Articles & Essays

Between Two Wars, Between Two Worlds

By James Conlon

The first half of the twentieth century was to see an explosion of creativity in all the arts, not least in classical music and opera. It was also an era of profound political and social upheaval, tumultuous transition, revolution and warfare. The art and music of the time reflect this and, like a cardiogram, tracked its movements. Out of the growing pains came new, formidable, innovative impulses. In the first third of the century, a vibrant, dynamic and liberal artistic culture nourished this even before the First World War.

But in 1933, with the Nazi accession to power in Berlin, the German-speaking world was to experience the greatest rupture of the over two-century-old cultural milieu. It interrupted, at best, destroyed and uprooted at worst, one of the supreme and enduring cultural traditions in Western Civilization: German Classical Music. The loss cut across all genres, and included opera.. This article focuses only on a fraction of the music that was silenced, operas of several German, Austrian and Czech composers. The long silence has been tragic, but the good news is that most of this music is published and readily available. Better news will come the day that much more of it will have been re-integrated into the repertory, where most of it was born and still belongs.

Of the two generations affected by the Nazi suppression, the older one was led by a pair of Vienna-trained composers, Alexander Zemlinsky (1871- 1942) and Franz Schreker (1878-1934). Both trained in the Brahmsian tradition and, fully versed in Wagner (together with the former’s student and brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg), they would be the first to seek a new synthesis, born of the Brahms/Wagner polemic of their youths. In Vienna, and later in Berlin and Prague, they would teach and inspire a younger generation that would include Alban Berg (1885-1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) and Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996). Berg needs no introduction. Korngold’s precocious genius produced extravagant post-Romantic music under the influence of Zemlinsky. Krenek would display an extraordinary virtuosity and command of different styles and genres, including jazz and operetta. His 1933 dodecaphonic political tract, Karl V, was offered as a humanist antidote to the political wave of the moment. It was banned and not played until the 1980’s. Ullmann’s three operas all bear a sharp and often witty extension of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Der Kaiser von Atlantis, written in the concentration camp at Terezin, is a brilliant mixture of social satire and inspirational humanism. Goldschmidt, with the Magnificent Cuckold and Beatrice Cenci, through a dissonant lyricism, made his political points more subtly.

Two young German composers developed far away from Viennese influence: Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), a strong advocate of neo-Romanticism, and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who, after his early years in the avant-garde, came to embrace neo-classicism. Like Krenek, his most significant political opera and masterpiece, Mathis der Maler, ran afoul of the Nazis.

Figure 1
Figure 1: LA Opera's Production of Die Vögel composed by Walter Braunfels. Front: Brandon Jovanovich (Good Hope) James Johnson (Loyal Friend) Back: Desiree Rancatore (Nightingale), Martin Gantner (The Hoopoe) Stacey Tappan (The Wren). Photo credit: Robert Millard/LA Opera

Czech by birth and German by culture, Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), outsider and maverick iconoclast, wrote a single opera, Flammen. Even today, this psychodrama would be considered “out of the box.” Also Czech, but French “by adoption,” Bohuslav Martinu (1890 -1959) wrote prolifically during a life of exile. Kurt Weill (1900-1950) moved from Berlin to Paris to New York, from early dodecaphonic music, to tonal social criticism to, finally, reinventing himself in the popular theater.

All of these men made significant contributions to the world of twentieth-century opera. Yet, with the exception of Berg, and to a lesser degree Schoenberg and Hindemith, they lost their rightful places in twentieth-century opera houses. Why and how that came about merits some comment.

After the end of the Second World War, our knowledge of the broad repertory of the generation that immediately preceded, and had lived and died in, the era of Nazi Germany was significantly limited. The lacunae were part of the legacy of the atrocities committed between 1933 and 1945. The Third Reich effectively silenced these two generations and, with them, important links in the chain of music history.

The first of these generations was transforming Late Romanticism into twentieth-century idioms. The younger, post-War generation moved from the extravagant emotionality of that world into an intense period of experimentation. Nothing was excluded as a starting point for a new art after 1920. High and low, beauty and ugliness, Dada and Marx, Freud and Picasso, jazz and neo-classicism—all were to be stirred in a broth of polemics. Hitler removed these artists from public view and, with them, a vibrant artistic document of the times.

Though some of this music is lost, an enormous amount of it has survived and is published and available. Insofar as it is physically preserved, one could argue that it has survived. But music “lives” only if it is performed and heard, and in this respect, it remains to be discovered by our music-loving public.

Since 1945, the classical music world has enjoyed enormous creativity. At the same time it has been impoverished by the disappearance of part of an entire musical era. On a moral level alone, this is unacceptable. In the Western world, our common patrimony of literature, music, architecture and dance is among our most prized possessions. We cannot allow a part of it to remain permanently excised by the actions of a repressive authoritarian regime.

The spirit of these “lost generations” needs to be heard in its entirety. The twentieth century is now behind us, and the community of classical musicians, musicologists and historians are re-writing its history. Seemingly authoritative judgments already have been proffered, without serious consideration of a great quantity of music. One of the moral mandates of the historian is to revisit any past era as new information is available. Whether it is Ancient China or Persia, Greece or Rome, nineteenth-century Europe or twentieth-century America, or revelations from last week’s newspaper, the historian must place the past in an informed context.

No detail is too small to be taken into consideration. French historian Fernand Braudel maintained it is not in the recounting of great battles, kings and warriors that the essence of history is to be found, but in the minutiae of everyday life. Without the complete picture, we have a distorted picture. Far from suggesting that these composers and musicians are “minutiae” (quite the contrary), I am advocating their resuscitation as genuinely significant creators. The fact that they were on the unfortunate side of history and destiny does not invalidate their work; conversely, neither should their status as victims give them rank for their fates rather than for their accomplishments.

Musical creativity of the first half of the twentieth century is far richer and pluralistic than we think. We, today, also live in a time when compositional styles are highly varied, inventive, open-minded, searching and fluid. The orthodoxies of post-war classical music are now history. The accepted authority of those orthodoxies impeded the revival of all that was not itself, sweeping away the musical ferment of this earlier, era, as well as those musicians who composed in competing and contradictory styles.

As monumental as the accomplishments of the disciples of dodecaphonic, electronic music and the post-war avant-garde were, they nevertheless did not have the authority to stake an exclusive claim on the twentieth century. In their way, these composers and critics perpetuated some of the very consequences of the policies of their Nazi nemesis, albeit with a commitment to the tenets of artistic prerogatives and legitimate rights to their own beliefs. No one doubts the fact that they were qualified to prefer their own music; but many who were less qualified were inspired to promote an overzealous condemnation of all in the past, that had a relationship to Late Romanticism, or trafficked in tonality, lyricism, cabaret and jazz. It was proclaimed, and accepted, that tonality was dead. From today’s perspective we know it clearly did not die, but migrated to the popular world, sometimes to the impoverishment of the world of “high art.”

The cliché “there are no lost masterpieces” reveals our own ignorance. Entire civilizations, along with their masterpieces, have been destroyed by war since the beginning of human history. It would be ludicrous to suggest that every piece of art from ancient Greece and Egypt, Pre-Columbian civilization and Dynastic China has been recovered. This cliché suggests that Art’s past is already complete. It implies that no unknown art or music can be good art. Furthermore, and more perfidious, it suggests that things are unknown because they are not good. It presumes that sound artistic judgment is the only factor in the gradual selection of that art which has value and is worth preserving. The history of the 1930’s and 40’s clearly contradicts that premise. Throughout history, the ravages of war, politics, and autocratic suppression of art have also “selected out” what we know and admire. Various forms of censorship have repeatedly affected artists and their works.

However, the suppression of certain composers and musicians during the Nazi era caused the greatest single rupture in what had been a continuous seamless transmittal of German classical music. The policies of the Third Reich destroyed the environment in which this music could flourish, murdering an entire generation of its greatest talents, uprooting a tradition with its creative polemics and dialectics, forcing those who survived to scatter to places where there was no comparable artistic milieu in which to live and create. This immense—ultimately self-destructive—act seriously damaged a most cherished tradition, killed its caretakers, and buried much of two “lost generations” and the spirit living within them.

In reviving this music, there are three aspects to take into consideration: moral, historical and artistic. Undoing injustice, when one can, is a moral mandate for all citizens of a civilized world. We cannot restore to these composers their lost lives. We can, however, do the one thing that would mean more to them than any other: play their music.
Figure 2
Figure 2: LA Opera's Production of Die Vögel composed by Walter Braunfels. Desiree Rancatore (Nightingale), Martin Gantner (The Hoopoe), Stacey Tappan (The Wren)
Photo credit: Robert Millard/LA Opera

Historically, our perspectives on twentieth-century classical music are incomplete because an enormous quantity of works has remained unperformed, and the lives of its composers largely ignored. The twentieth century needs to be re-scrutinized after we acquaint ourselves with the voluminous music cast out during the Nazi suppression.

Neither moral nor historical considerations would be reason enough for revival were it not for the artistic quality of what was lost. That quality is manifest, and, I believe, demonstrable. But, for the quality of this music to be more clearly apparent, it must be played so that musicians and music lovers can experience its live performance. Its value cannot be judged by a single hearing or the occasional tokenistic performance. Judgments, if indeed they must be made, can only be so after those performing and listening to this body of work over the course of years have given the spirit of the era sufficient time to be fully digested.

A fully valid argument maintains that some of this music has gained and kept a place in the repertory after the bans of the 1930’s and the composers’ deaths and this is, arguably, a testament to its quality. The inverse argument—namely, that music that does not currently enjoy such status is due to a lack of quality—is, in my opinion, invalid. Such false arguments are, unfortunately, sometimes made on the basis of hearsay about, if not total ignorance of, the actual works themselves.

Zemlinsky and Schreker

Theodor Adorno described Zemlinsky as a “seismograph of his time.” This is a very apt observation. If one could listen to all of his music chronologically, one would feel his development step by step with that of the musical world around him. Some see this as a weakness, a lack of identity. Others see it as measure of his genius of adaptability and immense craftsmanship. To my ears, he has a voice and, above all, a character of his own, which reveals itself throughout to those who know his music in its breadth and entirety. With his sometimes stubborn determination to follow his own path, he alienated both the avant-garde (by his rejection of dodecaphonic techniques) and the conservatives (who found him too threatening). It is this lack of a convenient label that hurt his place in a century often characterized by reductionism, dependency on labeling, and discomfort with that which does not fall into tidy categories.

Zemlinsky’s early period, which is late-Romantic Viennese in character, produced music of great lyricism, grace and charm. Sarema (1893-5) Es war einmal (1897-99; conducted by Mahler) and Kleider machen Leute (1908-09) comprise the early period. Der Traumgörge (1904-06; commissioned by Mahler for Vienna, but cancelled during rehearsals when Mahler was forced to resign) is a transitional work that, despite a confusing story, contains a great deal of powerful music. It also reflects more of Mahler’s influence than the previous works.

The middle-period masterpieces (if I may) are both one-act operas based on Oscar Wilde. Zemlinsky, having conducted the Viennese premiere of Salome, had thoroughly digested and assimilated its compositional and orchestral techniques. This is reflected strongly in Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915-16). Like Salome, it is a word-for-word translation of the original Wilde, with a prelude of pre-curtain eroticism (Der Rosenkavalier) and polytonal shock at the finale. But by now, he has brought Mahler clearly into the mix and organized it all into an over-arching and subtle symphonic form. (Aside from some small details to be found ten years later in Wozzeck, the seminal idea of organizing an opera and its scenes on baroque and classical structures embodied in this work clearly was not lost on the young Berg, who attended one of the premieres the Tragödie and admired and knew the score intimately.)

Der Zwerg (1920-21) was premiered at the Cologne opera under the direction of Otto Klemperer. It is a free adaptation of Wilde, based on the short story, “A Birthday for the Infanta.” Its protagonist, a misshapen dwarf with a poetic and generous soul, is rejected in love by the unattainable and coldly mischievous young daughter of King Phillip II of Spain. It is a deeply personal and confessional work.

This opera had a long gestation. A decade earlier, Zemlinsky had commissioned his friend Franz Schreker to write him a “tragedy of an ugly man.” Schreker complied, and became so enthralled with his own story that he asked to withdraw from the commission and keep it for himself. That is what happened, and the result was one of Schreker’s great achievements, Die Gezeichneten. Zemlinsky, who was the first of the long line of geniuses to have been passionately involved with Alma Schindler, was, by her assessment, small in stature and ugly. She referred to him as a “gnome.” The unceremonious and abrupt end of their frustrating and tantalizing relationship in 1902 left the composer deeply scarred. Twenty years after, he was still exorcising its ghost.

Tastes, of course, are very personal, but I believe Der Zwerg stands not only at the summit of the composer’s power, alongside its contemporaneous Lyric Symphony, but is one of the great operas of the twentieth century. Having learned what he needed from Strauss and Mahler, Zemlinsky integrated the former’s theatrical genius with the latter’s paradoxical melding of the metaphysical and the personal, injecting his own brand of searing eroticism. The entire work is a tour de force.

Subsequent to his move to Berlin, where he collaborated with Klemperer, Zemlinsky conducted, among many works, the Berlin premiere of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Fascinated with the neue Sachlichkeit and his new surroundings, he produced a Brechtian work of his own, complete with alternating dialogue, Der Kreidekreis (1930-2). It was this work that was specifically banned and led directly to Zemlinsky’s flight from the Nazis, first from Berlin to Vienna in 1933, and a second time, from Vienna to the United States, in 1938. His final opera Der König Kandaules, which he did not live to complete, features dark, tortured harmonies, demonstrating that in his maturity, the man who had taught and influenced Berg had also learned from him, and the posthumous completion and orchestration of this work by Anthony Beaumont shows this clearly.

Franz Schreker was perhaps the most successful opera composer of his time. He was considered in some quarters to be the worthy successor to Wagner and Strauss. Though this assessment was clearly over-inflated, it shows the measure of the admiration and success he enjoyed for a period between 1912 (Der Ferne Klang) and his first significant set back (Irrelohe) in 1924. Die Gezeichneten (1913-15, premiered in1918) and Der Schatzgräber (1915-18, premiered 1920), exemplify and demonstrate the best of Schreker.

Among his debts to Wagner (and all of these composers had them) is reflected in his choice to write his own stories and libretti. Though not mythical in subject matter, they are far removed from contemporary life. But under the surface, they reflect the moving tectonic plates of fin de si├Ęcle Vienna: the gradual dissolution of the Empire, the world of Freud and the subconscious, Klimt and Schiele. If not exactly autobiographical, the protagonist is clearly the young striving artist. The subject is Art, and the search for, and value of, Beauty in a world of ugliness and despair.

His musical style, immediately lauded for its evocative use of orchestral timbres, is tonal in base with a strong admixture of poly- and atonality. The composer conducted the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and the coloristic possibilities of that immense orchestra were not lost on him. Schreker’s style is Romantic Expressionism, strongly seasoned with morbid eroticism and its whiff of decadence. By nature and early experience more in contact with greater Europe than some of his contemporaries in Vienna, Schreker submitted also to the influences of Impressionism. Schreker scholar Christopher Hailey sees him also as the missing link between Mahler and Puccini. The attraction to Italy, demonstrated in the scenarios of Die Gezeichneten and Der Ferne Klang, is reflected in tinges of Verismo opera.

Walter Braunfels and Die Vögel

Considering all that was going on around him, it is difficult to situate Braunfels amongst his contemporaries. His music inhabits a very different world, both geographically and aesthetically, nurtured far from Vienna’s charged, multi-cultural atmosphere., Deeply rooted in German Classicism and Romanticism, he conceals none of his admiration for the inherited past and sees himself as building on its fundamentals. By almost any standard, he was a conservative. Like Schreker, Krenek and Hindemith, he followed Wagner’s example in writing most of his own libretti. Almost diametrically opposed to Schreker’s highly coloristic, polytonal eclecticism, his music is tonal, polyphonic, lyrical and formal. Equally at odds with Zemlinsky and Schreker, his choices of subject matter show a penchant for Classical Antiquity, German Romantic literature and Christian mysticism. In Braunfels’ best-known opera, Die Vögel (The Birds) , his admiration for Bruckner and Mozart and Mendelssohn is reflected throughout. Some contemporary critics saw this work as a rejection of Wagner and Schreker, under the banner “forward to Mozart.” This seems partially mistaken to me, as this work owes debts to both Die Meistersinger and Parsifal. This view held that the music was stepping out of its role as the servant to drama: the music is the narrative.

Braunfels himself related that he simultaneously wrote text and music. Very telling is the composer’s decision not to “recount” Aristophanes, but to recast him for his own purposes and, in so doing, show us where his soul and sensibilities lay. The subject is Sehnsucht (yearning), the omnipresent dynamo of nineteenth-century German music. It is no longer only comedic social and political satire; it is a spiritual testament wrapped in fantasy. It is in this sense that a deeper relationship to the The Magic Flute becomes apparent.

Two young men, Good Hope and Loyal Friend, set out on an adventure to escape disappointment with human affairs in Athens, determined to find a new life amongst the birds. Like Tamino and Papageno, one will come home changed from a mystical experience, the other, chastened and resigned, if not exactly wiser. Mozart’s flute is magic, charms humans and animals alike. Braunfels’ Nightingale, with her plaintive song, strikes the deepest chord of Sehnsucht imaginable. The enchantment scene of the second act symbolically re-creates the trials, not of fire, water and silence, but of the mystical realm of Parsifal’s Karfreitagzauber. Good Hope, having fled rejection by the city girls, will discover cosmic yearning and transcendence through his erotic “encounter” with the Nightingale, as Parsifal will eventually find the grail through his confrontation with Kundry.

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Figure 3: LA Opera's Production of Die Vögel composed by Walter Braunfels. Desiree Rancatore (Nightingale). Photo credit: Robert Millard/LA Opera

The juxtaposition of Loyal Friend’s buffo chatter to Good Hope’s spiritual transformation captures the Mozartian model with finesse. Loyal Friend pushes the narrative forward, much like dialogue in Singspiel and recitative in opera buffa. Good Hope dreams and reflects in Schumannesque reverie. All this, in the lunar, nocturnal forest described by another contemporary writer as “kunstheiliges Land;” holy land, made so by art, made so by the composer peering into the depths of his own soul and transforming this into the sound world.

This is the stuff of high Romanticism, clearly not what we associate with post-World War I Germany. Yet even Strauss did not disdain to return to the past, and there is no question that Die Vögel has also been influenced by Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. The purposeful use of musical anachronism to evoke the past is one of the key departure points for Strauss. In a very different context, and less as a “technique” than the expression of the state of his soul, Strauss will return to it at the end of his life with Capriccio, Metamorphosen and the Vier Letzte Lieder. The classical/Romantic juxtaposition of Ancient Greece and the Commedia dell’arte in the latter are direct role models for Braunfels, as exemplified by the Nightingale’s Zerbinetta-like prologue.

One of the great charms of Die Vögel is just this anachronistic (neo-Romantic) atmosphere. It is not so much a Straussian “use” of the musical means, but a concordance of the essence of Braunfels’ musical language with that aspect of the subject matter. It perfectly evokes a non-existent world, a garden of paradise imagined, only to be found beyond the limits of urban life and reality. Its choice of setting from Classical Antiquity lends itself well to a genus of “non sectarian spirituality.” Later, Braunfels will immerse himself in Catholicism and, large works will reflect this (the Te Deum, Verkündigung (1935), Die Heilige Johanna (1943) being the most significant of that genre.

It is not hard to imagine why the composer was marginalized after the war. On the aesthetic spectrum he was a life-long conservative, a category that was regarded with total disdain in the post-war milieu. Those who had opposed the progressive and avant-garde currents of the pre-war years were considered by definition, reactionary, and invited to join their confreres in the dustbin of history. The notion that only composers who were progressive, pioneering ground-breakers in their eras are worthy of our attention, had, and still has, great currency. The fact that, in a majority of cases, these “progressives” did happen to be the same persons, however, is more a corollary than a causal relationship.

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Figure 4: LA Opera's Production of Die Vögel composed by Walter Braunfels. Brandon Jovanovich (Good Hope), James Johnson (Loyal Friend), Martin Gantner (The Hoopoe). Photo credit: Robert Millard/LA Opera

To scrutinize compositions from the past on the basis of their location on the progressive/conservative divide is to prefer categorization based on anterior knowledge to the immediacy of non-prejudicial listening. The earth has shifted below many of the questions that divided aesthetic viewpoints from the past. The importance of knowing who was part of the avant-garde and who was not, fades with time. It is the essence of the music, in my opinion, not its historical/musicological placement, that matters. Had Die Vögel been written in 1875, would we listen to it differently because, at that time, it would have been progressive? Should we continue to ignore a work such as this because we consider it old fashioned? In their way, Bach and Brahms were so considered in their own times, and it would be absurd to discard their music on that basis.

The premiere of Die Vögel in Munich in 1920, under the direction of Bruno Walter (who still lauded the work as late as 1950), was a huge public and critical success. The number of productions and performances in the following years was staggering. However, in the post-World War II years of his “rehabilitation,” Braunfel never regained a foothold. Die Vögel was not produced until 1971 in Karlsruhe and 1994 in Berlin. The beautiful Decca recording gave it new life after 1996.

Had some major recording company believed in it in the 1950’s or 60’s, this opera might have regained its past popularity in no time at all. A recording with, say, Dame Joan Sutherland, Fritz Wunderlich and George London, might have assured its future on the stage.

There is a striking irony within Braunfels’ history with the Nazis. He embodied everything that represented the best of the German Romantic legacy. Had the Nazis wished to see him as a model of all of their professed ideas about Germany and Art, he would have seemed an ideal choice. He was versed in Goethe and Antiquity, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He clearly emulated the Wagner of Parsifal and Die Meistersinger (the work most misappropriated and abused by Hitler) and shared certain esthetic viewpoints with Pfitzner (who also subsequently fell under Nazi opprobrium). He resisted almost all of the trends and movements the Nazis professed to despise. Their hatred of him resided not so much in the fact that he was a “Halbjude,” as they defined him, but because he had openly opposed and criticized them already in the 1920’s, refusing to write an anthem for their movement.

Braunfels, like the vast majority of assimilated German Jewish artists and writers of the time, viewed himself first and foremost as German and secondarily, if at all, as Jewish (he converted to Catholicism in 1917). His immediate dismissal in 1933 and subsequent disappearance from public life simultaneously reveal the utter depth of the Nazis’ intellectual ignorance of their own professed belief in “pure” German Art, as well as their vindictiveness in overlooking an obvious “cultural model.” There was no one more quintessentially “Deutsch” than Braunfels, who embodied the very best of inherited German art, and who honored the tradition (in the best sense of the word), of its great culture.

Originally published in Opera magazine, April 2009. Reprinted with permission.

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