Recalled to Life: A Review of the UCLA Conference Recovered Voices
By Juliane Brand
Equal in fascination to the concept of creation is that of resurrection. The possibility that death might be reversed or transformed can serve as an irresistible trigger to imagination. Certainly the idea has generated some of the most powerful moments in religion and the arts, from the myth of the phoenix and belief in Jesus's resurrection to the story of Dickens's Dr. Manette, recalled to life during the French Revolution. The same fascination with recalling to life no doubt explains the satisfaction of excavation—recovering artifacts and voices that previous generations had consigned to oblivion.
Many voices disappear gradually, as a result of natural processes of time, neglect and changing sensibilities; with or without disjunctions of social upheaval and war, production of the new will remorselessly silt over the old. But voices from the past can resonate anew, and when they do they can shake up our understanding of what was already familiar. Large chunks of music history, as it stands today, consist of composers and styles that had been silted over before being recovered, often decades or centuries later. A recent conference on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was devoted to just such a project of recovery. Here, however, attention focused not on music that had disappeared naturally but on composers who had been made to disappear—voices from the first half of the twentieth century silenced as a result of the National-Socialist dictatorship's cultural policy in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Of course lacunae exist in the history of every era, and every age is more diverse and multivoiced at ground level than in teleological hindsight. But never before was an entire body of cultural production so calculatingly expunged as during the Nazi era. And what disappeared in those twelve years comprises a surprisingly varied corpus of music.
The conference, which took place on 7 and 8 April 2010, was jointly sponsored by the OREL Foundation and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies; Kenneth Reinhard of UCLA and Robert Elias of the OREL Foundation organized the event. Titled Recovered Voices: Staging Suppressed Opera of the Early 20th Century, the conference grew out of the concurrent production of Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten at the Los Angeles Opera (LAO), whose music director, James Conlon, is also the OREL Foundation's inspiration and artistic advisor. This production was the first American performance of Die Gezeichneten; indeed, this was the first time any Schreker opera has been staged in North America. (For more information on the production, see http://www.losangelesopera.com/production/0910/stigmatized/index.aspx )
Ancillary to the conference were two evening events: a concert and a keynote address. The concert, in UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, presented chamber music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), the multifaceted, prolific and at one time internationally known Czech composer who stayed too long in Prague and was arrested and deported to the Wülzburg internment camp in Bavaria, where he died. Engaged performances by Jeffrey Kahane, Daniel Hope and members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra were aural evidence of how exciting it can be to hear music by an idiosyncratic composer whose voice matches and complements more familiar voices. The following evening's keynote address by Maestro James Conlon showed him to be a man with a mission. He spoke with the kind of passionate belief that persuades, even though in this audience he could take for granted a common purpose and shared convictions. So he concentrated not so much on the whys and wherefores of recovering works suppressed during the Nazi era as on where recovery efforts stand, and on what needs most pressingly to be done. The points of view of this distinguished conductor and practicing musician provided a satisfying final cadence to the two-day meeting.
Cultural politics in Germany in the prewar Nazi years was the topic of a talk by Albrecht Dümling, chair of musica reanimata, who presented the complicated back story of the Degenerate Music exhibit held in Düsseldorf as part of the Reich Music Days of 1938. This exhibition, the brainchild of an untrained musician named Hans Severus Ziegler, targeted jazz, atonality and the putative Jewish domination of German music. The project highlighted the problem that the Nazis faced in trying to establish ideologically and racially based criteria for cleansing German art of impure and degenerate influences. For how could race be objectively detected in art? A composer could conceivably be defined as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, but what could be thought to make music Jewish? There was, even among anti-Semitic Nazis, no agreement on this issue. At one point during the 1930s, a man named Nobbe proposed a simple formula: the triad and tonality are German, and atonality is Jewish. Others—among them Herbert Gerigk, infamously associated with the 1940 Lexikon der Juden in der Musik, mit einem Titelverzeichnis jüdischer Werke (Dictionary of Jews in music, with a list of Jewish works)—countered that atonality, in the right hands, could be an effective musical device. Most politicians chose to steer clear of the debate and, like Goebbels in his Ten Principles of German Music Creativity delivered at the opening of the Degenerate Music exhibit, restricted themselves to vague statements about the incompatibility of German Germanness and un-German Jewishness. Unlike the previous year's Degenerate Art exhibit on which it was based, the Degenerate Music exhibit was a failure and had to close early. Foreign coverage, on the other hand, was apparently favorable; Dümling quoted from British and American reviews that did not even mention the racist overtones, accepting the idea of government control of art, as of so much else in Nazi Germany, at face value.
The radio host and writer Martin Goldsmith presented a corollary to Dümling's talk with his overview of the Reichsverband der jüdischen Kulturbünde (National association of Jewish cultural leagues). This network of independent performing arts ensembles in Germany, run solely by and for Jews, was sanctioned and even encouraged by the Nazi government between 1933 and 1941. Originally named Kulturbund deutscher Juden (Cultural league of German Jews), the league began in Berlin in response to the Law for the Reestablishment of the Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) of 7 April 1933, which had led to the dismissal of thousands of non-Aryans working in schools, universities and all government and cultural institutions. The idea of recruiting unemployed Jewish musicians and performers for putting on plays and concerts originated with Kurt Baumann and Kurt Singer, both formerly with the Städtische Oper in Berlin, who succeeded in persuading Hans Hinkel, head of the Prussian Theater Commission, to support the idea. From the Nazis' point of view, a Jewish arts organization for Jews was splendid propaganda; from the point of view of out-of-work performers and culture-hungry citizens, the Kulturbund offered employment and solace. And it was an immediate success. Soon after opening in Berlin in September 1933, the organization had close to 20,000 members, and smaller leagues soon sprang up in other cities around Germany, including Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt. The national association of Kulturbünde flourished for eight years, though under constant and increasingly repressive surveillance. Goldsmith brought this by now fairly well documented story alive by telling it through the prism of the experiences of his parents, Günther and Rosemarie Goldschmidt, one a flutist, the other a violist, who met in 1936 when they both got jobs playing in the Frankfurt Kulturbund orchestra. The complete story of their experiences in Germany and emigration in 1941 to the United States is told in Goldsmith's book, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany (2000).
In his talk Opera in Mussolini's Italy, the writer and music historian Harvey Sachs, who also teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music, shifted the conference's attention to conditions in fascist Italy. Cultural upheaval in Italy during the fascist years was not, as in Germany, the result of the government's censoring undesirable artistic or ideological philosophies or, indeed, of pursuing anti-Semitic policies: Italy did not have that many Jews to begin with, and when Mussolini made anti-Semitism a plank in fascist philosophy in 1938 it was only in to strengthen his alliance with Hitler. The danger originated, rather, in Mussolini's expanding government control over cultural institutions. Opera was already in a precarious situation by the time the fascists took over in 1922, as the once popular art form was steadily losing ground to the cinema and becoming, as elsewhere in the Western world, an elite genre requiring subsidization. (Concurrent with this development is what Sachs called the petrifaction of the repertoire, when interest in new works transformed into a passion for new interpretations of familiar works.) Sachs used the history of La Scala to show how the price for receiving subsidies from the fascist regime was to submit to whatever the government demanded, from hiring to operational matters. Opera house administrators became, by definition, political toadies. Unfortunately, the traditions then put in place have had long-term effects to which Italian opera houses of today still bear witness.
A description of contemporaneous conditions in England were the welcome byproduct of a talk by Michael Haas (read by Gerold Gruber) devoted to an overview of the Austrian composer Hans Gál and his 1924 opera Die heilige Ente. Gál had established a successful career in Germany when he became director of the prestigious Mainz Music Academy in 1929. With the Nazi takeover in 1933, Vienna became for him, as for many other persecuted German-speaking Jews, his first refuge. When he had to flee yet again, after Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria, he must have considered himself fortunate to have been allowed into England. However, details of Gál's earliest experiences as an exile must darken the long-held image of that country as a comfortable safe haven. His family was broken up almost immediately. His younger son was deported, his elder son committed suicide, and Gál himself in 1940 underwent months of imprisonment in two camps; in addition to German-speaking and Jewish refugees from the Continent, these camps (the British government, like that of the United States a couple of years later, preferred to call them internment, not concentration, camps) held British citizens of German descent, German businessmen and suspected fifth-columnists and Nazis—anyone with the remotest connection to Germany. After his release for medical reasons Gal had to try to support himself and his family despite the official ban on employing refugee musicians outside the confines of refugee organizations. The parallels with Germany are striking. Haas, who produced Decca's groundbreaking Entartete Musik recording series and is presently music curator of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, had much of interest to say about Die heilige Ente (1924), which had been a repertoire favorite with German and Austrian opera-goers for years; astonishingly, its rehabilitation still awaits. Haas also briefly outlined the problems of those who, like Gál, composed in musical styles that in the postwar years were regarded as regressive and possibly even tainted by resemblances to music and compositional languages propagated by the Nazis.
Conditions in the United States during the Nazi era were fascinatingly illuminated in a talk by Bret Werb, the music collection curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The subject of Werb's talk, We Will Never Die (1943): A Pageant to Save the Jews of Europe, was the staging not of a work but of a message. The instigator of the enormous touring propaganda event, the screenwriter Ben Hecht, intended it to be a political wake-up call for Americans who might not yet be aware of the need to save the Jews of Europe; ultimately he hoped to secure support for an autonomous Jewish army. Yet Hecht encountered great difficulties in raising funding and other forms of support; Werb quoted Hecht's descriptions of rebuff from prominent Jewish Americans who were afraid that affiliating themselves with the project would undermine their status as true Americans. As collaborators for We Will Never Die, which was subtitled a memorial pageant dedicated to the two million Jewish dead of Europe, Hecht succeeded in recruiting the Zionist activist Peter Bergson, the producer Billy Rose, the director Moss Hart, the exiled composer Kurt Weill, and a host of celebrity actors and performers. The first performance, at Madison Square Garden on 9 March 1943, was sold out, as were most of the additional performances; Eleanor Roosevelt attended the one in Washington, DC. Rafael Medoff, Peter Bergson's biographer, links the production of We Will Never Die directly to President Roosevelt's creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944. Werb was able to show a number of photographs and a rare broadcast recording of the final performance of the pageant, at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Franz Waxman.
Not surprisingly, Franz Schreker (1878–1934) got a good deal of attention in the course of the conference: in passing references throughout; in a concluding panel discussion with Ian Judge, the stage director of LAO's new production, and Michael Hackett of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television; and above all in two talks by scholars known for their Schreker studies, Peter Franklin of the University of Oxford and Christopher Hailey, director of the Franz Schreker Foundation. Schreker, who has become one of the more familiar recovered voices, was among the first wave of victims targeted by Hitler's opening salvo of racial housecleaning, the infamous Law for the Reestablishment of the Civil Service of 7 April 1933; the stresses of that first year of Nazi rule led directly to the composer's early death. Yet he had been one of the few opera composers of the 1920s whose works had become repertoire staples; it is often said, but bears repeating, that for several years during the Weimar Republic the number of Schreker performances rivaled those of Richard Strauss.
Hailey's talk, Ecco le plebi: Schreker, His People, and the Ambivalence of Modernity, included a brief overview of Schreker's early life and influences, particularly his itinerant childhood and lack of formal education, which set him apart from many of his class and chosen profession. But he compensated for this with extensive reading. Among his formative aesthetic influences were E.T.A. Hoffmann, Strindberg, Maeterlinck and Hauptmann. He was also unusually open to non-German musical influences, particularly Verdi, from whose use of choruses and staging devices he learned much. Schreker's libretti, which he wrote himself, are a mix of realism and symbolism; some of them are disturbingly personal, even self-confessional, and they articulate his ambivalences toward the prevailing dogmas of high art and modernism. Schreker infused his secondary characters, in particular, with his own self-reflexive detachment, thus creating a perspective on stage that can be said to be informed by the view from below. He often structured his choruses, too, as if they were intended to comment on the artifice of the theatrical enterprise. All of these disparate elements are consciously subsumed in and reflected through the heterogeneity of musical styles that make up Schreker's musical language. Die Gezeichneten, Hailey said, represents the work in which Schreker came closest to creating a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a phantasmagoric world encompassing all the senses. And yet here, too, he made use of distancing effects and, in taking opera to unprecedented heights of sensuous intoxication, simultaneously exposed the form's vulnerability.
Peter Franklin, in his Lost in Spaces: Recovering Schreker's Spectacular Voices, continued the exploration of Schreker's intentions, taking as his starting point the relationship between scenic and discursive space. The theatrical effects and sensuous seductiveness that are integral to the experience of a Schreker opera, particularly the early ones that first established his reputation, are the very aspects that so offended many of his contemporaries and still today have the power to disturb. Franklin found it useful to adapt theories and points of view from the film theorist Laura Mulvey's work on the gendered camera lens (the lens of the camera, that of the characters on screen, and that of the spectators) and from the musicologist Rose Theresa's work on spectacle, narrative and enunciative modes of address in late nineteenth-century opera. According to Mulvey, a film director can position the camera lens on a scene or character so as to constrain the viewer to respond in certain ways. In the gendering of spectacle as other, static and feminine, and narrative as same, active and masculine, it follows that the camera lens, when it is directed on a quiescent, non-active character on screen, can establish an immediate rapport between that character and the spectator, even to the point of merging—or implicating—spectator with spectacle. Franklin made a persuasive case for Schreker's achieving just this effect in his operas, drawing on examples from Der ferne Klang, Der Schatzgräber, Die Gezeichneten, and Der Schmied von Ghent. Interestingly, Schreker himself tackled the dichotomy of opera as spectacle and pure music as narrative in his penultimate opera, Christophorus.
Questions of staging and intent also figured in the talk titled Schlusschoral: History and Meaning in Ullmann and Weill by Ryan Minor, of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, who compared the dramatic role and meaning of the closing chorale in Weill's and Brecht's Threepenny Opera, written at the height of the Weimar culture in 1928, with the chorale that concludes Viktor Ullmann's and Petr Kien's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, written in Terezín in 1944. Addressing the ways in which the composer-librettist collaborators of both pieces worked with and against the fourth wall, that perceptual boundary between any fictional work and its audience, Minor argued that the Brecht libretto shows a fundamental discrepancy between the earnestness of the chorale text and the ironic distance in the rest of the libretto. Weill's setting reflects that discrepancy somewhat differently, but he too, in Minor's reading, interprets the chorale earnestly and without the critical distance that characterizes the musical style up to that point in the work. The closing chorale of Kaiser von Atlantis resembles the one in Threepenny Opera in a number of aspects, but here, strikingly, the chorale text welcomes death—another instance of premonition, for both Ullmann and Kien were murdered at Auschwitz shortly after they completed the work. As in the Brecht text, Kien's breaks the fourth wall by marking itself as a theatrical performance. Ullmann, however, set the text with the chorale melody from Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, which, so Ryan concluded, can be variously interpreted as a moment of Brechtian estrangement and declaration of adherence to Weimar theatrical precepts, an act of defiance reclaiming the German (non-Nazi) heritage symbolized by Bach, or possibly as a reminder, for comfort, that the fourth wall did still exist and the chorale text was not yet true on the spectators' side of the stage.
In Opera after the Bauhaus: Wolpe's Zeus und Elida and the Ethics of Montage, Brigid Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tackled the conundrum of Stefan Wolpe (1902–1972), who is one of those iconoclastic figures almost impossible to categorize. His stylistic experimentation and resulting creative heterogeneity were always inextricable from both his multiple affiliations with Dada, agitprop, the Bauhaus and other avant-garde movements, and his lifelong exploration of social visions of human plurality and collectivity. These issues continued to engage and sustain him in his long exile, first in Palestine and then, after 1938, in the United States. Cohen drew on aural examples from the short operetta Zeus und Elida of 1928, where Wolpe uses montage structurally on aesthetic, narrative and musical levels. The work would probably be impossible to perform as conceived, and after hearing the excerpts one could understand why for most of his life Wolpe was the paradigmatic outsider. He was largely ignored by the contemporary musical establishment until the last decade of his life, when his works finally began to be championed by such ensembles as Continuum and the Group for Contemporary Music. Yet Cohen made a strong argument for considering the incongruities of Wolpe's stylistic experimentation as perhaps a truer reflection of the complex interconnected texture of modernism than any tidily ordered collection of schools and isms.
Three talks--by David Levin, Adrian Daub, and Sigrid Weigel--dealt with Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942), particularly his operas Der Zwerg and Der Traumgörge. David Levin, who teaches at the University of Chicago (for the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies, the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies, and the Department of Germanic Studies), explored Zemlinsky's operatic world in a talk titled ‘Das Schönste ist scheusslich': Alexander von Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg, based on Wilde's The Birthday of the Infanta. The quote in the title of the talk is drawn from the moment in the opera when the Chamberlain introduces the Infanta's final present, the dwarf, with the words the loveliest [present] is awful. This opera was Zemlinsky's contribution to the opera of the ugly man, also represented by Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Zemlinsky's identification with the figure of the ugly man, and with victims generally, is a strong autobiographical component in the work but not, said Levin, the whole story. He took interesting approaches to that larger story, beginning with an exploration of Wagner's articulation of Jewish voices on stage as something both dreadful and comical, and thus representative of what is deformed, disorderly or monstrous. This might explain the discipline that Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk imposed on the disorderly form of opera and the violent unmasking and expulsion of outsider characters in Wagner's dramas. Levin's second line of approach started with Lacan's theory about the traumatic moment of self-recognition, which can be equated with the moment when the dwarf sees himself in a mirror for the first time and recognizes himself as ugly. Unlike Wagner, Zemlinsky treats this moment with empathy. One of the questions Levin left his audience with was whether such empathy, which has no power to effect change for the better, is not perhaps itself embedded in trauma.
Adrian Daub of Stanford University also discussed the meaning and musical treatments of the outsider figure. In a talk titled Total Work of Art, Degenerate Artists and Ugly Detail: The Birthdays of the Infanta of Wilde, Schreker and Zemlinsky, Daub began by pointing out that a suspicion of degeneracy had connected itself to opera long before Nazi cultural policy-setters got into the game, and that post-Wagnerian composers themselves grappled self-consciously with the concept and its association with elements outside the norm. Both Schreker's and Zemlinsky's settings of the same Wilde fairy tale concentrated on the story of the dwarf, the outsider, and in both works the dwarf is isolated from the malicious external world by his ugliness and self-delusion. Yet he is ugly in appearance only; unlike Wagner's Mime, whom the composer cruelly exposes as ugly in appearance and voice, Schreker's dwarf character dances, and Zemlinsky's sings, just like all the other characters on stage. Daub argues, among other points, that in these scores the ugly has been liberated from the cruel, rejecting, unifying world of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Sigrid Weigel, director of the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin, sounded similar tones in her Zemlinsky's Der Traumgörge: A Post-Wagnerian Pentecost Play, or: On the Emergence of a Pogrom from the Midst of a Christian Community. Zemlinsky's avowed inspiration for the opera Der Traumgörge was Heinrich Heine's figure of Poor Peter, a young enthusiast and dreamer who is excluded from society. According to Weigel, the opera is a combination of fairy tale, social commentary and Pentecostal revival. She referred to the passage in Act 1 in which a character tells Görge the dreamer that his books should all be burned; this is reminiscent, Weigel pointed out, of the oft-cited and premonitory passage from another Heine work, Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned, too. In Act 2 the latent violence becomes explicit when the Christian village attacks the outcast Gertraud and torches her house. Although it is unlikely that Zemlinsky in 1906 would have consciously associated any of these fictional moments with the position and possible fate of Jews in Germany, they certainly carry prophetic force now.
The subject of premonition was tackled head on in the talk given by Michael Beckerman, of New York University, on Haas's Charlatan and Other Forecasts of Disaster." Correspondences between plot and subsequent historical events can, we learned, be found in such pre-Holocaust works as, among others, Kafka's The Penal Colony, Berg's Wozzeck, Janáček's House of the Dead and Hans Krása's Brundibár—this last-named work, in particular, seems explicitly to evoke the concentration camp experience, though it was originally composed in 1938. The tragicomic Charlatan by Pavel Haas (1899–1944), a kaleidoscopic mix of fairy tale, drama and balladic tableaux composed in 1934–1937, depicts the wandering life of a quack doctor named Pustrpalk. The shifting persona of this character over the course of the work makes it unclear whether he was meant to represent Jews or Nazis—or perhaps both. Premonitory events include botched medical experiments and operations, a crowd singing joyfully while a man is burned alive and a village that vanishes as a result of war. Musical examples that Beckerman played to illustrate these moments supported his thesis that Haas, though he could not have known how prophetic his opera's story would be, must have wanted the work to be heard on multiple levels. (Beckerman also slipped in an excerpt that could have been mistaken for a passage from the Haas work but was actually Martinů's Memorial to Lidice, written after the war to commemorate the Nazi destruction of that town; the aural resemblance was striking.) And yet, as Beckerman noted, it is not entirely clear what meaning Haas intended the opera to convey—how, for example, to interpret the fact that Pustrpalk sings in the voice of Papageno. The recovery of a work such as Charlatan would require wrestling with just such interpretive philosophical and political as well as straightforwardly artistic questions.
Those who have specialized in the area of musical, cultural, and political recovery come from a variety of backgrounds. Many have German roots or were born of parents who lived through the Nazi time; many, indeed, are German; exile studies began in Germany in the 1960s, at least a decade before they were taken up on this side of the Atlantic. I am glad that Albrecht Dümling mentioned the German music historian Fred K. Prieberg, who died on 28 March 2010, just days before the conference opened; Prieberg's pioneering Musik im NS-Staat (1982), the first attempt to address, objectively, the politics of music history in Germany in the years 1933–1945, remains a canonic reference work.For German nationals, Wiedergutmachung is a shorthand term that encapsulates a nexus of complex motivations, including family or national guilt. But work on behalf of suppressed composers need not be just an act of political reversal or memorialization, and many of those who work on suppressed music have no personal connection to the time, the perpetrators or the victims. For them, the impetus may well have been a wow moment when they were bowled over by hearing an unfamiliar work. It was good to be reminded, during this conference, that the project of recovering suppressed voices will be re-energized every time one of those voices is recalled to life and again resounds in performance.
Posted July 1, 2010