Walter Bricht’s “Scattered Leaves” return to Vienna
(“Verwehte Blätter” – “Scattered Leaves” no. 8 Rasch; Fort Wayne Philharmonic, conductor Andrew Constantine: Toccata Classics)
It seems incredible that the first time I wrote about the composer Walter Bricht was five years ago. It was one of the first musical estates to be brought to my notice following publication of my book Forbidden Music – The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. More importantly, the estate would become the catalyst that resulted in the exil.arte Center at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts, when other important music collections in the city agreed to take the estate and then found themselves unable to follow through. It was this embarrassing impasse that led me to discuss with my colleague Prof. Gerold Gruber as to what possible solutions might be found. The “solution” was to create a centre for “Exile Music and Performing Arts”, with an archive for performing arts’ estates. The society exil.arte already existed, but was private despite being based at the University. It focused exclusively on politically persecuted Austrian musicians or those murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. The “Society” was dissolved and re-opened as a “Center” within the University, directly under the auspices of the Chancellor, Ulrike Sych. The Center would no longer focus exclusively on Austrian performing artists, but take in all of Europe. Enormous investment was made and the main part of the building that made up Vienna’s historic Music Academy was handed over to us along with renovated vaults, exhibition, lecture and performance facilities.
A budget was made available for personnel and a suite of offices that provided room for staff and research with one room dedicated to the Korngold critical edition which is also now based at the exil.arte Centre. We were soon able to compile a dedicated library and collection of recordings and since our opening in May 2017, we have been in receipt of a performing arts’ estate every six weeks or so. Many of these acquisitions are of astonishingly important individuals, whom we would never have believed were without an archival home. And still they arrive from all over: New Zealand, Peru, Yugoslavia, and of course Austria and Germany along with estates from Great Britain and the United States. We could never have anticipated such an important gap in the restitution of displaced European culture.
That now we should be in receipt of the Walter Bricht estate is particularly significant in that it was down to the debacle of trying to find a home for the Bricht estate, that we decided, faute de mieux, to create one. It was over to the Bricht family as to whether they would entrust this important material to us. I’m happy now to confirm that Bricht’s musical estate will be coming to the exil.arte Centre, housed in the very building where he studied composition as Franz Schmidt’s favourite pupil.
(“Scattered Leaves” no. 1 Fließend; Fort Wayne Philharmonic, conductor Andrew Constantine: Toccata Classics)
As confirmation that this was not “just another estate” of a forgotten former refugee, a recording of Bricht’s orchestral music has been released on Toccata Classics with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic conducted by Andrew Constantine. It carries the encouraging sub-title, “Volume 1”. I was delighted when asked to write the liner notes, and even more pleased when Toccata agreed to let me use some of the notes and tracks as a basis for this new, up-dated article on Walter Bricht.
Bricht was born in 1904, an unlucky year for Jewish, Austrian composers. In fact, Bricht was, with three Jewish grandparents, only Jewish according to Nazi race laws. He was raised Lutheran in a family that could hardly have been more established bourgeois Viennese. As Bricht’s grandparents had converted, his parents too had not been raised Jewish. His father, Balduin Bricht was arts’ and political editor of Austria’s Volksblatt, a paper that was largely aimed at a conservative Roman Catholic readership. It was Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s favourite paper, though it was not as established as the Liberal Neue Freie Presse, the paper of record in Austria-Hungary. His mother, Agnes Pyllemann was a well-known song recitalist who knew Brahms and had premiered Lieder by Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler. Her musical career began as a pianist and child prodigy. By the time Walter Bricht was twenty, he had become her regular accompanist. Scouring the Austrian papers, all of which are on-line with search options, I was unable to find a single equivocal or bad review of either.
The unfortunate year of birth is slightly more complicated to explain. Ambitious Austrian composers would hope to establish their reputations in Germany. The natural development of careers, (beyond the obvious exceptions of Mozart or Korngold), meant a composer at this stage, would normally be in their late 20s or early 30s. For Austrian Jewish composers born before between 1900 and 1910, their most important opportunities for international exposure were closed with Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. Some, like Erich Zeisl would have works performed in Prague, or Zurich, though this wasn’t quite the same as having performances in Germany. As nobody appeared to be aware of Bricht’s Jewish ancestry, his international opportunities began just as Austria was annexed by Hitler. Both Dresden and Berlin had scheduled performances of his symphony and both would drop him instantly upon discovering he was racially incompatible with the Nuremberg Laws.
Bricht himself would only discover his Jewish ancestry following genealogical research after 1938. In his version of events, Austrian Radio, RAVAG, had beat him to it and terminated all future dates immediately following Austria’s annexation. Again referring to the newspapers on-line, Bricht was appearing in Austrian Broadcasts several times a month as composer, pianist, conductor or even organist. He was certainly considered one of the brighter hopes of Austrian music by the late 1920s, early and mid-‘30s.Upon discovering his “racial” incompatibility with the new regime, he contacted a friend at the American embassy, procured an affidavit and refused offers to re-classify as an “honorary Aryan”. He was excited at the prospect of immigrating to the United States. After having the principal orchestras of Dresden, Berlin and Vienna drop him for non-musical reasons, it was understandable that he now saw his opportunities further afield.
(Symphony in A min. op. 33, 1934, 1st Movement, Mäßig bewegt Fort Wayne Philharmonic, cond. Andrew Constantine: Toccata Classics)
Walter Bricht was, according to fellow Franz Schmidt pupil Walter Tausig, their teacher’s favourite. He was the only member of the class to be invited to Schmidt’s private home. Schmidt thought highly enough of him to show him his own compositions and it was Bricht who suggested to his teacher to reprise the trumpet solo from the start of his IV Symphony at the work’s conclusion.
Through the prism of the Holocaust, it’s impossible to be objective about Austrian anti-Semitism prior to 1938. I’ll try and extrapolate how Bricht might have fared in such an environment by attempting to lay out the Zeitgeist and political landscape during his formative years. It’s unclear if Bricht was unaware of his Jewish parentage, or simply never bothered to consider it. There were several strands of anti-Semitism circulating at the same time in Germany and Austria. One was confessional anti-Semitism and was represented primarily by the Catholic Church which held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Given the Church’s position within Austria’s clerical dictatorship from 1933 until the Anschluss (annexation) in 1938, this tended to be a theological, but not a sociological position. In other words, Jews knew they were theologically in conflict with official Catholic doctrine, but this hardly effected their position in day-to-day life. Perhaps it could be compared to same-sex relationships today, which also fall foul of church teachings, while being generally tolerated by society at large. For this reason, Jews felt relatively safe under the Catholic dictatorships of Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg.
The other strand of anti-Semitism was pseudo-Darwinian and was promoted by National Socialism. In fact, this strand merely grew out of the other and offers a lesson in how visceral bigotry can be made socially acceptable. Anti-Semites who based their dislike of Jews on religious convictions had begun to realise that such prejudice in fin de siècle Europe simply came across as bone-headed and would never result in their desired removal and isolation of Jews. In pseudo-Darwinian anti-Semitism, Jews were a different “race” and in human terms, the equivalent of an inferior breed of cattle. Wagner extrapolates wildly on the idea of Jews as “race” in his odious treatise Das Judenthum in der Musik – Jewishness in Music. Pseudo-scientific interpretations of Darwin suddenly supplied an “empirical” explanation for their deep, but seemingly illogical rejection of Jews. In some of the most frenzied passages in Wagner’s essay, Jews were presented as being physically different from Germans. He described them as “too ugly” to play romantic leads in the theatre, wilfully ignoring the fact that the most popular young actor in Vienna at the time, the Laurence Olivier of his day, was the Jewish actor Adolph von Sonnenthal. Two generations later, another Viennese Jewish actress known as Hedwig Kiesler, would be proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Hollywood under the name of Hedy Lamarr. Pseudo-Darwinian anti-Semitism simply offered “scientific” credibility to gut-response bigotry.
“Race” as a concept was being abused in any number of ways at the time, with biologists, social-scientists, eugenicists and zoologists insisting that Slavs, or Latins were different races to Teutonic Germans or other “Aryan” races. By the late 19th century in Europe, “race” was not just offering “empirical” justifications of anti-Semitism; it was providing the ammunition for expansionist nationalism, by definition, a deadly nationalism that was based on exclusion rather than inclusion.
(Symphonic Suite in A min. 1st Movement, Unruhig, bewegt, schwankend, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, cond. Andrew Constantine: Toccata Classics)
In Catholic Austria, it resulted in a number of apparent contradictions. The theocratic regimes of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg criminalised National Socialism and thereby distanced themselves from the deadly anti-Semitism of Germany’s Nazis. They still held the view that if a Jew converted, he or she was no longer a Jew. The Catholic Church was also extraordinarily inclusive in many ways and was according to the German historian Heinrich August Winkler, more resistant to Nazi race ideology than German Protestantism. The Austrian Catholic Church pre-1938 went public in its opposition to eugenics and Nazi policies of euthanasia. Incredibly, elements of the Catholic Church post-1938 provided some of the only engines of resistance to Hitler post-Anschluss. Dollfuss and Schuschnigg had not just criminalised National Socialism, but all forms of Socialism and thereby eradicated all potential resistance to the Nazis that might have come from the Left. The Catholic Church therefore remained the only possible opposition the Nazis would face in post-Anschluss Austria.
Despite the Clerical Fascist ban in Austria of all Socialist parties, including “National Socialists”, Austrians still managed to access Nazi “race” theories. Indeed, such theories were not even the exclusive property of Hitler and National Socialism. Few Viennese would in any case have been considered “racially” pure. A popular saying held that every authentic Viennese had both a Jewish and Bohemian grandmother. Austrian attitudes to Jews were therefore complex and hard to unravel, even at a distance of eighty years. If we wade through the correspondence of the composer Joseph Marx, we find many letters that are anti-Semitic, while many of his most personal letters are written to Jewish colleagues and friends. Franz Schmidt’s apparent enthusiasm for the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 was shared by Social Democrats as well as pan-German Austrians of every political colour. Historically, the Austrian parliament voted to be annexed by Germany in 1919, a process that was halted by the French, British and American allies. Not allowing Austria’s German speaking citizens to join together with the nation state of Germany seemed to fly in the face of Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination. Austria’s constituent nations were allowed autonomous statehood, while Austria’s German speakers weren’t. It was decided that any talk of Germany and Austria forming a political union would have to wait another twenty years. March 1938, the date of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, came nineteen years later. Austrian pan-Germans had yearned for this moment of “national unification” since Bismarck united the German Federation in 1871, while excluding Austria after its ejection from the Federation in 1866. After the dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire, Austria was, to quote Clemenceau, “whatever was left over”. What was “left over” was its core of disaffected German speakers, such as Franz Schmidt. To them, unification with Germany needed to take place regardless of the price. Few were prepared to speculate as to how high the price demanded by Hitler would be.
I’ve taken this detour in order to show the dangerous waters Bricht had to navigate as a young composer on the verge of international success. One of his earliest admirers and supporters was the conductor Leopold Reichwein, a musician so anti-Semitic he joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and stopped conducting Mendelssohn long before Hitler’s ban on Jewish composers. With Dresden and Berlin agreeing to schedule Bricht’s symphony in 1938, the ban on Jewish composers was already well in place. Perhaps Bricht was aware of how compromised he was, and it explains why he was eager to leave Austria as soon as possible while rejecting any offer of “honorary Aryan” status.
Bricht offers a good deal of personal insight chronicled in a dissertation from 1977 entitled The Seven Solo Piano Sonatas by Walter Bricht by Paul David Martin. Sadly, Bricht does not mention if he took his dilemma to his teacher. Franz Schmidt was not an anti-Semite if the number of his Jewish students and close friends are anything to go by. His oratorio set to a Nazi text called Deutsche Auferstehung – German Resurrection, was left incomplete upon his death in 1939. Schmidt seems to have abandoned the work and chose instead to finish a commission for the less than “Aryan” Paul Wittgenstein. Against this, the composer Walter Arlen recalls seeing Schmidt give the Nazi salute after a performance of Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, while other close associates of Schmidt’s were Nazi activists. The issues that preyed on Schmidt’s political mind were probably less a case of understanding Nazi ideology, and more the desire for unification with Germany. It was an aspiration also expressed in 1918 by the half Jewish composer Franz Schreker. Given the close relationship between Bricht and Schmidt, it would seem incredible that he did not turn to his teacher for advice. Perhaps he did and perhaps this was the basis of his optimism upon leaving Austria for the United States.
That a composer on the cusp of greatness, promoted by the major institutions of the day and championed by important conductors and soloists would stop composing upon arrival in the United States is sad, but not surprising. He was not alone. With the onset of war, few composers had the creative wherewithal to write music. For every Kurt Weill writing for Broadway, or Erich Korngold composing in Hollywood, there were dozens of composers who simply folded inwards with new environments, unable to tap resources in new homelands.
Bricht’s marriage fell apart and in losing his wife the pianist Ella Kugel, he also lost one of his most trusted interpreters. She had premiered his first piano concerto and stood prepared to premiere the second had the Anschluss not halted all developments. Perhaps it was the sobering reality of teaching in Mason College in Charleston West Virginia, the struggle to learn English, (which he didn’t speak upon his arrival in New York) or simply the challenges of keeping body and soul together while worrying about family members left in what was formerly Austria. There are a number of speculations put forward. Even Bricht suggests that he was unsure about becoming an American composer. Again, his birthdate worked against him. Composers Lukas Foss, Walter Arlen and Andre Previn were all able to create American identities as composers. Their advantage was they were establishing themselves and not re-establishing themselves.
(“Scattered Leaves” no. 5 Sehr langsam; Fort Wayne Philharmonic, conductor Andrew Constantine: Toccata Classics)
Bricht enjoyed the highest profile in Vienna with regular performances on RAVAG, Austrian broadcasting. His B minor quartet, op. 14 was premiered by the esteemed Rosé Quartet and soon taken up by the younger, yet equally esteemed Galimirs. His symphony was to be performed by the great orchestras of Germany and Austria and commissions were arriving from such well-known musicians as the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Indeed, Bricht had performed with Wittgenstein the run-through of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for Ravel himself, with Bricht reducing the orchestral part on a second piano. Yet what must have preyed on Bricht’s self-confidence was the fact that despite these undeniable successes, no publisher was prepared to take him on.
The musical Zeitgeist was shifting at terrific speed. In 1927, Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf! changed the musical landscape. After the First World War, the potential for modernising music was enormous and ideas were abundant. Some processes grew out of Max Reger, developing into New Objectivity. Both Hindemith and Ernst Toch considered Reger their spiritual and artistic father. Others were inclined to go down the route of Busoni, as can be heard in Kurt Weill’s early string quartets. Others had gravitated towards the Serialism of Arnold Schönberg and Josef Matthias Hauer. What was promoted in Berlin was different to what was being promoted in Vienna, Paris or Prague. With Krenek’s Jonny, the plurality of voices fell to the commercial wayside. From its premiere in 1927 to its first anniversary, it enjoyed as many performances as all of Puccini’s operas combined. It so outweighed other developments that operas such as Wozzeck or Die tote Stadt were soon being replaced by various “Jazz operas” in the style of Krenek’s Jonny. This genre of “contemporary opera”, called Zeitoper, featuring lots of popular music integrated as diegetic jazz bands or radio broadcasts, was surprisingly short lived. By the time Ernst Toch had jumped onto the band-wagon in 1930 with his opera Der Fächer – The Fan, the trend was already over. Paradoxically, an opera that was aesthetically and musically as far removed from Jonny as possible to imagine, suddenly broke all records. It was Jaromir Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper, or Švanda dudák. It sounded more akin to Smetana’s Bartered Bride than anything by Krenek, Max Brand, Hindemith or any other modernist voice of the younger generation. From its German premiere in Breslau under the title of Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer, it enjoyed more performances in a single year than Jonny spielt auf! Krenek had clocked 420 performances in the first year, Schwanda came in with a staggering 490.
(Symphony in A min. op. 33; Intermezzo, Scherzando, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Cond. Andrew Constantine, Toccata Classics)
Regardless, Bricht ticked none of the above boxes. The Viennese publishers Universal Editions (UE) had turned against the old guard of Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, Franz Schreker and even Arnold Schönberg, though they were happy to take their most revolutionary pupils. Some of the most successful Zeitoper composers, such as Ernst Krenek, Max Brand and Wilhelm Grosz were students of Franz Schreker. Any young composer who was seen as merely following in the footsteps of their teachers was dismissed as irrelevant. “The next big thing” was the intoxicating idea that possessed music publishers in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. The organic development from one generation to the next did not qualify. Moreover, real money was being made with operas and there was little interest in any composer still writing something as old-fashioned as a symphony or a sonata. Bricht was not alone. There were a number of young composers whose individuality was processed through evolution rather than revolution. Even Ernst Krenek distanced himself from Jonny in an attempt to re-start his own musical evolution away from just being a “jazz opera” composer.
Another aspect that has largely gone unnoticed is the fact that Bricht was the son of the arts’ editor of an influential, conservative paper. The parallels with Erich Korngold and his father Julius Korngold are too obvious to be ignored. Unlike Julius Korngold, Balduin Bricht appears to have been less partisan and less manipulative in the promotion of his family. Julius is always friendly in his reviews of Bricht and his mother. Even the piano concerto was received with an encouraging note from Julius who only questioned if its form justified the classification of “concerto”. This was his sole equivocation, and given his ability to annihilate anyone considered a potential threat to his son’s position, it can be considered a very welcome response from Vienna’s sharpest critic. As a result, I wonder if Bricht’s position within Vienna’s establishment was not also a possible reason for his continued rejection by Vienna’s most important publisher. By this point, a favourable mention by Julius Korngold (who retired in 1934) was reason enough for UE not to sign a young composer. This is only speculation, however, and perhaps further research in the UE archives can offer more information. Interestingly, Bricht mentions in an interview that one of his closest friends in Vienna was the composer and teacher Paul Pisk, a pupil of both Frank Schreker and Arnold Schönberg.
Together with Pisk and Kurt Pahlen, it was clear that Bricht moved in progressive circles – both musically and politically. He also taught at the “open schools” run by Vienna’s Socialist municipality and was regularly listed in the Communist paper Rote Fahne – Red Flag. Despite these credentials, he remained without a publisher. The reasons seem baffling in retrospect. At the time, such rejection appears to have weighed heavily and would have hampered opportunities in a new homeland where a publishing contract would have increased his credibility.
The plurality of musical ideas that extended beyond what publishers promoted is surprising. Bricht’s own voice was elegant and scintillating and came from a world that was less modernist, while remaining advanced within his own terms. The three orchestral works released by Toccata offer a window into Bricht’s musical universe and as a result, into a spectrum that was beyond the expected. Like the much younger Georg Tintner, with whom Bricht was once featured, the music recalls a sound world that is Eastern and even a bit mystical; an evolution that suggests Scriabin transitioning to Schreker, and Schmidt, then Szymanowski, then onto a younger generation who had little interest in either 12-tone or “New Objectivity”. Each step along this evolution was progressive, though to the publishers and arbiters of what made it to the concert stage or opera house, not sufficiently “modern”.
(Piano Sonata No. VII op. 39 in E maj. 1st Mov. Allegro moderato composed in Charleston W. Virginia, 1940; Pianist fellow Schmidt pupil and friend of Bricht, Walter Robert,)
(Piano Sonata No. VII op. 39 in E maj. 2nd Mov. Lento composed in Charleston W. Virginia, 1940; Pianist fellow Schmidt pupil and friend of Bricht, Walter Robert,)
(Piano Sonata No. VII op. 39 in E maj. 3rd Mov. Vivace (?) composed in Charleston W. Virginia, 1940; Pianist fellow Schmidt pupil and friend of Bricht, Walter Robert,)
Bricht was too circumspect to explain these things to the perspective PhD student, Paul David Martin. But I feel confident we can assume the combination of being ignored by the great European publishing houses and arriving in the United States, only to have expectations dashed, and his marriage fall apart, his creativity was inhibited. His last European work is his op. 37 called Das große Halleluja for large male chorus, organ, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani and cymbals, written in Carlsbad in 1937. Op. 38 was taken by Bricht for revision and has been missing since his death. Op. 39 was presumed incomplete, though it has now been catalogued as his Sonata no. 7 for piano. His last listed opus number is op. 40 and was a trio of thirteen variations based on a German folksong intended for Paul Wittgenstein. His next work, without opus, is dark and consists of a cycle of three Hesse poems plus a setting of Verlaine’s Slumber. Other works follow but remain incomplete, or left as mere fragments. Not until 1964 does he start to compose again with a sonata for flute and piano. There follows a Chaconne for string quartet and a Trio for flute, cello and piano. Paradoxically, the works for flute were commissioned by the family of Fritz and Natasha Magg, formerly known as Ella Kugel, Bricht’s first wife. Their son Kyril was a flute player, as was Bricht’s daughter, Dana, with his second wife, the violinist Donna Kuhn.
(Bricht Sonata for Flute and Piano, WoO. 23 Mov. 1, Allegretto Moderato, Dana Bricht, flute, Ick Choo Moon, piano)
(Bricht Sonata for Flute and Piano, WoO. 23 Mov. 2, Presto, Dana Bricht, flute, Ick Choo Moon, piano)
(Bricht Sonata for Flute and Piano, WoO. 23 Mov. 3, Andantino con variazioni, Rondo Dana Bricht, flute, Ick Choo Moon, piano)
There are no “ifs” in history. We can’t know how Bricht would have developed if he had been allowed to remain in Austria. In America, he apparently never expressed regrets at leaving his homeland, even though it resulted in virtual silence as a composer. He remained as enthusiastic about America as when he received his affidavit. He was inordinately fond of Americans and admired them as he makes clear in a lecture given in 1944 called America Takes Over Music. He was not to become one of the notorious “bei-uns-niks” or “back home-niks” – a name given Central European exiles in California, because they began each conversation with “Back home…” or “Bei uns…” He enjoyed teaching and was enormously popular at the Music School at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Like fellow émigré Karol Rathaus , he seems to have decided his métier in his new (safe!) homeland was teaching, with composition an occasional, private hobby. With fatherhood, he found an entirely new purpose to life and delighted in taking his daughters to opera rehearsal at Indiana University, explaining the plot, or accompanying them in their first attempts at performing. He was a musical prankster who would pick up one of the children’s miniature violins and perform one of the Mozart concertos with his wife on the piano.He adored his family, and the feeling was mutual.
Probably, in addition to everything else, he had observed post-war composition moving so far from his own language that it was perhaps best to remain silent. Nevertheless, his output prior to emigration was remarkable. It offers a good deal of exceptional music in an exceptional style that clearly grew out of Vienna’s fin de siècle. He wasn’t alone. As mentioned, the far younger Georg Tintner was also writing music that was individual, but markedly Viennese in character, as was the Schreker pupil Julius Bürger, (another estate held by exil.arte). Even the first four symphonies by Egon Wellesz offer a similar, uniquely Viennese take on the 20th century. The loss is tangible as taken together, such talented and articulate composers could have produced their own, very convincing modernist developments. His penultimate work is for string quartet and called Chaconne. It’s extremely beautiful, yet points in a new direction. His death at the age of 65 came too soon.
(Chaconne for string quartet, 1968, Bricht’s penultimate work)