Fremde Erde– Prescience as Opera
On April 22nd, I gave a lecture at Royal Holloway London University, on Karol Rathaus’s opera Fremde Erde – Alien Soil. I’ve now adapted it for inclusion on this blog. Much of the material can be read in my general entry on Rathaus, but this article deals specifically with the opera – its relevance and in light of today’s refugee crisis, its prescience.
(opening of ‘Fremde Erde’)
This is the opening motif from Karol Rathaus’s opera from 1930, Fremde Erde – or translated by the NYT’s at the time of its premiere as Strange Soil but I believe could more appropriately be named Alien Soil. This agitated opening motif links various scenes of the opera and always heralds tension and confusion. Sadly, the only available recording of the work is private and from a live performance in Bielefeld from 1991 with many cuts and very few microphones anywhere near the singers, meaning we only hear a rather scrappy orchestra in the few examples I could find to demonstrate.
According to Rathaus’s biographer Martin Schüssler Fremde Erde was a flop. Yet the Berliner Volkszeitung has relatively good things to say about the music and is merely equivocal about the text, concluding that the two don’t collude. Librettist Kamilla Palffy-Waniek was, in the writer’s opinion, incapable of expressing well-founded inner conflicts, whereas the music “captures, the tension, the breadth and space of the story from the fields and steppes of Russia to the endless sands of the deserts in the New World”. The critic for Germany’s Paper of Record, Die Vossische Zeitung, goes so far as to pronounce the opera’s premiere an unmitigated disaster despite “the generous applause that resulted in countless curtain-calls for the composer, librettist, director, designer and conductor”. But the tone of the review suggests that Max Marschalk has another agenda that’s difficult for today’s reader to follow. He praises Rathaus as an important composer with whom the Berlin public is already well-acquainted. But he raises a dubious eyebrow at what he believes to be a policy of performing a new work merely for its own sake. He excoriates the text and quotes particularly (for the time) trendy sentiments that reek heavily of agitprop. He dismisses the plot as old-fashioned and then lists the different modernist scene-settings while giving vent to his disapproval of any and every contemporary opera plot. At the very end of the review, he praises the singers, the orchestra and the designs but appears most put out by the lavishness placed on the production. He refers to Rathaus as a “moderate” among modernists and dislikes the fact that there are only the occasional tunes to catch his ear. In short, it’s less an attack on Rathaus or the spectacular sets by Emil Pirchan or the conductor Erich Kleiber but more a charge levelled against Staatsopern director Franz Ludwig Hörth.
Walter Schrenk of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung is rather supportive of Rathaus by writing, “even if the music never swells over, it radiates the warmth and humanity required of situation and characters”. He then goes on to write that Rathaus has composed more the spiritual sub-text rather than the active story. The critic goes on to heap a good deal of praise on exactly those points that are disliked by Marschalk – such as the orchestral interlude which he pronounces “a masterwork” while Marschalk dismisses it as overlong and uninteresting. Schrenk goes on to write that if applause was polite after the first act, it was enthusiastic at the end with copious praise for all protagonists.
(Controversial Interlude to final act)
Alfred Einstein in the Berliner Tageblatt thought the libretto perfect for Puccini or D’Albert, but was puzzled why Rathaus would have felt it worth using. Fritz Stege in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, an unapologetic supporter of the Nazis, praises the libretto while excoriating Rathaus’s inability to highlight the natural “folk” characteristics suggested by Palffy-Waniek’s story. Here, we are obviously dealing with yet another unspoken agenda – particularly so, as Stege has to highlight Rathaus’s provenance as Schrekerian, while denouncing Fremde Erde as an opera that would have failed the most preliminary of music examinations.
Questions about the libretto were consistent in all reviews, though Schrenk is more forgiving than the others and even Stege goes on to dismiss the story as “pseudo-Romantic schlock Horror” („Pseudoromantik dieses Schauerstückes“), while the unnamed critic of the Berliner Börsen Courier simply states that it’s a wonderful libretto but not one that was appropriate for Rathaus, perhaps picking up on the thoughts of Einstein.
Herbert F. Peyser of the NYT offers perhaps the worst of all reviews, but seems most upset at Emil Pirchan’s phantasmagorical set of NY, which offends his sense of objective geography – a point he makes in two reviews. He clearly cannot stand the trends coming out of German music and while dismayed that anyone would present an image of Manhattan in any form but the most realistic, he despairs of music that portrays objective reality: “Mr Rathaus being presumably like most young bloods in Germany an apostle of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ gets his jazz in early. Then having done a German Tango and Foxtrot, he exposes his worship of the conscript grandfathers by writing an a-cappella chorus in canon!”
To begin with, it’s important to know Rathaus had looked at and rejected a number of libretti including two by UE’s librettist of choice Karl Michael Freiherr von Levetzow, librettist to Hans Gál’s Heilige Ente, and rejected librettist for Ernst Krenek’s “Negeroper” which eventually became Jonny spielt auf! Rathaus had also tried and failed to engage Béla Balász, Bartók’s librettist after UE was unable to convince him to work with Weill’s librettist Georg Kaiser. He wanted to present a modernist work with a social message while using classically operatic forms. This pretext appeared to exclude most of the available libretti. Indeed, it was a crisis of the age as young composers all wanted their works to resonate with contemporary listeners. Librettists were by and large still stuck in the habits of 19th century Grand Opera and were struggling to keep up. The need for new, exciting, relevant texts became so critical that in 1928, UE launched a competition, the winner of which was the poetess Kamilla Palffy-Waniek and a libretto called Film am Sonnenhügel. UE sent Rathaus a copy of Palffy-Waniek’s Fremde Erde as early as 1927, even before her competition win, while giving every indication that the writer was male. Not until Rathaus indicated that it was what he had been looking for that Palffy-Waniek’s gender was revealed, a point that in any case struck Rathaus as irrelevant.
1930 was, with the exception of Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, an especially dark year for operas with left-wing Social messages. As Peyser wrote in the NYT: “far be it from me to weary the tolerant reader with a detailed chronical of the plot which Mr. Rathaus and his collaborating ‘poetess’ endeavour a kind of sociological doctrine to the effect that capitalism, urgently complicated by love-interest, is likely to prove the undoing of massed labour struggle (. . .)”
The State of Thüringen had already voted in an NSDAP regional parliament and as confirmed by Hans Heinsheimer in Anbruch, had given a foretaste of what a III Reich might offer, with works banned due to content, Jewish authorship or what was deemed to be un-Germanic Music.For Thüringen to have voted in a Nazi regional parliament as early as 1930 would have only been the symptom of a far greater social and political malaise that was felt throughout all of Germany at the time. Indeed, so present was the Nazi threat already that Peyser mentions it in the opening sentence of his review. It is further reflected in the general divide of conservative critics rubbishing Rathaus’s Fremde Erde with progressive ones praising it. Then as today, conservatives tended to control the principal papers of record.
It is this lack of context that bothers me when assessing Martin Schüssler’s general view, and indeed, Rathaus’s own view, that the work was not a success. Even the conservative papers grudgingly conceded the work was well received with innumerable curtain calls for the composer, conductor, librettist and director. Like Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins, premiered the year before in Duisburg, or the Brecht/Weill Mahagonny, premiered in March 1930 in Leipzig, Rathaus’s variant of Zeitoper deviated considerably from Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf! or Paul Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage. Hanns Eisler shows this development in his dismissive review of Jonny for the Rote Fahne which he saw as a work that reflected bourgeois entitlement – a view that would have pertained to Hindemith’s opera as well. Max Brand, Weill and Brecht along with Karol Rathaus were striking out on true terra incognita with Zeitopern that did not hold a flattering mirror up to a smug middle-class, but instead, confronted them with the reality of lives led by the masses. It was in the spirit of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis from 1927, which by 1930 was already grist to an increasingly aggressive Nazi mill.
The story presents an interesting counter-point to Krenek’s Jonny with the New World not being the great hope for Europe’s jazz-loving gilded youth, but rather, as greater threat to Europe’s Little People: A group of Lithuanian peasants look for a better life in the New World. On their steamer, but travelling many decks above, is the fabulously wealthy and beautiful mine-owner Lean Branchista, from the fictional New World state of Chileranducha. Her procurer, Mr Rosenberg, promises the Lithuanians unbelievable sums of money for the first year of work, knowing full well that her saltpetre mines are so fatal that nobody survives more than a few months. Lean Branchista is attracted to one of the young Lithuanians, a strong, handsome farmer named Semjin and tells Rosenberg to offer whatever it takes to secure his services.
She ultimately seduces him away from his fiancé Anschutka, leaving his fellow migrants feeling betrayed as they deal with the reality of the mines while he enjoys himself in Lean’s sumptuous ranch. Semjin, however, has a plan, and decides to confront Lean with the desperation of the people who facilitate her glittering wealth, and tricks her into coming to the mines just as another burial is taking place.
She’s incensed and further humiliates Semjin by ordering the Lithuanian miners to gang up and kill him. At first they hesitate, but she throws money at them, demonstrating the power of capital even in an environment where everyone is doomed. She waits until he’s nearly dead before calling the miners back to order and bans him from her property and from her life.
He ends up in New York intending to commit suicide when he sees a ship sailing for Hamburg. He races to the harbour, where he finds Anschutka dying of a fever she contracted in Chileranducha and too poor to pay for passage back home. She dies in his arms just as Herr Rosenberg walks through the docks looking for a new group of miners. The opera ends with Semjin following him with the instruction that this time he wants a job that truly finishes him off. As they leave the stage, an out-of-tune accordion plays Yankee-Doodle in the background.
Obviously, the plot has several sub-plots and offers multi-layered interaction between protagonists, but these are the bare bones. It was clearly not a story aiming to appeal to the same aspirational class of opera-goer that made Jonny spielt auf! a commercial hit.
(final scene of the opera)
This undisguised political message was absolutely consistent with Rathaus and the circle he moved in. Hanns Eisler and Piscator were close friends, as were Ernst Toller and Bert Brecht, and though he never went so far as to join the Communist Party, it’s clear that he was sympathetic and not just passively left-wing. It would mean that later in America, he would keep his head below the parapet during the House of Un-American Activities and McCarthy hearings. It may even explain why he was unwilling to dwell on his pre-immigration successes once he had relocated to America, with very few of his students and colleagues even aware of his opera.
The work throws up many post-Holocaust paradoxes, such as the mercenary Mr. Rosenberg presented as an anti-Semitic caricature. It obviously places the modern listener in a very different world, where a left-wing Jewish composer, such as Rathaus, senses no contradiction in representing capitalism in the guise of anti-Semitic propaganda. Yet it is consistent with a conflict that ran through the Communist movement from its earliest days: Friedrich Engels informed a Jewish correspondent named Isidor Ehrenfreund in 1890 that the Communist Movement would not tolerate anti-Semitism, something Ehrefreund had suggested as an effective means of countering capitalism – and again, Hanns Eisler’s half-Jewish sister Elfriede Friedländer, (later known as Ruth Fischer), holder of the very first European Communist party card outside of the Soviet Union, was told to tone down the anti-Semitism in her political speeches. Ehrenfreund, Friedländer/Fischer and Rathaus were all Jewish, yet seemingly un-conflicted in their desire to employ anti-Semitism as a means of representing the evils of capitalism.
Another obvious objection resulting in the ganging up of conservative critics against the work, would have been Rathaus’s Schrekerian provenance. The Nazis would denounce Franz Schreker, who was Rathaus’s teacher and in the early 1920s, one of Germany’s most popular opera composer, in their 1938 Düsseldorf “Entartete Musik” exhibition as “the Magus Hirschfeld of music, who in his operas depicted every known sexual deviancy.” The obvious connection to Schreker would have been the character of the sexually confident Lean Branchista, who uses men and feels no remorse in disposing of them once they outgrow her interests. It isn’t misogyny, but a portrayal of feminine sexual dominance that was distinctly counter to social conventions, and very much in conflict with Nazi Kinder-Küche-ideology.
Germany, and most especially Berlin, was awash with agitprop, though opera had largely been spared the political confrontation of straight-theatre, Lehrstücke, cabaret and revue. More typical was Toch’s opera from 1930 Der Fächer, – the Fan – an opera that’s partially set in trendy Shanghai night clubs. Yet as the libretto competition of 1928 demonstrated, opera needed to keep up. Rathaus, Weill and Brand proved being contemporary and “modern” was usually a fantasy, portrayed at the expense of flagging up class inequalities. Being truly “modern” was a luxury that only a very privileged few could afford. It was one thing for Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins to make this point in provincial Duisburg, or even Mahagnny in Leipzig. It was quite another for the wolf of overt political propaganda to wear the sheep’s clothing of opera at Berlin’s Staatsoper, conducted by Erich Kleiber and mounted and performed by the stars of the ensemble. It was this transition from Zeitoper’s escapist contemporary settings of comfortable privilege to overt political posturing that disturbed traditionalists.
As a composer, Rathaus wished to maintain the appeal he established with the success of his ballet, Der letzte Pierrot, performed at the Staatsoper in 1927 by keeping within a modernist tonality, meaning tonal ambiguity rather than a-tonality:
I’m grateful for Martin Schüssler’s explanation of a typical example being the obviously dissonant chord shown here, that can be teased out as tonal with its g-flat triad dissolving into a-minor sounding together, followed by a D major chord with an additional E-flat and G suggesting either a rudimentary E-flat or C minor. He also tried very hard to keep to classical structures, but not in a way that would become too obvious, despite Peyser’s biting a-cappella comment in the NY Times. It was a mixture that found a good deal of popular appeal among discerning music-lovers. When Kleiber was asked about the supposedly weak libretto of Fremde Erde, his response was that the music more than compensated for any perceived faults in the text.Schüssler goes on expertly to summarise Rathaus’s musical language in Fremde Erde as “. . . even if not inhabiting the spheres of either old or new world, it can be described as ‘modern’: as long as the music carries the dramatic narrative forward, it remains free of tonal associations, and beyond the harmonic, there are no further principals of musical organisation apparent. In both horizontal and vertical, it’s clear that certain intervals are favoured, while others appear neglected. There are no obvious patterns.”
This of course demands some examination as to why the work would ultimately be viewed as unsuccessful. In addressing Schüssler’s view of Fremde Erde as a ‘failure’, it’s worth mentioning again that the reception from the public was extremely positive with many curtain calls. Indeed, it went on to enjoy additional performances in other houses. Schüssler appears to take the idea of musical flop on-board and does not differentiate between conservative and progressive journalists. He quotes from Schott’s Melos, which would not have welcomed a triumph, while not quoting the positive notice from UE’s Anbruch, which as publisher, it obviously would. Indeed, he quotes few of the positive reactions which though not equal in terms of media profile, were at the very least, numerically equal to the negative reactions found in the papers of record. One aspect that appeared to bother several critics, including the otherwise favourable review in Anbruch in January 1931, was the lack of naturalism with no differentiation between classes, people and Backgrounds. In this respect, it was contrary to the ‘Objectivity’ that was the fashion of the day and disturbed German critics in much the same way Peyser was irritated with the ship bound for Hamburg docked at the wrong NY pier. The dogmatic ‘Objectivist’ cannot afford to compromise on realism. Yet similar to Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins, the work avoids overt realism in order to convey its objectivist message.
It offers instead a good deal of musical suggestion, such as this monumental chordal sequence suggesting subliminal Americana, or repeated rhythms to evoke the vastness of the ocean and the boredom of life below-deck. A side drum is pulled out from time to time to use as a musical catapult bringing abstract thoughts or dreams back to reality. The last act employs an organ AND the siren of a large passenger liner. Rathaus’s musical language, however, rarely ventures towards the motorised neutrality of other ‘new-Objective’ composers as often the case with Toch, Weill, Hindemith or George Antheil, though he shares their use of rhythmic speech set over orchestral accompaniment as a means of dramatic alienation.
Rathaus himself explains in his article in Anbruch in January 1930: “Naturally, the music controls everything else. It drives, draws, enlarges, distorts and charms. It deepens by making words into symbols, and from concepts, it creates experiences. But the music too must play a subordinate role in the interest of totality. The natural inclination of the composer to resort to closed forms in operas such as those found in concert works should not impact on the narrative flow of the work itself. The fact that I’ve included such closed forms as minuet, rondo, passacaglia, and even an organ toccata with chorus along with many others, I regard as merely a form of private communication. Musicians will stumble on them by themselves, but for the listener, these forms remain subordinate to the whole. The only important thing is that they convey the drama in a means that is easily comprehended and followed. And the sustainability of this idea is the basis of my choice of libretto.”
The title of this paper is Prescience as opera and the subject of economic migration is more relevant today than ever. At the time of Fremde Erde, political issues and anti-Semitism were already driving people away. Today we hear much talk of refugees escaping persecution as opposed to less legitimate “economic migrants”. Yet during times of political instability, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw the line between the two. For example, at the time of the Munich accord in 1938, the British government drew up degrees of legitimacy to be accorded to people seeking asylum in Great Britain. As the British had master-minded the hand-over of the Sudetenland to the Nazis, they felt it important to grant the highest priority to Hitler’s political opponents, followed by Austrians who had fled to Czechoslovakia following the Anschluss in March 1938. These were seen as political refugees. Jews from the Sudetenland, on the other hand, having lost their livelihoods following the Nazi takeover, were placed in the lowest category, as they were seen as “economic migrants”, thus demonstrating to us, who grew up in the post-Holocaust generation, the blur between these two concepts.
It is little different in the contemporary setting of Fremde Erde in which Lithuanians are searching for a better life. Why the Lithuanians were represented as Russians in the Berlin performances, when the score and libretto clearly call them Lithuanians, must be left open to speculation. Lithuania did not become part of Russia until 1940, so leaving open to speculation that the director, Ludwig Hörth with Rathaus’s agreement, wished to make the political point that Stalinist agricultural collectivisation was impoverishing Russia’s countryside. In fact, the full horrors of the Ukrainian famine were still to come. Nevertheless, Soviet antagonism towards farmers was obviously developing into a political issue, and even if never overtly mentioned, it must have been an emerging reality and familiar to the well-informed public at Berlin’s Staatsoper. It offered a current-affairs’ relevance to the plight of Soviet peasantry rather than representing mere operatic licence. And of course, should this have been the case, it would have suggested that Rathaus was not uncritical to the application of Marxism in the USSR.
(Lean’s aria about the survival of the strong at the expense of the weak)
In act two, the savagery of working in the mines is mitigated by Lean’s charitable acts. She builds hospitals, schools and churches; she spoils her servants and treats those close to her as personal friends. When her foreman tells her that the fever kills off 20 of his new recruits in the first month, she counters, he should be grateful that the fever doesn’t kill everybody. Ultimately, her true nature is revealed when confronted with the inhumanity of her saltpetre mines where she’s offended not by the conditions that kill her workers, but by the fact that she’s made to confront them. The paradoxes of wealth and capitalism – both good and bad – are exposed. The scene is set, but Lean cannot be written off as a comic-book baddie, but represents a more nuanced, ambiguous character. Initially, she doesn’t realise why Semjin has brought her to the mines, and is puzzled why he thinks she should be disturbed by what she sees. It’s a fascinating transition arriving at the point where she realises she’s been set up, the climax of which has her singing an aria that frankly could have been taken from Mein Kampf. She sings that the strong must destroy the weak, and the weak only exist for the good of the strong. She builds her schools, churches and hospitals, while sexually egging on the men who serve her. Like Semjin, without a moment’s regret, she would dump them when they no longer please her.
The text, so heavily criticised, is as politically platitudinous as any work by Brecht without his genius at combining the comic with hard-core social commentary. The demarcations between the haves and have-nots are distinctly drawn, and unlike Brecht, there is no demand for ultimate justice, but rather a dialectic demonstration of injustice that moves the listener just as affectively. Perhaps we could claim Fremde Erde is relevant in a Europe today where masses of refugees and migrants huddle together in leaky boats and insanitary camps. Yet its more direct corollary is a world where nameless Bangladesh workers kept under slave-like conditions, build follies du grandeur in the Arabian Desert while dying in countless numbers. In both instances, Fremde Erde speaks as powerfully today as the year of its creation. It reminds us that any place of refuge, even if offering escape, cannot guarantee freedom, security and safety. It was a prescient, yet unintended warning to millions of future, unknowing refugees, many of whom were no-doubt attending the premiere of Rathaus’s opera. Only three years following its premiere, having to cope with a new life on “alien soil” would become a reality for millions of Europeans, including Karol Rathaus.