Articles & Essays

Out of the Musicians’ Ghetto

By Christopher Hailey

Two generations of composers shaped the musical landscape during the first half of the twentieth century. The first transformed the inherited world of late Romanticism with vertiginous flights of fantasy. A second generation, which came of age in the 1920s, turned away from Romantic ecstasy and mixed high and low, serious and popular, bourgeois and proletarian. These generations shared a common heritage but pursued widely disparate cultural, aesthetic, and even political and philosophical preoccupations.

It is an astonishing legacy from an astonishing era, but it has been transmitted to us in fragments, its continuities disrupted, its densely woven fabric rent asunder. The picture that emerged after the Second World War— in music histories as well as in the living traces of that history, the concert repertoire— was over simplified, a largely Germano–centric narrative of big names and neat stylistic categories; facile cultural clichés and teleologies that propounded the necessary and inevitable demise of tonality and a fight to the death between progressive and conservative cultural forces. In the process, some of the era's most distinctive voices were lost.

Those silenced voices from the interstices of a rich and variegated musical culture are what concern us here, voices like that of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an unabashed Romantic whose precocity astonished his contemporaries; or of Franz Schreker, whose works, evenly divided between fin–de–siècle Vienna and the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, thematicized the fragile borderline between shimmering dream and sober awakening; or like that of yet another Viennese, Alexander Zemlinsky, who spent the most productive years of his life in Prague, the capital, after 1918, of a vibrant republic in which a younger generation that included Hans Krása, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann contributed to a new flowering of Czech culture. And what of Erwin Schulhoff, whose peripatetic career was matched by a series of stylistic somersaults that took him from Dada, to jazz, neoclassicism and Neue Sachlichkeit?

These and other composers disappeared into the maw of National Socialism with its persecution of Jews and other "racial" and political undesirables and its various wars of aggression. Schreker was driven to an early grave in 1934, while Zemlinsky, Korngold, Hans Gál, Wilhelm Grosz and Erich Zeisl, along with countless others, were forced into exile. There, bitter and disoriented, many either lost their way or took detours that served to obscure the trajectory of their creative journey. Karl Amadeus Hartmann remained in Germany, but in inner exile, while Veniamin Fleishman was killed during the siege of Leningrad and Vítĕzslava Kaprálová died at twenty–five, in exile in France. Still more tragic was the fate of those composers, including Ullmann, Krása, Haas, Schulhoff and Gideon Klein, who lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps, their works scattered or destroyed, memories of their careers and activities effaced.

But the trauma of the war and the Holocaust was only the beginning. The devastation wrought by those catastrophes was compounded by the profound cultural disorientation that followed. In the early post–war years it was simply too difficult, too painful, to attempt to knit together a world shattered by so much death, destruction and moral abasement – the more so since an emerging Cold War was dividing Europe anew. The 1950s were a time for new beginnings, for brave new worlds in which even the fathers were dispatched without remorse ("Schoenberg est mort," as Boulez famously declared). Thus, many composers who had been victims of Nazi terror were suppressed by a new set of aesthetic agendas. In the East, strictures against “formalism,” in the West, dogmas of musical progress led many well–intentioned composers, musicians and cultural managers to pursue narrow paths toward new horizons. The inevitable result was a willed cultural amnesia, a pragmatic decision to sweep away many vestiges of pre–war culture. Tonality, Romanticism, inherited forms, even those high–spirited jazz–inspired works of the 1920s and '30s were relegated to slag heap of history, often with epitaphs adapted without apology from Nazi aesthetic jargon.

Such edicts were enough to warn away the incurious, absolve the complacent and insure that such revivals as took place were perfunctory and halfhearted. Publishers did their part by pulping most of their surviving inventories. It is likely that almost as many scores were destroyed in these post–war years as had ever been confiscated by the Nazis, just as some of the greatest losses to Europe's architectural heritage took place not through bombing but in the name of post–war urban renewal. With most works out of print and little interest in publishing surviving manuscripts, it is no wonder that the forgotten victims of National Socialism were thrust ever deeper into the memory hole.

This started to change in the later 1970s, when narratives of the Holocaust began at last to penetrate popular consciousness. In Germany and Austria Zemlinsky, Schreker, Korngold, Walter Braunfels, Berthold Goldschmidt, Jaromir Weinberger and the Theresienstadt composers Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása were accorded Wiedergutmachung, a kind of posthumous restitution in which the still open wound of repression was aestheticized as a cultural event. This led to a well–meaning but misguided attempt to appropriate the obscene Nazi epithet “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music) as a titillating slogan for marketing fascism's victims to the public. In point of fact, central Europe's fascists never succeeded in defining degenerate, much less in formulating their own musical ideals, and there can be no historical or aesthetic justification for lumping so many diverse artists into this single and singularly loathsome category. Moreover, such strategies only served to create further ghettos, tiny islets of commemoration, like those sanitized pedestrian zones in which once thriving historical districts are set apart for boutique commercialism. In the end these composers were not only divorced from the vibrant context of their times, but also cordoned off from our own contemporary musical culture.

“A lot of people think that this music is all about the Holocaust,” James Conlon has observed, “but only two percent of it was written in concentration camps. This is about the restoration of two generations of composers that were wiped off the map, a tremendous variety of composers.” In reality, most of this music was written before the rise of National Socialism, the Austrian Anschluss, or the occupation of Czechslovakia. The first challenge, therefore, is to restore it to its historical context, to explore its relationship to the culture and politics of the tumultuous early decades of the century. Only in this way can one truly gauge the contours of each composer's creative response, whether conscious, as in the selection of genre or texts, or through those subtle stylistic transformations that reflect a more unconscious accommodation to shifts in the aesthetic climate.

All of these composers played an integral role in the musical culture of their times; their music sprang from commonly–held traditions and frequently shared aspirations. They vied for the same audiences and shared publishers, patrons, students and friends. Erwin Schulhoff's giddy genre–hopping suggests ready parallels to Stravinsky, Křenek or Weill, just as the music of Braunfels and Korngold, Weigl and Zemlinsky, Krása and Kaprálová, Fleishman and Goldschmidt offers surprising points of comparison with Strauss, Mahler, Martinů, and Shostakovich. Hearing Franz Schreker next to Webern can heighten our appreciation of early twentieth–century notions of sonority and Klangfarbe, just as Viktor Ullmann's harmonic language can evoke the ways in which Alban Berg flirts with lingering tonal references. But such juxtapositions are only a starting point for approaching unfamiliar works. With time, each composer's idiosyncrasies emerge to help shape suitable performance styles and, in the end, to enhance our understanding of the era, so that even familiar classics can be heard afresh.

These composers also need to be heard in the company of today's creative forces. It is no accident that a generation of music historians, baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, began researching these forgotten musicians at the same time that young composers of the same generation were challenging post–war compositional orthodoxies. Today's musical culture is fluid, inventive, eclectic and open–minded in ways that recall the musical culture of the early twentieth century. Composers once neglected because they did not fit into a "school" have now acquired new relevance. Erwin Schulhoff's aggressive assault on aesthetic barriers feels strikingly familiar, while Schreker's obsession with timbre seems like an anticipation of today's Spectralists.

In the end, any work of art frees itself from its creator and the circumstances of its creation to set its own terms and become subject to creative appropriation by other artists and an object of aesthetic appreciation by audiences blissfully ignorant of its historical significance. The times, the audiences to which these composers were responding, have passed; the rupture is complete. We cannot remove the shadow that haunts the memory of these composers, nor should we try. But the works themselves are oblivious to such impositions. If they are worth performing they must be given their right of way on the living thoroughfare of today's musical culture, subject to the critical scrutiny of the reviewer's pen and the risk of popular indifference. With sympathetic performances and repeated hearing, the strongest among them will shoulder their way into the repertoire, find their public and create a context for still other, more difficult works.

By restoring these composers to the repertoire we accord them the only justice still available – "the one thing," James Conlon has observed, "that would have meant the most to them, which is to perform their music." Celebrating creative individuality is the best response to the leveling force of aesthetic repression, a first step toward re–individualizing the dehumanized, faceless mass of National Socialism's victims. To be sure, an author's tragic fate is no guarantor of artistic significance, but each work of art, like the wounded eagle in Janáček's From the House of the Dead, must first be restored to health before it can soar beyond the walls of its confinement. It is for us to replace the silence of apathy and neglect with the hushed anticipation of discovery.