Rezension: Christopher Morris, Modernism and the Cult of Mountains

Christopher Morris, Modernism and the Cult of Mountains. Music, Opera, Cinema, Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 220 S.

[This review was originally published in the online journal Die Theaterforschung in March 2013. Due to its shutdown in early 2017, it is republished here.]

Mountain concepts in the German cultural tradition

With Modernism and the cult of mountains, Christopher Morris, lecturer at the University College Cork, Ireland, provides both a most interesting contribution to the lively field of opera studies and to the investigation of German modernism. As the entire series Ashgate Interdisciplinary studies in opera aims at an “interdisciplinary, or as some prefer cross-disciplinary” way of “charting (…) opera’s position among twentieth-century art forms” (p. xiii f.), Morris takes into account a wide range of sources: not only opera or other musical genres, but also cinematic works and writings in aesthetics and philosophy.

The study’s central question is fascinating because it not only grasps the matters of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, but also is deeply rooted in German musical tradition with its particular relation to the sphere of nature: As a main diagnose the autor states a “modern German preoccupation with mountains” (p. 3) that can be traced back as a topic of the arts: In the aesthetic premisses of the late 18th century nature had been artistically considered as a refuge, throughout the 19th century it became augmented with notions of “home”. At the dawn of the 20th century, however, this preoccupation became more complex and ambivalent, as Morris shows with special attention to the concept of “the sublime”. Based on the culturalist presupposition that focusses on the ways in which nature and mountains are represented and culturally constructed in works of art, he aims at explaining “music’s role in the fascination with mountains” (p. 18). On this ground he is able to pursue what can be stated as the book’s main thesis: how the “cult of mountains” became a space and a concept of reflection for the German discourse of modernism itself.

Morris makes a strong point in commonly reconsidering musical aspects, discourses in aesthetics and intellectual traditions outside the arts. Departing from various dualisms in which mountains figure either as a place of longing and purity or as site of ferocity and wilderness, it is suggested that the traditional dichotomy (going back to Rousseau) of nature as a place of idealistic human “belonging” (p. 2) on the one hand and civilisation as a threat to it on the other dissolves during the period from the fin de siècle to World War II. At the same time, formerly stable categories like “home” and “nature” change their content in being claimed by various groups and ideologies. Morris cites examples from different times and contexts that explicitly draw on the topos of mountains in order to demonstrate how the spheres of nature/mountains/home and civilisation/city/modernity became connected to each other visually and musically in terms of the ambiguous “doubleness of modern condition” (p. 1): Richard Strauss’s tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie, Eugen d’Albert’s opera Tiefland and Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf as genuinely musical examples and various representatives of the Bergfilm-genre as art forms dealing with music in a wider context. As an (almost-)contemporary exponent of a German tradition of thought, the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche are discussed with regard to the prevailing concepts of the mountains, with Zarathustra’s “mountain solitude” as a critique of civilisation and urban modernity.

Musical traditions and the mountains: Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie

Richard Strauss’s tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie has occassionally been accused of its “naïveté of musical illustration” (p. 49), even its “exhaustion of instrumental-programmatical devices” (‚Erschöpfung der instrumental-programmmusikalischen Darstellungsmittel‘, Hansen 2003, p. 216). With his chapter on Strauss’s last work in that genre, Morris not only provides vital evidence to his study of the “cult of mountains”, but he also contributes crucially to the rehabilitation and our understanding of that particular work. He argues that Eine Alpensinfonie was the composer’s way of dealing with the metaphysically charged musical aesthetics from German romantic tradition and of processing his readings of Nietzschean philosophy. As Morris states, Nietzsche’s freeing of nature from the claims of metaphysics and his anti-transcendental rethinking of the mountains as a “confrontation with and remaking of the self” (p. 50) serve as a base for Strauss’s engagement with another German tradition: He puts “the symphony to alien territory”, that is to the “anti-metaphysical” (p. 50) genre of the tone poem, stressing the relation to the symphony by name (similar to Sinfonia Domestica), but also through a temporary four-movement structure during composition. Thus, the “musical pictorialism” (p. 50) that Eine Alpensinfonie has been accused of is not a deficiency, but the very core of the piece. In celebrating the “external and objective” with Nietzsche it establishes a distance to the “German subjectivist engagement with ideal nature” (p. 57). Still, traces of romanticist music aesthetics can be found: Like Nietzsche’s philosophy bears a rest of “dialoguing with Romanticism” (p. 64) in worshiping nature, Strauss’s music is grounded on traditional depictions of nature within music and rooted in an established way of musical thought, “the quotation marks it places around the idealist Austro-German heritage are always in danger of being elided” (p. 75). In that a new relation to the past is established that Morris calls “nostalgia” (p. 73), a term closely linked to the discourse of “home”, but also to contemporaries like Gustav Mahlers. In reflecting its own “lateness” (p. 76), the Alpensinfonie once more proves Strauss’s often-quoted awareness of his own place in history in his dealing with traditions, engaging with the “cult of mountains” whose ambivalence epitomizes a central condition of modernity.

Operatic mountains: Staging the remote

Meeting the claims of interdisciplinarity, Morris examines two operas situated in the mountains  (or rather at the border between mountains and the life in the cities): d’Albert’s Tiefland, whose title directly refers to the “lowlands” as the counterpart to the mountains, and Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. For a full account, aspects of music and libretto as well as scenery and staging are considered. In doing so, Tiefland is investigated in terms of Heimat, of “home”, asking how the opera “engage[s] historically with prevailing notions” (p. 20) of this concept. With an eye to the discourse of exoticism in which views and constructions of “self” and “other” have been widely discussed, Morris notices “self-exoticization” (p. 20) as a leading idea of Tiefland. He argues that the remote (=exotic) mountain site is being conceived here as an unspoiled “mountain home” (Bergheimat, p. 21). It becomes a ressort of health and strength and thus a counterpart to the quarrels of modernity according to the dichotomy Nietzsche stated in Also sprach Zarathustra. Indeed, Morris concedes that the model for the libretto of Tiefland, Àngel Guimerà’s Catalan play Terra baixa (1896), already bears the ideological dualism of mountains and lowlands, a fact that slightly weakens the particularity of the German affinity with the mountains. The pan-European circulation of Nietzsche’s writings might have served as an explanation here. In a widening of his perspective, Morris provides insightful thought to the staging of opera in general, arguing that the mountains epitomize the situation on stage itself as an allegory of nearness, remoteness and borders (which he calls the “abyss”), finally providing space for the force of the singers’ voice that hurdles any given distances. Another view of “home” gets involved with the look at the 2006 production of Tiefland in Zurich. Here, mountains are interpreted not only as a place of idealization, but as a deceptive virtual reality in a literal as well as in a contemporary technological sense that once more endorses the argument of a constructed “other” now longed for.

Even more persuasive is the chapter on Krenek’s Jonny-opera. Here Morris gives evidences for a surmounting of the alleged opposition of civilisation and mountain and argues that ambiguity (“the inability to decide”, as he puts it; p. 117) becomes the genuine modus vivendi of modernism. Krenek’s opus turns out to provide fascinating answers to Morris’ question if the supposed “resistance to urban culture is quite as clear-cut as it first appears” (p. 117), as Jonny spielt auf constructs and deconstructs dualisms on various levels at the same time: not only does it invoke the old city/mountain-opposition, but it also incorporates musical and aesthetical as well as political and ideological discourses. Morris shows convincingly how the mountains serve as a metaphor for a “topographical-cultural divide of high and low” (p. 17), as the  different spaces become connected to specific cultural spheres: Max, the classical intellectual composer and representative of the elitist high arts, gains inspiration from the mountains, being pushed out of the urban milieu by the “instinctive, uncontained vitality” (p. 117) of the African-American Jonny and his jazz music, representing “otherness in an operatic context” (p. 129). Morris mentions Webern, on whose fascination with mountains Krenek spent some thoughts, as a possible model for Max. Thus, the construction of cultural identities, urbanity and rapid change on the one hand and sublime resistance against modernity and mass culture in the mountains, is expressed in the opposition of musical styles and concepts of artistry at first. However, the separation of cultures dissolves as the spheres metaphorically grow closer to each other in the figure of the singer Anita—presenting another dualism: male/female—who in a sense belongs to both worlds. Having heard her on a radio broadcast in an alpine hotel (undoubtedly an instrusion of modernism to Max’s mountain solitude) singing one of his arias, Max returns to the city to be with her. Morris emphasises the openness of the opera’s ending, as it preempts the staging of Max’s development and thus the course of modern art music.

Cinema: Facing modernism in the mountains

The remarks on the Bergfilm genre is arguably the most convincing part of Morris’s book in strikingly fulfilling the claims of interdiscplinarity. Not only does Morris consider the visual and technical qualities of the medium, but he also takes the music into account and emphasises its particular contribution to film. Thereby, he provides a comprehensive view of cinematic forms of expression, that experienced fascinating developments during an early period in the 1920s, and contributes to a growing field of interest during the last years (see e. g. most recently Marcia J. Citron 2010). The chapter’s pivotal assertion takes the tendencies of ambiguation proposed earlier to an even more complex level. It shows how the supposed dualism in which the mountains serve as a far point destabilizes as the spheres inextricably grow close to each other by means of cinematic and musical techniques.

At the center of the survey stands Leni Riefenstahl’s filmic adaption of Tiefland, while other representatives (most important the movies by Arnold Fanck starring Riefenstahl as an actress) come into view as well. Departing from Riefenstahl’s comments on the mountains as a decidedly apolitical site beyond ideological suspicion, even as a place of resistance, Morris points out the bias of this account and the fundamental “collision with modernity” (p. 16) emerging from the Bergfilm. In addition to the before-mentioned beginning of alpine tourism as a broadening occupation of the mountains, he now argues that the whole genre of Bergfilm is based on an explicitly modern, materialist conquering of nature, physically and visually, with the assistance of technological equipment: cameras, mountain equipment, special effects. The cinematic technique of “cross-cutting” (p. 18) that directly poses lowland and highland pictures next to each other, Morris argues, dissolves the boundaries so eagerly postulated by Riefenstahl. Besides that, the reliance on technical requirements singles out the very mediality of the movie, treating the work of art as a mise-en-abyme (p. 146). What is more, the score contributes to a “modern spatial reconfiguration” (p. 164) by underlying the images with an overall set of motives that do not separate the spheres, persons or environments but cause a “magical wholeness” (p. 155) throughout the movie. Cinematic editing and musical continuity allows almost-simultaneity of both worlds through “parallel narratives” (p. 156), finally melting the “cult of mountains” and modernism conceptually at a moment where “even the pure heights have lost their autonomy.” (p. 164)

Modernism and the ambivalent cult

“Is there still ‚home‘?”, Stanford intellectual Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht recently asked (Gumbrecht 2013), pointing at the collective loss of ties to places, to rootedness, that is to say. In his survey Christopher Morris gives wide evidence that the discourse of “home” gathered speed not only during the 20th century or at our age of dissolving boundaries and globalization, but accumulated ambiguity at the very roots of what is called modernism. Modernism, and with it all its cultural artefacts, in this view is deeply shaped by the seminal paradox of tradition and modernity. According to Morris, the mountains themselves become an allegory of modernism as a place where this clash is staged. Not only in historical, but also in terms of media theory Morris contributes remarkably to the discussion in singling out the phenomenon of “remediation” (p. 174), stating the bidirectional “reconfiguration” of older and new media, that is: incorporation of operatic and musical forms into motion pictures as well as the adoption of cinematic settings and techniques into opera. The “cult of mountains” and all works cited prove to be an evident path through this complex relation.

Although very persuasive as a whole, some remarks may be made contentwise and formally. The book’s unfortunately rather lax editorial office results in an amount of typing errors that is far beyond acceptable and appropriate to such a valuably produced work. What is more, as the book is mainly occupied with German culture and works, more attention might have been given not only to orthography, but to translations: minor inconsistencies complicate the understanding, for example when Neue Sachlichkeit is presented as “new matter-of-factness” and as “new objectivity” only few lines below (p. 125). More serious, not in every case do arguments based on specific terms meet the concepts as they were stated in German. Talking about the genesis of Eine Alpensinfonie, Morris cites Strauss’s four-movement outline with the segment “Liberation through work” (p. 52; Befreiung durch die Arbeit in German, Hansen p. 214) and connects it to Nietzschean ideas and the end of Also sprach Zarathustra, quoting: “I am striving for my work!” (p. 67) This, however, in the German text proves to be a different term (Ich trachte nach meinem Werke!, Nietzsche 1994, P. 344) and thus a different discourse. Besides that, Arbeit (as motivisch-thematische Arbeit) could have been made productive for Morris’ argument of Strauss’s occupation with the symphony, being one of the main categories of genuinely musical (and, as Morris states with good reason, bourgeois) “value” during late 19th century (at the latest since Arnold Schoenberg’s readings of Brahms) and in that a crucial part of German symphonic tradition.

This tradition, in addition, might have been taken into account in greater detail: The symphonies of Gustav Mahler, descending from the same Austro-German tradition as Strauss’s tone poems or the music of Webern that are extensively treated, bear references to a complex understanding of nature just as well, but are mentioned only en passant. (Even Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, as the alleged spearhead of absolute music, refers to the mountains in its famous horn signal.) Besides that, namely works of graphic arts, although not genuinely connected to opera or music, might have been helpful to include “non-musical contexts” (as the editor’s preface claims, p. xiii) as well.

Only when works of art are criticised, incompleteness becomes problematic: In a final actualization of the “cult of mountains”, Morris accuses Philipp Stölzl’s staging of Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2009) of contributing to a cliché with its obvious reminiscence of Hitler’s Obersalzberg residence (not “Obersalzburg”, p. 181) during the opera’s overture. Yet, this might have been interpreted strikingly within the range of Morris’ postulate of “remediation”, as the scene—with the Rienzi protagonist playing with an on-screen globe—directly refers to a movie: the famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. What’s more, not only the Neo-Bergfilm (Morris deals with Nordwand quite extensively), but also the relatively new (non- or semi-fiction) genre of extreme climbing documentary (e. g. Am Limit, 2007) could have been added to this welcome attempt of update.

However, these are only minor constraints on a book that impressively brings together a wide range of sources to a most convincing perspective on German modernism. With Modernism and the cult of mountains, Morris adds an important aspect to our knowledge of the complex interaction of traditions and contemporary dynamics around 1900 and will be a welcome complement not only to those interested in German modernism, but also to those striving for new methodological perspectives in the inter- and cross-medial studies of music, cinema and opera.


Citron, Marcia J. (2010), When Opera meets Film. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (2013), Gibt es noch “Heimat”?, in: Digital/Pausen (28 Feb 2013), (accessed on 13 Mar 2013)

Hansen, Matthias (2003), Richard Strauss. Die Sinfonischen Dichtungen. Kassel u. a. : Bärenreiter

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1994), Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen. Stuttgart : Philipp Reclam jun.

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