Musicology and the Music Business – a Personal Journey

Sensing an opportunity to present our Centre at a University conference in the UK, I accepted a recent invitation to speak about “Musicology and the Music Business” at London’s Middlesex University. Musicology is a broad subject and its most technical aspects are probably far removed from the “business”, beyond according serious scholarship to various popular music genres that continue to thrive. The profound analysis of structure, harmony and tonality, or the interaction between genres offer tools for the practical musician in understanding his or her metier. When asked to speak, I could only refer to my own experience as a former recording executive vis-à-vis the music that came out of the first decades of the twentieth century until the great authoritarian watershed of the 1930s. The past thirty-five years have afforded me a ringside seat while I watched a much-dismissed period of twentieth century music slowly emerge as an increasingly present element in contemporary performance. It went, to use a single example, from Korngold being the greatest embarrassment within twentieth century music, to the most profitable composer in the Schott-publishing catalogue. To sneer at Korngold today is a bit like sneering at Rachmaninov: it says more about the person sneering than Korngold or Rachmaninov. Both continue to appeal to audiences and are treated with exacting seriousness by today’s most respected performers. Korngold is merely the most obvious example of how scholarship and continued evaluation of the past has benefitted the music business. Oddly enough, the same is becoming increasingly true of Korngold’s aesthetic rival, Ernst Krenek and the great number of composers who lived and worked within the wide-ranging aesthetic perimeters of the period. As followers of this blog will know, I’ve always focused on the composers lost to posterity during the Hitler years. To my surprise, a general interest in the plurality of music produced during the first thirty years of the twentieth century, has led to excavation of any number of diverse composers. We have seen recent revivals of composers excluded because of their perceived accommodation of authoritarian, nationalist regimes such as Joseph Marx and Florent Schmitt, as well as other composers who simply fell between the two stools of late Romanticism and Modernism.  This article, written from my very individual perspective and based on my own experience, is an attempt to explain how these changes came about, and to suggest how musicology – in this case, music history – can benefit the music business.

Random selection of recordings produced by Michael Haas

As a recording executive and producer for various major labels in the 1980s and 1990s, winning Grammys and signing major artists, it was already clear to me that the only possible justification in recording central repertoire was if one of the label’s most commercial artists insisted that it was their turn to immortalise their view of the “Classical” canon. CD sales hardly justified entrusting an expensive cycle of Bruckner symphonies to a bright young conductor like Riccardo Chailly. Even by the mid-1980s, there were complete cycles from the great and good as well as cycles recorded by lesser lights. To record a frequently recorded symphonic cycle with any conductor, especially a young one was to demand a gimmick, easier with Bruckner than say Mozart or Beethoven, since there tended to be several versions of each symphony. Things began to get out of hand when Sir Georg Solti, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Herbert Blomstedt also started to embark on a Bruckner cycle for the same recording label at the same time. Indeed, I found myself producing Solti’s second Bruckner cycle along with Chailly’s  first, while at the same time starting an intended cycle conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland. This was before I moved to Sony in the early 1990s in order to produce recordings with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. At Sony, if anything, the situation was worse where I found myself embarking on recording cycles Abbado had already recorded once, sometimes twice before.

By the mid-90s, the classical recording business was utterly out of control. Conductors were being paid millions and appointed by ensembles on the basis of their recording label contracts. Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth exposed the protectionist racket of large agencies and massive discrepancies between conductor and orchestral musician fees. Around the same time, the arts’ critic for Der Spiegel, Klaus Umbach wrote a similar exposé in German called Die Geldschein Sonate. Both books were denounced as “sensationalist nonsense” by everyone in the industry. In fact, both writers were prescient, though Lebrecht’s fear that recording labels would drive live performance to the wall was misplaced. It was obvious to those on the front line that Lebrecht and Umbach knew what they were writing about. Recording contracts had become exercises in mutual exploitation to the advantage of nobody other than individual conductors, performers and agencies. Many successful independent labels were folded into larger Entertainment conglomerates and Classical was made to compete with its popular music stable mates. Cross collateralisation was no longer an accepted A&R policy. Cross collateralisation meant that some of the income generated by highly commercial recordings could be invested in slow-burn artists or high-risk repertoire initiatives, such as “early music”, or in my case, “Entartete Musik”

Random Selection of recordings in Decca’s “Entartete Musik” series

The fly in this particular ointment was the decreasing sales of formerly important classical artists. The press reached for new words and phrases to describe a release of a work already available in numerous versions. As CDs were still relatively expensive, and digital technology had yet to allow for easy duplication by consumers, the hype surrounding each of these redundant releases began to sound like cult-personality propaganda. Despite the spiritual exaltation promised by each-demigod of the studio, it was inevitable that press-reviews began to remark that the new release of yet another Brahms or Beethoven cycle had “nothing new to say”. It made little difference to the artist, bolted into an exclusive agreement with one of the major labels, having already banked five figure advances in their offshore account. Slowly, it began to dawn on even the most slow-witted of marketing and A&R people that the old adage, “it’s artists that shift CDs” was beginning to fall apart. People were showing a noted reluctance to purchase Abbado’s third recording of the same Tchaikovsky symphony – even with the Berlin Philharmonic. Nevertheless, the dogma of artists rather than repertoire selling product, remained as indisputable as the earth orbiting the sun.

The thinking went that if new artists were to be found then we needed to find a means of creating them. There was no point in signing a young conductor if his only ambition was to record yet another of the standard symphonic cycles. So intertwined had performance programming and recording become, that when a famous American conductor told me that it was the orchestra’s “duty” to survey the great composers of the classical canon, he seemed flummoxed when I replied that I agreed. My point was there was no earthly reason to commit these surveys to CD, when everyone who could possibly want a Brahms cycle already had one and would be reluctant to part with $50 (or more) for a new one. Sadly, the devotion of his personal fan-base could not amortise the label’s investment.

Sex sells!

Gender hadn’t really entered the discussion, though there were a number of telegenic performers making successful careers. In general, classical performers were expected to be dowdy and bookish in order to be taken seriously. In the 1990s, major labels viewed marketing female conductors with the same enthusiasm as McDonald’s for selling insect burgers. In the meantime, the mantra that came from one oft-quoted label chief was, “if you want to sign a new artist, make sure she’s gorgeous!” With time, even this ploy was shown not to be working. Desperate marketing and A&R executives began to establish an alarming trend of replacing “gorgeous” young women, no matter how talented, with even younger, talented women after only a three CD contract – bought out if initial sales didn’t meet expectations. In addition, these attractive young performers – nearly all exceedingly talented – were being manipulated into recording what marketing people believed would sell, rather than allowing the artist to develop in any organic fashion. It was becoming apparent that new repertoire initiatives were needed, and via repertoire, perhaps new artists could emerge. All of these developments were not sequential – they happened simultaneously, with industry panic starting in the mid-1990s.

Short selections from various recordings taken from Decca’s “Entartete Musik” series

I can only write from my personal experience. There were a number of repertoire initiatives – some more successful than others: “Early Music” and “Authenticity” went down unexpected paths; Russian opera in live performances from St Petersburg and Moscow opened a new world to markets beyond the former Soviet Bloc; “Downtown-Manhattan” developments such as “Bang on a can”; Fusion and of course, the dreaded “cross-over”, which saw classical artists move into popular directions and vice-verse were just some of the things to emerge from the panic.  

Radio Station WQXR’s five versions of nessun dorma “that went viral”

If I’m grateful to the music business for anything, it’s for the support they accorded me when I suggested starting a series of recordings of works banned by Hitler. As noted above, it was only one of many repertoire initiatives that were being tried at the time. I won’t go into the ethical and marketing difficulties we encountered, or even initially the lacklustre sales. It was truly marginal repertoire and most of it stood in direct conflict with what publishers and broadcasters demanded. For music-historic reasons, and to the surprise of all of us, the material we initially unearthed was tonal and much seemed to have no relationship with the received modernism of the twentieth century at all. At the time, we couldn’t realise that this might possibly be an advantage. Some of the repertoire, despite its retrograde nature, was still startlingly inventive, while other works were rather conventional. A few – indeed, a small number of composers were experimental and anticipated the complex post-war avant-garde, but by and large, the repertoire was turning out to be an apparent continuum of the nineteenth-century, emerging organically into the twentieth. Even interwar “New Objectivity”, considered far more daring and provocative in its day than Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, was dismissed in the decades post-war as dry and arid. Some journalists and critics, who should have known better, simply dismissed everything that didn’t pluck their feelings or dodecaphonically scramble their comprehension as “Gebrauchsmusik”, regardless of whether the composers had actually intended any “utility” other than the standard communication between composer and public. The more we recorded, the more puzzling the diversity of material appeared until we had uncovered enough to sense the biotope of its creativity and the resultant plurality of styles and genre. (Do listen to the clip above, which offers selections from four or five recordings taken from the series) Indeed, the diverse plurality was itself the biotope – the supra-environment of creativity that created a bridge from the past to the present until it came crashing down in the wake of European fascism and a world war, ending in a diaspora spread so thin and far apart as to have lost all meaning and relevance to its original Central European homeland.

The research into the musical biotope that resulted in works being a success among original audiences, (meaning audiences of the day), was the challenge. It’s still a challenge when dealing with a good deal of music from the late nineteenth century. How do we understand Karl Goldmark’s popularity in his day in the context of his friends and colleagues, Brahms and Dvořák? One approaches music from a period when propagation was either in a concert hall, a place of worship, a town square or a private home. Broadcast was in its infancy and the wide spread dissemination via cinema would come only after many experiments. Despite their individuality, composers working in the orbit of those we today consider “the greats”, seem pale imitations to present day audiences: Salieri and Mozart, Franz Clement and Beethoven, Porpora and Handel – the list is endless. For every “great” composer, there were any number of others who enjoyed equal success in their lifetimes. My focus, however, remained the interwar years, as these were years when individual creativity was the only criterion: it didn’t matter if you composed for 200 orchestral players, a chorus of hundreds and a half-dozen harps (Schönberg’s Gurrelieder)  or a men’s speaking chorus and seven saxophones to be performed over 3 consecutive evenings (Wladimir Vogel’s Vagadus and his Fall through Vanity). And, there was everything in-betweens: propellers, steam pistons, tangos, jazz bands, bitonality, polyrhythms, Charlestons and black bottoms. The lead-up and aftermath of the First World War had unleashed creativity in all disciplines. Yet by the mid-1980s, there were only a few composers who served as representative of the period. These select few, such as Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith or Arnold Schoenberg, were taken to represent many hundreds of other composers equally active at the time. They narrowly defined what the world understood as music from the Weimar Republic and pre-war Central Europe. With the exception of Richard Strauss, they were handled at arms’ length by marketing departments and concert promoters. As a result, music, compared with the visual arts and literature from the same period, was surprisingly under-represented. Taken individually, it was difficult to place the works of still nameless composers in competition with Dvořák, Beethoven or even Strauss and Mahler. Collectively, however, we could begin to comprehend an environment that facilitated such creativity, and with understanding, a glimmer of appreciation for the repertoire itself. With an appreciation of the repertoire, it became possible to place a value on it in the context of recognisable points of reference. (i.e. Strauss, Schönberg and Hindemith) Over time, the repertoire emerged as far more complex and interesting. Criticism that dismissed it as reactionary pseudo-romanticism, failed beer-tent jazz or arid political instruction and utilitarian didacticism was changing to a recognition of an audible link in a continuity chain disrupted by the upheavals of politics and war.

Working with the composer Berthold Goldschmidt in Berlin in 1991, (photo: Vivianne Purdom)

What I have just described is a reflection of my personal experience over subsequent decades from the mid-1980s onwards. If we wish to use repertoire initiatives in order to expand the music business, it’s important to create a comprehension, (which is slightly more than understanding, or mere acceptance) of the macro-environment in which a composer’s unique creative impulses thrived. This was only possible once a critical mass of works had been uncovered and a critical amount of research had been undertaken. This need to comprehend creative environments applies as much to Handel and Bach as it does to Xenakis and Legeti. These specific macro-environments are easier for us to appreciate as the first was historic and has now become part of the music-historical canon and the latter was in relatively recent memory with many teachers, performers and composers still with us today.

Exhibitions mounted on various Viennese exiled composers at Vienna’s Jewish Museum from 2001 – 2010

My “Entartete Musik” recording series on Decca during the 1990s was followed by a stint of nearly a decade as Music Curator at Vienna’s Jewish Museum where I mounted exhibitions on a number of local composers. Unlike my work as recording producer, I needed to immerse myself in the life-story of each exhibition subject rather than choose a single work out of a composer’s output for recording. To do this meant going through the musical estates of each composer and sifting through documentation, ephemera, manuscripts and sketchbooks. This exercise led me to realise that Central Europe’s musical diaspora was largely held in distant archives, in whichever country had provided them with refuge. At the same time, a trawl through these archives revealed that perhaps understandably, they only focused on those aspects of the estate that were directly relevant to the country where refuge was offered. Their lives pre-immigration were rarely catalogued, or archived and in some cases, had actually gone missing.

Ernst Toch and Paul Hindemith as representatives of New Music in Germany: New York Times, August 10th, 1930

To illustrate what I mean: Ernst Toch, one of the leading figures in Germany’s “New Objectivity” movement fled to Hollywood in order to earn enough money to guarantee affidavits for relatives and family members. His musical estate is held by UCLA’s Performing Arts Library. At the time of our exhibition, the only bit of the estate that was available for scholars was his contribution to Hollywood films. His inter-war reputation remained in the boxes in which the estate had been delivered following his death in 1964. The material was unarchived and unsorted, and much had simply gone missing, such as the original manuscript of his famous Geographical Fugue.  The same is the case with the composer Karol Rathaus, with his musical estate held in the library of Queens College NY. His work as a teacher is valued, but his operas and ballets performed at Berlin’s State opera and even Covent Garden were until recent initiatives, still tucked away unsorted. Poking about in the boxes last year, the Queens’ physics professor, Lev Deych discovered the “lost” second piano sonata, which pianist Daniel Wnukowski performed after a silence of nearly ninety years following its Berlin premiere in 1925 by Stefan Askenase.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Even three of five boxes of Korngold’s Viennese pre-war correspondence and documents have gone astray at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. That they have not found it in over twenty-five years suggests the attitude of “hey – at least we still have all of his movie music and the documentation from his years in Hollywood.” The problem with this excuse is, intending to to become the father of the “Hollywood Sound” was the last thing Korngold set out to do. If his personal correspondence and the memoirs of his wife are anything to go by, he considered his twelve years spent churning out films scores as a means of surviving cultural exile. Meanwhile and since his death in 1957, subsequent generations of Central Europeans have moved forward with little idea of who he was beyond his film scores. The discrepancy becomes apparent. It is why the Korngold family and music publishers Schott approached us at Vienna’s Center to initiate a Korngold critical edition. The discrepancy I describe is clearly demonstrated by the two sides of the exile equation: the acknowledged contributions of a refugee to a new homeland, and the unacknowledged contributions made to a homeland he or she was forced to leave. The new homeland moves on with its own cultural narrative, occasionally shaped by the post 1933 European diaspora, while a gap remains in the cultural narrative of former homelands.

Following publication of my book Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis in 2013, I received a number of contacts from people with musical émigré estates. I managed to place these in various institutions in Vienna and Salzburg, though at some point, these archives were no longer in a position to take on new collections unless the musician was world famous. In any case, I felt an archive to be inadequate for anything other than storage. Most did little to exploit their holdings, and as explained above, few were concerned about anything that was not relevant to the locality of the archive. The trajectory of artist-exile-refugee-émigré-immigrant to naturalised citizen was rarely fully archived and indexed, with the focus remaining on “immigrant to citizen”. Estates were held passively with only scholars and a few musicians requesting access. This was the background, which led to my colleague Prof. Gerold Gruber and me setting up the Centre at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts. Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with the Centre, but for the purpose of exploring the interaction between musicology and the music business, I’ll repeat what I’ve already written, which given this particular context, may come across differently. 

One of’s two storage vaults

Worldwide, Vienna’s Music and Performing Arts’ University is ranked number one among tertiary music and performing arts’ institutions. Unlike most other colleges, academies or schools such as Juilliard or the Royal College, it has a substantial student population numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds. It doesn’t just offer courses in performance and composition, but music therapy, pedagogy, media and cultural management; studio training along with institutes for popular music, and composition for media and computer games. Last year Hans Zimmer led its Film music seminar, this year it was Gabriel Yared. As the forward-looking University president, Ulrike Sych once said to Prof. Gruber and me, “we can’t educate students so that upon graduation, the only prospect they have is waiting tables”.

The current exhibition on the stage director Erwin Piscator and his wife, the dancer, Maria Ley-Piscator

The Max Reinhardt Seminar, the German speaking world’s equivalent to RADA (London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) is also part of Vienna’s Music and Performing Arts University, which meant acquiring the partial estate of the Berlin stage director, Erwin Piscator, held by his wife since 1936, the choreographer and dancer, Maria Ley fed into the historic-narrative of theatre as well as music. But music is obviously the most prominent element within the archives and I was astonished at how many families had taken the decision to hold onto the estates of formerly exiled relatives in the realisation that local libraries and archives had no real concept of evaluating such an individual collection within the context of the rest of their holdings. Many families were torn about making such a decision. Their parents or grandparents had been thrown out of Germany or Austria, yet these were the countries where they had made their most important contributions. It was obvious that archives in the United States, Great Britain, Israel, Australia or New Zealand simply could not understand the value of contributions made prior to immigration.

The 2017 opening exhibition of with Egon Wellesz’s piano in the foreground

Over the last couple of years, we acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, some twenty estates with the prospect of more in the pipeline: they ranged from Hans Gál, Wilhelm Grosz, Egon Lustgarten and Julius Bürger, some of the most significant composers during the Weimar Republic years, to a cabaret singer in refugee venues in London, who composed her own material; an operetta composer about whom we know nothing other than the fact that he and Max Reinhardt were both thrown out of Berlin following Hitler’s arrival, whereupon they successfully mounted the relocated performances to a theatre in Vienna. We have a composer of Salon music about whom we know very little except that he was published and entered onto the Nazi blacklist, published as the Lexicon of Jews in Music. We have the conductor Georg Tintner, famous for his Bruckner cycle on Naxos, which despite the plethora of Bruckner cycles by far better known conductors and ensembles was hailed as definitive. Few knew that he was a composer. As a young man, before becoming a refugee chicken farmer in New Zealand, this “first Jew to become a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir”, had composed works that grew out of the shimmering aesthetic of Schreker and Szymanowski.   There was the composer Walter Bricht, performed by the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics until he discovered that he was a Jew according to Nazi race laws. He left Europe for America and one of Austria’s most productive young voices stopped composing altogether until shortly before his death in Bloomington Indiana where he worked as a teacher of chamber music and accompaniment. We also have the digitised and scanned estates of composers born in 1920 who couldn’t complete their entry examinations for the Music Academy.

The twenty-year-old Hans Winterberg signed “Hanuš Winterberg”

We also have the digitised scans of the estate of a Czech Jewish composer named Hanuš, or Hans Winterberg, who post-war and having survived Theresienstadt, passed himself off as an exiled Sudeten German until he was rumbled by the local Sudeten German community in Bavaria. After his death in 1991, the “Sudeten German Music Institute” acquired his musical estate and embargoed it from performance or broadcast until 2031. Bavarian Radio had already recorded and broadcast his symphonies, piano concertos, chamber and orchestral works – all embargoed after the Sudeten German Music Institute in Regensburg acquired the estate and tried to silence his voice. They even stipulated in their contract that it was forbidden to divulge Winterberg’ s Jewish provenance. A lawsuit has now returned the work to the public and its hopeful relocation to our centre. Within two years, four CDs of his music have been released along with others still in planning. A major music publisher believes he represents one of the twentieth century’s most important re-discovered lost voices.

One of Winterberg’s Neoimpressionistische Zwölfton Werke, performed by Brigitte Helbig, former student at Vienna’s University for Music and Performing Arts
The Selini Quartet, former student of Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts perform at a memorial concert for the Austrian Parliament

The long-term fruits of creating the biotope of past creativity are too numerous to mention, but to offer an example of how far we’ve come: Korngold is no longer a dirty word in serious music circles. His violin concerto is now standard repertoire and the most profitable work presently held by Schott music publishers. The Los Angeles Opera embarked on a series of performances of works by Schreker, Korngold, Zemlinsky, Ullmann, Braunfels and others, all acknowledged as a result from Decca’s recording series. Young singers, chamber ensembles and instrumentalists, even conductors have approached the Center for performance and recording repertoire since they feel it will be more beneficial in the long run than performing and recording over-familiar works already available in numerous interpretations on CD. The dividends have paid off. Young careers are being made and musicians are able to stand out in the “Lang Langisation” environment created by the remaining major labels. The performance of Winterberg’s piano work in the clip above was from a commercial recording for Toccata Classics, made by Brigitte Helbig, a former student of Vienna’s Music and Performing Arts’ University. Significantly and understandably, this process of what I’ve called “reverse restitution” has taken root mostly in Central Europe. It restores repertoire to a public from which it was removed, “Aryanised” or stolen during the Nazi years. In today’s commercial environment, it makes sense since careers are becoming more concentrated in specific “back-yards”, meaning what’s popular in Germany does not need to be popular in the American, French or Chinese markets. When I initially began working for Decca, it took the approval of an international marketing team to agree before signing a new artist. Nowadays, there are highly prominent performers who have little or no name-recognition outside of their home-markets. Not everyone can be a Lang Lang, but this being the case, it allows for individual developments within individual markets. As young artists mature, they take this repertoire with them and over time, we can see its appreciation becoming more international. Some of it already is, given the performances of Braunfels, Schreker, Zemlinsky and Weill at Los Angeles Opera.

A small selection of recent Toccata Classics releases to which two volumns of Ernst Krenek paino concertos could also be added

With the notable exception of Renée Fleming, it’s clear to me that advocacy of this repertoire just won’t be possible with the great names I worked with in the past. Many of them have already retired or are deceased, and those who are still active have now hunkered down to fulfil their autumnal years with what they believe to be the exploration of the familiar, rather than discovery of the new or lost. Audiences and the media love the idea of elderly musicians “returning” to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. I place “return” in inverted commas since this is repertoire they have performed most of their professional lives. Andras Schiff, an artist I signed to Decca in the late 1970s has re-recorded most of what he recorded for Decca while finally turning his attention to Beethoven. Chailly, once an advocate of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, back in the days when they were still considered “modern” and “new”, now conducts cycles of Brahms and Beethoven and has since taken up a position at La Scala, where I wonder if Schreker or Zemlinsky will be high on his repertoire list, though La Scala recently performed Korngold’s die Tote Stadt to great acclaim. But, as Chailly wrote to me in a personal note, those were past days: now he had to concentrate on the central canon of “great music”. The implication being that these, as yet to be championed composers, could never really achieve any degree of greatness. Or at least, not if championed by him. The only chance we have at this stage of expanding the repertoire of the lost twentieth century, is by positioning young professionals and students who approach us with an interest in going off-piste: a young quartet approaches us for something other than Haydn and Beethoven, or a young pianist approaches us for new repertoire – indeed, piano repertoire is perhaps the most in need of renewal, though opera offers a close second. Knowing that the next generation of young musicians and scholars will take this forward offers long- to mid-term hope for the future of serious music as a business and as an art form. In short, musicology and historiography help create the biotope of creativity, and with that comes understanding and appreciation among audiences and performers.