Saved for whom?

Hitler inspecting degenerate artTwo stories have fluttered across newspapers and auction catalogues, obviously related, but ignored by most of our cultural commentators. One is the spectacular hoard of art, formerly banned by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’, found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich and the other is the sale of articles from the estate of Franz Schreker at Sotheby’s. One concerns works stolen, ‘requisitioned’ or acquired at knock-down prices by dubious dealers out ‘to help’ people flee the criminal regime of Adolf Hitler. The other concerns works saved, stored in a private collection and now sold to the highest bidder. A similar sale of Paul Wittgenstein’s musical estate ended up in Hong Kong.

Both repositories, one of artworks, the other of manuscripts, scores and documentation, dump cultural arbiters of today into an ethical swamp, full of slimy creatures that block any potential exit in order to consume the weak. For example, how would we judge today, the following case: In 1941 the State Archive of Bavaria offered to purchase the Guido Adler collection of documents, scores , manuscripts and papers from his daughter Melanie in exchange for assuring her safe-passage out of Nazi Germany. Adler was the father of modern comparative musicology, a childhood friend of Gustav Mahler and teacher of many of Vienna’s most important composers, musicologists and performers. He was also a Jew. A musicologist at Vienna’s university, Erich Schenk, bizarrely proclaimed that the Adler estate was ‘too important to leave Vienna’ and stopped the Bavarians in their tracks. Ignoring the fact that Austria no longer existed and thus made little difference if Adler’s estate landed in Munich or Vienna, he set the Gestapo loose on Melanie who was hunted down and murdered in Maly Trostinic in May of 1942. The library was next spotted stacked in Erich Schenk’s office at Vienna’s University. After the war, he would be exonerated of any wrongdoing by an Austrian de-Nazification panel, which based their decision on the fact that Schenk had rescued the valuable collection for ‘the good of the Austrian Fatherland’. In 1957, Schenk was elevated to the position of the University’s rector and notoriously refused to allow any historians or musicologists base their research or dissertations on Jewish musicians.

The ‘generous’ deal negotiated by Melanie Adler’s long-standing family friend, Professor Rudolf von Ficker, guaranteeing the safe passage in exchange for her father’s library – regardless of whatever sum of money was offered – would certainly be considered ethically questionable today. Austrian and to a lesser extent, German archives are returning works of art that were sold under duress. And just as one thought that the year 1945 may provide this ethical swamp with a sun drenched beach leading to the safety of the highlands, another unappealing carnivorous invertebrate appears. It is the opportunistic carpet-bagger who bought up the lands, possessions and works of art that couldn’t leave or weren’t allowed to leave Austria, despite the fact that their former owners had been expelled from the country in 1938. The uncle of Jörg Haider, purchased a large estate in the spectacularly beautiful Bärenthal for the price of little more than a peppercorn from a Jewish family living in Israel and unwilling or unable to return to Austria. The estate passed on to Jörg. When Korngold returned to Austria and saw that his former country estate had been turned into a displaced persons centre, he sold it at a knocked down price to the local mayor. Today, the mayor’s heirs continue to enjoy the income generated by carving up of the former hunting estate into holiday-lets while Jörg Haider went on to lead a political party that probably for legal reasons cannot be called Neo-Nazi, but became the most attractive political home for Austria’s former NSDAP members. He based his political agenda on outspoken racism and as the self-appointed spokesman for the group of Austrians who still maintained that “Hitler did a lot of good things and Nazis were merely patriots fighting for their country.”

We then come to the question of the provenance of the articles being auctioned by Sotheby’s. We’re informed that the present owner helped recover the material that was still in possession of Schreker’s widow, Maria Schreker who had survived the war against all odds in Berlin. I’m surmising that the present owner is the Argentinian, Paris based pianist and composer Jorge Zulueta, former pupil of Maria Schreker’s son in law Eugenio Bures, a professor of piano in Buenos Aires. According to an article in the German newspaper ’Der Tagesspiegel’ he received a key in the post from Maria Schreker offering her Berlin apartment ‘to treat as his own’. It was in her flat that he found and recovered a veritable treasure trove of manuscripts, letters, scores and memorabilia. In 1987, he went on to found the Sociéte Franz Schreker, with Maria’s daughter Haidy as honorary president. Prominent members were Daniel Barenboim and Michael Gielen. The organisation was founded with the express goal of preserving the ‘moral integrity of Schreker’s works’. Upon the deaths of Maria Schreker and Haidy Schreker-Bures, possession was transferred to Jorge Zulueta. The maintenance of the estate was deemed too much for Zulueta and in 2000 Berlin’s Academy of Arts made an offer of purchase. It was refused as Zulueta deemed the price too low. The suggestion that a neutral assessor to be agreed by both parties to establish a fair price was also rejected by Zulueta. An attempt to incorporate articles from the estate in the Franz Schreker exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum in 2004 was refused. Nor was Zulueta to be seen promoting the moral integrity of Schreker’s work at the Salzburg Festival in the same year – the year that Schreker passed out of copyright.

Berlin’s Academy of Arts houses the estates of many of Franz Schreker’s composition class – it would have been a natural home. He was a member of the Academy until his expulsion in 1933 and was a former director of Berlin’s Music Academy. The other ‘natural’ home for the Zulueta collection would have been Austria’s National Library, which already houses most of Schreker’s manuscripts and much of his correspondence. The ‘moral integrity of Schreker’s works’ is now being best served by being offered to the highest bidder in order to make the present owner a wealthier man. If like the Wittgenstein estate it lands in Hong Kong, there is little hope of access for musicians or scholars. Personally, I’m not sure I see the ethical difference between the pictures now found in the Gurlitt apartment in Munich, and the sale by Sotheby’s of an estate of one of the 20th century’s great composers who was nearly written out of history by not only the Nazis, but by an unforgiving post-war cultural environment.

I suppose we should rejoice that neither Schreker’s personal estate nor the works of ‘degenerate’ artists were burned on the bonfire of Nazi vanities, but if they were saved – may one pose the question of ‘for whom?’