Berthold Goldschmidt

Michael Haas and Bethold Goldschmidt

Michael Haas and Berthold Goldschmidt

If there is a single person who put flesh onto the skeletal idea of hunting down music lost during the Nazi years, it was Berthold Goldschmidt, the self-effacing, quiet German émigré approaching his 90s I met living in London’s Belsize Park in the late 1980s. In fact, he was living in the same tiny flat he had found in 1935. London/Decca’s recording series ‘Entartete Musik’ had been approved by the label’s president Roland Kommerell and the first two projects, recordings of Krenek’s ‘Jonny Spielt Auf’ and Korngold’s ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ (see the cigarette-brands from 1928 promoting these two operas elsewhere on this page), had been approved. It wasn’t clear though what the follow up should be. I had gone through various books and references and compiled a list of 300 names of composers I knew had been banned.

Being a recording producer and not an academic, I feared that they were doomed to remain anonymous names on a list. Boosey and Hawkes’s now legendary David Drew sent me a piano vocal score of a work called ‘Der Gewaltige Hahnrei’ or ‘The Magnificent Cuckold’ and suggested that this was a work that had eluded all music scholarship and would therefore be a genuine discovery. I took it home and clunked out enough of the score on the piano to realise that this was most certainly not just another ‘Weimar Republic’ composer churning out ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ for the masses, but a very different sound altogether. Like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he seemed to have found the magic point that kept music from falling into the swamp of Late Romanticism while still offering achingly beautiful melodies. These almost always appeared at the least expected moments, and achieved great theatrical and emotional effect.

I got back to David Drew and confirmed that we would record it and was surprised to discover that the composer was not only still alive, but lived within walking distance of my Decca office. I won’t bog up this article with lengthy Goldschmidt reminiscences – it would go on for pages, but there was something fateful about our meeting. Before discussing his own work, he patiently went through my list of names and gave me his opinions. Many he knew personally, some he spoke of highly – one, Walter Braunfels – he enthusiastically endorsed and started to sing the opening from ‘Die Vögel’ (‘The Birds’), telling me that the music had stayed with him since first hearing it in Hamburg in 1920. He had also admired Hans Gál’s ‘Die Heilige Ente’ (‘The Sacred Duck’), and I recall pointing out that together with his ‘Cockold’, Gál’s ‘ Duck’ and Braunfels’s ‘Birds’ we had a veritable aviary of operas. He was kind and patient. The worst thing he ever said about any colleague was that ‘perhaps’ he, or she ‘lacked profile’ or a ‘personal voice’.

What followed is history and I won’t bore people with details. We recorded most of his known output – many works were (and remain) lost – and we also recorded new works that he started to compose when he realised that there was a genuine interest in what he had to say. I often wondered if my short period of working at Sony was only in order to record his second opera ‘Beatrice Cenci’ – a wonderful work that unfortunately I can’t help feeling is not done full justice by the recording. But it showed how far Goldschmidt had travelled in order to meet the tastes of his new British homeland. A far better example of this is found in his ‘Mediterranean Songs’ – and though we recorded the entire cycle in Leipzig with John Mark Ainsley, Youtube offers a performance by Richard Lewis singing four of the songs conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt in 1959.

Goldschmidt was a wonderful teacher and before recording any of his works, he took me through them, bar by bar. (The photo accompanying this article shows a much younger Michael Haas with Goldschmidt during a recording session) He explained why he orchestrated certain passages or highlighted points in the text that he wanted brought out in the instrumentation. Not being a historian, I hardly knew how to appreciate the work he had done on Mahler and sadly, we never discussed it and he never mentioned it. Perhaps he was happy to have the opportunity to discuss his own music rather than revisit his collaboration with Deryck Cooke. Years later, after his death, I found a revealing correspondence between Goldschmidt and Egon Wellesz at Austria’s National Archive. At the time of going through the names on my self-compiled list, Goldschmidt did not linger on the name of Wellesz. I mentioned that I had been told by people in Vienna that he tended to be a ‘bit academic as a composer’; Goldschmidt nodded and only said, ‘perhaps’. Of course, I now know that ‘academic’ could never be applied to the highly expressive Wellesz and I remain baffled by Goldschmidt’s casual dismissal. The correspondence told a very different, yet somehow incomplete story. Goldschmidt, who did not know Wellesz personally, invited Wellesz to look at the work that he and Deryrck Cooke had done on Mahler’s 10th in the hopes of convincing Alma to allow its performance. The correspondence is formal and they all met at regular intervals at Goldschmidt’s tiny flat. There are at least 3 or 4 letters that start off with ‘As usual at your flat in Belsize Park. . . ‘ So they must have had a fair number of regular meetings. Wellesz is most impressed and highly recommends the completion to Alma who eventually sanctioned a performance, though in her letter to Cooke, she mentions Harold Byrns as the person who ultimately persuaded her.

Wellesz later wrote to Erwin Ratz of Vienna’s International Gustav Mahler Society that he had recently heard a performance of Mahler’s VI symphony conducted by Goldschmidt and it was the closest he had come to hearing a performance in modern times that actually reminded him of Mahler’s own conducting. A follow-up letter to Ratz informs him that he was mistaken. He had heard a performance of another Mahler symphony conducted by Goldschmidt and it was truly awful; Ratz should dismiss his previous enthusiasm. Another piece of this mysterious puzzle that may or may not fit, was Goldschmidt’s fury at the mention of Harold Byrns, whom he accused of drunkenness while conducting premieres of his works. (Bryns also conducted the premiere of Korngold’s Symphony in F#, which Korngold asked to be wiped) I also recall Goldschmidt telling me that Alma would not allow a release of his performance of Mahler 10th, because ‘of a mistake in the horn’. Goldschmidt, who had spent much of his working life at the BBC pre-rehearsing orchestras prior to the arrival of the ‘big names’ felt that here too, he was being shoved to one side in preference of someone – as yet un-approached – who was more famous.

Thus Goldschmidt’s life appeared to be a continuous string of disappointing missed opportunities – at least until his late 80s: His ‘Hahnrei’ opera was stopped by the Nazis, his opera ‘Beatrice Cenci’ was lost in a sea of incompetence and disingenuousness by British Arts’ bureaucrats; his contributions to the completion of Mahler’s 10th were bypassed. Even his rescue of a Glyndebourne performance at the first Edinburgh Festival following the sudden departure of Georg Szell came to nothing, despite rave reviews from all sides. All of these dashed expectations resulted in a 25 year compositional hiatus. Is this a loss? My belief is that it is a very serious loss indeed. Looking at the remaining works of Goldschmidt, there is a good deal of development towards a unique voice to be heard in the works leading up to ‘Hahnrei’, and an adaptation to his British homeland in later ones. The works that come from the last decade of his life have a certain frailty, even dryness that I believe would not have been the case had he continued to develop. Listen to his marvellous ‘Mediterranean Songs’ in the link above, his last work before his 25-year break and only imagine what this missing quarter century of growth might have given us.