If, amongst the many composers banned by Hitler and subsequently shoved to one side following the Nazi defeat, there was one, who could guarantee immediate audience appeal today, it would have to be Walter Braunfels. There are many characteristics of Braunfels that belie the typical Weimar Republic composer. Similar to Hans Gál and Franz Schreker, he was an establishment figure who was to be more commonly heard in Austro-German opera houses and concert halls than in the naughty-boy new music festivals of the 1920s. Indeed, his similarities to his colleague Franz Schreker are such that I highlight them in my book: both were the sons of successful, converted Jewish fathers who had married well into the haut-bourgeoisie (though in Schreker’s case, the early death of his father resulted in the genteel impoverishment of his childhood), both would compose operas, which had surpassed Richard Strauss in popularity, and both became directors of prestigious music colleges, with Schreker in Berlin and Braunfels in Cologne. Coincidentally, both had studied in Vienna.
Looking at Braunfels’s war- and post-war biography, it’s easy to extrapolate what may have happened with Franz Schreker had he survived the Hitler-years. Braunfels – as Schreker – was married to a non-Jew, so would have enjoyed for at least the first war-years a protected status. This is assuming that he, like Braunfels, melted into the anonymity of the rural countryside. Braunfels had taken the decision that he was simply ‘too German’ to leave. Had he emigrated, he would have suffered the fate of countless colleagues who found the necessary artistic re-invention required for a new homeland impossible. He decided that his continued presence in Germany – regardless of its utter lack of profile – remained an invisible pebble that kept the total destruction of German culture at bay. Strauss and Furtwangler may have expressed similar ideals, but they believed that through their visible profiles, they could achieve the same goals. Fate was unkind, and left them ethically compromised. But Braunfels, as a half-Jew under the Nuremberg laws, had no choice but to vanish – either abroad, which he abhorred, or into anonymity. Braunfels was also a devout Catholic. His faith, similar to Ernst Krenek and Egon Wellesz, kept him strong under what must have seemed desperate circumstances. This ‘inner-exile’ on the shores of Lake Constance – conveniently close to Switzerland – allowed him time to compose, and whereas Schreker tried to accommodate the time in which he lived by modifying his musical language, Braunfels was able to do so within the ‘luxury’ of isolation. His musical language changed from the seductive beauty of ‘The Birds’…
….to a more spiritual and cerebral expression of faith and triumph in his opera ‘Scenes from the life of St. Joan of Arc’.
Yet Hitler was only the first tragedy in Braunfels’s creative life. His rejection by Germany’s post-war musical establishment left him with medals, certificates and any number of official acknowledgements as the re-instated head of Cologne’s music Academy, while at the same time passing over his music with an embarrassed, teeth-sucking silence. Had Schreker not died of despair in 1934, he no doubt would have undergone a similar fate. Hans Gál too withdrew into a musical world that was more inward than outward and all of them must have recognised the truth expressed in Alfred Einstein’s letter to Hans Gál in 1948: “In today’s so-called Fourth Reich, everyone is enthusiastically embracing anything that between 1933 and 1945 would have counted as ‘Cultural Bolshevism’ as an effective means of justifying their sudden change of heart.” In such an environment, the music of Korngold, Braunfels, Zemlinsky and Schreker hinted at a lingering Nazi demand for music that seduced the listener and transported him to where they were no longer in control of their own reason. Reinstating such composers was only compounding the social-engineering ambitions attempted by the III Reich and underlined the extent to which Germany had missed out on exciting new music developments that promised an entirely different, more galvanising social engagement. It’s arguable as to the extent that such new-music experiments resulted in an ethically more responsible society. But at the end of all of these arguments, the music of Braunfels remains as powerful and inspiring as ever.