Out in October 2023, “The Music of Exile – the Untold Stories of the Composers who fled Hitler” (Yale University Press)

It’s been ten years since starting this blog which was begun after Yale University’s publication of Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis. Since then, I’ve published a chapter here and there for various academic publishers in both German and English. The topics have ranged from Jewish composers in Southern Germany to the conflicted identities of Austrian composers who hailed from the non-German speaking regions of “Greater Austria” prior to 1918. More recently, Oxford University Press will publish a chapter on “on-line musical biographies”…so, I’ve been writing now and again, but nothing as major as Forbidden Music until now.

If Forbidden Music owed its provenance to my near decade working at Vienna’s Jewish Museum as Music Curator, the present book, Music of Exile, owes its provenance to my work at the Exilarte Center. It is a center I co-founded with the theory professor Gerold Gruber at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts – somewhat mysteriously known as “the mdw” (Universität für Musik und darstellenede Kunst Wien). It’s all in lower case since in German, it looks a bit Bauhaus and cool. It, along with the Conservatory in Vienna, are institutions that can claim me as former student, though in retrospect why on earth they thought I might become a decent pianist, I’ll never know. Hedging bets, I also studied composition and Church Music, until moving exclusively to piano studies at the Conservatory.  But the mdw is the former Music Academy and an institution that is 200 years old and can also claim Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Toch and hundreds of others as alumni. The list of students and teachers thrown out of the Academy in 1938 led to the mdw’s president, Ulrike Sych handing us the historic building of the Academy, (the mdw itself now located on a dedicated campus nearby), and funding for personnel, a state of the art vault, exhibition space, classrooms, digitisation facilities, reading room, mediateque and recital and lecture hall. Since opening as part of the mdw’s 200 year festivities in 2017, we have acquired over 30 exiled musical estates representing every genre and making no distinction as to the individual’s supposed importance during their lifetime. We’ve also signed publishing agreements with Schirmer Music in America and Boosey & Hawkes in Germany and the UK.

For regular readers of this blog, none of this is new, but the reason I repeat it now, is because every musical estate tells a unique story and the stories we have tended to hear until now have been triumphalist tales of Central Europe’s devastating cultural brain drain and the enormous benefits enjoyed by countries generous enough to offer refuge.  The more I dug into these stories, the more I discovered the “triumphalist” aspect was not really as representative as we like to think. Productive composers such as Hans Gál, Walter Bricht and Karol Rathaus became highly regarded teachers. Some nearly stopped composing altogether, while others, such as the former opera composer Gál moved into different genres.  Performers who made names for themselves promoting new music found new careers in new homelands as interpreters of music from the 19th and 18th centuries.

the young Hans Gál

In my view, only one composer came close to an organic artistic development in his new homeland: Kurt Weill. I devote a chapter on the Americanisation of his English language works. It was a degree of seamless cultural assimilation I have yet to encounter in another musician. And yet, I harbour personal doubts that it was an easy process for him. His private correspondence is indeed “triumphalist” – brimming with self-confidence and optimism. And yet, he died suddenly at the age of 50. Speculation on my part is admittedly partisan and subjective, but there is a degree of survivor’s guilt that must have played a role as well. Of course smoking and having a bad heart would not have helped, but there were a number of composers who were  as successful as Weill in Germany and Austria who didn’t “make it” in American exile. He must have been aware of Jaromír Weinberger, Paul Abraham, Emerich Kálmán, Friedrich Hollaender, Richard Werner Heymann and others who experienced everything from mental breakdowns to suicide to only modest successes following immigration. Why Weill and not the others? There are many answers, but the ones I try to analyse only accentuate the arbitrariness of where the dice landed when thrown by fate.  

Toch speaking with Kurt Weill at the Baden-Baden Festival 1927 when both had one-act operas premiered

Already, in my dissertation I addressed the subject of music as a cultural good in need of restitution.  Audiences had composers taken away from them, and composers lost audiences. It is too facile to think the audiences were all Nazis anyway, so no great loss to either of them.  But that really isn’t the case. I grew up between the United States and Vienna before moving to London in 1977. I always wondered why in Austria the truly great names of European musicians in America barely registered in a city like Vienna. After all, Georg Szell and Erich Leinsdorf were Viennese! How was it possible they barely resonated within Vienna’s post-war biotope? Others, such as Bruno Walter and Eugene Ormandy had equally important Viennese careers that appeared to have been all but forgotten. In a letter from Georg Szell to Hans Gál, he mentioned the members of his family who had been murdered by the Nazis and admitted he would never return to conduct in Austria or Germany again. It may have given Szell some degree of partial satisfaction, but as far as the Austrians and Germans were concerned post-1945, who needed Szell, Ormandy, Leinsdorf, Walter, Klemperer, Dorati and all the others when they had Karajan and Karl Böhm? They weren’t immediately aware of any sense of loss. Only Szell lost out: he lost his family and he lost his homeland and he lost the audiences he once had, though he would argue he gained new audiences in America that he valued more than the ones he lost.  As a result, those audiences he once had, found themselves having to “make do” with former Nazis like Karajan and Karl Böhm. To state that the German and Austrian audiences deserved no better is to see the world in the binary of black and white: Good people left and bad people stayed.

My parents used to joke that living in Austria in the 1960s, they never met a former Nazi. The more I dug into history, the more I began to think this was not really a joke at all. There is an enormous grey zone between antisemites who only wanted to see dead Jews and those who couldn’t leave and had no option but to come to some sort of accommodation. This grey zone really cannot be ignored much longer as there were a significant number of important composers who offered a wider spectrum of 20th century creativity than just Richard Strauss, Werner Egk  and Carl Orff. People have forgotten and largely forgiven the accommodations Shostakovich reached with the Communist regime in the USSR.  His complicity was no less through clenched teeth than many of the composers I mention in my chapter on Inner Exile. I don’t pretend there is a large cache of undiscovered Shostakovich equivalents among the debris of defeated Nazis, but I do suggest there are a number of important voices who have been wilfully neglected because of a complicity forced upon them.

The young Korngold

The tone of earlier books on music exile has often implied that by escaping from Nazi Germany and coming to America, composers and musicians fell into a bowl of cherries. Only when I translated the memoirs Korngold’s wife Luzi, and family correspondence did the personal sacrifices start to become apparent.  Of course, Korngold was a great composer who contributed enormously to film music, but to him personally it was twelve lost years. When he returned to Vienna his former audience was afraid to welcome him back. Guilt and an enforced new music aesthetic resulted in loss – a loss to them and a loss to him. He would have given back every Dollar he earned in Hollywood if he could have kept his public in his homeland.  A lot has already been written about Korngold, and I hope my translations of the family correspondence along with his wife’s memoirs will soon come out, but the ambivalence he experienced was to some degree common with many other music refugees. 

The young Robert Fürstenthal

There are a number of composer accounts I freely admit are not particularly significant, but they have stories of exile that are relevant to understanding what happens to a gift or a talent when uprooted.  These are stories and experiences that can be extrapolated to other composers who are deemed more important.  If spending the last years in the ruins of musicians’ lives via their unpublished manuscripts, their private letters and photos has taught me anything, it is the impossibly of establishing “significance”.  It’s a very subjective concept, and given the innate timelessness of music –  all music, “good” and “bad” – we can assume that almost every voice will resonant at some point in the future – even if it once already resonated in the past.