“The Fractured Self” – Selected German letters of the Australian-born Violinist Alma Moodie, 1918-1943

It’s finally arrived. The Fractured Self – Selected German Letters of the Australian-born Violinist Alma Moodie. All 640 pages of it! Kay Dreyfus’s collection of correspondence by the Australian violinist Alma Moodie, with translations from German by Diana K. Weekes.  This follows from Dreyfus’s biography of Alma Moodie, Bluebeard’s Bride, published in 2013. Full disclosure requires me to mention that I’ve supplied a supplementary chapter to The Fractured Self called Alma Moodie and the “Third Reich”. I quote extracts from it in this entry as it is relevant to the ethos of Forbidden Music and I believe, helps in better understanding the dilemmas, time and situations of different performers and composers during the years of Hitler’s “Third Reich”. 

Alma Moodie

Why, one may ask, are the letters of an Australian violinist who lived from 1898 – 1943 and never made any commercial recordings and whose many broadcasts have failed to survive, of importance? In answer to this, it’s worth pointing out first and foremost, Alma Moodie was perhaps the most significant instrumentalist of her generation, to escape audio documentation of any kind. She lived as both a darling and an outsider during Europe’s most suicidal years. My first encounter with the name was from Berthold Goldschmidt whose violin concerto was being recorded by Chantal Juillet along with those by Ernst Krenek and Erich Korngold as part of Decca’s “Enartete Musik” series. He told us of his acquaintance with Moodie, what a marvellous player and wonderful all-round musician she was. He spoke of her affair with Krenek and the fact that Krenek’s concerto, along with a violin sonata were written for her. He also mentioned that he had Moodie in mind when composing his own concerto.  He was certainly not alone. Other composers, apart from Krenek, who wrote works for Moodie included Hans Pfitzner, Max Reger, Egon Wellesz, Gerhart Münch and Hermann Reutter. She premiered works by Hindemith and Stravinsky and she was a close correspondent with Rainer Maria Rilke.

Moodie with her Swiss mentor Werner Reinhart and Rainer Maria Rilke

Her teacher, Carl Flesch cited her as the pupil he liked the most. This alone must count for something given his other pupils included Norbert Branin, Felix Galimir, Szymon Goldberg, Ida Haendel, Ginette Neveu, Max Rostal, Henryk Szerying, Josef Gingold – just to mention a few of the best-known names. As Flesch was Jewish, her association with him during the Nazi years was brave and at one point, after a phone call picked up by Nazi monitors, dangerously foolhardy. Married to a Nazi party member, and joining the party herself, thereby profiting by becoming a professor at a time when Jewish teachers had been removed, her letters offer a view of events unfolding, and ultimately ending in tragedy. Did she die of an accidental overdose or was it suicide? The Jury is still out. Her letters of anger at the bombing of Cologne by the British give us one side of her character, while trying to find a means of immigrating to the UK offers an alternative view.

Alma Moodie and her teacher Carl Flesch

But equally important, this selection of correspondence also offers a degree of redemption from Krenek’s profound misogyny. The character of Anita in his opera Jonny spielt auf is based on Moodie, and could be seen as an early example of “revenge porn”. In his memoirs, he portrays her as promiscuous and unfeeling. The letters tell a very different story and give us a character who was intellectually questioning, artistically creative and capable of rising to the new music challenges of her day. As improbable as may be seen today, the view at the time was that Moodie’s promotion of Pfitzner’s violin concerto would ultimately catapult it into the canon.

She later confesses to Pfitzner that she couldn’t understand what she saw in Krenek’s music. Krenek wrongly suspected her of having an affair with her mentor, the Swiss businessman, Werner Reinhart, (there is evidence that he was in fact homosexual, so this seems unlikely), and with a Romanian singer named Daniel Stoescu, whom he immortalises as Daniello in Jonny. It was unfounded paranoia and jealousy, but it left an impression that Moodie was flighty and prone to sleep about when on concert tours.  

Krenek’s photo upon entering Vienna’s Music Academy in 1916 to study with Franz Schreker

Moodie lost her father when an infant, she left her home as a young child and her mother accompanied her everywhere until she died in 1918. Moodie became the ward of a German noble man and the only “family” she knew was the short-lived kindness and support of Max Reger and his wife. As a result, her devotion to her own family would ultimately become more important than her career. She cared deeply about the welfare of her children and was devoted to her Swiss mentor Werner Reinhart. She even appears to have loved her philandering husband, Alexander Spengler, though most likely, she was grateful to the stability he offered as an alternative to her peripatetic existence. In fact, he was an unfaithful, politically opportunistic rogue. Moodie was the third of his six wives, and upon her death, custody of their children went to Werner Reinhart.

Moodie with her son Georg Alexander 1928

It’s fascinating to see how emersion in European cultures affected someone such as Alma Moodie. She was a child prodigy in her native Australia but moved to Brussels with her mother at the age of nine, effectively ending her education in English. As the editor and translator point out, her spelling and syntax in her adult English correspondence was influenced by the dominant influences of French and German. Certainly, the letters I’ve read in German confirm this as her “matrix language” – at least in her mature years. In any case, it’s clear that she was an assiduous chronicler of musical life during the interwar years in at least three languages.

A rare letter to Werner Reinhart in English – handwriting and much else suggests that German and French have become her “matrix languages”

Kay Dreyfus has decided to select 270 from approximately 500 letters. She starts in 1918 with Moodie’s return to Germany after the war. From 1913, she was all but legally adopted into the family of Max Reger, who dedicated his Präludium und Fuge op. 131a to her. With the outbreak of the war and Max Reger’s death in 1916, Moodie and her mother had to leave Germany and return to Brussels. In 1918, her mother, who had been her first music teacher and constant companion (her father having died when Alma was only one year old) died of consumption, or most likely, flu. It was at the point that Moodie returned to Germany and it is from here that Kay Dreyfus takes up the correspondence. During the war, Moodie claimed to have stopped playing. After her mother’s death, she turned to Carl Flesch as the teacher who would take her to the next level after the lengthy break and hardship of the war years. Most of her letters are addressed to five important recipients: Her teacher Carl Flesch; the composer Hans Pfitzner; Werner Reinhart, her patron who later would provide her with Fritz Kreisler’s Guarnerius violin; Eduard Erdmann,  the Latvian pianist she performed most frequently with during the culturally fraught years of the “Third Reich”, and his wife Irene, one of only three female correspondents.  

Eduard and Irene Erdmann in Berlin

The aspect of “outsider” is also compelling. She was not German born, and despite not being able to prove how “Aryan” she was, she joined the Nazi Party and took on a professorship in Frankfurt. Her appeal must obviously have gone well beyond any sense of “exoticism”. Max Reger wrote of the thirteen year old Moodie that he had never heard such perfection in her performances of Bach’s solo sonatas. (In fact, she was actually fifteen at the time.) These are works where the merest scrape or unclean intonation can bring down an entire performance. Yet despite her extraordinary gifts, Kay Dreyfus in her “Editor’s Note” quotes from a letter written in 1923, in which Moodie explains to her former teacher in Australia:

Violin isn’t my only interest in life, & I don’t work to play publicly. I play only to be able to go on in what my real life is, & that consists in Art all round, pictures, architecture, litterature [sic], language & my Interests bring me in contact with the leading people in the different branches &, my Art is big and strong enough to enable me to give to them & I am working in my building [,] giving it a foundation that isn’t necessary but a great satisfaction to me.  

With its misspellings, often bizarre syntax and random capitalisation of nouns, it’s already apparent, as in the letter to Reinhart above, how both German and French were influencing her formerly native tongue.

In addition to the letters and as many illustrations as available, there are additional chapters, (one of which, as mentioned, I contributed). The pianist and unjustly neglected composer, Eduard Erdmann wrote an essay in 1943 on Moodie’s artistry. Goetz Richter writes about Carl Flesch’s influence on Moodie; Birgit Saak writes on Moodie and Erdmann’s collaboration, Peter Tregear on Krenek and Moodie and I write on Moodie and the “Third Reich”.

Moodie’s friend and occasional pianist partner, Artur Schnabel and her teacher Carl Flesch

With Schnabel, Braunfels, Flesch, Rostal and Wellesz, she had plenty of Jewish friends and associates. She lets us know in several letters that she’s not keen on Communists or Socialists. Her husband was a Nazi Party member and she too joined the NSDAP in October 1939, though little in her correspondence suggests sympathy for their racist agenda. Indeed, there are no anti-Semitic references beyond a reference in a letter to Werner Reinhart on February 28. 1932 that all the Jews have been thrown out of Berlin’s Music Academy and the Nazis were starting to put their stamp on musical life. She makes a jokey comment that soon, only works with double-sharp key-signatures will be politically acceptable – a probable reference to the SS double sharp emblem. A few months later, on May 12. 1932, she again writes ironically that with Jews out of the way, she and her lawyer husband may stand better professional chances. It must be underlined that this was written sarcastically, in a letter that was withering regarding the Nazi political agenda and written eight months before Hitler’s rise to power. She goes on to mention that she doesn’t see a difference between Communists and National Socialists, except for the latter’s preference for blond hair and blue eyes. It’s clear that such flippancy was not to be understood as a reflection of personal anti-Semitism. The other thing to try to understand is that all such observations were made in an age when the murder of Jews was a distant and unthinkable policy. Such “jokey” references at the expense of Jewish colleagues are found in Hindemith’s correspondence as well. Arguments that being Jewish were incompatible with being German was something she found profoundly disturbing during the years running up to 1933, as can be understood in a letter to Reinhart from Feb. 2. 1931 when she writes of her distress at the anti- Semitic intrigues against Walter Braunfels in Cologne’s Music Academy.

Walter Braunfels, another close friend of Moodie in Cologne

In another letter to Reinhardt from June 6th, 1934, she’s dangerously open about her distaste of what was going on under the new regime. She describes life in Germany as “more awful than disgusting”, before writing hopefully that she believes she’s seeing “the beginning of the end”. She worries about the moral and ethical corruption of the place, and is stressed by the number of friends in trouble. She goes on to express her intention of getting out of “this Germany” and immigrating to London. It was also in 1934, that she was well reviewed in London for performances of Busoni’s violin concerto in a concert with the Royal Philharmonic Society, along with an additional recital with Eduard Erdmann. Tragically, it would be her last visit to Britain as a performer, and thoughts of immigrating to England soon disappeared.

the young Eduard Erdmann – pianist and composer – he also wrote a work for Alma Moodie

Many conflicts and worries come through in the letters. In the early 1930s, she is performing in all the top venues but worries she won’t receive her basic fee of 400 RM (Reich Marks). In a letter to Reinhart from Dec. 21. 1932, she writes that Schnabel was paid 60,000 RMs for a series of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in London. Her family and subsequent teaching commitments would evaporate any serious thoughts of emigration. In the years running up to her teaching appointment in Frankfurt, she seemed to undergo a noticeable crisis of confidence and was progressively more absent as soloist, appearing in a variety of chamber music formations. When her concert partner of choice Eduard Erdmann, toyed with the idea of immigrating to London, she wrote on June 12. 1939, encouraging him as subtly as the censors would allow, to leave. Only a few months later, both she and Erdmann would join the NSDAP. Like others, such as the composers Felix Petyrek, and Max Butting, both former members of the left-wing “November Group”, it seemed the only means of surviving professionally in Nazi Germany.

Alma Moodie publicity photo

With only a month to go before the outbreak of war, Moodie considered leaving her children with the family who ran her favourite hotel in Switzerland, and seriously considered not bringing them back to Germany. She then fretted at what may happen if they remained in Switzerland, and decided to bring them back anyway, where they remained until 1946, when her mentor and advisor Werner Reinhart took them under his wing.

Oskar Kokoschka portrait of Werner Reinhart

With the outbreak of war, her loyalties to Germany remain firm, despite her earlier distaste of NSDAP policies. She appears at least to have accepted the government’s authority. Werner Reinhart, as is apparent in her correspondence, is also supportive of a stronger, more assertive and nationalistic Germany, and letters from Moodie suggest the echo-chamber of two parties reinforcing shared political views. There are letters, however, in which it’s apparent she’s repeating official propaganda. She’s furious at the British bombing of innocent civilians in Cologne, and is distraught at her children’s fear, seemingly unaware the Germans had already wrought the same fear on British civilians. Their temporary move to Baden-Baden in order to escape the bombing raids brings life back to some form of normality.

Cologne after the bombing

One of her most compromising letters is from May 15. 1940 when she pleads to Reinhart to keep his love of Germany strong, and she expresses relief that Holland has finally fallen. The tone of her letter suggests she understands the German march into Holland as some sort of liberation, though she goes on to expresses concern for friends. Most worrying of all was the possible fate of her former teacher, Carl Flesch who along with his wife would be arrested by the Nazis in 1941, and only freed through the intervention of Wilhelm Furtwängler and other prominent musicians.

Frolicking with her teacher Carl Flesch on the beach

As Hitler’s grip became ever tighter, her letters became more guarded. She even wrote to Reinhart on Feb. 10. 1938 that she no longer had any faith in Carl Flesch, and repeated the dog-whistle Jewish stereotype that “for him, everything is purely a question of money”. Hitler’s grip is even felt outside of Germany: she dropped any attempt to perform with Paul Baumgartner in Switzerland, since the Reichsmusikkammer, (the German Chamber for Music and Musicians), wouldn’t approve. Nevertheless, by the time of her letter from June 12. 1939, she’s written to Eduard Erdmann that she’s been to London and visited her “old teacher” whom she conspicuously does not mention by name. Later, her relationship with her old teacher left her severely compromised after she phoned him in Switzerland in February 1943, news of which came to the attention of the authorities. The distress this caused took place only months before her death.

One of her last concerts with Eduard Erdmann

These letters offer a thousand little windows into the past and show up the conflicts that every intelligent and questioning artist had to deal with. Klaus Mann’s book Mephisto based on the life of his former brother in law, the actor Gustav Gründgins, offers a more devastating account of accommodation in the name of mitigation. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the stage director Heinz Tietjen and actor Gustav Gründgins all believed that by staying, they could help prevent greater harm. And indeed, as in the case of Furtwängler’s intervention on behalf of Carl Flesch they genuinely helped colleagues whose fate would have otherwise been unthinkable. Moodie did not possess such an inflated view of her own importance. Her reasons for staying were straightforward: she certainly loved her children and she probably loved her husband. She was given a teaching position in Frankfurt’s Hoch’sche Music Academy in October 1937, appointed to its Council in April 1938, despite her “Aryan genealogy not being fully established”, joined the Nazi Party in October 1939 and was finally made a professor on Hitler’s birthday in 1942. She was dead the following year. Whether her death was suicide, an accidental over-dose or an unexpected heart attack remains unexplained.

Alma Moodie

As ever, history rhymes rather than repeating itself, and reading through this correspondence, there are moments when one has to swallow hard not to spot parallels with our own times. The sudden loss of foreign workers in the UK can’t compare with the Nazi cruelty of firing all Jews on the public sector payroll, but the so-called “hostile environment” created by the Brexit trumpeters offers an unpleasant resonance with earlier times. More alarming is entire populations supplanting reason with gut-feelings drawn from anger. Trump and Brexit personified what comes from following anger and dismissing facts. A prominent Brexit supporting minister named Michael Gove simply waved facts away with a dismissive “we’ve had enough of experts”. On January 29. 1933, the very eve of Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor Alma Moodie wrote the following to her mentor Werner Reinhardt:

These days in Germany one needs a lot of tact. Tempers are very heated and this Hitler business is very strange. This month I was together with various friends in Silesia who are mad Hitlerites. They are very cultured, infinitely refined people of unquestionable views, and I spoke with them for many hours. It seems to me that he is causing the greatest mischief (and this explains his success) by appealing to and operating with this somewhat fuzzy German concept of the “emotions” The whole thing seems to be about a “feeling” that can’t be explained, and that I don’t yet understand – although I have made an effort. The whole thing is very woolly, within the Party they are not unanimous and if he comes to power now it will certainly depend on chance as to which way he will go. For us, much would depend on it. But it is a pity that friendships are being destroyed over it.

As an indication of how naïve she and others were, in the very next paragraph, she goes on to write about visiting Artur Schnabel and her plans to perform Brahms with Otto Klemperer. Within months, Schnabel and Klemperer had been thrown out of Germany.