DANCING ON A VOLCANO is the first episode of Sir Simon Rattle's "Leaving Home", a television programme introducing 20th century orchestral music. We go between the brief lectures of Rattle, seated at a piano, and excepts from various pieces in performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rattle. This first volume starts at the very beginning: Vienna before World War I, when tonality was being pushed to the limit by Wagner, Mahler, and Schoenberg, and then broken entirely by the first twelve-tone serialists.
For Rattle, Wagner's "Tristan" makes a convenient beginning, though some might want to contest the composer's intentions in its infamous atonal passage. Mahler (Symphony No. 7) comes along with some innovations so subtle that it took decades for people to recognise how original he was. Schoenberg ("Transfigured Night", "Five Orchestral Pieces") expands on the freedom of pitches, and then Webern ("Five Pieces for Orchestra") comes up with the sensible next step, twelve tones arrayed in a row after which there was nothing more to be said. Finally, Berg writes his Violin Concerto (performed here by the great Gidon Kremer) that elegantly reconciles the twelve-tone method with echoes of traditional harmony. As an epilogue, Rattle recounts how the new-music paradise that was Vienna perished with Nazism.
This is all very simple material, the facts and the repertoire will be well-known to anyone who's listened to this sort of music for a little while already. But for total neophytes, there are some good points here, and Rattle certainly starts from some relatively innocuous music, letting the newbie slowly become accustomed to 20th century music and not scaring him away. Still, I felt that there were some pedagogical necessities missing here. Rattle notes that the early atonal works don't sound unusual to us, since we are used to a more liberal use of pitches nowadays. However, he doesn't talk much at all about the critical reaction of the time, the viewer is left with little understanding of why exactly all of these developments were so controversial.
DANCING ON A VOLCANO contains further downsides common to all DVDs in the series. While music is being played, the scene goes between instrumentalists performing and stock footage of whatever the producers thought would be good; for example, while a portion of Mahler goes on, we get interspliced footage of a forest. I feel that this forces a single interpretation on the listener, when in reality instrumental music can mean anything one likes. And the decision to put only a single episode on each DVD, charging the usual ArtHaus rate for just fifty minutes of video, is outrageous. Even getting the seven volumes together in the boxset doesn't save one much, and I think that this is a sensible purchase more for libraries than individuals. The only bonus material consists of biographies of the composers (little more than what one would find in a common encyclopedia) and a music track with Berg's concerto. One should think carefully before acquiring the DVD.
Still, I suppose that DANCING ON A VOLCANO and other entries in the "Leaving Home" series could be a good buy for fans of contemporary music who want loved ones to find the same pleasure in new music that they do.