A conference in Cairo

Conf. on Arab Music 1932: Bartók, Hindemith and Wellesz

The accompanying photo shows Bartók, Hindemith and his wife, Erich von Hornbostal, someone I could not find any information on named Karl Schindler and Egon Wellesz. They were attending the 1932 Congrès du Musique Arabe in Cairo. It is always shocking to think about the amount of music that was lost after 1933, but it is equally appalling to consider how much music-scholarship was lost as well: both Jewish and non-Jewish. Egon Wellesz and Béla Bartók had long associations. Bartók managed to procure a publisher for Wellesz’s first works with Budapest’s Rózsavölgyi – the publisher of both composers before they moved to Vienna’s more prestigious Universal Editions. Wellesz devotes an entire chapter in his memoirs to Bartók and welcomed him at the 1932 Kulturbund meeting in Vienna, where Bartók discussed the importance of the folksong in contemporary music. They both participated in the Congrès du Musique Arabe in Cairo in 1932, initiated by King Faud I. It was an initial cultural interchange – one of many – that would be interrupted by a war fought on racist lines. Wellesz attended as an Austrian delegate interested in the music of Egypt’s Coptic Christians – he had already established himself as an authority in the liturgical music of Byzantium and was as known as a scholar as he was composer. Erich von Hornbostal was also Viennese and was the father of various aspects of ethno-musicology. Hindemith attended the conference as Germany’s delegate. In only a few years, all of these scholars and musicians would have been thrown out of their native countries. Hindemith perhaps more morally compromised, as he would have gladly stayed as the Nazi regime’s model new-music composer had the personal antipathy of Adolf Hitler not determined otherwise.

Diametrically on the opposite ethical scale to Hindemith was Bartók, a composer who hated the Nazis with such a passion that he objected when he was not included in the ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition, refused to perform in Nazi Germany and withdrew his works from his German publishers. He went into self-imposed exile and left a prestigious and affluent life behind for hardship and cultural isolation. Pride kept him from accepting charity, but friends such as Fritz Reiner and Joszeph Szigeti along with the Koussevitzky Foundation kept Bartók and his wife from total destitution. For years in Austria, I would hear people say things like ‘Bartók also went into exile because of the Nazis and today we know what an important composer he was – the other composers are most likely rightly forgotten.’ Bartók would have turned in his grave at such sentiments. The photograph accompanying shows a random group of scholars, all of whom, except possibly Karl Schindler, (about whom I could find no information), would be expelled – willingly, unwillingly, or wilfully. It represents a fascinating cross-section of musical scholarship that would be lost to central Europe and given the interest of Bartók in Turkish music, and Wellesz in the music of the Coptic Christians, along with Hornbostal’s earliest scientific treatment of ethnomusicology, shows how music was looking outwards rather than inwards – another, largely forgotten, reversal of developments that the III Reich would bring about.