‘La-La-La!!! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!’
There has been an indecently long gap since my last posting. This was due to a computer crash, travels and deadlines that were made all the more stressful with the loss of important data. But adding to the difficulties has been a sobering reality check with colleagues and associates in Vienna who are nominally entrusted with the city’s ‘cultural heritage’. Vienna, like Prague, New York and Los Angeles has a uniquely Jewish element to its ‘cultural heritage’. The official attitude towards how to deal with the city’s loss of music-centrality following the Nazi years has become a veritable via dolorosa. The points in this depressing history are 1938 when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany; 1943 when the Moscow Declaration proclaimed Austria ‘the first victim’; the 1945 Potsdam conference and the division of Austria into four occupation zones and 1955 with the founding of the Second Republic and its position of neutrality bartered with the understanding that it would deal with specific Austrian de-Nazification and restitution issues.
Accordingly, its first post-war president, Dr. Karl Renner took the un-official/official position that all specifically Jewish restitution petitions would, as far as possibly, ‘be kicked into the long grass’. An appallingly iniquitous process began by which refugees on the other side of the world were threatened with legal action should they try to reclaim what had been stolen from them. In the case of ‘Aryanised’ homes, properties or buildings destroyed in the war, they were informed that they had an unreasonably short period of time in which to clear away the rubble, or face confiscation by the local council. The logic was clear: if it was war-damaged, it was returned under the condition that it be put right within a time-frame that guaranteed confiscation. If it was of value, Jews were threatened if they attempted any degree of restitution. Those who had the courage and the forbearance came back to Austria, and in most cases, could legally have homes and property restored after court battles.
There were numerous cases, however, where restitution did not follow and often with the most mendacious of excuses: When Egon Wellesz tried to regain possession of his Josef Hoffmann villa in Vienna’s prestigious Kaasgraben district, sold for a knock-down price following Austria’s Anschluss, a private letter was produced in which Wellesz instructed his wife to ‘sell up quickly’ as he had a teaching position in England. The court’s verdict was that Wellesz had planned to leave anyway. The Anschluss was apparently incidental to their decision.
Austria then buried its head in the sand of Gemütlichkeit, and with the Soviet withdrawal and founding of the Second Republic, embarked on Dr. Renner’s policies with undisguised enthusiasm. A particular speciality became the exploitation of psychologically damaged families living in new homelands. They sold what possessions they still had in Austria for a pepper-corn in order to cut ties with a country that was too hateful to return to. The Bärental estate of the notorious right-wing politician Jörg Haider was acquired in this manner. The unofficial/offical view was held that restitution was unnecessary since Austria was itself a ‘victim’. The murder of millions was shrugged off as just one of many unpleasant aspects of total war. Why should the industrial scale gassing of Jews be any worse than the industrial scale slaughter of young Austrians at Stalingrad? ‘Unofficial/official’ became a uniquely Austrian concept that allowed Nazi injustices to resolve favourably on the side of Austrian perpetrators by making the process of restitution a Kafkaesque nightmare for Jewish victims.
‘You were the clever one! You got out!’ was the line that greeted returning composers in Vienna post-1945. Friends and relatives were dead or flung to the far corners of the globe. But to post-war Viennese, this was not an experience that could compare with the bombing, forced labour and murder of those who stayed behind. With hindsight, and in light of the sheer numbers murdered in Hitler’s extermination camps, it’s perhaps too easy to forget the losses experienced by the simple man and woman on the street. To them, it genuinely DID look as if Professors Korngold, Gál and Wellesz had made the right decision. Victimhood was comforting and shielded Austrians from responsibility.
When the American television series Holocaust hit Austrian televisions in 1979, it was denounced by the country’s leading papers as ‘a soap opera’. Paradoxically, they criticised what they perceived as a trivialisation of a subject that they, until then, had ignored entirely. I remember as a music mad teenager in the early 1970s, with firm American cultural roots, being astonished that nobody I knew in Vienna’s music academy had the foggiest notion as to who Eric Leinsdorf, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, George Szell or Bruno Walter were. Nor did the names Rudolf Serkin or Lili Kraus resonate to any degree. Oddly, Artur Schnabel did seem to offer a flicker of recognition with music teachers, but hardly as an exponent of Austria’s classical tradition. Schnabel and Serkin (‘whoever he was’) were seemingly not in the same league as Wilhelm Kempff, Wilhelm Backhaus or Edwin Fischer, ironically, none of whom were actually Austrian.
Paradoxically, other quintessentially Viennese artists such as the tenor Richard Tauber or the composer and violinist Fritz Kreisler or composers Emmerich Kálmán and Walter Jurmann, offered the impression of never having ever left. Their many Viennese love-songs were played and broadcast as if the seven year Hitler hiatus had never taken place. Those who offered a cosy image of Gemütlichkeit to the Viennese were taken up with enormous affection and warmth. Marcel Prawy’s popularity was down to the fact that he dismissed with a flick of his hand his position as ‘witness to the past’ anytime he was asked about his own period of exile. At the same time he continued to ‘witness to a past’ that very much suited the Austrian view of themselves. Denial was his meal-ticket and the more he went on about how wonderful his life in New York and Hollywood had been during the Hitler years, the more the Austrians loved him. He openly schmoozed with the widows of Kálmán and Jurmann, or the soprano Martha Eggert, while blissfully ignoring the fact that they continued to keep their primary residence in those countries which offered refuge when they were thrown out in 1938. He never dreamt of publicly asking them why. He passed himself off as a Korngold intimate, but in fact, he is not mentioned a single time in the memoirs of Korngold’s widow Luzi and his letter to Korngold, now lodged at the Library of Congress, conveys the same hint of desperation that any young refugee out of a job must have felt during the early 1940s. He had lost his job with Jan Kiepura and needed work. I mention all of these disparate elements because they constitute the bricks of denial that make up the wall that Austrians built around their conscious, long before any sense of guilt might possibly be allowed to set in.
It explains why Austrian Radio did not wish to cooperate with Decca on its ‘Entartete Musik’ series, despite first releases offering works by Austrian composers. When Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf and Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane came out, they weren’t made available in Austria. Indeed, according to the local PolyGram representative, there was no point, as the dealers ‘wouldn’t take them’. The election of Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president hadn’t helped matters. If anything, Waldheim represented the Prawy view that things weren’t really as bad as everyone made out. The subsequent coalition government between far and centre right resulted in widespread condemnation and EU sanctions against a fellow member-state. The Austrian response was the political equivalent of sticking fingers in ears, closing eyes and singing ‘La-la-la! We can’t HEAR you!!!’ as loudly as possible.
But that was then – what of now? In 2002, the director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum, Dr. Karl Albrecht-Weinberger approached me to compile a list of prominent Jewish musicians banned after 1938 in preparation for a large exhibition on ‘Jews and the Music Metropolis Vienna’. The exhibition was to be called Quasi una fantasia and my list was to be cross-genre and cover everything from the avant-garde of Schoenberg through to film music, hit-songs, dance-band numbers, operetta, Viennese wine-drinking songs, ‘folk’ songs etc. I came up with around seventy-five names and a surprised Dr. Albrecht-Weinberger remarked, ‘I recognise everyone on this list but hadn’t realised they were Austrian or Viennese based.’ He then went on to observe: ‘All things considered, it’s clear that music was the cultural field where Jews made the largest noticeable contribution. How odd that we’ve done so little on this subject until now’. The series of exhibitions on prominent Austrian composers he then initiated, which I curated, raised consciousness and brought the music of Jewish Austrian composers banned after 1938 onto the municipal agenda. The late Barbara Prammer, president of Austria’s Parliament and the second most important politician after the country’s president, saw in the Los Angeles based composer Walter Arlen a living witness to Austria’s loss. Signs of interest began to be expressed by the city’s cultural bodies, though These rarely translated into any concerted effort to re-instate once banned works throughout the country’s music institutions, broadcasters, schools and universities.
Dr. Albrecht-Weinberger and I were absolutely not the first to try and give this subject the prominence it deserved. There had been organisations that battled against enormous odds to restore music lost after 1938. The most significant of these was founded in the mid-1990s and was called the ‘Orpheus Trust’. It even received fairly generous municipal funding along with a much deserved Karl Renner Prize. When funding dried up, the Trust’s director, Dr. Primavera Gruber handed its collection of historic documentation over to Berlin’s Academy of Arts. Only latterly did it dawn on Viennese cultural administrators that they had financed most, if not all of the Trust’s acquisitions. It made them wince to see everything go to Berlin. Dr. Gruber expressed the view that she saw no credible home for such documentation in Austria. As no attempt was made to keep the documentation in Austria or the Trust on-going, it implied that she possibly had a point. Sadly, it resulted in municipal administrators declaring that they would never offer support to such ‘self-appointed music-do-gooders’ again. ExilArte, based at Vienna’s Music University and meant to pick up where the Orpheus Trust had left off, found itself in the financial cold; it too was now dismissed as an organisation of ‘self-appointed music-do-gooders’.
Austrian politicians could point with justifiable pride that they had beaten off tough international competition and acquired the Arnold Schoenberg Center, now housed in one of the City’s vast urban palaces and offering full concert, research, publication, conference and exhibition facilities. It was every scholar and musician’s dream come true. Of all of Vienna’s defamed and exiled personalities, Schoenberg resonated well beyond the confines of music. To many, he was the embodiment of fin de siècle Modernism. Indeed, his ‘Musical Idea’ had transcended music and become the idea of the age. The Centre continues to carry out its programme of returning Schoenberg to his ‘Vaterstadt’. A similar institute exists in Lower Austria, in the Danube town of Krems for Ernst Krenek. Who could deny that these were two ‘movers-and-shakers’ of the 20th century? There are additional foundations that at least exist on paper for Franz Schreker, Egon Wellesz and Alexander Zemlinsky. In addition to these, are the musical estates of the city’s most prominent composers and performers, (excepting Mahler), all housed in Vienna’s eye-popping collections at the Municipal Library, the National Library and the Musikverein on behalf of the private organisation, ‘Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’ (GdM). We ‘self-appointed music-do-gooders’ look very small beer compared with these high-ticket items.
Yet, we’re now in the 21st century and we can observe with hindsight that the promise of Schoenberg’s world has, after more than a century, remained largely unfulfilled. Most of the music composed after 1908 is admired, studied and evaluated as an object of its time. It is only rarely loved. Today it would seem clear that the life-changing sonority promised by Vienna’s Second School resonates considerably less than composers who stuck to more traditional models. Yet for decades, Schoenberg was the barometer against whom all others were judged: Zemlinsky? Schoenberg’s brother in law and composition teacher; Egon Wellesz? One of the original Schoenberg pupils along with Alban Berg and Anton Webern; Franz Schreker? Friend and colleague of Schoenberg – they were the ‘lucky’ ones. Association with Schoenberg offered an immediate credibility even if it rarely – actually, hardly ever – resulted in performances. But then, Schoenberg, apart from a few early works, was also hardly ever performed outside of the confines of his dedicated Centre at Palais Fanto.
Ernst Toch, Erich Zeisl, Karl Weigl, Max Brand and Hans Gál had no audible musical association with Schoenberg. In some cases, such as Schoenberg’s pupil Hanns Eisler, they went to great lengths to distance themselves from what they viewed as a dead-end. The mere mention to the city’s musical arbiters of film composers Erich Korngold or indeed Max Steiner as recently as a decade ago, resulted in embarrassed downward glances and a mumbled acknowledgement that, yes, they too were Viennese, ‘but, they went off to Hollywood and made a lot of money’. Nobody seemed to register the fact that Hollywood was nearly the only practical option left to composers who needed to earn enough money to guarantee affidavits for relatives and friends still stuck in Nazi Europe. The music demanded by the new media of the 21st century has, however, accorded refugee film composers from the ‘30s and ‘40s an influence that leaves Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School contributing little more than a carefully placed pinch of disruptive spice. Nobody begrudges the centres and institutes of Krenek and Schoenberg, but trying to get the rest of Austria’s musical giants re-positioned within the city’s cultural landscape deserves more than dismissal as efforts of ‘self-appointed music do-gooders’.
As music curator, I managed to organise a concert of the music of Walter Arlen at Vienna’s Jewish Museum where it was heard by the great and good of State, City and Federal Republic, including Barbara Prammer. It unveiled to a more open generation of Austrians the scale of the Hitler disaster that had befallen the country’s musical landscape. Nobody, least of all Walter Arlen, would proclaim himself a major voice of the 20th Century. Yet what Arlen highlighted was the even greater loss of secondary illuminations. An environment that produced an ‘officer corps’ of major composers would inevitably produce armies of well-trained musical foot-soldiers. The high degree of amateurism in pre-Hitler Vienna often exceeded what is expected of today’s professionals. Luzi Korngold could stand in as rehearsal pianist for her husband’s works. The same could no doubt be claimed of Alma Mahler and Helene Berg. I’ve lost count of the unfamiliar names of Viennese teachers and coaches who worked in American and British institutions and, it was claimed, could pound out the entire concert and opera repertoire by memory on the piano. Being able to play the piano or take down accurate musical dictation was a means to an end, not an end in itself and in music-obsessed Vienna, it was as much a part of education as reading and writing. Viennese dentists, lawyers and housewives played chamber music in the same way that their Anglo-Saxon peers organised Bridge parties. Most of this was also lost with the watershed of the Anschluss.
With the publication of Forbidden Music, and the establishment of its accompanying Facebook page, the children and grandchildren of many of these extraordinary ‘secondary illuminations’ contacted me. Perusal of their estates proved beyond any doubt that they were essential for an in-depth understanding of Vienna’s 20th century. One of the city’s archives approached me to liaise with families and set en-train what appeared to be a genuine desire to repatriate these informative yet admittedly subsidiary collections. Was Austria waking up and shaking itself free from a delusional post-war view of itself? To some very significant degree, yes. I encountered musicologists and archivists who knew precisely how important these secondary estates were. I do not believe for a moment that Austria continues to be hampered by systemic anti-Semitism and at no time was there even the merest hint that repatriation was not a goal shared by one and all.
What I encountered, however, was in its way almost equally shocking and ultimately just as obstructive. It was systemic ignorance of the scale of Austria’s musical loss. I was astounded to hear the head of one of Vienna’s most important archival libraries say ‘We had NO IDEA there were so many exile Viennese musicians – how can we be expected to accommodate them all?’ It’s a valid question. Efforts have practically ground to a halt. Suggestions from the city’s cultural institutions that wealthy Jews contribute to the costs in extra personnel and digitisation are grotesque. Why should they pay for Austria to bring back what was thrown out in 1938?
On the other hand, Italy doesn’t even pretend to excavate more of ancient Rome than necessary to keep the tourists coming. The Fall of Rome was historically cataclysmic. For music in the past century, the rise of Nazi Germany had nearly the same effect. Without a political decision, it’s impossible to ‘accommodate them all’. At the moment, Austria’s politicians are too busy shouting about all the wonderful things they’ve done already. Yet if even local musicologists, with their countless ‘Herr und Frau Doktor’ and ‘Professor’ titles are left spinning by the scale of loss and the urgency of repatriation, what can we possibly expect from the politicians who control the levers to make such cultural repatriation happen? Rather than acknowledge that a Schoenberg Centre or a Krenek Institute are merely the tip of a very large iceberg, it’s far easier to plug your ears; close eyes and sing ‘LA-LA-LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!’