Café Bazar

Imagine walking into a bar and finding two dozen of the most talented composers from around the world staring back at you.

Imagine walking into a bar and finding two dozen of the most talented composers from around the world staring back at you. 

That’s exactly what would’ve happened if you’d stumbled across Salzburg’s Café Bazar in 1922, when many of the top composers of the time travelled to attend performances at the Salzburger Festspiele and the Internationale Kammermusikaufführungen (International Chamber Music Symposium). Somehow or another, the mass of five-lined-staff-paper-wielding-visionaries made their way from the theatre to Café Bazar and decided to form a borderless band of composers, now known as the International Society of Contemporary Music. Still alive and well today, they state on their website, “The International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) is a premier forum for the advancement, dissemination and interchange of new music around the world. Through ISCM, our members promote contemporary music in all its varied forms, strengthening musical life in their local contexts and making their music and its creators known to the world.” 

To celebrate the founding of their new society, they resolved to host an inaugural festival in 1923, which would feature works chosen by a panel. In their first application season, they received over 200 applications from 15 nations. 

However, the chamber music symposium which had lured so many composers to Salzburg is now considered Festival No. 0, as it accomplished exactly what they hoped their new society would do: namely, promote new music on the global stage. The program, comprised of all recently created pieces by living composers, is almost difficult to imagine: Richard Strauss, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartok, Arthur Bliss, Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Karol Syzmanowski, Anton Webern, Dame Ethel Smyth, Gustav Holst, Alban Berg, and on and on and on. In four days, one could hear 54 different composers from 16 different countries. Twenty of these composers themselves were present. 

Naturally, not everyone was on board with the promotion of an international and modernist approach to music and by 1923, an anti-ISCM society called the Festival of Austrian Contemporary Music had already banded together. Spearheaded by Erich Korngold and Wilhelm Grosz, the concerts featured their own music in addition to works by Zemlinsky, Richard Strauss, and Joseph Marx. Arnold Schönberg, a seemingly strategic businessman, managed to have his pieces performed at both the ISCM and the anti-ISCM festivals. 

It strikes me as remarkable that all of these minds ended up in the same place at the same time essentially by mistake; it’s easy to forget that these geniuses we idolise were just as influenced by their environment as we are today, sought to feel connected to the wider creative realm, and tried to make sense of their place in the world. 

Learning about this open interchange of ideas while watching national borders become more rigid in response to the pandemic, I was inspired to curate a recital program based on the music performed at the first ISCM festivals. In honor of its 100th anniversary, Sholto Kynoch and I performed this Café Bazar program, in a tour of recitals for the Oxford International Song Festival (formerly known as Oxford Lieder Festival) in the spring of 2022. 

As noted below, some of these songs were actually heard in the festival; however, many of the composers only had chamber or solo instrumental music performed. Debussy had already passed away by the time the ICSM was founded, but his influence still resounded in the concert hall. In the spirit of mutli-national influence, we chose to perform three of his dramatic Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire​​​​​​, which he composed after seeing several Wagner operas for the first time at the Bayreuth Festival. 

I have no doubt that they were an opinionated group who often disagreed and frequently disliked what the others had written, but their commitment to open dialogue and forward thinking is what the arts should stand for on a fundamental level. Korngold and Grosz felt that in order to promote Austrian music, they had to separate themselves from the collective experience, but I hope that if they were alive today, they might be able to see that celebrating our differences can help us not only find common ground, but strengthen our individual voices.

For the complete list of music performed in 1922 and 1923 ISCM festivals, visit