by Felix Cherniavsky
When, in her late twenties, Maud Allan abruptly abandoned her music studies for her new art, she did so without any preparatory training. Having caught a glimpse of an unexplored art form suitable to her gifts and as an outlet for her personal despair, she fused her creative insights and boundless imagination to further explore her perceptions. Isadora Duncan, whose early performances in Berlin Maud Allan attended, might well have provided the 'curtain raiser' to this hitherto unexplored art form for her but, as the following record indicates, the paths that these fellow San Franciscans subsequently followed were very different.
Maud Allan's art was totally individual, not so much in its artistic purpose as in its profoundly personal intent. There is no doubt that without the emotional scars of her brother's tragedy, the pressures that forced her both to abandon the piano and to seek an outlet for her twisted emotions would not have arisen. Furthermore, she always insisted her art was unteachable. By this she presumably meant (although she never publicly conceded) that only one endowed with her gifts and subjected to a similar trauma could fully absorb the what, how, and why of her art. That is why she had many imitators but no peers. That, too, is one reason why her art has been so generally misunderstood.
On February 14, 1895, 22-year-old Maud Allan left San Francisco to study piano in Berlin. As she recalled some three years later, her parting words to her brother Theo, aged 24 and in his last year of medical studies, were, "Be a good boy and be sure to graduate." Theo never graduated and certainly was not a good boy. Within two months of his sister's departure, he was arrested for "The Crime of the Century" and after a tumultuous trial and countless appeals he was executed for murder on January 7, 1898.
When she left San Francisco on that foggy morning Maud Allan was confident of her artistic gifts, her future, and of her family's loving support. Theo promised to supplement her meager allowance with earnings from an additional part-time job. With his mother, he planned to join Maud in Berlin for a year's post-graduate medical study following his graduation in October of that year.
She had a host of admiring friends enchanted by her sparkling mind, her wide range of interests, her charm, and her "elusive graciousness - it wasn't so much beauty as a sort of mysterious and sympathetic flow" - as the last of her lovers remembered her some 30 years after her death. These ingratiating attributes masked a secretive, manipulative and cunning individual unable to forget her brother's tragedy, or forgive society for its role in his fate.
Upon her arrival in Berlin the San Francisco colony of medical and music students welcomed her with open arms; but within two months, as news of the murder charges against her brother spread, she intentionally avoided that colony. Her musical talent soon enough attracted the likes of Joseph Joachim, Director of the Hochschule fur Musik, of Artur Rubinstein, her junior by several years, and later, of Ferruccio Busoni, who became somewhat more than an ardent admirer.
Her immediate peers - members, for example, of the Pension that served as her home - were university students caught up in the restless ether of their generation. Germany, after all, had only been united since 1870 - not long enough for a new nation, previously composed of many individual states, to generate any sense of spiritual identity, direction, or coherent security. The result was an abiding restlessness to shed the past and to move forward to a common destiny in pursuit of lasting visions. Until the bindings of the past were loosened, however, the movement was inevitably stalled.
In the interim, German intellectuals sought to escape from the fragmented past, toyed with metaphysical musings and offered shifting visions of the nation's future; they sought new means of social and self-expression as they strove to pass beyond the prevailing 'angst'. With her haunted imagination, innate creativity and private demons, Maud Allan surely empathized with the spirit of the times.
That empathy is in fact demonstrated in her diary entry for December 26, 1896. "We made time spin this evening," runs her entry, "in fact all day. We had Living Pictures. Ernst [a son of Frau Ilgenstein, operator of the Pension] and I presented 'Lebensmude' ['Tired of Life'] and we were good, the others say. Everyone joined in, even 12-year-old Heinz."
In choosing "Lebensmude" as a theme for their Living Picture presentation Maud and Ernst no doubt intended to personify the deep-seated ennui so prevalent in Germany at that time. Furthermore, even on a personal level Maud Allan had good reason to be "tired of life" at this time. Her brother faced public execution, she herself was living in poverty and, given her mental health, she had been advised to withdraw from the Hochschule for the year. Thus, by putting her heart and soul into the "Lebensmude" presentation she had, unknown to her Pension audience and quite possibly to herself, given vent to her profound despair.
While ultimately she sought, and in her 'classical' dances achieved, a certain release in her musical interpretations - a fusion of music and movement - she still remained chained to her brother's disgrace. Any hope of freeing herself of those chains was only possible by a violent act of rebellion - as ultimately demonstrated a decade later in the costume, poses, sexual overtones, perceived nudity and even the story line of The Vision of Salome (and there is rich meaning in the word Vision). She failed to free herself from those chains, but her attempt to do so had its material rewards, thanks to the Vision's startling impact on London's audiences in 1908/09. The impact was startling for a very simple reason. The unfamiliarity of her musical interpretations, together with the multi-level daring of The Vision of Salome, was a phenomenon for which Edwardian London, so complacently determined to explore life and yet still bound by a code of respectability, was totally unprepared. Maud Allan directly challenged Edwardian London. Precisely because the challenge was unexpected and illuminating, her conquest was like a lightning bolt. It shook but failed to devastate the prevailing culture. Only the trauma of the First World War could do that.
During the eighteen months that she reigned supreme in London as a "star" performer at the Palace Theatre her fame, like a California bush fire, swept uncontrolled through the farthest reaches of the British Empire and beyond. For the most part that fame was tarnished with the notoriety identified with her solo performance of The Vision of Salome, in which she projected a sexuality that fractured, for some shattered, the bounds of Edwardian respectability. This reaction made her into a sexual icon for a large segment of the public. She became internationally known as "The Salome Dancer," an epithet that she detested, all the more because of its erotic overtones. But the fact was that, as if stunned by the sexual suggestiveness of this 20-minute solo tour de force, the admirers of the Salome Dancer forgot, ignored or failed to appreciate her creative and intellectual originality and the artistic sensibility honed by years of musical study that served as the basic components of her unique form of self-expression.
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