniques during the restoration of the original.

Graham Abbott on the Beethoven frieze


Other composers to get a look-in at Vienna Art & Design are Gustav Mahler, who dominated Viennese cultural life, and the revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg, himself an accomplished painter. The exhibition’s profile etching of Mahler was created by fellow Jewish artist Emil Orlik in 1902. The two became fast friends when, during their first meeting in a Prague café, Orlik sketched Mahler’s head on a postcard and the delighted maestro invited him to Vienna.

Schoenberg’s portrait of his composition student Alban Berg shows the esteem with which the great German iconoclast held his young protégé. Along with Anton Webern, the two were part of the Second Viennese School of expressionist music. The 1910 painting came before Schoenberg abandoned tonality completely in favour of his radical twelve-tone serialism, which changed the face of twentieth-century music.

The NGV places two innovators side-by-side: Berg’s portrait hangs next to a reclining Schoenberg painted by the latter’s good friend Richard Gerstl. 

Gerstl stayed with the Schoenberg family in 1907 and 1908, acting as a painting teacher, but an ill-fated affair with his composer friend’s wife drove Gerstl to suicide, a traumatic episode in Schoenberg’s life which became the subject of his music drama The Hand of Fate, Op 18.

Graham Abbott on Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg

Vienna Art & Design runs at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 9. The gallery hosts a lecture about Mahler’s music on August 28. View the event details here.