“Heimat Erde” – “Homeland Earth”: Four Lessons to Learn from The Loss of Local Composers
(Heimat Erde March by Robert Frey aka Freistadtl)
Over the last months, the exil.arte archive has acquired an eclectic collection of composers and musicians, which I hope sets the scene for how the archive/centre develops. Yes, we have received the musical estates of some important Austrian composers such as Hans Gál, Julius Bürger, Walter Bricht, Wilhelm Grosz with Egon Lustgarten on route, but just as compelling has been the learning curve the last year has imposed on us, and I would suggest, on the integrity of “exile music” research. We have been confronted with certain realities that openly defy the restrictive standards hitherto set by scholarship.
Up until now, it’s been emotive and persuasive to demonstrate the extent of damage inflicted by Hitler’s policies on major figures who changed the very nature of our relationship with music: Korngold and Hollywood; Kurt Weill and Broadway; Kosma and French Chanson; Schoenberg and the departure from tonality; Eisler and agitprop; Hollaender and cabaret; Ernst Toch and Paul Hindemith and the emotional disengagement of “New Objectivity”. All of these composers were watersheds of some sort or another whose influence once established outside of their home-countries would be re-imported after 1945. They all set the scene for much post-war creativity. For example, without the Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein, would Benjamin Britten have become the international composer who transcended British provincialism? Without Heinsheimer, how would the American composers published by Schirmer’s, such as Samuel Barber, have fared beyond America’s borders? What was Hans Joachim Kollreuter’s real influence on the Bossa Nova and Latin American jazz? The rhetorical questions go on and on and invite hours of speculation. In this mad rush to look at the vast musical forest of post-war musical life, we’ve overlooked some important, individual trees.
(Notturno from the opera by Jan Urban “Djul Beaza”; Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
The first important lesson that departs from received scholarship is the quite obvious fact that most music produced and consumed before the war was local. Radio was still in its relative infancy as was the gramophone. A musician who was locally popular could have a comfortable living without being known in London, New York or Berlin. Alternatively, there were many successful composers who were only known in any one of these cities but nowhere else. These local musicians composed to feed local tastes in a manner that fell away once the “globalisation” of music began. Even composers considered fairly important were part of music’s innate pre-war provincialism: Edmund Eysler and Leo Ascher operettas rarely made it past Vienna’s city limits. Ignaz Waghalter appears to have been enormously popular in Berlin with only minor excursions beyond. Even Franz Schmidt’s only opera, Notra Dame, did not venture very far for very long outside of Austria. People were happy with their composers who supplied music for their town orchestras, theatres and opera houses. Success in the so-called provinces was enough to do more than put food on the table. As a result, when scanning through Nazi blacklists, such as the notorious Lexikon der Juden in der Musik, the Bible of who could- and who couldn’t be performed in Nazi Germany, only about one name in ten appears familiar to us today. Most of the musicians and composers who were banned were local. It makes their loss to their individual communities no less significant.
(Jan Urban: Zvuciis pod Medvednika (Sounds from the Medvednik Mountain), Overture. Radio Symphony Orchestra Belgrade, Conductor: Bojan Sudjic. Recording from the archive of RTVS (Radio Television of Serbia))
A comparison becomes more sobering when trying to match what we judge as “success” with “significance”. Jan Urban, (a composer I’ll return to) was successful, but he was clearly less significant than say Schoenberg. This was a topic that was even discussed during the inter-war years: I recall reading an article from about 1927 or ’28, in Melos, that highlighted this very point by stating that Schoenberg was the most “significant” composer of the age, while at the same time, remaining the least performed. But by prioritising something as subjective as “significance”, we diminish the aesthetic values of music-lovers of a particular time and place. In fact, we don’t diminish these values, we do something far worse: we dismiss them altogether. The provincialism of music was an intrinsic feature of pre-war musical life that we have been late to acknowledge. This aspect of “provincialism” is what is actually “significant”, and just because a composer was once considered a local figure, doesn’t mean that today, their outreach can’t be global. We’ve seen this transformation from “local” to “global” already in the resurrection of countless court musicians from the Baroque. It’s equally true of composers and musicians from the early 20th century.
(Primula veris II by Gustav Lewi, Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, Soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
The second lesson we learned is that music had an auxiliary social purpose pre-war that barely exists today. Certain genres that today we consider secondary were once primary. Salon music, or “domestic music making” are examples of this. Such bourgeois sub-genres were paradoxically, more “utilitarian” at precisely the time when an army of “Gerbrauchsmusik” purveyors were trying to come up with formulas that would transform music into something useful for the masses. The “utilitarian” characteristics of music before the advent of Gebrauchsmusik in the mid-1920s were aimed at the middle-classes, whereas “utilitarian” by the mid-1920s in Germany, was seen as a vehicle for the political instruction of the proletariat. It was a wonderful and inspiring ambition and only a pity that most of the music itself is rather simplistic and feels patronising to listeners today. Against the four-square marches of Hanns Eisler, the “utilitarian” music of the middle-classes was, as mentioned above, “Hausmusik”, or music for performing at home, or “Salonmusik”, amateur performances in private parlours and drawing rooms. Hausmusik distinguishes itself from chamber music in as much as chamber music is written for a public and Hausmusik is written primarily for performers. Salonmusik only differentiates itself from the recitals heard in smaller concert halls by the fact that it kept to familiar models, with no attempt to challenge either the performerH or the audience. It was intended for the amateur, not professional. Salonmusik would save the passionate amateur the humiliation of performing Chopin badly by providing something that was as superficially appealing as Chopin but not as technically demanding. It was music to enjoy, not music as acrobatics.
The third lesson we’ve had to take on board is that even a composer with a recognised name before the Nazi tabula rasa can vanish without trace. A ragged score of an operetta came our way by a composer none of us had ever heard of: Robert Frey (1889 – 1948). Actually, his real name was Robert Freistadtl. An operetta commissioned by Max Reinhardt, based on a Goldoni play failed to open in Berlin in 1933 because of Hitler. Instead, it ran for several years in Vienna’s Raimund Theater. One has to look long and hard to find any trace of it today. Even the pedigree of Max Reinhardt could not save the composer and his work from oblivion, despite its lengthy run as Die Wirtin von Venedig – The Landlady of Venice. The only audio example we have of anything by Frey is the jolly little march at the top of this article. It sounds so inconsequential, it’s difficult to judge how its progenitor would have expanded his musical vision onto a broader canvas of any description. It seems all the more difficult to comprehend when the press and public of the day offer strong endorsements of the composer and his work. This march fittingly entitled Heimat Erde – Homeland Earth promises little and asks a myriad of questions. How could the composer of this trifle impress the mighty Max Reinhardt, who until this time was collaborating with Erich Wolfgang Korngold? The only hint of an answer to this question comes when we discover it was one of many nostalgic works composed while Frey/Freistadtl was living in exile. It was never performed, and remained a mere memory game.
This offers the revelation that the most important fact we know about Freistadtl is that we know almost nothing about him. Scour Vienna’s pre-war papers and we discover that he was exceedingly wealthy and inherited a number of highly productive cotton mills. Place Freistadtl into the search engines of Austria’s papers from the pre-war years, and we can see that philanthropy played an important role in his life. It’s only when we place “Frey” into the search engine that scraps of information about the composer start to appear. His brother who was supposed to have inherited the business died a hero’s death in the First World War. We learn that Robert Freistadtl called himself “Robert Frey” while living as a composer in Britain before 1914. His surviving family mistakenly speculated he had changed his name to appear less Jewish. He married Charlotte Cohn in 1917, whose father was a diplomat from a family of bankers. They had two sons and a large estate in Austria’s scenic Salzkammergut. Freistadl appears to be totally self-taught, though we might assume he had private tuition. Talented musicians from wealthy assimilated Jewish families weren’t encouraged to audition for music colleges, as Hans Gál relates when explaining his private lessons with Richard Robert and Eusebio Mandyczewski. It means, however, we have no record of this successful composer having studied at Vienna’s Music Academy, the city’s primary institution.
The indisputable success of his two operettas would not save Freistadl or his family from Nazi persecution. The family managed to immigrate to England in August 1938. In 1940 Freistadl was interned as an “Enemy Alien” on the Isle of Man. While in England, he composed a number of light, occasional pieces of which Heimat Erde is but one. According to his daughter, they were never performed and appear to have been psychological tools for coming to terms with loss of country, identity and livelihood. Despite the family’s wealth prior to Hitler, following sequestration of Freistadl’s cotton mills and bank accounts, in exile, they barely managed to survive. The titles of the many pieces he composed at this time, such as This was Vienna and Scherzo Sentimental, to say nothing of Heimat Erde, betray the profound homesickness, that according to members of his family, killed him in 1948.
Perhaps the most important, and fourth lesson we’ve learned, is that not knowing anything about a composer, is often the only important thing we know. As with Max Reinhardt’s collaboration with Richard Frey/Freistadl, formerly significant people also vanish with time, and a name on a blacklist, an entry in the Lexicon of Jews in Music or a mention on a scrap of publisher’s advertising is frequently all the information about someone we can find. As more and more historic newspapers come on-line, it’s increasingly possible to fill these gaps, but the provincial nature of music consumption pre-war was by definition outside of the interest of concert critics based in capital cities. In fact, it was entirely possible to be published, performed and blackballed with no further media exposure than the daily radio listings printed on the back page of a local paper. It’s frustrating, but it does not diminish the composer as much as it diminishes us for dismissing composers (or performers), because we never heard of them. Lack of information is already important information.
(Regen – Rain, by Gustav Lewi, Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
This is what comes of taking each musical estate seriously, and on its own merits. Scholarship has rightly or wrongly directed its attention on those composers who changed the public’s relationship with music. It’s been far too slow in looking at music that deliberately cultivated its existing relationship with the public. Though there are many composers we can write about, several have come to exil.arte demonstrating this disparity in values.
(Jan Urban: Srpske igre br.9 – Trojanac (Serbian Dance No. 9) Radio Symphony Orchestra Belgrade, Conductor: Bojan Sudjic. Recording from the archive of RTVS (Radio Television of Serbia)
In addition to Robert Freistadl, there is Jan Urban (1875 – 1952), a Czech from Prague born in a minor aristocratic (non-Jewish) family on October 20th 1875. He attended the State Conservatory and graduated in 1896. Hundreds of Czech musicians would leave for Vienna and towards the end of the 19th century, carry on to the South Slavic countries in order to raise the standards of classical music. A friend of Urban’s seems to have persuaded him to relocate to Serbia where Pan-Slavic ideology had drawn a number of North Slavs, mostly from the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia to the South Slav regions. The so-called “Compromise Agreement” or “Ausgleich” of 1867 that divided the Habsburg realm between the co-equals of the “Kingdom of Hungary” and the “Austrian Empire” excluded the Slav majority of autonomy, while placing authority with minority German-Austrians and Magyars. It was but one of many ethnic stress-points that threatened to tear the Dual Monarchy asunder. Urban arrived in Serbia and joined the Serbian army becoming the second conductor of the Fifth Infantry Regiment. He married in July 1903, converted from Catholicism to Serbian Orthodox.
The marriage produced six children, all of whom would later be successful in their chosen fields. Their daughter, Katarina who inherited the legendary beauty of her mother Milka Perić, won the title of “Miss Yugoslavia” in 1931. In any case, Urban fought for Serbia in all of the Balkan wars up to and including the First World War. As Prague was located in the Habsburg kingdom of Bohemia, which at the time, was part of Austria, it meant that Urban found himself in conflict with his former homeland. Urban went on to establish orchestras in a variety of places including Valjevo, (his original posting), Priština and Skopje. From 1918, the Balkans partially reorganised themselves with Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia joining to become the “Kingdom of Yugoslavia”. It was in this new constellation that he would enjoy his lengthiest posting, in the lovely Croatian city of Osijek, often referred to as the “Prague of the south”. It was here he could establish a full symphonic orchestra, used as the ensemble in Osijek’s National Opera.
It would be a huge mistake to dismiss Urban as merely a composer of military music – indeed, this was not even particularly significant within his total output, even if it was the genre that gave him a start following his arrival in Serbia. The rest of his output consisted of operas, operettas, six or seven volumes of lyric piano pieces, chamber music, art songs, choral and liturgical works along with a number of orchestral tone-poems offering Slavic flavouring with colourful orchestrations. Urban and his family were settled in Osijek by the time of the Nazi occupation of Croatia in 1941. As a Serbian and avowed anti-fascist, he had already been targeted by the Ustaša – the Croatian associate Nazi movement. Despite his position at Osijek’s theatre and his significance as an important composer, he fled with his family to Valijevo in Serbia, where they remained until Urban’s death in 1952. It was a devastating transplantation as during the war, Valjevo was not only cut off, but life was reduced to mere subsistence.
(Jan Urban: Elegie – Homage to an Anti-Fascist Hero; Live concert performance with Orsolya Korcsolán: Violine, Biljana Urban: Piano)
The crimes of the Ustaša are not generally known to Anglo-American readers. Manés Sperber’s moving account of life as a partisan in Yugoslavia in his Wie eine Träne im Ozean – Like a Tear in the Ocean, offers a chilling preface to the horrors of the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1990s. To the Croatians, Urban was a Serb, to the Serbs, they saw him as just one of the many Czechs who had come to Serbia to build up musical life. This ambivalence has left question marks over the fate of many of his works. Many are missing after being brought to safety during the bombing of Belgrade during the Civil War of the 1990s. Much of the material in Croatia was simply destroyed. Fortunately, a considerable part was held by his son Slobodan until his death 1993. His daughter, the concert pianist Biljana Urban who at the time lived in Paris, was able to rescue material during the Civil War in 1994. Today, and as part of the continuation of her research she has handed the estate to exil.arte for safe keeping and dissemination. In the meantime, Biljana Urban continues to record her grandfather’s piano works for Naxos and recently released by Chandos.
(Jan Urban: Song of Grass – Lyric Piece, pianist Biljana Urban, Chandos)
(Das Märchen vom Glück – the Fairytale of Happiness, by Gustav Lewi, Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, Soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
The story of Gustav Lewi (1876 – 1941), also known as Gustav Leonhardt is even more perplexing. On the surface, we know that he was published and listed under both names in the Lexikon der Juden in der Musik. We assume he changed his name from Lewi to Leonhardt to draw attention away from his Jewish provenance. He was born in 1876 in Danzig (today, Polish Gdansk), where he appears to have received his earliest musical education. We need researchers to check the records of the local conservatories where we can only assume he acquired his earliest training. One thing is clear: he was an accomplished musician and was not self-taught. Nevertheless, it was not intended that he become a musician, but work in his uncle’s East Prussian tea exporting business. Music won out and in any case, the family eventually relocated from Danzig to Berlin. The subsequent living arrangement seemed more like an enormous flat-share with Gustav, his three sisters, Minna, Hedwig and Franziska along with Franziska’s husband Alfred.
When Hitler came to power, the family moved from central Berlin to Charlottenburg. By January 30th, 1933, Lewi would have been 56 years old. He and two of his sisters were unmarried. The sisters were very far from the concept of “old maids”. Minna Lewi was a successful artist still collected today. She painted landscapes and as the photo shows, she was also a sculptress. Hedwig had a doctorate in maths and worked under Max Planck at the University of Berlin. Another sister, Rosa, married and moved to England. Minna and Hedwig decided to commit suicide on their sister Rosa’s birthday, July 3. 1942, rather than face deportation. Franziska and her non-Jewish husband were deported and died in Theresienstadt.
(Liebesfeier – Love’s Celebration, by Gustav Lewi, Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, Soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
Gustav Lewi died on September 30th 1941 in Berlin’s Jewish Hospital of asthma, an affliction he had suffered all of his life. As with Robert Frey, the manuscripts and bits and pieces of the estate are thanks to relatives in England and offer little detail as to the man or his biography. All we know is that he was published and obviously performed, if only in the context of private Hauskonzerte or parlour music gatherings.
(Nachtklänge – Sounds of the Night, by Gustav Lewi, Live concert performance with Ethel Merhaut, Soprano; Sándor Károlyi, piano)
We make no apologies about taking these estates which most archives might have turned down as being too paltry and with only tenuous information as to who the individuals were. This is less the case with Urban who was certainly highly recognised in his native Yugoslavia. There were even collections of Urban’s material in both Osijek and Belgrade libraries and archives. Sadly, for most people, the music of the Balkans remains Terra incognita. Even Bulgaria’s national composer Pantsho Vladigerov, remains unknown outside of his homeland, despite composing music, similar to Urban’s orchestral works: strikingly vibrant with much appealing national colour.
(Jan Urban: Tanz “Kolo” – Dance “Kolo”, Live concert performance with Orsolya Korcsolán: Violine, Biljana Urban: Piano)
The post-war 20th century was too shocked and traumatised to deal with music it dismissed as “conventional”. Indeed, unlike other composers who stuck to their tonality guns, such as Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx or Hans Gál, these composers, along with others such as Richard Stöhr, Jaromír Weinberger or Edmund Eysler, make no concession to “modernity” at all. They stick to tried and true conventions of the 19th century. In the case of Urban (born 1875), Lewi (born 1876) and Stöhr, (born 1874), they were children of the 19th century. As Biljana Urban points out, Jan Urban’s volumes of Lyric Piano pieces were written during the time Grieg was completing his own volumes of Lyric Pieces. It would be not only facile, but lazy to dismiss Lewi, Stöhr or Urban as composers born during the same period as Schönberg (born 1874). As I wrote above, Schoenberg changed our relationship with music, while Stöhr, Lewi and Urban merely wished to cultivate it. In retrospect, we should hesitate to condemn or praise one creative talent over the other. Some pieces in the mosaic of history are simply larger and brighter than others. Some pieces appear brighter when observed from a different angle. Yet, without all of the pieces, large or small, bright or matt, the mosaic will simply look unfinished or damaged.