‘Alien Soil’ and the Slow Death of Karol Rathaus

Karol Rathaus 1895 - 1954

Karol Rathaus 1895 – 1954

Born in Ternopol in 1895 as an Austrian who spoke Polish at home, educated in German, he spoke and wrote the language better than native speakers, as did his fellow Ukrainian/Austrian Poles and close friends, the writers Soma Morgenstern and Joseph Roth or the conductor and fellow Franz Schreker pupil, Jascha Horenstein. Today Ternopol lies in Western Ukraine, and ultimately, Rathaus would make a life in American exile as a teacher at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY). His successes, such as an opera conducted by Erich Kleiber, or orchestral works conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler were in Germany. With shifting borders, falling empires and each decade bringing a new order, he would die, soon forgotten as his musical legacy remained unclaimed by Germany, Austria, Poland, the Ukraine or America. Even his Jewish provenance would be the least important aspect of his make-up, while having the most devastating effect on his destiny. As he wrote in a letter to Jascha Horenstein in 1950: “My problem is that of the ignored independent and individual composer. My name is known, but nobody performs my works. I have no embassies, no consulates that stand behind me – no propaganda machine – in the country where I live very happily, I’m considered a non-native. [My emphasis] I left Europe 12 years ago – if I’m a complete master of my craft or not, is not even something that is questioned here.”

Austria-Hungary at the time of Rathaus's birth

Austria-Hungary at the time of Rathaus’s birth

Most of the biographical information one can glean of this fascinating and complex individual is from Martin Schüssler’s dissertation turned monograph. I have many issues with it as in my opinion, it downplays too much of the political context and often, I believe, draws conclusions that I cannot agree with. Nevertheless, it’s magisterial in scope, with superb musical analysis and unusually for academic papers, written with elegance and unpretentious accessibility. Schüssler has based his research primarily on the musical estate held at Queen’s College CUNY, but was lucky enough to meet a number of people, including family members who knew, worked with or studied under him. I also recall hearing Berthold Goldschmidt speak of Rathaus as a marvellous all-round talent, and how taken everyone was at the precociousness of his piano sonata composed at the time of his studies with Franz Schreker.

[Rathaus Piano Sonata no. 1]

Karol Rathaus was born on the 16th of September in 1895 in Ternopol – a city in East Galicia on the River Sereth. From 14th century until 1772, it was part of Poland, but as a focus of numerous countries, its nationality changed at regular intervals: in 1867 it was part of the Habsburg Empire belonging to the The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. After the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919, it was annexed by Poland. German troops took the city during the Second World War, and afterwards, it was parcelled off to the Ukrainian Republic within the USSR. In private correspondence, Rathaus wrote that Ternopol should be the capital of Western Ukraine, perhaps foreseeing obvious political developments still to come.

Franz Ferdinand greeting Jewish Leaders in Ternopol

Karl, the last Austrian Emperor greeting Jewish Leaders in Ternopol

Ternopol was therefore Austrian in 1895, though its official languages also included Polish and Ukrainian in addition to German. Rathaus’s first language was Polish, but German became his dominant language from early years. His parents were Bernard and Amalie (née Zipper) His grandparents and great grandparents were professional musicians as was one uncle, Chune Wolfsthal, a professional violinist and composer. Rathaus’s father was the city veterinarian, a profession chosen as it lifted the family from poverty. Rathaus had a brother Rudolf, who would become an active Polish nationalist, and a sister named Dora. He began playing piano at the age of six and was soon composing, determined already from his youngest years to become a musician.

Postcard of Ternopol (spelled 'Tarnopol' in German) from 1900

Postcard of Ternopol (spelled ‘Tarnopol’ in German) from 1900

Little is known of early family life with Karol’s father alarmed at the development of a musical ‘Wunderkind’ in the family midst. In his view, musical talent was a potential return to the poverty of the ghetto. He insisted that Karol attend the elite German Academic Gymnasium in preparation for university, though upon completion of his final Matura exams, he agreed to take the 17 year old to Vienna for assessment by professors at Vienna’s Music Academy. They concluded that Rathaus was an unusual and exceptional talent. Bernard agreed Karol could remain in Vienna on the condition that he also studied law.

Location of Music Academy in Vienna in 1912 in the Musikverein to the right in the photo with Künstlerhaus to the left and St Stephen's Cathedral in the background

Location of Music Academy in Vienna in 1912 in the Musikverein to the right in the photo with Künstlerhaus to the left and St Stephen’s Cathedral in the background

Soma Morgenstern, a close personal friend of Rathaus and prominent author recalled “In Vienna, people made such fun of Galicia and threw their hands up in horror at the mere mention of the place, that for many Galicians, it was very difficult to admit to coming from Ternopol.”

Rathaus studied law from 1913 as a condition of his scholarship. He also began his studies at the Music Academy, but proved so advanced that he was released from nearly all secondary subjects. He studied piano with Joseph Hofmann and in the first year completed a full three year programme. He also began to study advanced choral composition and counterpoint with Franz Schreker. Later, Rathaus would model himself on his teacher, whom he described as open to all styles and encouraging musical individuality above everything else. The list of fellow Schreker pupils is impressive: Ernst Krenek, Alois Haba, Julius Bürger, Paul Amadeus Pisk, Ernst Kanitz, Wilhelm Grosz, Max Brand, Jascha Horenstein, Joseph Rosenstock, Felix Petyrek and frankly many more who would represent the cream of Europe’s lost generation of musical talent. Other prominent names such as Berthold Goldschmidt and Ignace Strasfogel would join Schreker’s Berlin class. Schreker was also one of the first important teachers to draw no gender distinction with several talented women also joining his class such as Greta von Zieritz, Zdenka von Ticherich and Charlotte Schlessinger. Two of Rathaus’s closest friends were the conductors Jascha Horenstein and Josef Rosenstock with another important friend and colleague, the pianist Stefan Askenase. Soma Morgenstern was a fellow law student and together with Horenstein, was perhaps Rathaus’s closest friend. All of them were close to the writer of Radetzky March – Joseph Roth, a fellow Austro-Ukrainian from the tiny town of Brody.

Joseph Roth - Author of 'Radetzky March'

Joseph Roth – Author of ‘Radetzky March’

Only the year after starting his studies, Rathaus enlisted in the Austrian army spending the war years as an officer in the cavalry, during which he contracted tuberculosis, a condition that would continue to plague him throughout his life. 1918, he returned to Ternopol and in 1919, he returned to Vienna to study composition, though discontinued his law studies.

Franz Schreker, teacher of Karol Rathaus in Vienna and Berlin

Franz Schreker, teacher of Karol Rathaus in Vienna and Berlin

Schreker facilitated the first performance of a work by Rathaus, with the composer playing his Variations and Fugue on theme by Max Reger op. 1. This was followed by an introduction with his publisher Universal Editions, (UE) for publication of his op. 2 Piano Sonata, premiered by Stefan Askenase in Vienna in 1920. It was well received by press and public with the press in both Vienna and Hamburg commenting on the work’s originality.

Berlin; Music Academy, or Hochschule für Musik, Hardenbergstrasse 1937

Berlin; Music Academy, or Hochschule für Musik, Hardenbergstrasse

Franz Schreker would only accept his appointment as director of Berlin’s Music Academy in 1920 on the condition that the Prussian state paid for his class to follow him from Vienna. The committee in Berlin described the entry examinations of Schreker’s class as representing the highest level the school had ever witnessed, singling out Karol Rathaus for particular praise.

Schreker with students in Berlin

Schreker with students in Berlin

Health and financial issues forced Rathaus to return to Ternopol in the spring of 1921, returning to Berlin in the autumn completing his studies without taking his final examination. Instead, he returned to Vienna and completed a doctorate in history with a dissertation on the ‘Dictatorship of R. Traugutts in the Polish Rebellion of January 1863’. With a completed doctorate, he managed to satisfy parental demands before returning to Ternopol and finally settling in Berlin in October 1922, where he made a living from teaching and advances paid by UE. Rathaus enjoyed Berlin’s notorious nightlife and in particular the city’s varieté theatres. It would be where he would meet his future wife Gertrud Pfefferkorn – known as Gerta or as Gertusia by her friends.

Gerta Rathaus née Pfefferkorn

Gerta Rathaus née Pfefferkorn

Rathaus presumably started his First Symphony as early as 1920. The source material has since been lost. Its two movement are thirty-five minutes long and was finally completed in 1922 and handed over to UE in 1923 with the intention of submitting it to the ISCM – international Society for Contemporary Music – an organisation founded largely by Schoenberg pupils in 1922. It would be another five years before the work would be performed.

(Rathaus Symphony no. 1 – Israel Yinon and the DSO, Berlin)

By the Spring of 1923, hyper-inflation had got the best of Rathaus and he returned first to Ternopol and then Vienna where he remained for the next couple of years while trying to find opportunities of returning permanently to Berlin. Gerta and Karol initially moved to Vienna’s Second District – the so-called Matzos Island where unmarried, they lived separately in two rented rooms. Finding work was not as easy as Rathaus had anticipated. Though Austria was spared the hyper-inflation of Germany, it still suffered terrible economic problems. Rathaus described the city as “alienating” during these years. His teaching paid too little to live on while paying too much for him to compose. It was fashionable at the time to compare Vienna unfavourably with Berlin as the more dynamic counterpart, yet the memoirs of Krenek do not necessarily bare this out and the early 1920s saw Vienna as the preferred home of many progressive composers, Schoenberg until his move to Berlin in 1925, Anton Webern, Krenek, Egon Wellesz and of course Alban Berg. Friends in Vienna at the time included Paul Pisk, Eduard Steuermann and Hanns Eisler along with Soma Morgenstern and Joseph Roth. No doubt theatre and opera, along with café and student life were more dynamic in Berlin. It was also considerably larger and immediately following defeat of Austria in 1918 and the ensuing loss of empire, Vienna was overrun by citizens of the Habsburg crown eager to escape enforced citizenship within one of the many new republics to spring up in place of the Empire.

Refugees arriving in Vienna from the East of the former Empire

Refugees arriving in Vienna from the East of the former Empire

Ternopol would become for Rathaus as something akin to a country escape and he returned often when his tuberculosis would flair up. Correspondence from Berlin unsettled him, with accounts of hardship and hyperinflation. It drove him to question his own value as a composer and to wonder if he should not become more politically engaged. In essence, Rathaus was conciliatory by nature, a feature that was reflected in politics (he never joined a Marxist party despite obvious sympathies) as well as his music. Despite the influence of Schoenberg and his circle, he resisted being sucked in and remained wedded to the idea of a more ‘conciliatory’ style of musical modernism.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg

In any case, Rathaus’s relationship with the Schoenberg circle was fraught. For one thing, he remained unflinchingly loyal to Schreker, despite Schreker’s own admiration for Schoenberg as friend and colleague. Indeed, Schreker was close enough to Schoenberg to help facilitate his move to Berlin, but there were obvious rivalries between the two schools of composition. Though Soma Morgenstern was close to Alban Berg, he was unable to bring Rathaus closer to Schoenbergian ideas. Paradoxically, Rathaus defended both Schoenberg and his theories, seeing twelve-tone composition as “an inevitability”, or at the very least, as an organic departure from tonality. He even went so far as to compare twelve-tone composition as the musical equivalent of splitting the atom: “destructive, but creating a new order from devastation”. Rathaus’s rejection of Schoenberg’s ideas would increase over time.

Soma Morgenstern

Soma Morgenstern

In spite of the first symphony’s continued lack of performance and premiere date, Rathaus had already begun work on his Second Symphony in 1923 which he completed in December of the same year. He described the symphony to Georg Schünemann of Berlin’s Music Academy, as one-movement – approximately thirty minutes long. In this respect, it seems similar to Krenek’s first symphony from 1921 that followed the same idea: a single movement, organic work in two parts but consisting of a single movement. Schünemann managed to have the work premiered as part of the Frankfurt new music festival (Tonkünstlerfest) in a concert conducted by Hermann Scherchen. It was premiered together with Alban Berg’s excerpts from Wozzeck, along with other works on the programme by Busoni and Strauss. The Symphony was not as well received as the Berg, though favourably reviewed by the critics Paul Stefan and Walter Schrenk.

(Opening of Second Symphony, conducted by Israel Yinon and the Frankfurt Brandenburg Orchestra)

The Balloon Seller, 1929 O.R. Schatz - example of New Objectivity

The Balloon Seller, 1929
O.R. Schatz – example of New Objectivity

In any case, the work was part of several that were emerging from Expressionism into a movement that in 1925 would be given the name of “Post-Expressionism: New Objectivity” and would represent an aesthetic movement that dominated German speaking Europe for the remainder of the decade. As early as 1922, Ernst Toch and Paul Hindemith had quartets performed in Donaueschingen’s new music festival that were already betraying a rejection of Expressionistic atonality and a return to structure and sobriety rather than nihilistic escapism.


Poster for the first Exhibition to be labelled ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ or ‘New Objectivity’

New Objectivity was introduced first in Mannheim in 1925 in an art exhibition. The composer Ernst Toch was prominent in Mannheim at the time and no doubt was motivated to translate the aesthetic into music. It was an idea that ran concurrent throughout Germany and it is no surprise that Rathaus and Hindemith along with Krenek and Weill would all respond to it. Unfortunately, the notorious anti-Semitic critic Alfred Heuß referred to Rathaus as “a Balkan composer coming from Zululand” and posed the rhetorical question “what’s happening to German music?” It was a repellent review that deeply wounded Rathaus and led him to withdraw the work feeling that it may damage his future prospects. He had no desire to be seen as a “Scandal-Composer” but wished to explore the possibility of writing new music that could be appreciated by everyone – even pan-German anti-Semites such as Heuß. Despite numerous inquiries and interest shown by many conductors, he never allowed the work to be performed.

Hans Koch by Otto Dix

Hans Koch by Otto Dix

A number of works would come from these unhappy Viennese years including his song cycle op. 6 entitled ‘Ernste Gesänge’ (Serious Songs), followed by his Second Piano Sonata op. 8 probably premiered by Askenase in 1925. More important were his Five Piano Pieces op. 9 which seem to have gained some popularity with a number of pianists of the day such as Eduard Steuermann, Jakob Gimpel and Stefan Askenase. Op. 11 is Six Piano Pieces, originally called Children’s Pieces, though the publisher convinced him that they were too difficult for children and as if to prove the point, they were subsequently taken up by pianist Eduard Steuermann.

Berlin Cabaret audience at the Weiße Maus

Berlin Cabaret audience at the Weiße Maus

Gerta was keen to return to Berlin, which was, after all, her native city and by 1924 Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister had rescued the German economy from its hyperinflation through the implementation of the Dawes Plan. This promised a return to relative normality and encouraged Rathaus to travel on a reconnaissance expedition in search of work. He was offered a job as journalist on Berlin’s Stock Market paper, a paper with conservative editorial perspectives but a progressive arts section with the well-regarded music critic Oscar Bie on staff. Rathaus decided that life as a music critic could only inhibit his ability to compose as it would subject his own works to greater scrutiny and criticism. His ideal was to find a position in a private conservatory that paid a minimum existence wage, but allowed him time to compose. His view of Vienna at the time was “despite the presence of the Schoenberg circle, it’s a city that’s only interested in sensation with artistic standards that are low”. He missed the dynamism of Berlin, and obviously with the city now returning to financial stability, it was a far more interesting place for a young composer.

Jascha Horenstein

Jascha Horenstein

In July of 1925, Rathaus returned to Berlin via Budapest and Ternopol, arriving in September and on the advice of fellow tenant Jascha Horenstein, he took a room at Pension Schmolke near the Music Academy. Despite Gerta’s later recollection that Karol was offered the directorship of the Weimar Music Academy, there is no indication that Rathaus had a job at any institution, despite attempts by Schreker and the Music Academy’s Vice Chancellor Georg Schünemann to find an official teaching post. Despite all attempts from even well connected officials at the Prussian Ministry of Culture, no job was offered, forcing Rathaus to give private lessons while living off of advances begged from his publishers.

Stefan Frankel

Stefan Frankel

[Capriccio by Karol Rathaus – Stefan Frankel vln]

His first sonata for violin and piano op. 14 was performed by his close friend and fellow Berlin pupil, Stefan Frenkel with himself on the piano. It’s dedicated to Walter Schrenk, the critic who along with Paul Stefan had praised his 2nd Symphony. The sonata established itself rather quickly and soon became a regular feature in Frenkel’s recitals as well as those of the violinist Joseph Wolfsthal with pianist Claudio Arrau.

David Friedmann's drawing of Stefan Frankel

David Friedmann’s drawing of Stefan Frankel

Despite attempts by Schreker and Schünemann to persuade Bruno Walter or Erich Kleiber to take on the first symphony, or at least a single movement of the work, it eventually fell to Rathaus’s fellow Schreker pupil Joseph Rosenstock, conductor in Darmstadt. He was convinced by the work and gave its long awaited premiere on January 11th 1926. Rathaus subsequently quoted Stravinsky in describing the reception: “it doesn’t matter what the critics write, as long as they write, write, write. . . “ It would be attacked from all sides and discussed in all sections of the press. Until Rosenstock’s arrivial, Darmstadt had been a bastion of Bruckner and conservatism. Antisemitism was also hinted with one critic noting the “foreign appearance of Rathaus’s supporters”. Even UE’s own in-house magazine could not bring itself to offer a positive review, citing the relation “between material and ideas” as “too wide apart”. In addition to everything else, the work was damned as “modern”, “atonal” and “foreign”. Rathaus was somewhat more resigned to the reaction than he was with the Second Symphony. He had already decided that the First Symphony was a work from his past, and after the performance in Darmstadt, he withdrew it, together with the second symphony. He nevertheless described his First Symphony as a work of “affirmation and newly conceived”. Despite this, over the next 70 years, numerous requests for performances would continue to be rebuffed by UE. Rathaus did not wish to take on the revolutionary mantel of “radical” composer in search of scandal. His genuine desire was to find a conciliatory means of composing new music. He believed that he had failed with both symphonies in the eyes of both the press and public.

Erich Kleiber

Erich Kleiber

Rathaus was still trying to find a means of writing music that was easier for listeners as late as 1925 and started work on his Tanzstücke für Orchester, op. 15. The work obviously made an impression as no less a conductor than Erich Kleiber premiered it in 1926 with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The reviews were mixed, though varied from positive to sharp criticism with hints of antisemitism such as: “German music has deeper roots than displayed by such works as Rathaus’s four Dance Pieces for orchestra”. It was a veiled reference to the ‘un-German’ provenance of Jewish composers and was frequently used when writing about Schoenberg and his school. Though the Tanzstücke were damned as “dissonant” and “atonal” they were praised by the highly regarded critic Adolf Weißmann. One of the reasons for the less than overwhelming reception may have been the work’s original title of Orchestral Suite. By calling it Dance Pieces for Orchestra, it implied rhythmic movement absent from the individual numbers. Negative reviews however continued to pour in from the conservative, often antisemitic press. With attacks on his two symphonies and his relatively harmless Tanzstücke, he had become, despite all attempts to the contrary, a “scandal composer”, exactly that which he had wished to avoid.

Cartoon of 'Skandalkonzert' at the Musikverein in 1913

Cartoon of ‘Skandalkonzert’ at the Musikverein in 1913

Further attempts at conciliation would be his op. 17 Concertino for Piano which is given the key signature of C major. Not since his second piano sonata had he bothered to give any work a key signature. After sending it to UE for publication, he requested its return, deciding that it was fundamentally flawed. It still appears to have made it to performance (though not published ) with pianist Frank Osborn with conductor Jascha Horenstein. Not only that, but it also appears to have been received by both public and press positively. The press referred to it as “restrained modernism – interesting and colourful”. Osborn kept the Concertino in his repertoire, performing it on a number of occasions. Rathaus remained indifferent to its appeal, and never permitted its publication. He was particularly peeved when Max Marschalk, the principal critic of the Vossische Zeitung, Berlin’s paper of record, gave it a positive review. It would later be lost along with most of Rathaus’s European legacy during London’s bombing raids.

Havemann String Quartet

Havemann String Quartet

Rathaus’s Second Quartet also enjoyed a history of peaks and troughs: Gustav Havemann wanted to perform it and Rathaus sent the score to UE so that parts could be written out. He had already decided that the work should not be published. The Schoenberg pupil, Erwin Stein, working as an editor at UE, assumed Rathaus had submitted it for publication and recommended that it be rejected. In fact, Havemann’s quartet performed the op. 18 Quartet with considerable success, allowing Rathaus a degree of Schadenfreude. Sadly, it too would be lost to the Nazi bombs falling on London. But that was still in the future. By Christmas 1926 Rathaus had five private pupils, and could keep his promise to marry Gerta.

Advertisement for 'Der Letzte Pierrot'

Advertisement for ‘Der Letzte Pierrot’

Rathaus had been looking at composing an opera, so it is somewhat paradoxical that his break-through came with a ballet. In 1926, he showed Der letzte Pierrot – the Last Pierrot to Erich Kleiber, music director of the Staatsoper in Berlin and the conductor of his Dance Pieces. Kleiber felt the work strong enough to take on to the State Opera’s schedule and unofficially confirmed it for the coming season. Max Terpis, who along with Mary Wigman, was an early proponent of modern ballet, took on the role of Pierrot and worked together with Rathaus on the storyline, though Rathaus always claimed to have been sole author and Terpis never claimed otherwise. As head of the State Opera’s ballet, he was a well-known figure and had far more draw than the relatívely unknown Rathaus. Still, confusion remained and Rathaus would frequently find himself not mentioned in future performances of the work, with at best, the occasional mention of his role as composer for Terpis’s ballet. If ever there was documentation regarding the development of the work, it too was probably lost to war time bombing. With its acceptance by both Kleiber and Terpis for Germany’s premiere house, Rathaus had finally entered the top rank of young-generation composers.


Act 1:

The stage opens with a romantic landscape featuring ruins, a lake and forests – a summer night and Pierrot asleep in the moonlight. A ‘Strange Man’ appears – a mixture of demon and playboy – “an unwholesome gentleman, but not without charm”. He spots the sleeping Pierrot and appears to come up with an idea and wakes him up. Pierrot is delighted to find himself in such pleasant surroundings and dances a sentimental waltz full of yearning for his lost Columbine. Unnoticed, the Strange Man follows Pierrot and lifts a curtain on the left of the stage to show a landscape full of factory chimneys and towers with sirens sounding over the music. Pierrot is confronted by armies of men and women heading for their work at the conveyor belts within the factory – he believes one of the working women to be his missing Columbine and tries to find her by speaking to the girls heading for the factories. They’re taken aback by his peculiar appearance and strange nature while the men become aggressive. Just as things look as if they’re getting out of hand, the ‘Strange Man’ sets off the sirens that call everyone to work.

(extract from Act 1 of Der letzte Pierrot)


Act 2:

Pierrot finds a modern young woman in a ballroom and believes she may be his Columbine – she’s more amused than alarmed and eggs him on. His dance becomes more and more grotesque and orgiastic until the hall is filled with men. Pierrot suddenly notices he’s being laughed at and another curtain is raised to reveal a jazz combo and a room full of stylish young people. Pierrot is made aware of the fact that he can never be part of this society and is taken away by the ‘Strange Man’

(Start of Act 2 of der letzte Pierrot)


Act 3:

Wax museum (Panopticon) The ‘Strange Man’ shows Pierrot a room full of papier-mâché dolls and/or wax figures. Pierrot finally finds his Columbine, but discovers that she’s also only made of papier-mâché – the ‘Strange Man’ brings her to life and Pierrot and Colombine dance together before the ‘Strange Man’ changes her back into a doll. Pierrot runs around trying to find her again and finally opens a box where he finds himself as a doll. Self-realisation leads to him breaking down and the ‘Strange Man’ changes Pierrot into a doll who mechanically now enters his box, becoming another figure in the panopticon.

(act 3 extract from der letzte Pierrot)

Max Terpis as Pierrot

Max Terpis as Pierrot

The figures of Pierrot and Columbine are taken from the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’arte and as such, Rathaus wished to contrast the conflicts of old and new worlds.


In his article Jazzdämmerung –The Twilight of Jazz, Rathaus states that America has usurped the origins of jazz and Europeanised it. He cites George Gershwin and the popular (at the time) Paul Whiteman Band as prime instigators of “cultural larceny”. Basically, he makes the argument that White Europeans have stolen and Europeanised Black music. It is in this context that he explains the means by which he incorporated jazz elements into his ballet.

Georg Szell in the 1940s

Georg Szell in the 1940s

The publisher, UE was unprepared to start preparation of orchestra material or a piano score until it received official notice that the performances would actually take place. By the time the State Opera confirmed, there was little time left and material was not delivered until the final weeks prior to opening, leaving Rathaus to prepare the piano score himself. Nor did UE publicize the event much to Rathaus’s frustration. Things seemed headed in the wrong direction when Kleiber had to pull out, leaving the premiere to be conducted by Georg Szell. Nevertheless, the opening was an enormous success, such as Rathaus had never before experienced. It led to him becoming a major figure on the German music scene. Hans Heinsheimer from UE, who had irritated Rathaus with his continuous doubts, (leading to many works not being submitted for publication) was honest enough to congratulate Rathaus on the success, while adding that in all truth, he had not expected it.

Otto Dix - Sylvia von Harden

Otto Dix – Sylvia von Harden

Pierrot had entered Berlin’s contemporary theatrical debates joining coffee house conversations about the latest works of Brecht, Piscator or the Yiddish Theatre group ‘Habima’. Gerta recalls friendships with Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau , Lotte Lenya – whom she personally disliked – Carl Zuckmayer, Alfred Döblin, Bruno Frank, Erwin Piscator, Ernst Hermann Meyer, Vladimir Vogel. Rathaus was moving in high-profile left-wing circles, (information about which, might have compromised him later during the Communist ‘witch hunts’ in the United States). In any case, both Rathaus and Vogel were elected as Berlin’s delegates to the International Society for Contemporary Music, (ISCM), headed by Arthur Schnabel. Rathaus’s younger brother Rudolf also relocated to Berlin and broadened Karol’s political contacts. He was, unlike Karol, a passionate Polish nationalist. In 1929, Gerta and Karol had a son whom they named Bernhard (called Bernt) after Rathaus’s recently deceased father.

Karol Rathaus at the time of Pierrot

Karol Rathaus at the time of Pierrot

In some of the published articles written by Rathaus during this period, it’s possible to deduce Rathaus’s musical and political values. He admired the seriousness of Schoenberg’s circle while feeling it irresponsible not to acknowledge political and social responsibilities. He polemicized against composers who only wrote to please the public and was particularly dismissive of composers who held to the aesthetic idea of ‘New Objectivity’. It’s a striking paradox as so many of his critics would see him as a leading light in the ‘Neusachlich’ or ‘New Objectivity’ movement. He sets out his point of departure with the argument that New Objectivity sees “the note, not the sound as the fundament of musical material” while acknowledging the need for order after the chaos of pre-war Expressionism. How this order was to be achieved remained unclear and in Rathaus’s opinion, only Schoenberg had developed anything plausible, though interestingly, it was not a path that he chose to follow.

Wilhelm Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler

In March 1928, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted Rathaus’s op. 22 which originally carried the title ‘Music for Theater’ with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was retitled Ouverture für großes Orchester – Overture for a large Orchestra and was well received by the public and press and indicated in a note by Walter Schrenk – one of the few admirers of his Second Symphony – that Rathaus was undergoing a stylistic metamorphosis, perhaps searching for a synthesis between the expressive capabilities of tonality and atonality.

(Suite op. 27 in its Arrangement for violin and piano, First Movement: David Fruehwirth Fruhwirth, violin; Henri Sigfridsson, piano)

Rathaus’s Op. 27 Suite for Violin and Piano or Violin and Small Orchestra was performed by Stefan Frenkel together with Michael Taube’s chamber orchestra for a concert on 23rd November 1929. Again the work enjoyed a successful reception with Alfred Einstein writing that “Karol Rathaus now joined the new music generation of composers as a true individualist. He imposes no programme but is a victim of his own ability to take him into his own direction – as such, he’s a truly vibrant musician. .. “ The suite too would suddenly start making successful concert rounds including Fritz Busch and the Dresden Staatskapella, with further performances in Vienna, Munich, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Prague, Amsterdam, Luxemburg and Königsberg (today Kaliningrad)

(Suite op. 27 in its Arrangement for violin and piano, second Movement: David Fruehwirth Fruhwirth, violin; Henri Sigfridsson, piano)

Another successful work at this time was his Orchestral Suite op. 29, performed at the ISCM Festival in Liège and conducted by Hermann Scherchen who had also conducted Rathaus’s Second Symphony. Reviews were generous though not necessarily ecstatic. It too was a synthesis of atonality and tonality with movements switching from one to the other, or even changing from tonality to atonality within movements.

(Karol Rathaus Sonata No.3)

Rathaus had an unexpected success with his Third Piano Sonata, op. 20, composed in 1927 and a work UE was initially reluctant to publish, though its premiere by Bruno Eisner was well reviewed and latterly taken up by Walter Gieseking who maintained the work in his repertoire, even performing it in New York, where it was unexpectedly well reviewed by the conservative critic Olin Downes. It was subsequently taken up by a number of other pianists including Julius Epstein, Leopold Münzer and Emanuel Steuermann.

 (Sonata for Clarinet and Piano op. 21)

Ship to Chile

Fremde Erde – Alien Soil: his “Problem Child” Opera

Following the success of Pierrot, Rathaus relayed to UE Kleiber’s view that he was a natural composer of the theatre, along with a suggestion that he write an opera. The publishers knew that an opera was not only capable of greater international resonance but also capable of earning far larger sums. Their initial reaction was to persuade him to collaborate with Kurt Weill’s librettist Georg Kaiser, with him he collaborated when not working with Brecht and failing that, Karl Michael Freiherr von Lewetzov, an eccentric aristocratic poet whom UE had successfully teamed up with Hans Gál. Rathaus requested Bela Balász, librettist for Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle – sadly, without success. The world needed new libretti and UE was more aware than most that texts were not keeping up with the time. They submitted a text by Kamilla Pallfy-Waniek to Rathaus as early as 1927, though she would go on to win the UE libretto competition with a text called Film am Sonnenhügel – Movie on Sunhill. Palffy-Waniek’s text for Rathaus was Fremde Erde, and appeared to be exactly what he had been looking for.

Score front

Rathaus’s Fremde Erde – text by Palffy-Waniek

Lean Branchista: Soprano

Arankan: Tenor

Estaban: Tenor

Semjin: Baritone

Guranoff: Bass

Anschutka: Alto

Rosenberg: Tenor


Lithuanian Miners

Lithuanian Miners

Semjin, a young Lithuanian with Anschutka, his fiancée and her father Guranoff along with Arankan and Tschechow (two fellow Lithuanians) are on a ship travelling to the new world and dreaming of striking it rich. Lithuania was a country of windy moors, rain and poverty. On the ship they meet Rosenberg (probably meant as an anti-Semitic parody) who is looking for mine workers in the South American Desert, owned by Lean Branchista, also a passenger on the ship. As nobody survives the mines for more than a couple of months, he can offer fabulous sums of money in the knoweldge that it will never have to be paid. Lean notices Semjin and takes a shine to him telling Rosenberg to offer whatever necessary to get him to agree. Semjin insists that work is also provided for all of the Lithuanians along with Anschutka and Guranoff. Lean agrees and as she walks away, her dress catches on a nail and leaves a bit of fabric which Semjin picks up, and holds as a symbol of this new ‘Fremde Erde’ (Alien World or Strange Earth or Alien Soil – all possible Translations) to which they are heading.

(extract from act 1: Herr Rosenberg looks for workers below deck, offering incredible amounts of money, knowing nobody surives long enough to be paid  – private recording of poor quality from Bielefeld Opera 1991)


Act 2: in Lean’s palatial farm house in the desert; people are dying of thirst and fever and Estaban, the foreman, makes it clear that the mines are in constant need of new workers since nobody lives more than a few months. Saltpetre mines have made Lean Branchista the richest woman in her country, a mythical place called ‘Chileranducha’. Estaban has his eyes on her, but she’s unresponsive and finds an excuse to have Semjin brought to her house. Estaban tells her that Semjin has been causing trouble among the other workers and has organised their return to Lithuania. Lean bribes Semjin with a pair of horses and they become lovers. He gives Lean the piece of fabric that he’s been holding since picking it off the nail on the ship. The others, including Anschutka, feel utterly betrayed.

(Anschutka has been given a domestic position at Lean’s ranch, and sings to the others about rain, something unknown in Chileranducha – the aria offers an example of orchestral word painting (pardon the extreme poor quality of private recording from Bielefeld))


Act 3: A few months later and Semjin’s plans to bring Lean to the mines where she can see for herself the conditions of the workers. They arrive just as another miner is being buried. Arankan has been secretly stealing precious stones from the mine with which to pay for passage back to Lithuania and has most of the workers on side. Lean is outraged at being tricked into being shown the conditions at her mines and furious at having to watch a burial. She sings an aria that could have been taken from Mein Kampf, about only the strongest surviving the laws of the jungle. While she’s singing, the Lithuanians steal the horses and escape. She orders Estaban to rescue her, while Semjin tries to fight him off. Lean tells the miners to save Estaban from Semjin and when they refuse, she throws money at them. Before they can kill Semjin, she orders him to get out of her sight before ordering Estaban to take her back to her ranch.

(When Lean is confronted with the conditions of her mines she turns on Semjin: “You bore me…what do I care if the weak are devoured by the strong?” She goes on to sing an aria the text of which could have come straight from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The choice by Rathaus and Palffy-Waniek would not have been unintentional)

Docks and Manhattan

(The Prelude to Act 4 – hated by conservative critics, admired by progressives. Poor recording (private) of an only (at best), adequate performance from Bielefeld 1991)

Act 4: Skyline of New York – Semjin has made it to Manhattan and is on the verge of killing himself when he notices a ship heading back to Hamburg with places still available. He rushes to the docks where he finds Anschutka near death with the tropical fever she caught in Chileranducha. Her father has a job working on the docks, but they live outdoors and keep hoping that someone will let them board without papers and money – She dies in Semjin’s arms believing they’re back in Lithuania. The police are called and her body is unceremoniously taken away. Guranoff wants nothing to do with Semjin and at that moment, Rosenberg turns up looking for more workers and tells Semjin things will be easier without the girl around his neck. The last line of the opera is Semjin telling Rosenberg: “Give me a job this time that kills me quickly”.

(End of the opera as Anschutka dies in Semjin’s arms, she’s taken away and Rosenberg appears telling him he can get work now without the girl. He departs with Rosenberg to the Sound of Yankee Doodle played on an out-of-tune accordian)

Staatsoper Berlin - State Opera of Berlin

Staatsoper Berlin – State Opera of Berlin

UE paid Rathaus a monthly stipend in order to allow him to work under the assumption that with a commission from Erich Kleiber, he would have a reasonable success with the opera. Kleiber’s triumph with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925 meant he enjoyed enormous credibility. Rathaus completed work on the opera in September 1928 and completed the scoring in March 1929. After a good deal of lengthy horse trading between Kleiber, the State Opera and UE, it finally had its opening performance on December 10th, 1930.

Photo in NY Times of Emil Pirchan set

Photo in NY Times of Emil Pirchan set

The premiere was given the highest priority within the Staatsoper with the ensemble’s principal singers in all roles and no expense spared on scenery and production which were designed by Emil Pirchan . The public clearly enjoyed the evening with many curtain calls and bravo shouts for the creative and performance teams. The press reaction in the establishment and conservative papers, however, was devastating. In the Vossische Zeitung Max Marschalk declared the opera “a total failure”. Hugo Leichtentritt, who would ordinarily have been sympathetic, simply dismissed the work “as having missed it mark”. Heinrich Strobl in Melos, Schott’s answer to UE’s Anbruch wrote that “the opera was prepared to be a hit, but instead it’s a miss”. The Berliner Zeitung described Fremde Erde as “boring, occasionally unintentionally amusing when things got too melodramatic”. The Stock Market Journal reported that “the work is a milestone, and as a result, should be left by the side of the road.” There were also positive reviews in Anbruch and the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, where Walter Schrenk disputes nearly every point made by Marschalk.


Later Rathaus would write Heinsheimer “Fremde Erde – my opera was my problem child and cannot be counted as a success. Yet the more distance that lies between its premiere the more I can see what injustice was done to it and in this case, I believe totally in the future – the opera will have its renaissance – but it’s also clear that should there be interest in an immediate revival, I’ll make both text and musical changes.” At least Soma Morgenstern reports that Joseph Roth was deeply moved by the story and felt it to be a masterpiece – he also goes on to write that Joseph Roth rarely if ever went to the opera, having no ear for music. Nevertheless, the story of the Eastern European family driven by circumstance to the New World touched him deeply and he apparently wept throughout.

Habima Theatre Production of the Dybbuk

Habima Theatre Production of the Dybbuk

Future opera plans would come to nothing: Heinsheimer tried to interest Rathaus in composing a ‘Grotestque’ – a popular operatic genre that was cheaper to mount and with public funding cuts from 1930, costs were now an important factor. Later, while attending Uriel Acosta, a play mounted by the Jewish Cultural League in 1935 with accompanying music by Rathaus, Morgenstern tried to interest him in Dybbuk, but apparently Wilhelm Grosz had already acquired the rights. In American exile in the 1950s, Rathaus continued to toy with the idea of a new opera, but as in the late 1920s, he couldn’t reconcile his own musical ideas with a suitable dramatic concept. Fremde Erde remains his only opera.

der Brave Soldat Schwejk The Good Soldier Svejk

der Brave Soldat Schwejk
The Good Soldier Svejk

During the 1920s, Karol Rathaus received numerous commissions for incidental theatre music – the first of which was for The Good Soldier Schweyk by Jaroslav Hašek. The performances opened in Dusseldorf in January 1928, though the music is now lost. This was followed by Sergei Tretiakov’s China Howling in November 1929 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The premiere took place in Frankfurt in another production without Rathaus’s score and plans were dropped in Berlin. The music was performed separately in a concert in Dortmund – however, without any particular resonance. This was followed by a guest appearance at Max Reinhardt’s theater at Nollendorfplatz of a dramatic version of Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, directed by Alexis Granovski, head of Moscow’s Jewish Theatre, with characters based on figures by George Grosz. UE asked to publish the music after reading good notices in the press and information coming via third parties. Rathaus replied that he thought the score too inconsequential for publication and it too was probably part of material lost in the London bombing. Other significant stage scores were for the play Uriel Acosta, Alfred Döblin’s The Marriage and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the success of the Brecht/ Weill Happy End with The Luck of the Filibuster by Kurt Heuser.

Berlin 1928 Alexanderplatz

Berlin 1928  Alexanderplatz

Alfred Döblin, today remembered primarily as the author of Berlin – Alexanderplatz was author of Die Ehe – The Marriage, premiered in November 1930 in Munich. It ran for a month in front of sold-out houses before being shut down for promoting ‘Communist propaganda’ It’s subsequent move to Berlin saw it in a production with Ernst Busch in the lead, (who together with Hanns Eisler was the progenitor of musical agitprop during this time in Berlin), with sets by Caspar Neher, one of Berlin’s best known designers. The music was conducted by Theo Mackeben who had conducted the premiere of Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera. As in Munich, it was popular and sold out with the public, while much of the conservative press was highly critical. UE was very pleased to hear about the music, which Rathaus described as very ‘folksy’ – also a criticism levelled by Berlin’s leading Theatre critic Alfred Kerr. Except for its enforced closure in Munich, it ran with great success in Leipzig and Berlin, opening in Berlin several months before the premiere of Fremde Erde. The play – in its printed version informs us that music “is not an optional extra, but mandatory”. It was be both diegetic as well as songs and links between scenes. As Döblin already planned the play with music, Rathaus referred to the work in a letter to UE as “a new means of theatre and music”. The play is a play within a play with the workers of the theatre taking over the narrative and a number of freely conceived agitprop Scenes that follow. The music is simple and relatively utilitarian. It’s divided into three parts: Young Marriage – the Big Family – Bourgeois Marriage. The press began referring to Döblin/Rathaus in a similar manner as Brecht/Weill, not something welcomed by Rathaus who had doubts about Döblin and in any case had not worked as closely with him as Weill with Brecht. UE received countless requests for a concert suite which Rathaus declined to provide, feeling the music too thin. His most lasting stage music would be for Uriel Acosta.


Uriel Acosta

Jascha Horenstein conducts large orchestral Version of Jewish Dance from Uriel Acosta

Karl Gutzkov’s play based on a fictional love story from the life of Uriel Acosta, (1585-1640), a Portuguese sceptic who challenged ritualised Jewish life in Amsterdam. It was directed by Granovski at the Habima Ensemble in Berlin. According to Gerta, it was a play and a production that unlike The Marriage, totally fascinated and engaged Rathaus. The extremely well received premiere took place on September 24th 1930 at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz. By 1931, many members of Habima were living in Palestine and the Ensemble toured the work throughout Europe with a run of over 200 performances in Palestine. There were originally eleven numbers from Uriel Acosta, from which Rathaus took four for a concert suite for small orchestra. The premiere of the suite took place at the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Berlin conducted by Joseph Rosenstock on March 4th 1935. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was an organisation for Jews and run by Jews under Nazi supervision. It was meant to allow Jews to have their own music and theatrical performances following their exclusion from all public events. The head of the Kulturbund, Dr. Kurt Singer perished in a Nazi concentration camp. For some reason, the score of the play was not offered to UE but to Benno Balan in Berlin (later Pro Musica Paris) in 1932 with the suite being placed with the same publisher in 1936. After the war, Rathaus tried unsuccessfully to reacquire the rights from Balan’s widow. All of the conductors, above all Horenstein, who took on the work, complained about the poor editorial quality and number of print-errors in the score and orchestral parts. Benno Balan’s obstinacy resulting in Rathaus re-scoring the suite for large orchestra, which is the version heard today.

Entry into Film Music

The First of Rathaus's Major film scores

The First of Rathaus’s Major film scores

Hans von Passavant approached Rathaus about writing music for film in a meeting in September 1930. It was a time when Rathaus’s name was riding high with successful theatres behind him and his opera Fremde Erde about to be performed at Berlin’s State Opera. He was initially dismissive, though correspondence with Alfred Kalmus at UE resulted in a rethink. Kalmus reminded him of the press coverage a film would provide which far outstripped anything publishers could offer. In addition, as Rathaus mused, he was, to his knowledge, the first ‘serious’ composer approached to score a German film. (long before Korngold, Toch or any of the other ‘Hollywood émigrés) Karamazov – or in German Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff – was a film that freely adapted extracts from Dostoevsky’s novel: Dimitri needs to buy his freedom from the army in order to marry Katja and races home to his wealthy father, whom he discovers is about to marry a much younger girl, Gruschenka, in whom Dimitri also falls in love. He plans to murder his father when he discovers the plan to give his money to Gruschenka and ignores the fact that Katja has already found the necessary funds to buy his freedom. He’s unable to carry out his plan and flees the scene where the murder was intended. Gruschenka, however, appears to have fled the scene as well and travelled to Poland where she has a former lover with whom she wants to be reunited. Dimitri follows her but is arrested for the murder of his father. From his brother, he learns that their servant Smerdiakov murdered their father and taken the money intended for Gruschenka, but when arrested had hanged himself. In the bag of money was a letter from Dimitri informing Gruschenka of his plan. It incriminates him and he’s found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit. The final scene is Dimitri being exiled to Siberia and Gruschenka resolves to join him. The film was directed by Moscow born Fjodor Ozep who had made a name for himself with a film called The Living Dead Body – der lebende Leichnam. Rathaus worked closely together with Ozep during the actual shoot. Ozep described his thoughts on music and film in the press-conference preceding the premiere when he stated that music, effects and speech needed to be stylised and not kept naturalised as in the theatre. In fact, he saw music playing a major role in film and felt dialogue should move more towards the background. For these reasons, he points out, he engaged a composer of serious music for the express purpose supplying the music for Karamasoff. Incredibly, instead of music being synchronised to the film, the film was shot to fit Rathaus’s music. It also elevates the film to a unique position in history by basing the narrative engine on the music rather than the visual – thus turning the film into a true ‘Musical’ experience. The score of the film has not survived, meaning music would need transcribing directly for future performances.


[The Brothers Karamazov – or in German: Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff ]

Granovski was shooting Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. – the Suitcases of Mr O.F. for Tobis-Studios and having already collaborated with Rathaus on several theatre projects invited him to join the production team. The script is by Granovski and Leo Lania and is a satire on solving the stock market crash with digs at provincial busy-bodies and overbearing Big City self-importance. It stars Peter Lorre, Harold Paulson, Emil Heyse and Alfred Abel. Though Rathaus’s relationship with Granovski was not as close as it had been with Ozep, the film’s 75 minutes of running-time offers 60 minutes of music, using the Lewis Ruth Jazz band (actually Kapella Ludwig Rüth) along with Rathaus’s settings of Erich Kästner texts.


There are quite a few closed musical numbers, hit songs and dance numbers. If the film was criticised for being too close to the bone for the establishment’s liking, the music was much praised and individual numbers printed as sold separately or as arrangements.

Koffer des Herrn O.F.

In a letter to Heinsheimer, Rathaus complains that David Golder bullied him into collaborating on a Duvivier movie. He hoped he would be wrong about Golder, but basically thought him “a schlemiel”. Rathaus had spent much of 1931 and 1932 working on the French version of Karamasoff – an opportunity to get to know and love the city and it is here that he was brought together with Julien Duvivier.

Hallo ici paris_berlin

The story is of mixed up lovers and can best be understood as a modern take on Cosi fan tutte incorporating similar hit-songs and dance numbers to the Suitcases of Mr. O.F. One of the interesting features of the film is that it was prepared simultaneously for both French and German distribution. The plot of the film revolves around a couple who work on telephone exchanges in Paris and Berlin and only know each other via the telephone. The film used both languages and subtitles where necessary and in France, it was distributed under the title Allo, Berlin, ici Paris – It was opened in November 1932 and its Gallic humour and irony was much appreciated by the German press with Rathaus’s music overwhelmingly well reviewed. Rathaus did not like the film, did not like working with Golder and was happy to have it over and done with. UE was annoyed as he had handed the piano arrangement and other rights to Bohême Publishing which cooperated with UE on The Suitcases of Mr. O.F. but had been granted sole rights for Hallo! Hallo! Hier spricht Berlin! Rathaus defended himself by saying he had understood that Bohême had struck a deal with UE before he agreed to let them take on the rights. In any case, Bohême was unable to print the hit numbers in time to coincide with the opening of the film, losing financial opportunities for everyone. Only in 1933 did the individual hits Ô Paris and the tango Je rêve de toi come out in a Salabert edition.

Mirages de Paris 1932

Mirages de Paris 1932

An aborted film called Großstadtnacht – Night in the Big City was eventually produced under the title Mirages de Paris though without as much cooperation as Rathaus had initially indicated. It was based on a concept put together by Ozep and Victor Trivas. Rathaus was allowed artistic input in Karamasoff that resulted in him being led down a slightly misguided path. Even if, for the first time in his life, he was being offered high fees, he found little time for serious composition. Initially he believed that film work would facilitate is ability to write ‘absolute music’. The truth was the opposite: the more successful he became, the more film work he was offered and the less time he had for his own compositions.

Songs from Mirage

The advent of film music presented entirely new challenges for UE – an opera paid royalties with each performance whereas a film was shown countless times without any publisher royalties paid and the composer offered a one-off fee. In such unfamiliar territory, UE decided to try and promote Rathaus as their house film composer. This bothered him and he made his position clear to UE. In addition, the perceived lack of success of Fremde Erde only hardened his resistance to “writing good music for bad movies”. UE’s Alfred Kalmus wrote to Rathaus suggesting that in light of earning far more as a film composer – none of the income coming to UE – and given the fact that he still owed the publishers 4900 Reich Marks for un-recouped advances, it was perhaps time for composer and publisher to go separate ways. Rathaus returned to Vienna and an amicable contract was negotiated in which the publisher expressed the hope and intention that Rathaus would compose a new opera during the upcoming period. In any event, the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany and 1938 annexation of Austria meant nothing would come of their new relationship. UE was 100% Jewish owned and run and nearly all of UE’s most important composers would be banned.

One of many collections of workers' songs - highly profitable for publishers in the 1930s

One of many collections of workers’ songs – highly profitable for publishers in the 1930s

During the periods Rathaus was composing film music 1931 – 1933, he managed to write a number of other works as well – none was truly significant. His Vier Arbeiterlieder – Four Songs for Workers include an extract from his Döblin play The Marriage. It was published by UE as op. 33 in 1931. In fact, UE had started publishing Workers’ Songs in various volumes, having noticed their commercial popularity.

les aventures du roi pausole

Alexis Granovski had relocated to Paris and was enchanted by a hit contemporary operetta with music by Eric Honegger that was enjoying a successful run at Théatre des Bouffes-Parisiens. His original intention was to film the operetta with the original Honegger score arranged for the film by Jacques Ibert. On reflection, he decided that he wanted to change so much of the material that he contacted Rathaus instead. He offered Rathaus one of his highest fees, but then drove him to distraction with time demands. The film was presumed to be successful and UE was eager to release piano-vocal arrangements of the hit numbers. The song texts for the film were by Walter Mehring, a popular cabaret poet, but unavailable to UE for various copyright reasons. Heinsheimer supplied similar texts under a pseudonym so the numbers could go into print in time for release of the film. It was a success in France, but less so in Austria and its 1933 release meant it would banned in Nazi Germany. The film is about King Pausole who lives on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s on no map as “a happy population needs no history, and if you don’t have a history, you don’t need any geography either.” The King has 365 wives and the place is ruled by the police chief named Taxis and the harem of one wife for each day of the year, supervised by a stern governess. The pilot Giulio lands his plane there by accident and ultimately falls in the love with the king’s daughter.

Rathaus and Bernt 1933

Rathaus and Bernt 1933

Until the end of 1932, Rathaus commuted between Paris and Berlin, still seeing Berlin as the centre of his serious musical life. Indeed, it seemed that the more successful Rathaus became with music for stage and film, the more ambitious he was to be recognised as a composer of ‘absolute’ music. It was becoming increasingly clear that Germany was in danger of being taken over by a government in coalition with Hitler. Rathaus would have been aware of the antisemitic shenanigans that removed his teacher Franz Schreker as Director of Berlin’s Music Academy. Following a Goebbels’ broadcast in late 1932, Karol and Gerta decided to leave Berlin while they could, and relocated to Paris.

Hitler during election campaign in 1932

Hitler during election campaign in 1932

A telling event that may have played a role in their decision: Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic’s planned premiere of Rathaus’s Serenade for Orchestra op. 35 was being continuously postponed and in a letter from Furtwängler , it’s indacted that political pressure had been put onto Furtwängler not to premiere a work by a Jewish composer, and certainly not a Jewish composer who had written music for such conspicuously left-wing theatricals as the opera Fremde Erde and Döblin’s The Marriage. In the event, Eugene Jochum and the Berlin contingent of the ISCM performed the work on the 6th of January – three weeks before Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. It was the last premiere of a Rathaus work in Germany. The Serenade was well received and performed again in the Soviet Union (Moscow), Belgium, America and England. The final move from Berlin to Paris was not made until the end of 1933 when events indeed indicated that draconian measures taken by the NSDAP were intended to be permanent. As an Austrian citizen, he had no difficulties relocating to France. The flow of German political refugees in 1933 was largely welcomed by the French as long as they came with documentation guaranteeing sufficient prospects and finances. This was obviously not a problem for Rathaus, though during the course of 1934, the attitude began to alter alarmingly. Arriving in Paris, the Rathaus family was reunited with old friends such as Soma Morgenstern and Joseph Roth.

Hitler and Hindenburg 1933

Hitler and Hindenburg 1933

Ozep was intent on having Rathaus collaborate on a film version of Anna Karenina. With every indication that the film would not be taken for distribution in Nazi Germany, it was deemed financially insecure and the project was dropped. In correspondence with Heinsheimer, it is obvious that only Germany provided a feasible place for Rathaus’s serious compositions: “I’ve always aspired towards straightforward, (despite countless diversions) rationally spiritual principals in life and art (. . . .) All of this was a result extremely entwined with German values (. . . . ) Perhaps it was mere coincidence that it was in Germany, and almost only in Germany where I could achieve any success (. . . .) Would the favourable reactions to my work even have been conceivable elsewhere?”

Amok - based on Stefan Zweig

Amok – based on Stefan Zweig

Following the cancellation of Anna Karenina, French Pathé-Natan reacted cautiously with the onslaught of arriving immigrants – many of whom, as Rathaus wrote to Heinsheimer, were arriving with anti-German, pro-Jewish propaganda films for development, not realising that this was the very last thing French film makers were prepared to risk at this point. Ozep viewed the Karenina project as postponed rather than cancelled and now focused on Stephan Zweig’s novella Der Amokläufer — which was run under the title Amok . It was a happy collaboration inasmuch as Rathaus was able to work with Ozep again and he thought highly of novella. On the other hand, there were other issues. His fee was significantly reduced and he was informed that he had to be accorded a co-worker as new laws in France meant for every foreigner engaged, a French co-worker would be required.

Karol and Gerta in Paris 1933

Karol and Gerta in Paris 1933

The film, which involved infidelity and abortion, was chosen as the French entry for the Venice Film Festival in 1934, but the British Board of Film Censors would not take the work unless heavily cut and annotated and the American censors wouldn’t take it at all. The style of music is similar to Rathaus’s earlier collaboration with Ozep in Karamasoff. Amok was another serious film unlike other projects and did not allow for hit-dance numbers and songs.

Dollfuß on the left

Dollfuß on the left

Rathaus fell into a state of atrophy unable to compose. He wrote to Heinsheimer that he was deeply depressed by events in Austria. A short civil war in February 1934 had resulted in the leader of the Christian Social Party, Engelbert Dollfuß, being accorded dictatorial powers and turning Austria into a clerical dictatorship run by the Catholic Church. Work had dried up in France, and antisemitism was becoming a disturbing occurrence in Paris as well. Rathaus received two offers for film work in London: The Dictator and Broken Blossoms. Ozep too had relocated to London after MGM had started to shoot its own version of Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo.

Houses of Parliament 1933

Houses of Parliament 1933

There is virtually no documentation regarding the years Rathaus spent in England. Prior to their final move to the United States, their European possessions and documentation were placed into storage and subsequently destroyed by Nazi bombing raids. Work in Great Britain was restricted by the Incorporated Society of Musicians headed by Sir Georg Dyson. It was able to enforce a ban restricting work, paid or unpaid, by any musician-refugee. The notable exception to this was in the film industry, which allowed Rathaus to work as film composer, but excluded him from teaching or from performing as pianist. He was not even allowed to organise performances of his own works by other musicians.

Broken blossoms

His films included Broken Blossoms: which stared his old friend Dolly Haas and was directed by her husband John Brahm. It was a remake of an earlier silent film version based on the shockingly titled ‘The Chink and the Child’ by Thomas Burke. The story of the film takes place at the end of the 19th century, and is about a young Chinese missionary and the daughter of an abusive father. This was followed by a film produced by Ludovio Toeplitz and directed by Victor Saville called The Dictator. Unlike the Chaplin film or the Krenek opera, it was not political satire, but a historic recreation of true events in the royal household of Denmark in the 18th century. A Woman Alone brought a number of exiles together in a trite film based on 19th century Russian myth and folklore. Ozep should have directed but ill-health resulted in Eugene Frenke taking over, husband of the star Anna Sten who had starred in Karamasoff. Ozep took over again for Pique Dame in 1937, though neither he nor Rathaus managed to have contact during production. Rathaus was unhappy that with British film-making as music was added afterwards, allowing the composer little in-put.

London Bobby 1935

London Bobby 1935

Prominent UE executives had now left Vienna, including the Rathaus-critical Erwin Stein and former director Alfred Kalmus, now both based in London at the publishers Boosey & Hawkes. Heinsheimer had moved to New York. Rathaus made attempts to be taken on by Boosey & Hawkes, following the obvious blocks now placed on his music in Germany and Austria. His correspondence with Soma Morgenstern reflects the difficulties starting to occur somewhat belatedly on Rathaus of having to live as a refugee: no job security, no visa security, no money, a new language and a new environment. He admits that the family is not as social as it was in Berlin, Vienna or Paris. His friends were largely fellow refugees: Ernst Krenek, Bruno Frank, Fritz Kortner, Dolly Haas, Max Rostal, Frank Osborn. Gerta recalled their London years – in surprising contrast to Karol – as some of the best years of their time together – “a wonderful time for the family with a house and small garden”. Letters to Morgenstern indicate Rathaus was in debt. His view of the British, though interesting, shows the degree of paranoia that comes with an inability to cope with the language and fully understand the intentions of those around him. He finds the relentless British obsession with money and box-office impossible to reconcile with his artistic nature and calls England “a country of agents!” He goes on to make the point that the Jews in England are reluctant to hire other Jews out of fear of losing German contracts. He does go on to write that “the English are interested in music but don’t understand it”. This was the opposite he believed to be the case in Vienna and Berlin: “Germans and Austrians understood music but weren’t interested in it”.

Uriel Acosta Schellack_Lukraphon1121-596

In March 1935, Rathaus returned briefly to Berlin travelling on an Austrian passport. It meant he was freer to come and go than German Jews. The Kulturbund performed his Uriel Acosta, and he could visit his in-laws as well as a number of old friends such as Max Butting, and other Jews still as yet unable to leave: Stefan Frenkel, Joseph Rosenstock – Writing to Soma Morgenstern, he states that Berlin now reminds him of Vienna in the aftermath of the first world war.

(First Movement Adantino con moto of Rathaus’s 3rd String Quartet op 41 performed by the Amar Corde Quartet)

Of all the works composed during the English years, his 3rd String Quartet op. 41 is the most significant – published by Oxford University Press. It was performed as part of the ISCM festival in London in 1938 and was received positively in the British press as “contained modernism”.

Chagall's 'Lion Amareux

Chagall’s ‘Lion Amoreux

(Lion Amoreux extract from 1st Mov)

(Lion Amoreux extract from 3rd Mov)

(Lion Amoreux extract from 5th Mov)

In 1936, Rathaus was offered a secure position in the division that was dealing with the BBC’s early development of television. His position would have been ‘Head of Music’. His ballet Le Lion Amoreux was performed at the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden in 1937, promising entry into the musical establishment not accorded to local film composers. A suite was extracted from the full length ballet and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938, conducted by Clarence Raybould. With the success of Le Lion Amoreux, it looked like they could be happy living in London and Rathaus would have been freed from the hated re-application every year for a ‘right-to-remain’ permit. This was particularly annoying as by the late 1930s, he had lived and contributed considerably to life and work in the Great Britain and had a reasonably high profiled name as film composer. The offer of becoming head of music in the BBC budding television division fell at the last hurdle when it was revealed that it was limited only to British citizens. This annoyed him, as up to this point, “where you came from” had not mattered in “meritocratic” Britain. At the point by which the British, as previously with the French, demanded to know your provenance before offering employment, it was time to get out while still possible. This time, the only remaining option was America with Hollywood the obvious destination. With the loss of the BBC possibility, he became more and more convinced that America was the only true meritocracy in the world and as a result, the only place he could hope to achieve any success. He decided to take a reconnaissance voyage without wife and child and see what opportunities were genuinely available. He had letters of recommendation from Casella, Jacques Ibert, Alfred Einstein, Rudolf Kolisch, Vladimir Golschmann and Eugène Goossens along with stacks of his various self-penned essays in the obvious hope of enticing potential colleges into offering him a teaching position. Leaving for NY at the end of June 1938 on the S.S. Manhattan, he must have realised that he would never return.

S.S. Manhattan

S.S. Manhattan

Rathaus’s first Years in America – Between Hollywood and New York

Rathaus had initially applied for and received a six month tourist visa. He was met off the ship by Dolly Haas, given money and put straight on a train to the west coast where he stayed at her home in Los Angeles with her husband, the director John Brahm. He was convinced that given the sorts of composers who had gone to Hollywood, his proven track-record of film-scoring in France and England would make it easy for him to find work. John Brahm now worked at Columbia as a director for their B-Class films. No sooner had Rathaus arrived in Hollywood, Fritz Kortner telegrammed to ask him to return to New York where he needed music for Friedrich Hebbel’s play Herodes und Mariamne. Kortner thought it made little difference if Rathaus provided new music or simply adapted his score for Uriel Acosta. Rathaus was initially reluctant as  he was convinced he would find work right away in Hollywood. In fact, Rathaus had arrived about five years too late with all of the big studios having engaged composers such as Korngold or Waxman under contract. Composers such as Erich Zeisl who also came to Hollywood five to six years after the arrival of the first wave of immigrants, ended up orchestrating and arranging, working on a musical assembly line and never receiving a credit. It was obviously not a prospect to appeal to Rathaus.

Scene from Herodes und Mariamne

Scene from Herodes und Mariamne

After a number of weeks without results, Rathaus decided to take up Kortner’s offer and returned to New York where he indeed incorporated bits of Uriel Acosta into the Hebbel play. The play was a flop and after a month’s trial run in various cities up and down the American East Coast, its Broadway premiere was cancelled.

London prepares for war

London prepares for war

In the meantime, Gerta and Bernt were having a difficult time in London, having rented all but one room in their house to lodgers. Eventually it became so unbearable that they went to France where they stayed with Morgenstern and his wife for a few weeks. Karol was more convinced than ever that his future lay in America and while in New York he managed to teach a little at the New School for Social Research and earned modestly by writing a good deal of school music, none of which he accorded opus numbers. He also made renewed contact with Hans Heinsheimer who had moved to New York to work with Boosey & Hawkes and engaged him to act on his behalf as agent. Ultimately, he was only able to organise a concert performance of the Lion Amoreux suite conducted by Vladimir Golschmann in St. Louis. Unsuccessful attempts were made to transfer the rights of Rathaus’s music from Nazi Vienna to Boosey & Hawkes. It was remarkably little to show with only two months before his visa expired.

Ernst Krenek teaching in 1940

Ernst Krenek teaching in 1940

Rathaus’s New York circle was largely made up of friends and acquaintances from Berlin and Vienna: Fritz Kortner, Jakob Gimpel, Bruno Eisner, Eduard Steuermann, Hugo Leichtentritt ,Hans Heinsheimer, Mischa Elmann and especially, Ernst Krenek with whom he enjoyed lively discussions and debates and visceral disagreements on the validity of twelve-tone-composition. Letters from the normally acerbic Krenek are unusually friendly and grateful for Rathaus’s views and stimulating exchanges.

(Rathaus Piano Concerto JoAnn Falletta and Pianist Donald Pirone)

The piano concerto op 45 was started in London and completed in America. When played to Krenek informally at home, Rathaus reports how pleased Krenek appeared to be with the work, a comment that was not borne out by Krenek’s own diary entry: “Was at Rathaus’s this afternoon and looked at his piano concerto: I found it too gushy, to rhetorical and not sufficiently fragmentary” Given Krenek’s own preference for an aggressive angularity in his own music, this could have been seen as a positive endorsement. In any case, the work’s premiere in San Francisco with Robert Schmitz was not badly received. Darius Milhaud appreciated the work and apparently, so did the critic for the San Francisco Examiner: “The score had romantic elevation and power. Its use of the piano was brilliant. I should not be surprised if the Concerto someday takes its place in the standard repertory.” Later performances in NY left the critic surmising that the work was pessimistic and full of gloom: “but 1939 was a good year to be pessimistic, especially for a recently displaced European exile.”


John Brahm contacted Rathaus in New York with plans for a film, and a budget for Rathaus of $1500 with a possible further $500 negotiable. Rathaus left for Hollywood on January 14th 1939. By this point, John Brahm and Dolly Haas had separated and she had moved to the East Coast, leaving Rathaus full run of Brahm’s comfortable villa. In his correspondence he writes little about Hollywood as a place, but wrote longingly of his preference for NY. At the request of Gerta, he finally offers his verdict on Hollywood: “cool, sunshine, pretty and detestable.” The film was called Let us Live and starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan. It lasts just over an hour, half of which was underscored. The film was not spectacularly well regarded, though Georg Antheil wrote a glowing review of the music ending with the words: “Why use a pile-driver to crack a peanut? Rathaus is one of the best movie composers alive and should be used for better things!”

Polish Passport

Polish Passport

Gerta and Bernt were now due to arrive in New York on Feb. 8th 1939. Time was running out for Rathaus. His 6 month visa was on the verge of expiring and he was reluctant to leave the country in order to re-apply for entry, with wife and child on the way. His Austrian passport was invalid following the Nazi Annexation, and as a Jew, he had no right to German citizenship. Through the offices of his brother Rudolf, he travelled on a Polish passport, hopeful that with the Austrian/German quotas full, he could enter as a Pole. He returned to New York to meet Gerta and Bernt but realised how stretched his finances were. Attempts at further film work had been thwarted. He was no union member and all of the important positions were already taken.

Queens College: Music Department 1940

Queens College: Music Department 1940

It’s unclear who made the initial approach to Rathaus at the end of 1939 or 1940 regarding a teaching position at Queen’s College (QC), part of City University of New York (CUNY). It could have been as a result of a series of lectures he gave at Princeton University while covering for Roger Sessions in 1938. In any case, the need for stability, a regular income and a permanent existence was more than he could resist and encouraged by all around him, including John Brahm who wrote that he should take the job “and leave the call for film composing to the more uncalled-for composers”, he accepted. All that remained was procuring leave to remain. This was handed to the lawyer who had managed Hanns Eisler’s even more complicated situation, having been rejected for entry into America because of Communist sympathies. It was an obvious concern for Rathaus that he, in common with Eisler, could also be shown to have at least moved in left-wing circles. His lawyer presented all of the necessary documentation that confirmed Rathaus’s position at QC. The Eisler situation, however, only made Rathaus’s that bit more complicated as he chose to wait until it had been resolved before attempting the same route himself. Gerta had independently obtained assurances of help from the president of QC and from Dorothy Thompson who in turn enjoyed good connections with Eleanor Roosevelt, through whom she had procured the services of Robert Jackson, American Justice Minister. Gerta was eager to travel to Mexico and sort out the visa situation, confident that nothing could go wrong with so many references in her hand. Rathaus’s lawyer advised him to remain in Hollywood until the Eisler situation had been resolved, a situation that lingered on until 22 October 1940, meaning QC was close to having to withdraw their offer. Other members of the faculty stepped in to fill his teaching obligations until his arrival, work permit and visa in hand, in November 1940.

Queens College Campus 1936

Queens College Campus 1936

The offer of a teaching position at QC was a welcome change of profession for Rathaus. The pay was not enormous, but regular and after his disappointments in Hollywood and Broadway, and with only the very rarest of performances of anything he composed, the stability of QC would represent a major watershed in his life and work. It was a young institution and had only been established in 1937. Though not belonging to one of the top music institutions of the city, it promised Rathaus many opportunities that more established schools would not. As war broke out, congratulations poured in from friends, all of whom were happy to know that he was now safe and secure with employment in America. Rathaus began work at QC in November 1940 and was confirmed as permanent employee in 1943; 1944 he was made chairman of the music department and in 1949, professor. His finances came under further pressure as he guaranteed affidavits for friends, colleagues and family, desperate to escape Nazi Europe.

Queens College: the Quad 1940

Queens College: the Quad 1940

Rathaus was remembered as a positive and encouraging teacher. Reports from his students match those of the students of Franz Schreker, suggesting that he was tolerant, open to different styles and creative when working in both a classroom and one- to-one. He covered all disciplines in music including harmony, counterpoint, general composition, analysis, orchestration, music history etc. students also recall an exceptional pianist who not only appeared capable of playing the entire repertoire, but transposing at sight whenever necessary.

The Mansion at Yaddo - artists' retreat

The Mansion at Yaddo – artists’ retreat

His piano concerto was accorded opus number 45 and by the time of his death, he would compose another 28 works with accompanying opus numbers. In 1942, he was invited to spend a summer at an Artist Colony at Yaddo. Unlike Ernst Toch who appeared to spend his American years drifting from one artist colony to the next, Rathaus found life at Yaddo stifling and could not get away quickly enough. It was nevertheless here that he began work on his Third Symphony. Attempts to have Golschmann conduct it at St Louis came to nothing as the work was considered too long, but Horenstein took it up with enthusiasm conducting it at every opportunity, even winning the German Critic Prize for his recording of the work with the Radio Zurich Orchestra. Press reaction of later performances in Berlin in 1958 (four years after Rathaus’s death) are interesting in their constant referencing to his period in Berlin in the 1920s. He is referred to as “a composer of unfulfilled promise, much reduced in potential as so many other talents from that decade” – they generally dismissed the Third Symphony as conservative with one headline reading “Musical Greetings from Day before Yesterday”. It only recalled Alfred Einstein’s letter to Hans Gál in which he sarcastically notes how everyone who under Hitler was busy denouncing “cultural Bolshevism” was now busy embracing it.

(Jascha Horenstein conducts Rathaus’s 3rd Symphony – Pristine Recordings)

The Symphony can be regarded as an important post-war statement and deserves wider acquaintance. Rathaus went on to compose a number of other orchestral works with Polonaise Symphonique op. 52, perhaps an attempt to come to terms with a Polish identity he previously had never bothered to take seriously. It was premiered by Rodzinski, on 26th of Feb. 1944.

Vision Dramatique op. 55 was premiered by Horenstein in Tel Aviv in April 1948 – a work that is passionate with few moments of musical respite. Horenstein would take the work up and perform it on a number of occasions. Salisbury Cove Ouverture op. 65 is a work composed in celebration of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 70 anniversary. Sinfonia Concertante op. 68 was meant for the New York Philharmonic in 1954, but postponed due to the illness of Mitropoulos. Instead, the premiere went to the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Leopold Ludwig. Press reaction was not only poor, but close to character assassination, with one critic mentioning that Rathaus “was a composer who in the 1920s was already a spent force and a failure”. The work is dismissed as “tasteless” – “amateurish”. The reviewer goes on to write: “Rathaus was an unfulfilled promise, The Staatsoper tried to get out of its obligation to perform his hideous opera Fremde Erde. As a composer, he should have been buried long ago” The tone of the review could have come from any Nazi propaganda paper, but was written 10 years after the defeat of Hitler. Prelude for Orchestra op. 71 was a commission for the Louisville Orchestra and the work is subtitled Louisville Prelude.

Main St. Flushing Queens, NY

Main St. Flushing Queens, NY

Rathaus went on to compose a good deal of chamber music in America included two string quartets, op. 59, premiered in 1949 as part of the ISCM festival and his 5th Quartet, op. 72, his last completed work. In addition to chamber works, he composed various vocal works and a significant amount of piano music, such as Three Studies for Piano op. 46, in 1941, which again were followed by Three Polish Dances op. 47 in 1942. Landscapes in Six Colors is either op. 49 or op. 51, Rathaus appears to have added to the works and it is unclear which items were originally intended. Rathaus premiered his Piano Sonata no. IV op. 58 in a performance in 1948. It’s a highly challenging and technically difficult work in three movements and standing in contrast to Rathaus’s other American piano compositions. There follow some minor works such as his op. 58 is Four Studies after Dominico Scarlatti op. 56, which despite its lower opus number was actually composed after the IV Sonata. Like many American works, these were mostly published posthumously by Theodor Presser.

(Clearing theWay – United Nations Public Information Film)

Though Rathaus was not prepared to return to Hollywood, he accepted for financial reasons offers to compose scores for educational or short documentary films. These include Jaguas from 1942 – it was financed by the ‘Viking Fund’. The result was a disappointment despite Horenstein conducting the orchestral score for synchronisation. Another commission was from the ‘National Labor Committee for Palestine’ called Building a Nation in 1945 and Gateway to Freedom in 1946. Paul Falkenberg, director of both films had previously worked with Rathaus in The Suitcases of Mr. O.F. Financial necessity was also the reason he wrote music for the film Out of Evil based on the Israeli novel in Hebrew Mi Klalah L’Brahah from 1950. Most of these films used a purposefully political soundtrack with dashes of folklore and agitprop. From Out of Evil, the Song of Israel would be extracted and sold and performed separately. Clearing the Way from 1947 was about building the United Nations and as with the other films, the music is utilitarian and was meant as an information film to assuage anxious New Yorkers being rehoused in order to make way for the new United Nations’ Headquarters. To these were added scores to various in-house educational films, all utilitarian and all written out of financial necessity.

The Metropolitan Opera’s Performance of Musorgsky’s original version as edited by Karol Rathaus)

In January 1952, old friends from Vienna and Berlin, Rudolf Bing, now General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the conductor Fritz Stiedry contacted Rathaus about reconstructing Mussorgsky’s original version of Boris Godunov as an alternative to the traditional Rimsky Korsakov version. Stiedry and Rathaus had many discussions and debates about certain solutions. The reception at the Met was underwhelming with audiences missing the glitter and opulence of the traditional Rimsky completion.

Karol Rathaus c. 1945

Karol Rathaus c. 1945

Drawing a balance: Composition as a side-line

In a letter to Ernst Krenek, he unsettles Krenek by writing something that was totally against Krenek’s own thinking: namely that a composer, in order to be remember posthumously, must also have gathered a certain amount of popularity during his lifetime. For this reason, he had turned away from the strongly influenced view of Berlin and Viennese composers that one needed to write for the future and not for today.

Hanns Eisler in defiant mood at the House of Un-American Activities 1947

Hanns Eisler in defiant mood at the House of Un-American Activities 1947

There is something in the view expressed by Rathaus’s son that “Hitler killed the composer Karol Rathaus”. Certainly the ambition and ‘fire in the belly’ he had in Europe was replaced with a desire to survive and lead as quiet a life as possible. American apologists for Rathaus point to the large number of opus numbers that he composed in America. Most of these works were didactic and usually intended for student performances. In most cases, Rathaus had not considered them for publication. He seemed to have lost interest in performances or even in achieving any kind of musical legacy. He ignored entreaties from his friend and supporter Jascha Horenstein to return and improve certain works. His often wayward attribution of opus numbers to works clearly intended for students is a sign of resignation and a rebalancing within his creative world.

(Extract from Prelude for Orchestra one of his last works, and offering “a sum of his style and compositional achievements” according to Rathaus expert, Frank Harders)

Outwardly, he was happy and well-adjusted and never spoke of his life in Europe. It appeared to make little difference to him if a new orchestral work was premiered, and the best he managed was the orchestra in St. Louis rather than the Berlin Philharmonic. Horenstein pleaded with him to get back in touch with Erich Kleiber, but Rathaus had withdrawn and come to terms with a new life, quietly living in Flushing, and teaching at a college that still had little musical reputation. Yet another reason Rathaus appeared to have vanished as a composer may have been his desire not to draw attention to himself during the years of paranoid Communist witch hunts, starting in 1947 with the House of Un-American Activities and carrying on with the Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings up to the time of Rathaus’s death in 1954.

Old Synagogue in Ternopol

Old Synagogue in Ternopol

Rathaus was not observant as a Jew. He had never been religious and never saw being Jewish as more than a question of religious faith. If he debated musical issues with Horenstein and Krenek, he debated the issues of antisemitism with Soma Morgenstern, writing: “1) I don’t see a general solution to the world’s so-called ‘Jewish problem’ – particularly in post-war Europe. 2) I’m afraid that (more and more) after this war, little in this instance will change. Antisemitism may die down for a while. But it will flare back up when Jews explode again at being fully subjugated and reduced to proletarian existences. Jews at the lowest ends of the social ladder will be slaughtered before they even know what’s happened to them. They are, within the fabric of the world a ‘community’ – but cannot be understood as a national-community or economic community – and please spare me the concept of a community shaped by the idea of some magical ‘destiny’. You won’t solve any ‘Jewish problems’ by referring to them in this way!” More crucial for Rathaus was the nexus of Jewish and Polish identity – something that had started to become more central to his self-identity with the loss of Austrian nationality. It becomes apparent again in a letter from 1942 to Morgenstern: “Opportunist that I am, now that Poland no longer exists, I’m absolutely bursting with ardour for something that must always have resided until now deep within: the Polish question!” All of these issues were addressed in the context of notorious Polish antisemitism, and whether Jews would have a place in Poland. Rathaus wonders if the country, if and when it’s re-established, should lean East towards the USSR or west towards France and Great Britain. He asks what would happen with Eastern Poland/Western Ukraine and comes to the startling conclusion that “the only solution would be an independent Republic of Western Ukraine with Ternopol as capital”. Morgenstern dismisses such patriotism as “childhood memories of Ternopol mixed up with Polish patriotism”. Rathaus’s new found enthusiasm for Poland and Morgnestern’s scepticism led to a break in their relationship. Rathaus read and participated in numerous events and debates, eventually working together with Jerzy Fitelberg at the Polish Cultural institute. His Polish patriotism was latterly expressed in works such as his Mazurka from 1941, Three Polish Dances (dedicated to Paderewski) Polonaise Symphonieque and Gaude Mater Polonia .

War damaged Berlin in the 1950s

War damaged Berlin in the 1950s

As early as 1942, Rathaus was aware of Nazi mass murder of European Jews. He had enormous difficulties trying to convince others, such as Soma Morgenstern that something as unimaginable as death camps was true. He learned later that many of his own relatives were themselves victims. Horenstein secured a grant for Rathaus to return to Germany, and though his impressions of Berlin are not written anywhere, friends report his dismay at the city’s destruction. Rathaus was also alarmed at the correspondence and petitioning coming from friends and colleagues who had chosen to remain in Germany. Incomprehension existed on both sides of what seemed an unbridgeable chasm. Those who remained were convinced that those who had fled were the more fortunate, while those who fled needed to inform those who remained of the difficulties incurred by dislocation.

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

New music debates in Germany, even among the informed and sophisticated, agreed that the avant-garde should not be allowed “the free-romp it enjoyed pre-1933”, but needed to be kept “in strict developmental channels”. The only new music composer to bring back, according to these circles of German critics and “intellectuals”, was Paul Hindemith, a composer Karol Rathaus had always detested. Indeed, the general question of return was more difficult for Jewish musicians to address. Hindemith was not Jewish and the effort to have him re-instated in German musical life ahead of the scores of Jewish musical exiles did not go unnoticed. Horenstein agonised about whether he should take the position of general music director in Cologne. Rathaus, Morgenstein, Heinsheimer, the director of the Histadruth films, Paul Falkenberg and Myrrha Franfurt, an ex-wife of Ozep discuss the situation with additional correspondence added by Stefan Askenase. The debate is resolved when Horenstein declines the offer. He had been music director in neighbouring Dusseldorf pre-1933 and was unhappy to see the same critics still in charge at the same papers as pre-Hitler, and during the Nazi years.

Music Summer Camp in America Tuscarawas phil. in the 1950s

Music Summer Camp in America Tuscarawas phil. in the 1950s

Rathaus was convinced that America was musically and culturally superior. He rated the music education in American universities above the over-specialised education of European conservatories. He thought American orchestras were better. Europe would have to start again from zero. Of course, much of America’s dominance was the result of immigration. Rathaus and Ernst Krenek sat on the American committee of the ISCM alongside Roger Sessions. He was also a member of the Fulbright jury and an active member of the ‘American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ along with the ‘American league of Austrian Composers’ – itself an indication of the influence Central European refugees had on American music life.

Rathaus 1

Rathaus was thrown out of Germany just as he was entering his most successful and important years as a composer. In terms of his development, he was cut off at the knees. In addition, his inability or lack of ambition to belong to one school or another; his wish to be modernist without necessarily being modern and his ambition to write music that was easily taken up, followed and understood by an intelligent listener, placed him in a position whereby he was too modern for conservatives and too conservative for experimentalists. Rathaus died on 21. November 1954 of the tuberculosis that had plagued him since he first contracted the condition in the First World War. While most of his friends knew he was unwell, they had not realised his condition was life-threatening. American obituaries wrote of him as a teacher and counted his contributions by the number of compositions he had composed since his arrival in the United States. European newspapers did not cover the death until weeks later, referring to him “as the teacher who also composed”. Few mentioned his years in Europe pre-Hitler and when they did, they usually got facts and dates wrong. His greatest years, according to the German press, were those he spent in America.