If Zubin Mehta hadn’t heard the recording, we wouldn’t all be here tonight.’ Thus spoke Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg on October 4th 2009 following the opening concert of the Vienna Philharmonic subscription series, one of the most prestigious series anywhere with a waiting list of fifteen years per ticket.
The central feature of the concert was Erich Zeisl’s setting of the 92nd Psalm which, in memory of his parents who had been murdered in the camps, he had called Requiem Ebraico. Mehta had already conducted the work in Israel before his decision to make it the centrepiece of the opening of the season.
Worryingly, Mehta cancelled three days before and it was unclear if the programme could stand as planned. Thankfully, it did and the warmth of the reception by the Philharmonic subscribers and orchestral members for a native son once forced into an exile from which he would never return was palpable. The talented young Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev brought a freshness to the work that only the totally uninitiated can offer. The chorus of 120 and the orchestra in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein created an overwhelming experience that few will forget. The recording that Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg was referring to had been made in Berlin in 1997 and was part of Decca’s series ‘Entartete Musik’.
The evening before the Zeisl ‘home-coming’, I had attended a premiere of Erich Korngold at the Paris Opera and was thus unable to attend Anne Sofie von Otter’s recital of Terezín composers at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Coming back to my Vienna flat after the Philharmonic concert, I found an e-mail from someone at the National Theatre in Prague asking for a meeting to discuss the possible staging of one of the Czech operas that had also been part of the ‘Entartete Musik’ series.
This avalanche of events and interest over a mere 72 hours seemed an incalculable distance from the position of music lost during the Hitler years twenty-five years earlier when Decca first recorded Zemlinsky in Berlin with the young conductor Riccardo Chailly. The then-orchestral manager Peter Ruzicka had a particular interest in the music of Zemlinsky and had shown scores to Chailly who wanted to take it on. I was Chailly’s Berlin producer and decided that the idea had much to recommend it, though it was a departure from Chailly’s previous recordings for Decca of Stravinsky.
To Chailly and Ruzicka, Zemlinsky was important because he was Schoenberg’s teacher and brother-in-law. The fact that the works under discussion seemed rather reminiscent of Dvorˇák was politely not mentioned. To Ruzicka and Chailly, it was enough that they added a sense of context to the musical ambience in which Schoenberg had developed. The critical climate of the mid-1980s demanded that unfamiliar music from the twentieth-century have a link, however tenuous, with the ‘Second Viennese School’, and the brother-in-law argument seemed to suffice.
Two Zemlinsky recordings came out of the collaboration and the set-up with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin was attractive enough to try and continue in order to record a survey of all of Kurt Weill’s stage works, this time using various conductors. DeutschlandRadio, the German broadcaster that supplied the Radio orchestra for the Zemlinsky recording, was Decca’s financial partner. I managed to have Decca sign a contract with the charismatic young German actress Ute Lemper for the theatre songs of Weill and it seemed with this launch under way, nothing could go wrong. By 1990 and four Lemper CDs later along, with an expensive recording of Weill’s Street Scene, all commercially sabotaged by the non-cooperation of the New York based Kurt Weill Foundation, the Weill project was cancelled and in theory I needed to return nearly £2,000,000 Decca had budgeted for the series.
But then a succession of minor miracles started to occur. The first was having an extraordinarily open and intelligent President at Decca named Roland Kommerell. He was the nephew of Max Kommerell, a noted literary historian, friend of Martin Heidigger and member of Stefan George’s artistic/literary circle in pre-Nazi Germany. Thus Roland was quite aware of the cultural atrocities that had resulted, not least through the misplaced enthusiasm of many of George’s circle of poets and thinkers, including his uncle Max.
I explained to Roland that in researching Kurt Weill, I kept stumbling on names that seemed to imply that they had a similar status as Weill, perhaps even more on some occasions but rarely less. Indeed, Weill seemed a prominent composer amongst other prominent composers appearing at the same events and venues: Max Brand, Ernst Toch, Egon Wellesz, Hans Gál, Ernst Krenek, Erich Korngold etc. I asked that I be allowed to keep the budget long enough to put together a concept of works by other composers banned by Hitler’s Reich that could deliver at the very minimum, the same artistic value as our now abandoned Weill project. He accepted that we would be surveying composers with less ‘street-recognition’ than Weill, but the idea intrigued him and he had been a great supporter of the Ute Lemper project.
He agreed and within a week, we had our second minor miracle: I had managed, with the cooperation of DeutschlandRadio, to put together a recording of Erich Korngold’s mammoth opera Das Wunder der Heliane in Berlin. What other works should follow was not at all clear. I travelled to Vienna and met with Austrian Radio and the manager of their house orchestra to see if they would be interested in a partnership similar to the set-up we had in Berlin. This seemed more logical to me at the time as Toch, Wellesz, Krenek, Korngold, Gál and Brand were all Austrians and these were the names that, along with Hindemith, I had encountered most frequently while researching Weill. Sadly the Austrians would not have anything to do with our proposal leaving me with no choice but to return to Berlin.
The conductor I had engaged to oversee most of the Weill recordings was Lothar Zagrosek who, in the meantime, had been named music director of the opera in Leipzig. Leipzig had been one of the key venues for new music in Weimar Constitution Germany and the new, post-Communist directorship wished to build on the many important premieres that had taken place prior to 1933. One of these was Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf. With this, we had our launch. The Krenek and Korngold operas had clashed spectacularly in Vienna in 1927 with blood-chilling attacks by competing factions in Vienna’s press and the introduction of cigarettes called ‘Helianes’ and ‘Jonnys’. Heliane was Korngold’s determined statement that the future lay in the Romantic aesthetic of the past and Jonny represented Krenek’s flippant view that there was no future, so one might as well accept (if not necessarily welcome) the conquest of Europe by American popular culture. It was a declaration of musical war that both composers would ultimately lose following Hitler’s rise to power.
The title of such a recording series caused considerable discussions within the marketing offices of Decca. In the meantime, the German musicologist Dr. Albrecht Dümling had joined our team as consultant as no amount of enthusiasm on my part could compensate for the fact that I was not a historian. Dümling, along with the former manager of the Berlin Philharmonic, Peter Guth, had mounted a documentation of the 1938 Nazi ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf. Dümling and Guth had used the original Nazi exhibition as a didactic instrument to demonstrate the degree of damage that Nazi policies had inflicted on musical life. The decision was thus taken to use ‘Entartete Musik’ as the title for the Decca series as well with the same objective in mind.
This created a stir among the German press who saw a cynical attempt to merchandise recordings using Nazi terminology. For the generation of German speakers of the early 1990s, the term ‘Entartet’ was identifiably Nazi, though most would have difficulty defining what it actually meant. To the German musical establishment, a British label marketing Nazi terminology, even for didactic reasons, with Margaret Thatcher’s German-phobic outbursts still in recent memory, was not favourably viewed.
Facing this seeming impasse, we had our third miracle: David Drew from Boosey & Hawkes handed me a piano score of an opera called Der gewaltige Hahnrei by a composer named Berthold Goldschmidt. He suggested that it might be a good follow-up to the other two operas as Goldschmidt’s opera had been scheduled for performance in Berlin in 1933 before being removed by the Nazis. Drew suggested that, with the first two recordings being works by composers most enthusiasts of twentieth-century music had at least heard of, it might be a coup to offer up a work by a composer who was a total unknown. I played through Hahnrei on the piano and felt that it reminded me far more of Shostakovich or Prokofiev than Hindemith or Schoenberg and decided that its non-German feel made it the perfect work to confound expectations that German music from this period was dry and utilitarian. When I told David Drew of my decision, he astonished me with the news that Berthold Goldschmidt was not only still alive, but lived a few hundred yards up the road from my office.
With Berthold as part of our series, we had a survivor who could articulate in three languages what had happened during the inter-war years and up to the rise of Hitler. His very presence neutralised objections to our title. Goldschmidt’s credentials were perfect: he had been prominently involved in Berlin’s musical life since rehearsing Wozzeck with Erich Kleiber in 1925 and had witnessed virtually all of the key events of the decade up to 1935, the year he came to Britain. Prior to meeting Goldschmidt, I had compiled a list of some 200 names of composers banned after 1933 and with tape recorder in hand, asked him what he knew of them. Today, it’s painfully clear that I knew far too little to ask any deeply relevant questions, but even under these circumstances, his responses informed the series enough to establish a number of other projects that otherwise would not have been considered. Until his death in 1996, he remained a strong advocate for all of the composers represented and was able to silence with a terse, unemotional sentence the most indignant of doubters. With Berthold’s help and the invaluable daily advice I received from Albrecht Dümling, a schedule was made that ultimately resulted in some 30 recording projects being completed before PolyGram was sold to Universal Music, thus bringing our work to a depressing halt.
Ironically, the composers who never managed to make it into the series were Ernst Toch, Egon Wellesz, Max Brand and Hans Gál: the very first names to have appeared on my initial list. Had Austrian Radio decided to become our partner, the sequence of recordings would have come out quite differently. I can make no secret of how seriously the absence of these very names undermines the integrity of the entire project, though ultimately, we managed to cover a number of important operas by the likes of Korngold, Krenek, Braunfels, Zemlinsky, Goldschmidt and Franz Schreker. We built further recordings around the composition class of Schreker, many of whose pupils had already appeared such as Goldschmidt and Krenek, but we added others such as Karol Rathaus, Wilhelm Grosz and Ignace Strasfogel; we had a recording called Schoenberg in Hollywood, and recorded major works by a number of Czech composers who later became known as the ‘Terezín Composers’.
To this day I’m pleased that, with a single exception, we covered the major works of the so-called ‘Terezín Composers’ written before their internment and murder. Subsequently, other labels have recorded the music of the camps. For me, such undertakings focused more on the Nazis than on music and it was crucial to establish these composers as major figures before and beyond their murder by war criminals. Ultimately, only Viktor Ullmann’s powerful and perceptive Der Kaiser von Atlantis represented the music of Terezín on Decca’s series, a decision that is based entirely upon the content of the work rather than its context. The series also covered a selection of light music, operetta and even offered a CD of French Chanson by Joseph Kosma. Nevertheless, the absence of Toch, Wellesz and Gál was tragic and kept the recordings from representing a comprehensive survey.
By 2002, I was able to take on the position of music curator at Vienna’s Jewish Museum where the director, Dr. Karl Albrecht-Weinberger, represented a younger generation of Austrians who believed passionately that Austria’s murdered and displaced composers needed to be returned to the centre of Viennese cultural life. The museum became the perfect vehicle for this work and over the last years, we have mounted large exhibitions seen by tens of thousands of visitors on Hans Gál, Egon Wellesz, Franz Schreker, Erich Korngold, Erich Zeisl, Hanns Eisler and next year, Ernst Toch. We have also mounted an exhibition on the antisemitism that kept the music of Gustav Mahler from returning to Austrian musical life until the mid-1960s.
My first collaboration was as part of a large in-house team mounting an enormous exhibition simply called Quasi una Fantasia, The Music Capital Vienna and the Jews. Since 2002, Austrian Radio has been an active supporter of this work and slowly other institutions are taking notice. Walter Braunfel’s opera Die Vögel was mounted at Vienna’s Volksoper, Jonny spielt auf went to the Staatsoper along with Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. When Peter Ruzicka became the manager of the Salzburg Festival, he initiated performances of large stage works by Korngold, Schreker, Wellesz and Zemlinsky. Salzburg’s Easter Festival of three years ago focused on ‘Music and Resistance’.
The Korngold opera that opened our recording series, Das Wunder der Heliane, has yet to receive a convincing staging (though two are planned for 2010) yet Die tote Stadt has now been presented at countless opera houses and even goes to Los Angeles next season. The Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s quirky, spooky treatment of ‘Don Juan’, Flammen has also had a number of performances, most recently in Amsterdam. Franz Schreker is finally taking his place as the ‘missing link’ of twentieth-century music, with a slow but steady stream of revivals of his operas Die Gezeichneten and Ferner Klang.
Today’s recording industry has become fractured and fractionalised: we are treated monthly to an avalanche of works by composers we have never heard of. The demise of the former ‘major’ labels means that an army of minor labels, each with its own enthusiasm, has sprung forth offering more music than anyone can reasonably be expected to absorb. As a result of the closure of the major labels, we now have a dizzying choice of composers from whom we can assemble competing and alternative versions of music history over the past four centuries. Is this good or bad? I can only ask rhetorically as choice and a copious supply of information must be a good thing, but I recall that in the late 1970s, my first assignments at Decca were as assistant producer on the Janácˇek operas being recorded in Vienna with Sir Charles Mackerras. After five recordings, the money ran out and the series was stopped. The missing operas were neither better nor worse than the ones that made it onto tape. The decision as to whether this opera or that opera was recorded first or second or put at the end of the queue was determined more by the availability of cast than by any thoughts of which opera was best from an aesthetic or cultural perspective. Yet it was the operas that made it into Decca’s Janácˇek series that soon became standard repertoire in all European houses. Only when attending performances of From the House of the Dead, the most ‘difficult’ of his operas, at the Salzburg festival did the power of recording become apparent.
Over time and in a far more competitive environment, we have seen many of the composers who made up the ‘Entartete Musik’ series also become at least partially rehabilitated, often at the cost of their colleagues who were no better or worse, but just not lucky enough to have made it through the studio-door before commercial reality switched the lights off.
Returning to the Vienna Philharmonic’s opening concert, I have come to recognise that the legacy of composers such as Erich Zeisl can only take root where there is an innate ‘sense of ownership’. Despite the turmoil of wars, both hot and cold, a divided Europe and an avant-garde that was directed by ideology as much as anything coming out of earlier dictatorships, the ultimate sense of ownership has returned to a younger, less encumbered generation of Austrians, Germans, Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who see in these composers a continuation of their own traditions.
Over the last two decades I have seen musical life in America, Great Britain and France be influenced by its refugee composers, while at the same time, not accepting them on as their own. Why should they? No American would dream of trying to lay claim to Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky. Nor would Chopin ever be considered French. Over time, we have heard fewer and fewer performances of the composers who came to America and Great Britain to escape Hitler. Yet in direct proportion to their slow disappearance from the musical life of their adapted homelands, we have seen an invigorating re-appraisal in their native countries.
With the demise of the major recording labels and the marketing support they were able to offer, it’s doubtful we shall see another attempt to influence public musical discourse again in the manner we at least partially achieved with Decca’s ‘Entartete Musik’ series. It was a last fling but now more than two decades later, its legacy, as symbolised by the Vienna Philharmonic’s opening concert of its season, has finally started to yield musical gains.
Michael Haas is also Director of the JMI International Centre for Suppressed Music (ICSM) President Sir Simon Rattle.