Articles & Essays

Where to Start or How to Start? (Part I)

By Michael Haas

Part I

“I find the subject fascinating, but I just don't know where to start” is a sentence every one of us has heard countless times. Of course there is no single answer and each person making this point will have his or her own preconceptions and requirements. If one is speaking to a string quartet, it hardly makes sense to rattle off lists of Lieder, and operas by suppressed composers probably won't be of much use to a pianist planning a recital program. Yet there must be some means of peering into this dense forest of opportunities and seeing more than just the trees while being wary of the gullies and crevices lurking in the underbrush.

“Where” to start should not be treated as the principal question; it should come after posing the problem of “how” to start — which, in turn, can be raised only after the “why” is resolved. There is rarely if ever a single fail-safe answer that works for everyone who wishes to know more. The repertoire is like a thick wood, but as one works through the issues it becomes possible to identify some of the trees, avoid the gullies and make worthwhile choices.

In my experience, the first thing that needs to be established is the basis of a musician's interest. There are no legitimate or illegitimate reasons, but there are perhaps motivations that could either enhance an existing project or leave the performer painted into a musical corner. In talking about “music banned by the Nazis,” I always point out that the word “music” comes before “banned” or “Nazis.” At the Jewish Museum in Vienna, where I was music curator for eight years, we avoided anything that might look like a Nazi exhibition. People frequently suggested exhibitions about the suppression of this or the banning of that. We weren't a Holocaust museum; we preferred to mount exhibitions about Viennese musical life, whether it took place in Austria, elsewhere in Europe or, later, in enforced exile abroad. We didn't pussy-foot around the issue of why exile was enforced, but in examining this field it is too easy to concentrate on the perpetrators and forget the music.

The most obvious examples of this are the many well-intentioned projects that are set up to examine music in various types of Nazi camps — or indeed in any camp, including detention camps run by the French, Swiss and British. Gideon Klein undoubtedly composed his best works in Theresienstadt, but whether or not the other composers interned there did so is debatable. Hans Krása is a far more significant composer than his children's opera, Brundibar, would suggest, yet the fascination with the camps means that this is the work we most often hear. Similarly, I don't believe that Hans Gál would wish to have his reputation rest on his “Huyton” Suite, which was composed while he was in a British detention camp. There is nothing wrong with mounting projects centered on music from the camps, depending on what the organizers are trying to communicate. Is it a message of human resilience in the face of Nazi brutality? (Heads usually nod vigorously at this suggestion.) If so, is this message more important than the one that may be communicated by far better works that the composer wrote before detention? Some first-class works certainly came out of the camps: Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, for instance, continues to astound in every way because it offers a supreme message that seems to transcend mortality, demonstrates bravery in the face of certain annihilation and contains profoundly great music. If one opts for the texts preferred by Ullmann over those argued for by his librettist, Peter Kien, then one has a work of such astonishing humanity that it soars above the earthbound evils of the Third Reich. But miracles such as Kaiser von Atlantis are infrequent.

Nothing galvanizes the mind as much as clarifying the intentions behind a project: is it to be about Nazis or is it to be about the composers? Few works allow for both, and setting off on a project about the Holocaust, with the assumption that some great music will be heard, is usually the first of the “heffalump” traps that well-intentioned musicians often stumble into. My rule of thumb remains: position the composers' music above their ”story.”

But my example regarding projects based on “music from the camps” is only meant to demonstrate the unintended consequences of presenting a composer's music because it has an interesting tale to tell. Before arriving at these tales, it's important to try to cut through some thick underbrush.

We inevitably have to start with the Nazis and look at whom they banned and why - and there is no easy or even coherent answer to this issue. For every avant-garde composer banned, another enjoyed the support of the regime. Trying to revive certain types of Modernist music from the Nazi years can be a difficult undertaking, because some audience members may think, “Hitler didn't like it, but then, I'm not keen on it either.” This is perhaps not the message that should be conveyed, and the truth remains that for nearly twenty years well-intentioned European programmers filled concerts with lots of difficult music, gleeful in the knowledge that it would have irritated their anti-Semitic, Nazi-supporting elders. Surely, therefore, in setting up programming concepts, the safest and most efficient policy is to start with works by Jewish composers, whether or not they were representatives of the avant-garde. Yet even this obvious criterion raises the question of the many nineteenth-century composers of Jewish origin who were also banned by the Nazis: Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Mahler, for instance, or a number of semi-forgotten figures such as Joseph Joachim, Karel Goldmark, Anton Rubinstein and Ignaz Brüll. Much of Hitler's work was done long before his arrival by Wagner's henchmen — many themselves Jewish — who removed from programming the composers Wagner disparaged. Meyerbeer was a central figure in the nineteenth century, yet his Robert der Teufel - the single most frequently performed opera in Vienna prior to 1900 - was gone from local opera houses by 1920. Another forgotten gem from the past can be gleaned from a notice in Vienna's newspaper, Neue freie Presse, in which Franz Schalk celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Ignaz Brüll's opera Das goldene Kreuz, a work that by 1926 had enjoyed over a hundred local performances. The issues involved in revising these works are less evident. This music will not jangle any nerves with unresolved dissonances or departures from tonality; but it hasn't survived the test of time, either.

The situation becomes clearer if we limit our investigation to composers who were active during the Nazi period. Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold are now familiar names, and they present the fascinating contradiction of a forward-looking, more radical older composer (Schoenberg) and a musically nostalgic, conservative younger one (Korngold). Sandwiched between them are some of the glories of fin-de-siècle Vienna's, “gay apocalypse” (a translation of the writer Hermann Broch's term, “die fröhliche Apokalypse.”

Alexander Zemlinksy, Franz Schreker and the non-Jewish Alban Berg and Anton Webern, not to mention the lesser-known composers Egon Wellesz and Hans Gál - or Karl Weigl who fits comfortably between Schreker and Zemlinsky - were strikingly individual voices of the younger generation.

In Germany, the permutations of musical movements and developments included “New Objectivity,” “Machine Music” and “Applied Music.” There was experimentation with jazz and rag-time. Events, gossip and advertisements from the daily papers were brashly chosen as subjects for operatic treatment, in preference to the traditional stories from Renaissance Italy or mythology. Indeed, the music of composers banned simply for being of Jewish extraction runs the gamut from post-Romanticism to Modernism and thus offers endless programming possibilities. With such choices available, one wonders what conceivable “heffalump traps” there could be, and where one should start.

The most obvious one is the re-ghettoization of Jewish composers. Mirror-imaging Nazi policies in order to resurrect the composers they banned may be inevitable, but taking them from one ghetto and plunking them into another can be a real danger. If one wishes to enter a special plea on behalf of German Jewish composers before the Nazi takeover, a good place to start is in the area of light music. In both Berlin and Vienna, Jews had a virtual monopoly on light music, including operetta. Ralph Benatzky, composer of ”The White Horse Inn,” said in his memoirs that only he and Franz Lehár were non-Jews, and as for librettists, he couldn't recall a single one who wasn't Jewish. This is a bit of an exaggeration - he leaves out the composers Robert Stolz and Willi Kollo - but it proves the point that the biggest gap left by Hitler's ban was in the field of popular music. Much of it had to be falsely attributed to other composers, because removing it would have caused public dissatisfaction.

A less obvious trap, but one that more and more people seem to be falling into, is the side-lining of “composers of conscience” — those non-Jewish composers who would have nothing to do with the Nazi regime and who gave up successful careers at home to live in exile. Ernst Krenek, Karl Rankl, Adolf Busch, Ralph Benatzky, Béla Bartók, Bohuslav Martinů and Friedrich Hartmann are among those who took risky political stands, yet today they are often relegated to a secondary category. Some were married to Jewish women, while others were prominent communists, socialists or, in the cases of Friedrich Hartmann, Ernst Krenek and (attention, fans of The Sound of Music) Baron von Trapp, supporters of the pre-1938 anti-Nazi Austro-Fascist dictatorship. Egon Wellesz, who could never bring himself to mention his own Jewishness (he and his wife viewed Judaism solely as a religious confession; both were devout Catholics), relates in his memoirs that he left Austria in 1938 because he was “a monarchist” and, like Krenek and Hartmann, a supporter of the Austro-Fascist regime. Regardless of their reasons for leaving, significant composers should not be excluded from programming merely because they were not persecuted under the Nuremberg laws. Perhaps there is a peculiar sort of reverse justice at play, since at the time, leaving Germany as a political refugee was considered more honorable than leaving it as a Jew. When Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, the British government went so far as to give priority to political refugees over Jews.

As the Nazi period fades into the distant past, it is becoming possible to look objectively at a third group of composers to whom programmers rarely allow so much as a nod. This group may also be described as “composers of conscience,” although they chose to stay within the Third Reich's borders. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, for instance, took an uncompromising stand against the Nazis and became an inspiring and nearly unique figure among German composers of the day. Yet it mustn't be forgotten that he was in a privileged position that was not shared by many of his colleagues. “He was supported throughout the Nazi tyranny by his in-laws, during which he did not allow any of his works to be performed in Nazi Germany” with the single exception of music for a staging of Macbeth. On this subject, I was fortunate to have been able to gather the thoughts of the composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903—1996) during the final years of his life. He, more than most, had suffered not only the injustices of persecution by the Nazis but also the prejudices he found in exile. A remarkably well-balanced person who lacked bitterness, Goldschmidt often pointed out that not only his friends but also his enemies were all dead. On only two occasions did I see him react angrily at remarks made by others: one concerned Wilhelm Furtwängler, against whom he could barely contain himself: “He conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in front of the Nazi flag!” The other concerned composers whom I presumed to be Nazis or at the very least sympathetic to the regime. “Every non-Jew who managed to get out of Germany meant one less visa for the Jews who needed to get out,” Goldschmidt said. “If you weren't a Jew or a member of a banned political party and had a family to support, why would you risk all to leave? It was best to stay and keep your head as far down as possible.” After the war, many of these composers, such as Heinz Tiessen and Max Butting, were labeled as opportunists or Mitläufer (fellow travelers). Goldschmidt used to dismiss such claims with a loud harrumph. Even Max von Schillings was no Nazi, according to him. “For goodness sake, he died in 1933, before Franz Schreker, whom he removed from the Prussian Academy of Arts. He was desperately tormented and few people helped me as much as he. It was the stress placed on him by the new regime that undoubtedly killed him.” Von Schillings' track record was more checkered than Goldschmidt was willing to admit, but the story highlights the great ambiguity of the situations of composers who chose not to leave. In some cases, this ambiguity transcends the existing boundaries of acceptability. One need only look to the cases of Eduard Erdmann or Felix Petyrik, both extremely fine composers who actually went so far as to join the Nazi Party despite the fact that many of their own compositions were black-listed. Anton Webern and Josef Matthias Hauer also found their works banned and yet voiced sympathy for the regime. In the cases of Petyrik and Erdmann, party membership was required in order to continue performing and teaching. They, along with Tiessen and many others, were sidelined after 1945, and their reputations never recovered.

This inevitably brings us to the subject of exile — another theme that programmers love to explore and that offers many fascinating possibilities. It too, however, is not without booby-traps and pitfalls. And with this matter, as with the chronicle of music written in the concentration camps, the story is so dramatic that it can reduce the musical significance of a composer's work to secondary status. Indeed, the danger is even greater in this case, because the changes that came about in many composers' works were more subtle and subjective. Are Kurt Weill's American musicals less important than his pre-Nazi-era German collaborations with Georg Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht? Is Korngold's Hollywood music weaker than his 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt? Many composers simply stopped composing after they went into exile: in Britain, for instance, Goldschmidt, Karl Rankl and Arthur Willner continued to work as musicians but not as composers. Others, such as Wellesz, Korngold and Ernst Toch, embraced, with varying degrees of success, the quintessentially Viennese form of the symphony as a cultural expression of solidarity with a past from which they felt physically but not intellectually or emotionally disconnected.

Others became assimilated in their new homelands — especially the United States - to such an extent that popular music in the 1950s without Jewish refugees would be impossible to imagine. Apart from Weill, who wrote numerous successful Broadway musicals, one could point to Wilhelm Grosz and his country-western hit, The Santa Fe Trail, or Fritz Spielmann, who composed many hit songs from the 1950s and 1960s, such as Girls Girls Girls. Elsewhere, Joseph Kosma, in partnership with Jacques Prévert, became the father of post-war French chanson, and in Brazil Hans-Joachim Koellreutter taught composition to Antonio Carlos Jobim, the father of the bossa nova.

The story of Central European refugees as the source of a considerable amount of international post-war popular music has been insufficiently explored. But exile is a highly delicate subject and is most often a chronicle of decline. As the curator of an exhibition on Toch, I became convinced that the creative surge that followed his Hollywood studio years only rarely resulted in works that matched the brilliance of his output during the decade and a half before the war. The “lack of echo,” as Krenek wrote, would mean that exiled composers either traded in their former identities, as happened with Kosma and Weill, or tried to reconnect to their pre-exile incarnations while being unable to make allowances for different times, changing tastes and a general sea-change in cultural ideals. When Adorno said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, he unwittingly torpedoed many composers who were trying to refloat their pre-war identities. Some began to re-examine their Jewishness and tried to create a musical identity that was ethnically or at least culturally Jewish without being liturgical. Others relied on the support of fellow exiles: Toch's post-war successes, for instance, declined with the deaths of exiled conductors such as George Szell, Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg and Erich Leinsdorf; today, few American-born performers pay any attention to his music. And confronted with this harsh reality, we end up facing an additional fundamental truth: a German, Austrian, Hungarian or Czech composer does not become a British or American composer simply because he takes British or US citizenship. Ask the archivists of American university libraries: Which researchers are most interested in examining the legacies of exiled composers? The answer, almost invariably, is: European musicologists. As in life, so also in death these composers remain in exile, and their host countries show scant interest in their now forgotten contributions.

Thus, the question of where to start leads inevitably to the question of how to start. And I hope that at least a few guidelines can help. The first rule — I repeat — is that a composer's work takes priority over his personal history. A composer's biography remains the same regardless of which work is chosen for performance, so go for the strongest one. The second principal is to avoid re-ghettoization. Composers didn't think of their works as primarily “Jewish” or “banned,” and it is the responsibility of programmers to re-integrate them into the musical narrative from which they were ejected. Placing works by one of the banned composers with, for example, Brahms or Schubert is preferable to placing them in a program of only banned composers. Third: try not to allow political correctness to influence programming choices. We still perform Wagner, Liszt and Chopin despite their repulsive and well documented anti-Semitic views. Germany and Austria remained major engines of musical creativity in the 20th century; politics and a quest for utopia dragged many of their finest spirits into disrepute. Some simply made the wrong decisions, while a number actively supported Hitler and his murderous policies. Every story must be judged separately. As a performer, one offers a platform to a composer, and what ultimately counts is the quality of the music. The pitfalls of tidy concepts such as “exile” or “music from the camps” must be avoided if we are to rediscover great works that have been lost through the vicissitudes of history.

End Part I

Posted March 2011