Who first said ‘dancing on the edge of a volcano’?

The phrase, capturing the atmosphere of culture in the Weimar Republic and signifying the LSO’s new season, was ascribed by Simon Rattle this morning to the composer Alban Berg.

What Berg actually said, in a March 1, 1933 letter from Berlin, is this: The whole town and all its inhabitants are quite drowned in carnival din, masks and confetti. And on top of that the news of the Reichstag fire. Dancing on a volcano.’

So: nothing to do with culture, and no edge to it. The image falls flat without ‘the edge’.

So who said it first?

As far as I am aware it was a cultural historian – either George Steiner, Walter Laqueur or Peter Gay (in Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), p. xiv.

Does anyone know better?

LSO release:
Sir Simon Rattle, Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra launches ‘Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano’ – a two-year exploration of music written in the first half of the 20th century, when Europe lay on the cusp of fascism, an era of profound social, cultural and political upheaval.

Sir Simon Rattle said: “’Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano’ is a phrase Alban Beg and others used to describe the febrile atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s. It’s an extraordinary expression, one that inspires us to explore what was happening in the musical world in the first half of the 20th century. The era produced some of the darkest music possible. For example Webern’s Six Pieces, which we hear in the opening week, prefigure the future catastrophes: rich, but tiny and intense with the power of hydrochloric acid, they go to the heart of everything.”

Sir Simon Rattle begins by conducting two concert performances of Berg’s opera Wozzeck with Christian Gerhaher singing the title role for the first time in the UK, with Anja Kampe in the role of Marie. The next programme finds him pairing Ligeti’s Atmosphères with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin, and the aforementioned Webern’s Six Pieces leading into Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde with Brahms’ Symphony No 2 following after the interval.

He investigates the 20th century theme further with four evenings in early December exploring the work of Hindemith, beginning with the Overture to ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as sight-read by a secondrate spa ensemble at the fountain at 7am for string quartet (1923), Kammermusik No 1 (1922) and his Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934) moving on to Symphonic Metamorphosis (1943) and his Symphonic Dances (1937). These Hindemith pieces are programmed alongside Beethoven piano concertos with soloist Krystian Zimerman, building to a climax of an extended evening concert of all five concertos on 17 December, the anniversary of Beethoven’s christening day.

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    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you!

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Apparently, Flaubert got there first, in 1850:
        “From time to time, I open a newspaper. Things seem to be proceeding at a dizzying rate. We are dancing not on the edge of a volcano, but on the wooden seat of a latrine, and it seems to me more than a touch rotten. Soon society will go plummeting down and drown in nineteen centuries of shit. There’ll be quite a lot of shouting. (1850)”

  • Steven Holloway says:

    I suspect that Berg was there referring to the famous words of Gustav Stresemann re Germany’s economic situation a few years earlier. Not too surprising that the GCSE History course quotes Stresemann’s words as “…on the edge of a volcano”, which is incorrect.

  • Nik says:

    I don’t know who was first, but…

    “C’est une fête toute napolitaine, Monseigneur, nous dansons sur un volcan” – Achille de Salvandy, Paris, 1830.

    “Wir tanzen hier auf einem Vulkan – aber wir tanzen. Was in dem Vulkan gärt, kocht, brauset, wollen wir heute nicht untersuchen, und nur, wie man darauf tanzt.“ – Heinrich Heine, Paris, 1842.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The Widmann thing sounds as if someone got bored and irritated to death and decided, because there was nothing better to do, to put together a couple of thousands of chaotic note fragments to get other people bored and irritated as well, so that he would not feel so terribly, terribly alone.

  • It is fascinating that Rattle is “beginning with the Overture to ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as sight-read by a second rate spa ensemble at the fountain at 7am for string quartet (1923).” This sweet/sour morsel is striking inclusion in a collection of cabaret pieces of the era called “Bye-Bye Berlin” (Harmonia Mundi HMM902295) and captures the sharp “edginess” of the time.

  • Michael Turner says:

    Sir Simon Rattle’s “Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano” project takes me back to his time in Birmingham, when a variety of festivals and projects seemed to punctuate each season’s programming. It’s good to see him doing the same in London and looking at repertoire that’s not just the “same-old” presented in a different and nebulous guise (I can’t wait until someone tries to do a concert series entitled “High Five!”, giving the impression that they are somehow tapping into “yoof culcha”, by way of the fifth symphonies of Mahler, Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, the Emperor Concerto and the Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus).

    As far as repertoire is concerned, as a way into opera for folk new to the genre, I’ve always thought that Wozzeck is up there with far more obvious choices. It’s concentrated, visceral delivery of the Buchner short story chimes very well with a lot of the dark dramas that we currently see on the TV. I think that this sort of linkage is going gain far more ground than serving up short or sugary slices of pieces, popular or not.

    It’s also great to see some Hindemith in the mix. I’ve programmed various of his works in the past and they have always been greeted with surprised positivity by both performers and audiences.

    I remember the first time I heard the Symphonic Metamorphoses live, with the CBSO. I can’t remember who was conducting but do recall that Peter Donohoe was a very robust Bass Drum player!

  • giampi says:

    The letter of Berg (to his wife) is not from Berlin, but from Munich (the carnival is tipically catholic)

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