Articles & Essays

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

By Michael Haas

Work Recommendations

Seldom have I been asked to list works that I think might win over audiences on a single hearing. For one thing, much if not most great music demands at least a second hearing, and often many more, before its full message gets through. But we can't always assume that a second hearing will be available to repertoire that is more often regarded with suspicion than with curiosity. I've been asked to schedule and plan programs and festivals, but rarely has anyone asked me what works I believe will silence the doubters after a single performance. Until now, I have tried to strike a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar, and I have been able to rely on the good will of listeners whose curiosity was known to outweigh their suspicions.

The nature of Central European music from the late 19th to the mid-20th century forces me to make some very broad generalizations that must be kept in mind as I go through my list. Music from Austria and Germany was often meant for participation, meaning there is a lot of music for small ensembles and Lieder. I differentiate even further by separating these small ensemble categories into “chamber music” and “Hausmusik.” Chamber music is for the listener – in other words, for performance in front of audiences; Hausmusik is for the performer at home with other musicians who simply enjoy making music together. With Hausmusik, playing the music is the central task; with chamber music, listening is the main factor. I have therefore not listed anything I count as Hausmusik.

It is ironic that the composers whom Hitler banned as un-German saw themselves as quintessentially German and thus composed a large amount of Hausmusik as part of a thoroughly German tradition of performing at home with family and friends. Of course, the German tradition was most exemplified by the genres it considered its own creations: symphonies, quartets and instrumental sonatas along with art-songs, operas and chamber music. The fact that German anti-Semites declared Jews to be non-German made German Jews all the more determined to be more German than the Germans, and some of them fanatically pursued this course even in exile. When one looks at the names of the foundation-shaking avant-garde composers of the early 20th century, there are astonishingly few Jews, with the exception of Arnold Schoenberg. And even Schoenberg proclaimed his twelve-tone system to be the guarantor of the future supremacy of German music. In other words, German Jewish composers tended to stick to the German compositional rule-book, and those who broke the rules did so in order to preserve German musical predominance. It is no coincidence that all of this Germanic posturing came predominantly from Austrian Jewish composers, but that is too complex a story to deal with here.

In listing the works that I consider to have the capacity to make first-time listeners drop their jaws in disbelief and wonderment, I have proceeded by genre: quartets, other chamber music, solo instrumental, orchestral, orchestral-vocal, opera and Lied, and I have mentioned only four or five pieces in each category that I consider to be winners – although I have allowed myself the luxury of also referring to other works that are certainly worth investigating.


Over the past four years, I have participated in the programming of an annual series of concerts given by the Aron Quartet at Vienna's Laudon Palace. Each summer, we take a specific theme of “banned” music and feature representative works within a program of repertoire by non-banned, established-name composers. This helps to form a musical context. Many quartets written in exile often have a unique, “samizdat” quality and contain biographical references. Before coming to the subjects of exile and composers murdered at Auschwitz, I would like to highlight two works written in Vienna: Arnold Schoenberg's Second Quartet (1908) and Hans Gál's First Quartet (1916). Schoenberg, despite being the elder of the two composers, wrote more adventurous music than Gál. His Second Quartet uniquely embodies fin-de-siècle Vienna. There are soprano solos in the third and fourth movements, and few other works can guarantee the sort of shivers created by Stefan George's lines, “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten” (“I feel air from another planet”). In general, the work demands a good deal of the listener, but the rapture of the poetry combined with Schoenberg's gentle gliding over vestiges of tonality envelops us with the sensuality of Vienna's “gay apocalypse.”

Schoenberg's teacher Alexander Zemlinsky was for a short period a pupil of Brahms, and Brahms's circle included Joseph Fuchs, who taught nearly every significant Austrian composer of the period from Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler, Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker right up to the precocious youngsters Ernst Toch and Erich Korngold. Brahms's austere classicism and contained passion were dominant features of Vienna's musical landscape. Early works by Fuchs's pupils Schreker and Toch sound so Brahmsian that little of the future uniqueness of either composer can be deduced from them. For that reason, my second choice is a work by Gál, who, although influenced by Brahms, did not study with Fuchs but rather with another Brahms associate - indeed, Brahms's musical executor - Eusebius Mandyczewski. Gál was able to develop his own identity from an early age, and his First Quartet was premiered by the celebrated Rosé Quartet when he was 26 years old. (Arnold Rosé, Mahler's brother-in-law, was concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and the quartet's first violin.) The Rosé Quartet went on to premiere Gál's Second Quartet, a work that was quickly taken up by the Kolisch Quartet, led by Schoenberg's future brother-in-law, Rudolf Kolisch. Unlike Schoenberg's work, Gál's remains firmly on the cusp of the new century while looking back into the old. It has a Schubertian tunefulness but remains engagingly individual by means of what may be described as militant conventionality.

My third choice is Pavel Haas's Second Quartet, composed in 1926 and evocatively subtitled “From the Monkey Mountains.” Despite its exotic name, it actually refers to a hilly region of Haas's native Moravia. Haas is a major composer who is now enjoying an overdue revival in his native Czech Republic, and the quartet proves, if proof is needed, that the composers who could find the strength to write under the inhuman conditions of a concentration camp had even more important works to their credit, many of which still await discovery. Haas's Study for String Orchestra, composed and performed in Theresienstadt, is certainly impressive, but it seems almost pale next to his Second Quartet, the slow movement of which is one of the most poignantly beautiful works in the literature. The impressionistic tones he paints are dark and far removed from the British and French pastoral composers we're more familiar with. Along with his teacher Janáček, Haas created a distinctively Central European and often jagged-edged musical environment. There is even an optional percussion part for the quartet’s final movement. My fourth and final quartet describes, in musical terms, the despair of having to grab a half-packed suitcase and leave in the middle of the night. Berthold Goldschmidt's nerve-jangling Second Quartet, composed in 1936 after his arrival in England, offers a frantic opening that autobiographically recalls the escape from Germany and arrival in a country with an promise of work that was not fulfilled and a fear of possible deportation: he had been led to believe that Carl Ebert would be able to find him employment at Glyndebourne, but the job didn't materialize and Goldschmidt, in common with many other refugees, had to try to find a means of survival. The quartet keeps listeners on the edge of their seats.

Other Chamber Music

Appropriately enough, given its title, Franz Schreker's 1909 chamber work, Der Wind, scored for violin, clarinet in A, horn in F, cello and piano, is guaranteed to blow the listener away. It was composed for the Wiesenthal Sisters - dancers who were Vienna's answer to Isadora Duncan - and it was inspired by a poem by Greta Wiesenthal. Although it lasts a mere ten minutes, it magically transports the listener to the same sort of sunlit glade that we “hear” in Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, although in Schreker's Central European sound-world (possibly the Vienna Woods). Der Wind demonstrates the degree to which French Impressionism influenced a generation of Viennese composers, and Schreker - who, in his day, was often referred to as a magician of musical color - was able to create a kaleidoscope of moods and images. Schoenberg reacted much earlier than Schreker to the influence of French Impressionism, most notably with his Sextet Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night (1899), which was inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem of the same name. In its original version it is the perfect companion piece to program with Korngold's Sextet op. 10 (1916), but the version I wish to recommend is an arrangement for piano trio by Schoenberg's pupil Eduard Steuermann. As a composer, Steuermann was accorded considerable respect by his colleagues, if not always by the public; today his works are largely forgotten, but he remains known as the pianist who was the most idiomatic exponent of the so-called Second Viennese School.

Steuermann's arrangement of Verklärte Nacht offers a greater variety of textures than Schoenberg's original. Many of the musical ideas are given greater prominence, and the piano adds a percussive, rhythmic foundation that tightens the piece architecturally, so that its mood is less impressionistic and creates a very different effect. By coincidence, this version, too, is almost perfectly coupled with another Korngold work: the Piano Trio op. 1, written in 1910, when the composer was only thirteen years old.

My next choice is the Quintet in F-sharp Major (1944) by Walter Braunfels. For Braunfels, as for Gál, “modern” did not necessarily mean dissonant or atonal, but merely “recent.” They were not particularly upset if critics thought that their music sounded as if it had come from the previous century. Like Gál's quartet, Braunfels's quintet wins its audience over from the very first bar. Unlike Gál's quartet, however, it is a work of “inner exile” and presents the musical reaction of a very profound thinker who must have been devastated to see such friends as the philosopher Martin Heidegger welcome National Socialism. It is a work of great beauty but also of dashed dreams, though never without hope. Braunfels was racially well outside the tolerance levels of the Nuremberg Laws, and it is a miracle that he survived the war undetected in a small village on the shores of Lake Constance. His mood is reflected in the quintet's dark passages, but the work's sheer beauty never allows that darkness to dominate. That it is harmonically conventional does not detract from its position as a (still) virtually undiscovered masterpiece. But Braunfels will not remain virtually undiscovered for long: in Germany, his music is being resurrected at a colossal pace through performances at many major venues, and his opera Die Vögel was recently performed by Los Angeles Opera. The quintet will surely find a secure place in the repertoire.

Far less known than Braunfels's music is the music of Hugo Kauder - a real discovery. I was present at a performance of Kauder's Trio for viola, oboe and piano (1916) at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2010, and I wondered how such an original and unusual composer could have remained so obscure among music lovers. His considerable output includes a number of quartets and sonatas for wind instruments. I was surprised to learn that there is a Hugo Kauder Society in the United States, and I would encourage any interested chamber music player to contact it for material ( Kauder, like Pavel Haas, was a Moravian; unlike Haas (but like Mahler), he was a German-speaking Moravian, and his music has little of Haas's craggy pastoralism. Indeed, there were moments in the concert when I felt that Kauder was closer to Delius than to any Central European composer I could think of. In the 1920s and '30s Kauder was a frequent contributor to the progressive music publication Anbruch. He was also Erich Zeisl's teacher, and it was under Kauder's tutelage that Zeisl's musical language became more confidently “modern.” It came as a surprise to discover in Kauder a composer who facilitated and even encouraged an abrasive modernity in others while apparently not regularly practicing it himself.

Other Instrumental Works

When it comes to “killer applications” in this category, I have to admit to being somewhat at a loss. Among the composers under consideration, Erwin Schulhoff and Ernst Toch composed the most brilliantly pianistic works of the period, and Schulhoff's Jazz Etudes and Toch's Der Jongleur are real winners. But I can’t say that they make the strongest case for the repertoire as a whole. Ullmann's piano sonatas are impressive, and Gideon Klein's unfinished Sonata is a masterpiece - as is Klein's String Trio, which was written in Theresienstadt. If forced to choose a single work, I would have to pick the Klein sonata - a worthy companion to Berg's Sonata (1911). As mentioned above, I would suggest that woodwind players get to know the works of Hugo Kauder. His Sonata for piano and clarinet or oboe and Sonata for piano and horn are irresistible.

I recommend one of Hans Gál's sonatas for piano and violin to performers who may be looking for a work that will come across strongly in concert. The First Sonata, a youthfully extroverted work that galvanizes an audience from its opening bars, reminds me of Hugo Wolf's music; the Second, which dates from 1933, is more melancholic and introverted, possibly as a musical response to the shock of being relieved of his position as head of Mainz's Music Academy. Having produced recordings of both works, I cannot decide which one I prefer, and therefore suggest that interested performers have a look at both.

There are attractive cello sonatas by Weigl, Toch and Gál, but my final two recommended works in this category are by Egon Wellesz. The brief Prelude for viola op. 112 is Wellesz's last work. It began life as a sketch for a concerto that was never completed, but its few, difficult bars are instantly and movingly communicative. Given the date of composition (1920) of Wellesz's Sonata for solo cello op. 30, it cannot really be considered a companion work to the viola Prelude, although it, too, is rather short. Nevertheless, it takes a special kind of genius to write instantly engaging music for solo string instruments, and this work is immediately appealing without ever patronizing its audience with gratuitous “easy listening” material. Both the cello sonata and the viola prelude are surprisingly charismatic works, perfect for chamber music programs that need strong fillers.


I doubt that many would argue that the one work in this genre that grabs an audience by the throat every time it's performed is Franz Schreker's Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1914), a stand-alone version of the overture to his opera Die Gezeichneten. It is now starting to gain its much-deserved toe-hold in the repertoire, and it demonstrates why Schreker was considered a wizard of tonal coloring. Perhaps the description by his pupil Ernst Krenek, to the effect that Schreker was to music what Gustav Klimt was to painting (Krenek did not mean this as a compliment), sums the situation up. Vorspiel zu einem Drama is not only the musical equivalent of Klimt's famous portrayal of The Kiss: it seems to take the narrative of the painting and expand its full erotic potential.

To remain in Vienna's Jugendstil world for its pure beauty and opium-den sensuality one could, without hesitation, recommend Webern's Im Sommerwind or Zemlinsky's Die Seejungfrau. And if shorter works are called for, I would suggest the Prelude and Interlude of Zemlinsky's opera Es war einmal.

A pupil of Schreker - though one who, like Krenek, had little time for his teacher's opulent late-Romanticism – was Karol Rathaus, born in Tarnopol, which today is part of Poland but belonged to Austria until 1919. Few composers could assimilate musical styles as easily as Rathaus, who was described in contemporary accounts as one of the most naturally brilliant musicians to enter Schreker's Viennese composition class. His output varied between colorful theater music, such as the “Jewish Dance” movement from his Uriel Acosta suite (which can be guaranteed to bring the house down and makes a wonderful encore), and highly expressive modernism. The opera Fremde Erde was well received in its day, as was the ballet Der letzte Pierrot. However, it is Rathaus's Third Symphony that I believe, is most convincing on several levels. This dizzying work, composed in America, leaves the audience sonically charged. Although its dissonances fly by fast and furiously, its abrasive modernism is never cacophonic. The work remains tonal and is never less than exhilarating. As an orchestral show-piece, it can be placed next to works by Stravinsky or Bartók without apologies.

I also highly recommend the first four of Wellesz's nine symphonies. Like Toch and Korngold, Wellesz felt an urge to write a symphony only after years in exile. No musical form so clearly embodied the Austro-German tradition, and in Wellesz's first four symphonies there is a poignant nostalgia that becomes almost unbearably painful in the slow movements. I once described the Adagio of the Fourth Symphony as Elgar's Nimrod variation colliding with Hindemith. Each symphony lasts just under half an hour; Wellesz's obvious models were the symphonies of Bruckner, but he tightens and roughs up the forms and the musical language. There is something deliberately derivative in these first symphonies, yet it does not spring from a lack of imagination; it is willfully employed as an homage to the composer's musical past and a desire to reconnect with it. Given the fact that the First Symphony's premiere was presented by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sergiu Celibidache, its credentials could hardly be better. Start with Wellesz's first four symphonies, but don't be afraid of the remaining five, which are highly expressive works that make greater demands on the listener. The extraordinary thing about Wellesz's atonal and free-tonal works is that they are so clearly structured that one rarely feels at sea. Even his most difficult works require only a second hearing before one is able to follow their musical narrative. Wellesz has a way of gradually getting under one's skin. It takes time, but there are great treats in store for those who allow their ears to grow accustomed to his unique musical language.

If an orchestral curtain-raiser is called for, one might consider Goldschmidt's Passacaglia, which was premiered by Erich Kleiber in Berlin in 1925. It lasts seven minutes and emerges from the pianissimo of a shimmering tam-tam to a full orchestral fortissimo. This impressive piece makes us understand Kleiber's continued support for Goldschmidt. A work that makes a very different effect but works equally well is Boris Blacher's Concertante Music for Orchestra. Blacher is a fascinating figure. Born in China in 1903, the same year as Goldschmidt, he was the offspring of German-Russian bankers and was raised equally fluent in Mandarin, English, Italian, German and Russian. The Nazi discovery of one Jewish grandparent meant that his music was withdrawn relatively late in the day. Their classification of his music as “degenerate” came despite his success with both musicians and the public - indeed, there were many within the regime who had hoped to make him the poster-boy of new music in Germany - a view that would explain why the 1937 premiere of his Concertante Music for Orchestra was given by the Berlin Philharmonic under Carl Schuricht. Unlike Goldschmidt's Passacaglia, which builds and builds, the ten-minute-long, three-movement Concertante Music starts off as a typical neo-classical Concerto Grosso, which recalls Hindemith's Kammermusik. Only in the final moments - and seemingly out of nowhere - do the violins start to weave a lyrically energizing subject in and out of the highly rhythmic counterpoint provided by the rest of the orchestra. This work can raise the hairs on the back of the neck!


The most obvious choice is Korngold's violin concerto, but – since I can't seem to escape my own Viennese background - I would like to mention that a recent pleasant surprise has been getting to know Karl Weigl's Violin Concerto (1928). Like Zemlinsky and Schreker, with whom he is often compared, Weigl could create works of finely spun gold. In this concerto each instrument has its own musical role to carry out, and this creates a tapestry that sparkles and shimmers. The work certainly has impressionistic colors, but it is so Viennese that there is nothing even remotely Gallic about it. Erich Zeisl's Piano Concerto (1951) produces a similar effect, although it was written 23 years later and Zeisl was a full generation younger than Weigl. Both works have a distinctively Viennese sheen, although Zeisl's is the more obviously modern. Toch's First Piano Concerto (1926) is outstanding - a largely forgotten masterpiece that has yet to re-establish its rightful place. Like much of Toch's other music, this is a high-energy score, and it was performed by many of the greatest names of the day. As curator of the Toch exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, I had to choose among stacks of programs, and I selected the one with Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. The work is riveting; it gallops chromatically up and down the keyboard, leaving the audience jumping to its feet at its conclusion. It was the work that made Toch's reputation during Germany's interwar Weimar Republic years. In 1930, the New York Times published a picture of Toch and Hindemith as part of a full-page story entitled “The Faces of New Music in Germany.” Considering Toch's extraordinary success and the high esteem in which the world held him until his departure from Germany in 1933, I suspect that his absence from today's concert programs exemplifies what I wrote earlier: his prolific body of post-war American works was performed, possibly more out of loyalty than conviction, by his many Austro-German friends in charge of American orchestras; following the passing of that generation, audiences who knew only Toch's American works were not convinced that his Weimar Republic output was worth investigating.

There are some fine cello concertos by Toch, Zeisl, Weigl, Goldschmidt and Gál, but the one that moves even the most blasé audience is Julius Bürger's Cello Concerto. The date of its composition is given as 1932, but the second movement carries the inscription “To my mother, shot in her 82nd year while on transport to Auschwitz,” which means either that the inscription was added later or that the movement was composed and/or modified later. Its effect is devastating. Indeed, it is more effective than any other “Holocaust work” I know. It has a melancholic, liturgical feel, without anger - a profound sadness without bitterness, resignation but with hope. This movement has been played on a number of occasions as a stand-alone work, and as such it is impressive, but Gary Hoffman - in a performance I heard in Taipei last year - managed to bring the outer movements into an organic and coherent relationship with the central slow movement that made the entire concerto worth hearing.

Orchestral Vocal

Bürger, as a young Schreker pupil eager to please his teacher, composed two orchestral songs that out-Schrekered the master himself. The texts of Bürger's Stille der Nacht and Legende are by Gottfried Keller and Christian Morgenstern, respectively, and are written for large orchestra and bass-baritone. Each song lasts approximately eleven to twelve minutes. Like Schreker's Vorspiel zu einem Drama, they are guaranteed to tingle even the most ossified spine.

Moving on to another orchestral song-cycle, this time by Schreker's Berlin pupil Goldschmidt, we find ourselves in the midst of a quite different musical landscape. Though Goldschmidt, like Krenek and Rathaus, had little sympathy for Schreker's Klimtian qualities, he applied some of Schreker's tonal magic to a series of six orchestral songs for tenor or soprano. Goldschmidt's 1958 cycle, Mediterranean Songs (which, with its Greek references, should perhaps have been called Aegean Songs), is a highly evocative work. I don't believe I'm overselling it if I say that it is at the very least equal to Britten's Les Illuminations and Our Hunting Fathers. The comparison with Britten is not random. Britten came to rely on the advice of Erwin Stein, a Schoenberg pupil, and this gave a continental edge to his angular British pastoralism. Goldschmidt developed in the opposite direction. He acquired the softening touches of pastoralism after coming to the United Kingdom from Germany. The Mediterranean Songs are impressive on every level, and it is particularly astounding that a non-native speaker could deal so sensitively with some of the English language's most evocative poetry. The songs are set to texts by Lord Byron, James Stephens, Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer, James Elroy Flecker and Shelley - a Goldschmidt favorite. The lyrical writing is masterly, and the use of orchestral colors creates a surprising environment tempered, perhaps, by its Germanic meticulousness. The cycle lasts approximately 22 minutes.

Schreker's compositional career was divided between his Viennese years, up to 1920, and his Berlin years, from 1920 until his stroke in 1933 and death in 1934. As he matured, the opulent, Klimtian style of his Viennese period gave way to a much sparer approach. “New Objectivity” was the watch-word of New Music's youthful practitioners, and Schreker's idiosyncratic response to this development was ridiculed by younger composers, who continued to see him as an unreformed 19th-century Romantic. Yet despite the sneers and jeers of his own pupils, the contained emotion of his settings of two poems from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass must rate among his best Berlin works. They date from 1923 and 1927. The orchestration is spare, yet Schreker's brilliance in conjuring up memories, recalling forgotten dreams or simply evoking non-musical sensations through the juxtaposition of only a few instruments placed strategically under the vocal line remains unsurpassed. His orchestral song cycle, Vom ewigen Leben, needs to be sung by a pure, child-like soprano. It seems to indicate that his response to “New Objectivity” was to focus on aspects of purity and innocence rather than removing expression.


I didn't originally intend to list operas. Opera productions are expensive, require years of preparation and are dependent on many factors within any given ensemble. They can't be put on easily even within a university's music department, although any music department could and should look at Viktor Ullmann's Kaiser von Atlantis, if only for the didactic process of examining the textual and musical variants. As I have written elsewhere, this opera and the chamber works of Gideon Klein remain, in my opinion, the most eloquent works to have emerged from the camps.

Los Angeles audiences have had the opportunity to hear a number of important operas thanks to LA Opera's “Recovered Voices” series – the brainchild of Music Director James Conlon. Many of the operas that have already been featured or are planned for the future would certainly be on my list of sure-fire winners: Braunfels's Die Vögel, Korngold's Die tote Stadt, Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg and Schreker's Die Gezeichneten were often heard in German and Austrian opera houses in their day and have lost none of their ability to enchant or intoxicate.

I predict that Korngold's entire operatic output will eventually gain the popularity it deserves. His two mature operas, however, demand sensitive musicians and directors: Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane; 1927) is a work of such gigantic dimensions and has such an apparently awful story line that it is usually dismissed as toe-curling, Hollywood-inspired rubbish. Michael Tanner in his review for the British Spectator as recently as November 28, 2007, wrote the following about a concert performance of the work: “It is, of course, profoundly unfashionable to subject operas to moral judgment, but I find this corrupt, at the least decadent and fully meriting the description ‘degenerate’, which has had to be abandoned since the Nazis used it as a category.” Another wrote that he needed to shut himself into a darkened room for three hours after having heard it. These comments came from critics who seemed to have no issues with the obvious model for Heliane - Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Heliane, like Frau, is not meant to be taken at face value. If it were, it would come across as the overblown religious ecstasy of a fanatical convert. Like Strauss's opera, it takes the subjects of sex and love and tries to place them within a broader human context. On a deeper level, it explores the malevolence spawned by impotence and the sanctity of the sexual act when it is an act of love. It also looks at the eternal issues of power and fear being toppled by freedom, tolerance and joy. Given the political systems that were engulfing Europe at the time, it was not irrelevant. Korngold achieves all of this in a musical language that is by no means rehashed Hollywood; for that matter, Hollywood scores did not exist in 1927. The music anticipates and exceeds what Korngold and other film composers would achieve a decade later. Korngold's Die Kathrin, from the mid-1930s, is an altogether different type of work. The almost operetta-like music delights from start to finish, and the unapologetic sentimentality of the libretto was made even more implausible than it was originally meant to be thanks to changes imposed as a result of political tensions. It would cost little to return to the original story: a French soldier in Germany's occupied Saarland is abruptly posted away from his pregnant German girlfriend. Renée Fleming has recorded some of the arias, and the entire opera is full of highly appealing music. Its premiere was halted by the Nazis, and its reception immediately after the war was colored by the horrors of the intervening years.

Although Korngold's most obvious influence was Puccini, it is hard to believe that he could ever have composed works such as Die tote Stadt without the wide popularity of Schreker's Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound; 1912). Together with Strauss's Salome, Schreker's opera must be the most bracingly sensual work of the early part of the century; surprisingly, it has not yet made its way to Los Angeles, but it did have its first American staging at the Bard Festival in the summer of 2010. Would I place it beside Salome and Elektra? The answer is yes, and thanks to its contemporary setting – as opposed to the biblical and mythological settings of the Strauss works - audiences of the day agreed. Together with Rosenkavalier, its senior by only a year, it dominated Austro-German stages right through the 1920s. Another opera I believe could win over even the severest doubters is Zemlinsky's Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time), a fairy-tale piece that Mahler accepted for performance at Vienna's Imperial Opera in 1900, with Zemlinsky conducting. Some musicologists have even suggested that Mahler might have had a hand in some of the orchestration. In any case, the music is enchanting and the opera is only a little longer than Der Zwerg.


I have left the most complex area until last.
It would be possible to write at least an additional twenty pages on Lieder, as every composer Hitler threw out of Germany, Austria, Moravia or Bohemia wrote art-songs; it was almost part of the job description. Anyone who has persevered this far in my essay will realize that my tastes in this repertoire lean towards the Viennese – and the truth is that every one of the important Judgendstil composers wrote beautiful and accessible songs for every voice type. We can start with Schreker, Zemlinsky and Korngold and continue on through Gál, Wellesz and Zeisl: for me to pick one cycle over another depends only on what mood I'm in. Today I could suggest that mezzo-sopranos look at Schreker's Mutterlieder, or the posthumously published songs of Zemlinsky, which cover every vocal register, or the theater songs of Weill and Eisler and the witty cabaret songs by Friedrich Holländer and Mischa Spoliansky. Tomorrow, I might mention Korngold's gorgeous songs, many of which - such as Liebesbriefchen or Sommer from his Einfache Lieder op. 9, or Sterbelied and Mond, so gehst Du wieder auf from his Abschiedslieder op. 14 - are always winners. For English speakers who prefer not to sing in German, there are even some English songs by Korngold, one of the most beautiful of which is Tomorrow. These songs exist in orchestral arrangements as well as for voice and piano. Wilhelm Grosz, another noted Viennese composer and Schreker pupil, won international recognition much later for hit-songs such as “The Santa Fe Trail,” “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Isle of Capri” and “When Budapest was Young” – some of them published under the pseudonym Hugh Williams. In 1930 Grosz's Bänkel und Balladen op. 31, a hybrid of cabaret and art-song, represented “crossover” avant la letter.

I shall end by referring readers to my article on the 91-year-old Walter Arlen. Arlen is a recent discovery, a composer who, through the process of internalizing the experience of exile, has composed a number of songs that win listeners over from the very first hearing. Some of them, such as his settings of texts from the Song of Songs, are simple and moving; others, such as his Poet in Exile, which was performed in New York in 2009, are more angular and expressive; but all are exquisitely crafted in a distinctive musical language. Arlen's music dates from the final backwash of the Third Reich, and it resonates with us today by reminding us that the fall of the “Thousand-Year Reich” took place barely a lifetime ago.

Note: This article is accompanied by a chart. To view the chart in pdf format, click here.

Published April 2011

Articles & Essays