Manfred Gurlitt

Manfred Gurlitt as a soldier

One of my German colleagues wondered why ‘Forbidden Music’ seemed to have such a strong Austrian bias. I explained that the sub-title of the book was ‘The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis’ and for reasons of history and geography, these mostly came from the Habsburg held regions of Central and Eastern Europe. The most prominent Jewish composers to come from the German Reich prior to Hitler’s purge were Kurt Weill and Walter Braunfels. One looks in vain for a Jewish composer hailing originally from the German Reich of the stature of Schoenberg, Mahler, Zemlinsky or Schreker. Of course there were many prominent Jewish cabaret composers, and composers of light and film music, but serious music composers of Jewish origins were simply not as abundant within Germany as they were from the Dual-Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Yet one major figure was undoubtedly lost in this turbulent history and his personal story only highlights the utter irrationality of Nazi anti-Semitism: Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972). In my opinion, he was a very important musical presence in pre-Hitler Germany and his loss to posterity leaves us a major historic lacuna. I didn’t spend as much time on him as I would have liked in ‘Forbidden Music’, though his works appeared to have been more forbidden than those of many others. the reasons for this strange omission will soon become clear.

Gurlitt was a curious victim of Nazi fanaticism. He claimed to be the son of Fritz Waldecker, the lover of Annarella Gurlitt. Annarella was married to the prominent Berlin art-dealer Fritz Gurlitt who, according to the Nazis, had a less than clean Aryan bill of health. There appeared to be some Jewish blood on the maternal grandmother’s side of the family, so by any standard, such racial ‘taints’ were generationally far removed from Manfred, even if he had been the son of Fritz Gurlitt rather than Fritz Waldecker. After the death of Fritz Gurlitt in 1893, Annarella and Fritz Waldecker were married. As Manfred was born in 1890, he was accorded the name of his mother’s husband rather than that of her lover. In any case, Manfred became a keen supporter of the Nazi regime and joined the party as early as May 1933. What happened between then and 1937, when he was expelled for allegedly having Jewish blood, remains a mystery. Other composers such as Boris Blacher and Günter Raphael were more severely racially ‘compromised’ yet still tolerated and even continued to receive the occasional performance. Indeed, Blacher’s ‘Concertante Musik für Orchester’ was conducted by Carl Schuricht and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1937. Gurlitt left Germany and moved to Tokyo, though in 1942, under pressure from Japan’s German allies, he was removed from his teaching position. In the 9500 pages of Fred Priberg’s research on Music in the III Reich, we find a dozen mentions of the organist and early music scholar Wilibald Gurlitt, not related to Manfred, who was equally compromised as ‘Jüdisch versippt’ a rather Wagnerian expression for being married to a Jew. He, like Manfred, was an obvious German nationalist, having written the essay ‘Vom Deutschtum in der Musik’ (‘The Germanness of Music’) in 1933. He, like Manfred, was expelled from his position in 1937. Other, more prominent figures than Wilibald Gurlitt, who were married to Jews were spared, such as Franz Lehár. Neither Manfred nor Wilibald appears in the later publication of the Nazi ‘Lexikon der Juden in der Musik’ and Priberg quotes an inquiry from January 1941 questioning if the omission of ‘Gurlitt’ means that they are now to be counted as Aryans.

So the unrelated Gurlitts were victims of their own tragic devotion to an image of Germany that appealed to the III Reich. Yet they were both ejected – and in the case of Manfred, the loss to music was profound. If Manfred Gurlitt is remembered today at all, it is as the composer of the other ‘Wozzeck’, premiered in Bremen in 1926 and doomed to remain in the shadow of Alban Berg’s work premiered in Berlin in 1925. Yet to compare them is to compare apples and oranges. The crucial feature about both works, is that Berg’s masterpiece represents the last hurrah of Expressionism, whereas Gurlitt’s is representative of music’s emerging trend towards ‘New Objectivity’. In any case, the Wozzeck of both Gurlitt and Berg would not have been Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck of the Napoleonic wars, but a simple soldier from the more recent First World War. Hence the photograph of young German soldiers from 1915 used to illustrate this short essay. One can compare the opening of both operas on youtube. Gurlitt:

…and Berg:

Like Ernst Toch, Gurlitt gives us high-energy and avoids musical manipulation of the emotions, leaving this to the characters and the dramatic narrative of the work. Gurlitt was a consummate opera composer. Paradoxically, his ‘Wozzeck’ was also published by Vienna’s Universal Editions, the same publisher as Alban Berg. Gurlitt’s first opera was called ‘Die Heilige’ based on the poetry of Karl Hauptmann and composed in 1918, premiered in Bremen in 1920. (His opera from 1918 ‘Die Insel’ does not appear to have been premiered) ‘Wozzeck’ followed in 1926 which was followed by: ‘Die Soldaten’ (an opera that would be eclipsed by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s treatment of the same text in 1965), premiered in Düsseldorf in 1930; ‘Nana’ was to have been premiered in 1933 in Mannheim, but cancelled. His opera ‘Seguidilla Bolero’ from 1937 was also cancelled. There are in addition, ‘Warum oder Feliza’ based on his own text from 1935, (unperformed); and the unsettlingly titled ‘Nordische Ballade’ (‘Nordic Ballad’) in 4 acts and a prologue, (also unperformed) composed in 1944 based on a text by the Swedish Nobel Prize winner, Selma Lagerlöff. And it doesn’t end here: we have ‘Wir Schreiten Aus’ based on German fairy tales, from 1943/5.
In a post-war work-list compiled by Manfred Gurlitt himself, he writes the following:

“Nana’ should have been premiered in 1933 in Mannheim and was nearly taken on by all the important German houses but was inexplicably removed from planning by the German government. After the prohibition of ‘Nana’, none of the important opera house directors or conductors dared approach any of my earlier works and my operas and concert pieces have remained un-premiered until today. The opera ‘Seguidilla Bollero’ was to have had a double premiere in Düsseldorf and Braunschweig, but was removed from planning at the last moment and blocked by the German government. As a result of these largely cowardly and anonymous attacks by the government, and the impossibility of having my works performed, I left Germany for self-imposed exile in Japan. At the first hint of an invitation from the Germans, I would willingly return to my homeland and become an active player in the re-construction of musical life. I would dedicate myself to conducting, composing and teaching as I have always done since my earliest days.” This invitation apparently never came and he died in Tokyo in 1972.

His Violin concerto was to have been performed by Georg Kulenkampf in 1934 and likewise cancelled. “Indeed, Kulenkampf was told by the propaganda ministry, that if he attempted to premiere the work, he would be forbidden from further performances in Germany.” Gurlitt then writes that the Gestapo raided his premises and confiscated the manuscript along with many of his Lieder – they remained at the time of writing, unrecovered.

His cello concerto from 1938 was meant to be premiered by Emanuel Feuermann. This fact alone raises dozens of questions. Where was the premiere to have taken place? Feuermann was certainly not allowed to perform in Germany, and even the Jewish Kulturbund was no longer in a position to support a work of that size. Feuermann was dead by the time Gurlitt tried to re-establish contact after the war.

There is even a piano concerto from 1925 that was premiered by Walter Gieseking at the Krefeld music festival in 1927. He mentions in his self-compiled list of works 2 further piano concertos, but does not offer dates or any additional information.

The situation of Gurlitt is as ethically difficult to resolve as that of Hindemith. Yet with Hindemith, we have chosen to overlook his lapses in judgement and have been fairly unquestioning in placing him in the pantheon of 20th Century masters. Yet Gurlitt was a remarkably distinctive composer as well and thankfully there are now recordings of ‘Wozzeck’, ‘Nana’ and ‘Die Soldaten’ that I believe bare this out. There is also a published dissertation by Helma Götz on his life and work (in German, and published by Peter Lang in 1996). It would be welcomed if at last we could look beyond the perplexing contradictions of this uniquely exceptional composer. His work, musical estate and all of his scores and manuscripts can be found at the Carl von Ossiezky University in Hamburg.