Bernhard Sekles 1872 – 1934


Bernhard Sekles’s opera Schahrazade is the subject of the most recent Musica Reanitmata’s  quarterly publication. I recall being shown the full score for a massive orchestra work published by Schott some 20 years ago that sadly lacked orchestral parts. I had to agree to record the work before Schott could justify the expense of producing the material, and sadly, at that time, there was no suitable context in which to present it. I don’t now recall the name of the work, but remember it as large, late romantic in character and polyphonically filigreed in the manner of Schreker, Szymanowski, early Schoenberg. After many years of waiting, a rather disappointing recording of chamber music appeared on Toccata Classics, which seemed to place the composer less in the centre of arid new-objectivity, and more in the centre of arid-lack-of-imagination. I suspected that his position as academic and composition teacher, eventual head of Frankfurt’s music academy had got the better of his creative talent. Certainly, the recording would not offer a convincing vindication of Sekles as an important and forgotten composer, lost during the tumult of the Nazi years.

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Today, he’s remembered as being Hindemith’s composition teacher and having the foresight in 1928 to open a Jazz department headed by Mátyás Seiber. As Sekles pointed out at the time, more than half of professional musicians were performing in Jazz ensembles, and hitherto, no instruction had been made available. There was something wonderful about this utopian, rather Germanic view of how even Jazz, the very music that lives from being played rather than learned, could be granulated into theories and didactic exercises. Of course the Nazis hated it. Jazz was the music of Afro-Americans who visibly represented physical opposition to their own ideas of ‘Master Race’. With science – and not just Germany’s National Socialists, but British and American Eugenicists – reducing humanity to the zoology of breeding cattle for slaughter, they had plenty of reasons to loath everything about Africans – and American Africans were the worst, as they had taken western music and given it their own creative twist. As Krenek clumsily demonstrated in Jonny spielt Auf, it would soon swamp Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Indeed, even if jazz could have been taught, Krenek could have profited from instruction as by his own admission, what he and contemporaries such as Kurt Weill believed jazz to be was hardly more than syncopated beer tent music. Sekles’s initiative was doomed to close after the Nazi take-over. Both he and Seiber were Jewish and Sekles died in December the following year at the age of 62. For comparison, Alexander Zemlinsky was only a year older than Sekles. There are apparently some 70 surviving works, though a number must be counted as lost. There are four operas, several song-cycles, chamber music and Psalm 137, for soprano, organ and chorus, performed posthumously by the Frankfurt Jüdischer Kulturbund.

The opera at Halle-an-der-Saale has recently mounted Sekles’s Scheherazade reviewed by Peter Sarkar in the Musica Reanimata quarterly.  As I have not seen the work, I can only rely on Sarkar’s report of a work that enjoyed considerable popularity before its 90-year absence. It was premiered in 1917 in Mannheim – the then home for all new music – under the city’s 31-year-old music director, Wilhelm Furtwängler. It was subsequently picked up by a dozen or so German opera houses before falling out of sight. The Nazis did not need to remove it from scheduling as it had already vanished from the repertoire.

The text is based on a play by Gerdt von Bassewitz (1878 – 1923) though it is not clear to what extent Bassewitz may, (or may not) have been involved in its operatic adaptation. Unmentioned in Sarka’s article is the work’s possible (subconscious?) influence on Ernst Toch’s own opera Scheherazade – or the Last Tale from 1962. Like Sekles’s opera, Toch does not concentrate on the 1001 Nights, but on the relationship between Scheherazade and the Caliph Shahryar. Toch had entered the Frankfurt Hoch’sche Academy in 1909, and though he never studied with Sekles, he would have been aware of the school’s most prominent composition teacher. Both Toch and Sekles studied with Iwan Knorr. Following Toch’s studies in Frankfurt, he moved to Mannheim, though by 1917, he was an Austrian soldier safely behind the Front lines in Polish Galizia, thanks to the connections of his fiancé. His return to Mannheim after the war would have been only two years after the premiere of Sekles’s opera. Toch resumed his previous activity in local musical life and his friendly contact with Furtwängler could have meant that the success of Sekles’s opera would not have passed him by. But all of this is purely circumstantial, and as I write above, the influence was probably at most subconscious.

Sarka places the work into the context of the misogyny of Otto Weininger and the shifting change in the relationships between men and women. Scheherazade decides that she will survive the brutality of the Caliph by winning him over by the power of her redemptive love – she senses that his murderous abuse of virgins is due to inner loneliness. In this version of events, Sekles and Bassewitz have Scheherzade break the murderous sexual deviations of the Caliph through love rather than the clever deflections of 1001 tales. In Toch’s version, the Caliph is eventually killed by Scheherazade’s betrothed, though she falls dead at the exhaustion of having to invent so many stories to keep him amused. Both versions concentrate on the animosity between the sexes, which Otto Weininger’s  Sex and Character from 1903 had redefined as nihilistic misogyny. It was a book that captivated intellectuals and artists – admired by both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler, it managed the hat-trick of equating Jews with the female gender and denouncing how through deceit and corruption both destroyed the purity of masculine Christianity. According to Weininger, the female was by far the stronger and more corrupting of the sexes. It is generally agreed that Weininger was probably a self-loathing homosexual – he was certainly a self-loathing Jew – and took his own life spectacularly following publication of Sex and Character by blowing his brains out at the age of 23 in the house where Beethoven died. It was Viennese morbidity translated into action.  Wittgenstein admired Weininger as someone who saw suicide as the only ethical way out, whereas Hitler admired him as the only Jew who recognised self-annihilation as the only solution. The book’s very grotesque dialectic would serve as a basis for countless plays and operas, and most likely was the philosophical inspiration for Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten. In this context, Sarka also cites Salome and Schulhoff’s Flammen. I can certainly understand the former, though not entirely the latter. Sekles uses a quote from the opera that is so misogynistic, that Sarka is puzzled that it could be tolerated by modern audiences at all, though he goes on to explain that Sekles and Bassowitz have incorporated the Weininger-position in order to disprove it. Sarka describes the work as living from its sung dialogues, which are supported by the orchestra. The opera is conceived as an intimate discourse rather than a grand opera with an orientalist subject. There are no crowd scenes and except for a few interludes, the orchestra is inclined to remain in the background. Sarka is slightly put off by the scoring of stage-movements, which sound like ‘Micky-Mousing’ in film scoring. He describes it as ‘too much of a good thing’

In general, one feels reading Peter Sarka, that like Musica Reanimata colleague Albrecht Dümling and numerous German colleagues of ‘a certain generation’, he betrays a very particular type of squeamishness in the face of music that does not more blatantly betray the presumed anti-Nazi aesthetic of copious dissonance and atonality. Timo Jouko Herrmann and André Meyer however in a following article offer a more nuanced picture of Sekles’s musical language in which late-romanticism; orientalism and modernity are discussed as conflicting, complementary elements.  Yes, the work is tonal and relies on the use of what they call ‘tonal axis’, which is described in some detail. Sekles wished the music to be fully subordinate to the text and avoided the ‘melodies that one took home afterwards’. Contemporary reviews point to comparisons with Pelléas et Mélisande and Bluebeard’s Castle. Today, such comparisons would seem farfetched and misguided, but by avoiding the conventional device of the number opera, while at the same time largely avoiding Wagnerian leitmotifs, it becomes clear that Sekles’s approach to modern opera was individual. His use of obvious ‘orientalism’, meaning augmented intervals, and parallel interval progressions is sparse, but always effective and he often resorts to indicating the exotic through his orchestration. Altogether, I’m reminded of Christopher Hailey’s memorable observation that the search for new musical expression was not always synonymous with a departure from conventional tonality. The work is again placed into the context of fin de siècle sexual neurosis and Herrmann and Meyer inform us that Bassowitz was one of many writers, along with Oscar Wilde and Arthur Schnitzler to push the representation of the exotically erotic to the limit. In the case of Schahrazade, it is the fascination with murdering virgins after their deflowering by the Caliph Shahryar. Bassowitz and Sekles place the words and views of Weininger into the mouth of Shahryar, while allowing Scheherazade to present the voice of humanity.

It’s very difficult to know if revivals of such lost works are of relevance today. Sekles was an important figure in inter-war Germany. Today, he’s remembered as the director in Frankfurt who had the foresight to open a Jazz department at the music academy. His music is largely forgotten. Based on his opera Schahrazade  and the short Serenade for 11 instruments, which according to Herrmann and Meyer offers a miniature of the opera’s sound world, he is certainly a composer who needs to be re-examined with his best works widening the present narrow definitions of 20th Century music.