John Mauceri’s book, “The War on Music”

It was never my intention to make this blog a book review site. Yet paradoxically, the reason I’ve been negligent in keeping up with regular postings is because I too have a couple of book contracts that I’m working to fulfil and finding it more and more difficult to keep the blog ticking over.  In any case, John Mauceri’s The War on Music has to be written up on this blog, if only for the fact that it’s actually dedicated to me:

For Michael Haas who in 1990 asked, “Why, John, after a half-century, do we not play the music Hitler banned? Here, I hope is the answer.

I can hardly argue – in 1990 none of us could really understand why music banned by Hitler had never been adequately revived. In fact, I had been asking the question to myself since the mid-1980s when I recorded early works by Zemlinsky with Riccardo Chailly. This was music that was Late Romanticism emerging from the nineteenth into a new century and I fully expected the CD to be massacred by the critics of the day. To my astonishment, the opposite happened. Chailly had justified making the recordings because “Zemlinsky was Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and only teacher”.  The connection with Schoenberg provided the necessary credibility for a composer who was barely known at the time. Whatever the ruse, it worked. Critics who would have sniffed had the same works been composed by Max Steiner or Erich Korngold lapped them up as an important discovery, which of course, they ultimately were.

So what did we know in 1990? To answer that, we have to go back to the mid-1980s, when I’d been struggling to put together a series of Kurt Weill stage work recordings. The only ones on the market were the very unsatisfactory, transposed versions recorded with Lotte Lenya for CBS.  She was past her best, but she knew the roles, the style, idiom and genre. Plus, she had only recorded the Brecht/Weill collaborations and there was a lot of wonderful music in his work with Georg Kaiser and the many talented American writers on Broadway. My original intention was to record the Brecht and Georg Kaiser collaborations with Herbert Kegel in Leipzig. This was during the bad old days of East Germany and the NY based Kurt Weill Foundation did not approve. To my disappointment, the East Germans didn’t approve either and in the last minute of negotiations, they simply told me Kegel was not available and put forward another conductor who was a party member. Kegel had never bothered to join the Communist Party, so ultimately, he was out, despite his close association with the genre.  We didn’t proceed with the East German project and in any case, East Germany fell through along with the recording project a few years later.

It was a tragedy, but at least, I had approached John Mauceri to record the American stage works – a project that would have lasted for years. To kick off, we began by making a few recital recordings with Ute Lemper. But the Kurt Weill Foundation didn’t approve of her either: paradoxically because she chose to transpose. It was explained that Lenya had transposed out of necessity. It was no longer stylistically, or historically acceptable to transpose Kurt Weill for today’s chesty-singing actors.  They had a point, but the fact remained that operetta singers were still too operatic for the style and the crooning head voice used by stage singers in the1920s simply didn’t exist in the 1980s. Brecht and Weill had written in countless articles and correspondence that they wanted singing actors, not opera singers. It was a central part of their concept of “epic theatre”. Given the dilemma, John Mauceri and I decided Lemper was a compromise in the right direction. New York’s Kurt Weill Foundation opted for solutions that went towards opera singers “who could act”. In any case, on recordings, opera singers who can act still tend to sound like opera singers who can’t act and the schooled German of American opera singers missed the visceral communication that Weill and Brecht demanded.

 But this is water under the bridge. John Mauceri and Decca, with me as producer, managed to record Weill’s Street Scene in spite of constant legal threats from NY’s Kurt Weill Foundation. In the end, a very expensive recording venture was sabotaged by their lack of cooperation and the whole project fell apart, leaving me with John Mauceri under contract for recordings that neither of us had the stomach to pursue. However, in researching Kurt Weill, I kept stumbling over names that had a vague resonance in the deeper recesses of my memory. These names appeared to have been the equal of Kurt Weill prior to the arrival of Adolf Hitler. What happened to them? The great-and-good of musicology tended to answer this question with something along the lines of, “they were thrown out of Germany and could never regain their former reputation.” And that was that. Weill had gone to Broadway and continued his Berlin successes with enviable seamlessness. But the others hadn’t managed to make much of a mark at all, and this seemed very strange given their importance before going into exile. 

Listening to takes of Street Scene with John Mauceri (R) and Kurt Ollmann (C) and me as recording producer (L) 1989 in Glasgow

Was my rhetorical question posed in 1990 as John states in his dedication? I suspect it might have been even earlier. Who knows? I feel it might have been during our recording of Street Scene. It doesn’t matter because with the demise of the Kurt Weill idea, I had taken the idea of recording works banned by the Nazis to the president of Decca who gave me the green light.  I still had John Mauceri on board and decided to engage another conductor, Lothar Zagrosek, for works that John couldn’t cover.

CD sleeve of the US compilation of the “Entartete Musik” series

As it happened, Zagrosek was music director of Leipzig Opera and had just completed a run of Ernst Krenek’s jazzy opera Jonny spielt auf. It was a work that had been premiered in Leipzig in 1927. When it hit Vienna on New Year’s day 1928, it clashed with another opera, Das Wunder der Heliane by Erich Korngold. The contrasts could not have been more pronounced.  John wanted to record Heliane and with Zagrosek recording Jonny spielt auf, we had the first two recordings in the series subsequently dubbed by Decca’s marketing department as “Entartete Musik”. The series ran for ten years and frankly could have gone on for another ten or twenty years. Had it done so, John would never have needed to write his book.

If there’s a fault with the book, it’s in many ways due to fighting a war that’s probably already been won. Mauceri doesn’t settle for “I told you so” and offers chapter and verse of how music that thrived prior to Hitler was lost after it should have been restored. After the war, Germans were allowed to read the previously banned books of Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin; they were able to appreciate the paintings of Paul Klee, George Grosz, Otto Dix and others, but apart from Mendelssohn and Offenbach, none of the music that had flourished prior to Hitler was being recovered. There were some attempts to revive composers such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg with even Hindemith getting the odd nod towards grudging recognition. The awkward fact slowly began to emerge that the composers NOT being performed were Jewish, though this was not the reason they hadn’t been reinstated into the repertoire. It was because, despite some exceptions, their output represented an aesthetic deemed compliant and representative of a past everyone wished to put behind them. Otto Dix and Emil Nolde were allowed to paint figuratively, while Thomas Mann and Döblin wrote novels with coherent narratives. Their revival after the Nazi embargos was warmly appreciated. But music? Suddenly, the only music that counted was whatever cultural arbiters extrapolated as being music Hitler would not have liked. Why it was important to promote music  people assumed Hitler would have hated as opposed to reviving the music he banned resulted in myriad complex, socio-philosophical excuses. Post-war German musicologists educated by Theodor Adorno and Carl Dahlhaus decided that music was a key foundation needed in creating a new and better society. Music that spoke to deeper human emotions inevitably spoke to their worst human characteristics. A new musical language was required to speak to a better humanity. A new society could only come about with new cultural foundations. The foundations of the past had created brutal, rotten, degenerate, hate-filled societies. Emotionally indulgent art had only facilitated cultural decline into primitivism.

I’m flattered that John Mauceri has read Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. He takes my observations a step further and extrapolates the idea that the music of the concert hall and opera house banned by Hitler simply hitched itself to American genres of film and Broadway. After the war and the start of the Cold War, these soon became the only opportunities to continue writing music while keeping to the conventions of tonality and meter. Into this mix, the CIA decided a vibrant avant-garde would be a wonderful propaganda tool to use against the Soviet Bloc. It would show up artists, musicians and writers working under Communism as oppressed and unable to participate in the brave new world of experimentation. It contrasted with the stolid Soviet concept of the arts being in the “service of the people”. The result of this clandestine policy promoted by Western government was to force serious talent sacrificing itself on the altar of something referred to as “the New”.

It doesn’t take an expert to point out that the symphonic and vocal music of the former Soviet Bloc has a greater claim to establishing the legacy of the twentieth century than all the “new” music that came out of Germany, France and America’s university campuses during the Cold War years. Of course Britten remained a potent figure in the West, though Barber, Copland and Bernstein in America were essentially extending the concept of Socialist Realism for Americans by writing music to make the listener feel good about who they were. It was also the music that Adorno and Dahlhaus decided was generally bad for society.

Today’s attempts to quantify the damage becomes weighed down in content and purpose. What was modernism post-1945? What are the venues for consuming music? From inter-war discussions on serialism and the liberation of unresolved dissonance grew a post-war resolve to make music something that could be taken as seriously as the visual arts, literature or (even better!) the sciences. For that reason, it had to be taken seriously by serious people – not just anyone.  Who these “serious” people were was another question. Most were self-appointed and wrote reviews and commentary. Soon, they were drafted onto juries and funding committees. From there, they moved into pedagogy and from about 1960 onwards, there was serious music…and there was “noise”. The hoi polloi enjoyed listening to “noise”, but serious people, the people who mattered, enjoyed listening to “the rest”. 

To quote Ernst Toch’s Composer’s Credo from 1945:

in the past couple of decades, we have seen the production of much music that both excited our interests and stimulated our wits. We discovered and gained a great deal. But at the same time, we lost something.

And so it was in those heady days in the 1960s, 1970s and ‘80s when we heard some truly exciting works that took us – and even our emotions – in new and unexpected places. There was definitely a good deal more than Stockhausen’s helicopter quartet and aleatoric electronic feedback; there were the works of Bernd Alois Zimmermann and even Hans Werner Henze. There was Ligeti’s Le grand Macabre and yes, one also sat through operas by Birtwistle wondering when the torture would end along with Mark Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes – but as Toch goes on to write:

Perhaps it will be a while before we even notice that it’s missing, but in due course it will become obvious. And this ‘something’ is simply too important to do without. As fed up with Romanticism as we eventually became, one should not forget the basic fact that music, in its innermost makeup, is de facto romantic. And if sentimentality has no place in true art, we should never forget that sentimentality should not be confused with emotion.

And then we come to the idea of venue. Mauceri has long been the most persuasive defender of film music as a cultural expression that can stand independently to the film for which it was originally used. Most of Korngold’s films have passed out of the collective memory even as Korngold’s scoring has remained. The unsquared circle is how to disseminate applied music in venues intended for absolute music? There are few satisfactory answers. I’ve been to Hans Zimmer events and been swept away by the sheer exuberance of music and image splashed across the audience. I’ve also been to events where the original movie from the 1930s or 1940s was shown and the score played live by an orchestra. Personally, I find that sort of event of greater interest to film freaks, while doing the music no particular service. It conjoins timeless music to fleeting cinematography. The triviality of many of the films degrades some very great music. It’s better to take the Prokofiev or Hanns Eisler view of turning film scoring into orchestral movements that can stand alone as so-called “concert suites”.

Mauceri goes further and brings in the platforms that leapfrog conventional dissemination such as the interactive composition required by computer games. Society is changing, but its hunger for timeless music will remain. As the Spanish pop star José Maria Cano once said to me, “there isn’t a person born who doesn’t want to love classical music.”

The War of Music points out how it wasn’t just being “new” that was important to composers and their facilitators: it was being complex. Complexity had the dual advantage of isolating the hoi poiloi, that didn’t “get it” while flattering a self-appointed elite who did. The music of the 1970s and 1980s was becoming the musical equivalent of a sentence written by Theodor Adorno: a relatively straightforward observation expressed in such dense circumlocution that a sense of self-worth was gained merely by unravelling its meaning. But such music was intentionally exclusionary and the public turned away.  Soon, even the interested, intelligent public was alienated to the point that the only people sitting in performances were either eccentrics or other composers. I write this from the experience of having been a staff recording producer for Decca and sitting through many such events before finally admitting to only limited aesthetic returns. As Toch observed, if music doesn’t touch in the manner of the greatest works of art, then something is missing, even if in the process our “interests were excited and our wits stimulated”.

Just as Gluck reacted the complexity of Baroque polyphony, so Minimalism reacted to the complexity of the post-war avant-garde in Western Europe and America.  Again, the chains of individual cultures determined the nature of reaction. In America it was highly rhythmic offering exciting energy and pace, while coming out of the former Soviet Bloc, minimalism took on something almost mystic.  If Glass repeated musical gestures such as triads, Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli and others minimalised to the barest of melodic structure using melancholy to reach deep into the listener.

When I mentioned that perhaps John Mauceri is writing about a war that’s already won, perhaps I’m wrong and Mauceri was writing the history of the war that’s already won. The book is provocative and a genuine page-turner. There is a lot to disagree with and a lot to enlighten. He writes engagingly and the book does not waste a single word. It’s actually quite short and every chapter is a beautifully constructed narration. John Mauceri is a terrific storyteller. He ends with special pleas for four composers who have shaped him. These are personal observations and I look forward to the time I can appreciate the American Hindemith to the same degree that he does. I still find his American works arid and difficult to engage with beyond the occasional bombast. The other composers:  Schoenberg, Weill and Korngold – well, I can’t argue with any of them. It’s a marvellous book –and I’m not just writing that because it’s dedicated to me. There will be moments when you might wish to throw it against the wall, but I guarantee you’ll pick it back up and continue reading.

Our last recording together Porgy and Bess in Nashville TN in 2006