“Music of Exile”
It has 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. Topics were on among other things, Jewish composers in Southern Germany, Jewish composers and the International Society for Contemporary Music along with one on Bruno Walter and his recordings of Mahler’s das Lied von der Erde. More recently, Oxford University Press will publish a chapter on “on-line musical biographies” I’ve also translated and provided commentary to Luzi Korngold’s memoirs and a selection of family correspondence which Toccata Press intends to publish plus a translation with accompanying commentary of the essays, (called Feuilletons)taken from Vienna’s newspaper of record, die Neue Freie Presse on Gustav Mahler. These Mahler Feuilletons ran between 1889 and 1924, or from Mahler’s first mention in the paper as the composer and conductor of Carl Maria von Weber’s incomplete opera Die Drei Pintos, to the publication of the facsimile of his Tenth Symphony manuscript published in 1924. My Mahler translation with accompanying commentary will be published by Routledge. So, I’ve been writing, but nothing as major as Forbidden Music until now, with Yale University Press’s publication of Music of Exile.
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 therefore “cool”. The mdw along with the Conservatory in Vienna, are institutions that can claim me as a former student, though in retrospect why they thought I might become a decent pianist, I’ll never know. Hedging bets, I also studied composition and Church Music, until I moved exclusively to piano performance at the Conservatory. Both institutions are impressive and historic, though the mdw is the former Music Academy, more than 200 years old and can count Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Toch and hundreds of other prominent performers and composers as alumni.
The list of students and teachers thrown out of the Academy in 1938 led in 2016 to the mdw’s president, Ulrike Sych handing us the historic building of the Academy, (the mdw is now located on a dedicated campus nearby), and funding for a state of the art vault, exhibition space, classrooms, digitisation facilities, reading room, mediateque, recital and lecture hall. In addition, she provided funding for adequate staffing. Since officially 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 any 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 about 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 accounts, the more I discovered the “triumphalist” aspect was not really as representative as we might like to think. Productive, highly successful composers such as Hans Gál, Egon Wellesz, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, 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 in Berlin and Vienna promoting new music, established alternative careers for themselves as “authorities” in the repertoire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course, there was no choice for a Jewish musician between remaining in Hitler’s Europe, and moving to a new country, where they became “experts” in repertoire that previously had rarely been central to their programming. Quartets and instrumentalists who had championed new works by Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, Hindemith or even Ravel became “idiomatic authorities” on the music of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms. Few would claim that this was a price too high to pay. But something was certainly lost.
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 haven’t encountered 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 unexpectedly 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, Ralph Benatzky and others who experienced everything from mental breakdowns to suicide to modest successes following immigration. Why Weill and not the others? There are many answers, but the one I try to analyse only accentuates the arbitrariness of where the dice landed when thrown by fate.
In my dissertation I addressed the idea 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 that audiences were all collaborators, so no great loss to either of them. But that really was not 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 also had 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 Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm? They weren’t immediately aware of any sense of loss. Only Szell lost out: he lost his family, he lost his homeland and he lost the audiences he once had, though he would argue that he gained new audiences in America, which he presumably valued more than the ones he lost. I don’t mean to imply that audiences left behind in Europe had to “make do” with former Nazis like Karajan and Karl Böhm. It would be foolish to suggest these too were not significant musicians and conductors. But to assume that the audiences and musicians who remained in Germany and Austria somehow deserved each other is to see the world in the binary of black and white of only good people fleeing Hitler and bad people staying and by extension collaborating.
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 such a joke. There is a grey zone between antisemites who had an irrational murderous hatred of Jews, (and there were of course prominent Austrians who fell into this category, not least Hitler and Eichmann) and those who believed that Austria should have been folded into Greater Germany after the First World War. Indeed, it was the first act of the newly convened Austrian parliament following the declaration of the Austrian First Republic in 1918. The idea of uniting all of German speaking Europe into a single nation-state was anathema to the allies, many of whom thought a return to the pre-1871 status quo of small independent German speaking states preferable. Austrian pan-Germans, many of whom were themselves Jewish and/or Social Democrats felt that Austria was German and deserved a physical presence within the newly formed Republic of Germany. By the mid-1930s, with Austria under a repressive clerical dictatorship, non-Jewish Social Democrats felt the price of Hitler was worth paying. They convinced themselves that Hitler was a hillbilly, a joke they could more easily dismantle than the Germans who saw in Hitler a fanatical patriot. I quote the memoirs of the Austrian writer Vicki Baum as the heading of my first chapter:
Back then . . . we laughed at this Hitler character. He was a nut, we told ourselves, a provincial and an idiot – the likes of many others knocking about at the time. He’s a product of the War: Messianic healers, virgins with the stigmata and prophets, revolutionaries, murderers and who knows what else. But their time has come and gone. Slowly they’ll start to sober up and shut up.
This grey zone really cannot be ignored much longer as there were a significant number of important composers who offered a wider spectrum of Austro-German creativity in the first half of the twentieth century than just Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, 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 carried out 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 believe there are a number of important voices who have been wilfully neglected because of a perception of complicity that was forced upon them. Remaining in Nazi Germany with a head below the parapet took on a totally different significance once viewed through the prism of the Shoah.
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 filter through. 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 returned every Dollar he earned in Hollywood if he could have kept his pre-Hitler public. 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.
There are a number of accounts I freely admit are of composers who are not particularly significant, but they have stories of exile that are relevant to understanding what happens to a talent once it’s uprooted. These are stories and experiences that can be extrapolated to other composers who are seen today as more important. Fürstenthal wrote music in the style of Hugo Wolf, a style that had largely been superseded by the time of his birth in 1920. Yet by doing so, he was somehow transported back to Vienna. Fürstenthal’s account of “inner-return” reveals more than mentioning (again) Korngold’s penultimate work, Sonett für Wien – Sonnet for Vienna. Fürstenthal was no Korngold, but the experience of returning home through music was common to both. If Korngold tried inwardly to return to Vienna at the end of his life, there was not a single day spent composing when Fürstenthal was not being transported back to a city he imagined as some sort of paradise-garden from which he had been expelled.
If spending these last years raking around the debris of musicians’ lives via their unpublished manuscripts, their private letters and photos has taught me anything, it is the impossibility of establishing “significance”. It’s a very subjective concept. Given the innate timelessness of music we can assume that almost every voice will resonate at some point in some place, if not in the future, then we may assume that it resonated once in the past, before being dismissed as inappropriate for aspirational post-war European societies. Tastes move in a circular fashion. The twentieth century spent an inordinate amount of time trying to free itself from what it perceived as the effusive emotions of nineteenth century Romanticism. It used the excuse of apocalyptic wars to wrench the arts away from the dangers of sentiment. In so doing, it removed the voices of countless composers who only now are starting to be heard and recognised. After the Second World War, Ernst Toch, an important figure in the New Objectivity movement that evolved after the First World War wrote that attempts to remove “feeling” from music was essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Music quite simply “speaks to feelings” as he went on to explain in his Composers’ Credo. Music that spoke to emotions did not automatically lead to sentimentality. A return to this reality has opened up doors to new composition that were previously locked. It not only opens possibilities for new composers, but opens up the music that was written a hundred years ago before it was smothered by various doctrinal authorities: the first a racist dictatorship and the second, a no-less dogmatic post-war aesthetic proclaimed by a self-appointed group of gate keepers within Art Councils, universities and music institutions.
But the music of exile is not just nostalgic attempts of returning to a lost Elysium. It has given us a synthesis of styles and expressions. It has offered repertoire that could not have been composed by people of the same generation in new homelands, or people of the same generation in lost homelands. For new homelands, such music always spoke with a slight foreign accent. For old homelands, it seemed exotic. Listening to this clip of Egon Wellesz’s Fourth Symphony, the English would tend to hear Mahler whereas the Austrians would hear Elgar.
And finally, there was something like a new genre of music that emerged from exile – the music of Jewish affirmation. It was not always liturgical music – indeed, it was rarely liturgical. It was an attempt to fuse the characteristics of European music with a Jewish sensibility. If there could be a Slavic-European identity, then it was equally possible to represent a Jewish-European one as well. Richard Fuchs set a Zionist text to the most idiomatically Germanic music he could write.
Others moved into modal/diatonic languages incorporating faint echoes of the Shtetl or Temple. Some decided that diatonic composition wasn’t representative of the Jewish identity and started to write music using the Phrygian Dominant mode. There were political and Zionist pageants, some of which didn’t sound remotely “Jewish” – as John Rockwell wrote when reviewing a performance of Kurt Weill’s Weg der Verheißung – the Eternal Road:
Curiously though, the music doesn’t sound very Jewish, in the Eastern-European flavored modern American sense. The liturgical tradition Weill celebrated was that of German Jews, and the music sounds very German
And last but by no means least, even the most successful exiled talents were reduced to teaching, missionaries for a tradition from a country that had disowned them. In this respect, they were perhaps most successful, especially given the fact that most émigrés landed in the New World where there was a welcoming reception. Those who found refuge in the Old World of Great Britain, France or even Soviet Russia found themselves viewed more as threats. Musicians who ended up in countries with entirely different modes and aesthetics such as the Far East or South Pacific or India found means of fusing the familiar with the exotic. Some exiled composers and musicians such as Wilhelm Grätzer (Guillermo Graetzer) and Ida Halpern found refuge in the New World, (Graetzer in Argentina and Halpern in Canada) but took an ethnomusicological interest in the music of the indigenous people. European musicians arriving in the United States were shocked at America’s racism, having only just fled European racism. Kurt Weill tried with limited success to address the unjust treatment of African-Americans in his music, while Ignaz Waghalter, a Polish German composer and conductor attempted to establish an orchestra of African-American musicians. His attempt was grounded by a lack of funding.
This is clearly a vast and endlessly complex subject. There was such an enormous amount of information that the biggest trap to avoid was putting something together that looked more like an incomplete lexicon. There are already numerous attempts to create such lexica. LexM at Hamburg University; Primavera Gruber’s dictionary of every persecuted Austrian musician, or Francesco Lotoro’s attempt to collate every note of music composed in the many camps. All of these ambitions have been running for over a decade and only remind us how bottomless such research inevitably becomes. One would need several lifetimes just to cover one of the areas being attempted. It is for that reason my book tries instead to offer the music of exile as a broader narrative. I regret all the accounts and names I didn’t include, but by including many names that remain unfamiliar to even the most informed music lover, I hope the book offers an account of music of exile rather than composers in exile.