More Gold Than Korn

By Frederick L. Kirshnit, Le Concertographe

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When egomaniacal composer Alexander Hollenius (brilliantly portrayed by Claude Rains) tells cellist Paul Henreid in the 1946 film Deception that the key to his new concerto is in the fugato section, he speaks with the authority of the actual composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Viennese wunderkind now pushing fifty and living in the transplanted European community of Hollywood. Patiently writing scores for all types of movies, from the adventure films of Errol Flynn to the gently aristocratic Anthony Adverse, Korngold finally got the opportunity in this film to feature the music as the central character. Involved not just in the background but a major participant in the dialogue and plot twists, the former prodigy and son of the extremely influential critic Julius Korngold has great fun while a member of this particular production team. For example, when Bette Davis realizes backstage that she must kill the overbearing composer to fulfill her destiny, the orchestra strikes up the opening strains of the Unfinished Symphony (and, for you film buffs, she lives in the exact same apartment as does Oscar Levant in the eerily similar Joan Crawford-John Garfield tearjerker, Humoresque). Not since the collaborations of Prokofiev and Eisenstein had a composer so much direct input into the making of a film. The resulting Cello Concerto is a masterpiece in a truncated style (only the score of King’s Row, with its magical ability to capture the American spirit and, at the same time, to recreate the world of fin-de-siécle Vienna, can rival it in Korngold’s cinematic output). Although the opening theme is introduced dramatically, it is the gorgeously flowing second subject which is the heart and soul of this unique essay, a melody so rich as to defy description and the equal of any in mid-century. The fugato is filled with the adrenaline so prevalent in the classical music of the era (in the film, Hollenius is compared to Shostakovich). The short attention span of the popular movie audience and the obsessive need to keep Henreid on camera translate into a piece wherein the cellist plays almost constantly. As a result, the dramatic cadenza, with its feel of The Flight of the Bumblebee, becomes the central focus. The finished concert version (doubled in length to the present twelve minutes) is actually more the suggestion of a concerto along the lines of Korngold’s friend and Los Angeles neighbor Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene. Its extremely rare hearings are evocative of the flowering of music in Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, a golden age which included composers Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, performers Heifetz and Seidel, film music pioneer Franz Waxman and conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer (not to mention Thomas Mann, whose Doctor Faustus reflects his absorption into the musical life around him while he was living in Pacific Palisades). The present Concerto is the product of such an insular environment that it was premiered in California by the cellist of the Viennese expatriate Hollywood String Quartet, Eleanor Aller, mother of conductor Leonard Slatkin.

Symphony No. 4, “Dies irae” (1943-45/1972)

By Hartmut Krones

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Early on, the Viennese composer Marcel Rubin (1905-1995) became a citizen of the world both based on his education and his years spent in emigration. Following brief studies with Franz Schmidt, from 1925 to 1931 he became a private student of Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he had some success. In 1938, he set out on a restless journey. First, he emigrated to Paris, later to Marseille, and finally to Mexico City, where he became a rehearsal coach at the opera and accompanied or directed his own works. In 1947, he returned to Austria and became a music critic, but he focused primarily on his work, which includes among others the opera Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man), four oratorios, ten symphonies, concerti, other orchestral pieces, chamber music and song cycles.

Rubin’s style was highly influenced by Milhaud and other masters of the group Les Six, who vehemently railed against the German (specifically Wagner’s) so-called sauerkraut-pathos and instead nurtured its fantasy and wit by replacing complex harmonies with melody and rhythm. He also exhibited a superior grasp of form by making even the most artful structures clearly visible, as well as a penchant for humanitarian or social and political themes, which created an “engaged” type of music.

In Mexico, during the years of 1943-45, Rubin’s Fourth Symphony was created, reflecting his experiences during World War II: the first two movements tell of its horror, while two others (a pastoral segment and a jubilant fugue) initially hint toward the dream for peace, accounting for the original title, “War and Peace.” When Rubin later realized that the longed-for peace did not coincide with the proposed ideals, he destroyed the two positive movements and created a new, subdued pastoral piece with a deeply pensive ending. He chose the “Dies irae” as his new title, comparing the gruesome war with the horrors of judgment day and using the ancient choral sequence as basis of his second and third movements.

The theme of the first movement, a funeral march in the form of a freestyle Rondo, is based on the four stanzas of Bertolt Brecht’s deeply moving ballad Kinderkreuzzug 1939 (Children’s Crusade 1939), which recounts the story of lost, roaming children who slowly starve to death in winter. A solo viola intones a melancholy theme, which climaxes in a wide orchestral cantilena, until excursions into the major realm represent the dream of a “land where there is peace.” After a return of the main theme, a Vivo is heard as central children’s episode, before angry orchestral thunderclaps finally destroy all hope. The movement is rounded out with a pianissimo reprise of the distorted main melody.

The “Dies irae” second movement recalls the horrors of war in sonata form. Fanfares sound, followed by the increasingly faster moving main theme reminiscent of the “Dies irae,” which eventually becomes rhythmically truncated. Only the secondary theme played by the solo violin allows brief glimpses of a peaceful scenario, but is interrupted by dissonance. The development is fashioned as a double fugue based on the “Dies irae” and a new theme, while a variation of the first movement’s main theme appears before the reprise, where the original ancient “Dies irae” hymn is featured as climax.

The muted pastoral ending is a Passacaglia based on the “Dies irae,” until the variations give way to a flute passage – a melody from Rubin’s Marienliedern, symbolizing the possibility of change through religious meditation. Again, the piece ends with a question, leaving open the possibility of a bright outlook.

(Trans. Gila Fox)

A World Apart

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Since the mid-1980s there has been a steady increase in interest in the achievements of the many European émigré artists and thinkers who were forced to flee Europe and Nazism after 1933. This fascination with the émigrés has strangely coincided with their gradual passing from our midst. When the first investigative scholarly foray into the “intellectual migration” and its consequences on American culture was undertaken by Bernard Bailyn and Donald Fleming in the late 1960s, the prominent émigrés were about to retire from leading positions in the academy and in cultural life. Such figures as Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera and Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago had already transformed the landscape of American intellectual life. Forty years later, they have entered into this country’s history, a generation whose presence has ended through the normal cycle of old age and death. But the continuing interest in those figures and their emigration has run parallel to the phenomenon of a general assimilation of the horrors of 1933-1945 into the narrative of our history. That process has included the establishment of Holocaust museums and the unwitting aestheticizing and sentimentalizing of the events and the tragedies in film and media. It is as if the generation that bore some responsibility for letting the Holocaust happen and for maintaining an at best ambivalent attitude toward the émigrés as survivors—particularly here in America—had also to pass from the scene before a candid assessment of the careers of the émigrés and a true celebration of their courage and achievement became possible.

Tonight’s program is about the achievement of some of these émigrés in music, but it is not designed to offer the familiar story. It is fitting to celebrate famous, endangered individuals who brought their brilliance to the United States, as well as to elsewhere in the Americas and England. These “happy endings” describe the transformative influence of these émigrés in the cultures into which they came; the nations that accepted them became the winners. In music, we think of Schoenberg and Hindemith. Countless American students (now middle-aged adults), graduates of conservatories and universities, are able to tell their neighbors and children stories of legendary teachers with thick accents and peculiar habits who changed their lives by introducing them to ways of thought and interpretation that the emigration brought to America. Indeed the emigration brought a level of understanding of Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Heinrich Schenker, the Second Viennese School in music, Abstraction and Expressionism in art that changed the course of American arts and letters. In the sciences, particularly physics and biology, the émigrés catapulted the United States into preeminence.

But there are many strands in the story of emigration. In addition to its successes, there are cases like that of the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, individuals who came at early stages in their careers, and for whom the experience of emigration was a chance to reinvent themselves and achieve something of distinction, sometimes at cost to themselves, others, or truth. In these cases, it was the émigrés who were the winners, for they may never have been able to achieve great careers in their homelands. For them, the very discontinuity of their lives, despite its cost, allowed them to fashion new identities and embark anew with incomparable determination. Often, the younger the émigré the more promising the possibilities and less devastating the cost, as the examples of Lukas Foss and Andre Previn testify.

There was also a large group of professionals, however, that failed to acculturate and ever really feel at home. Some had achieved fame in the old country but lost it immediately in the new. Others, no matter who they were, could never adjust. The suicide of the writer Stefan Zweig in Brazil is a most poignant example. Many talented émigrés were unable to find a foothold in America. Their promising academic and musical careers were viewed as threats by an already highly developed American infrastructure of professionals. For every Walter Trampler and Felix Galimir who made it into the Boston Symphony or NBC Orchestra, there were countless others whose lives and careers were distorted by being forced out of their countries of origin. Here we can find music teachers, artists turned lawyers and salespeople, all artistic careers cut short and hopes dashed. Some émigrés were forced into premature retirement. This was particularly painful fate for Alfred Grünwald, the famous librettist of the last great era of Viennese operetta.

A significant percentage of these émigrés glorified the Old World. They were grateful for sanctuary, but their lives were laced by nostalgia, bitterness, and envy. Their failure in comparison to their fellow expatriates was not necessarily a function of quality, but of the countervailing pressures of opportunity, luck, happenstance, and connections. On tonight’s program, Julius Bürger falls in this nebulous category of an émigré who did fine work in relative obscurity. For these individuals, however, what made life worth living was the recognition of their fortune compared to those who did not make it at all, and the opportunity to watch their children flourish.

The difficulties and price extracted by dislocation become truly apparent when we look at the most promising but not fully established émigrés such as Egon Wellesz and Marcel Rubin. It is sometimes hard to focus on this category of émigré, especially when our tendency is always to commend the United States and other nations like England and Mexico, which gave the refugees the promise of life. Most importantly, the comparison is always with the truly forgotten ones, those who were not given sanctuary. When the Evian Conference was held in 1938, only the Dominican Republic expressed itself willing to take Jewish refugees from Europe, and the number they accepted was limited to 100,000. The United States turned away the St. Louis and used a quota system essentially to close its borders. Hitler would have been more than willing to let the Jews flee in the years 1933-41, but he discovered that nobody wanted to take them. It is disturbing to try to calculate the ratio between survival through emigration and death in the Holocaust. The emigrant, whether a Jew or a political refugee, was trapped in a bitter logic between the need to be grateful for having escaped and bitterness at the disfiguration of their lives and expectations.

With the exception of Korngold, the names of tonight’s composers are certainly not as well known as other émigrés such as Schoenberg, Milhaud, Weill, or Bartók, but that is just the point: to give hearing to those who successfully emigrated but whose careers did not quite turn out as they had wished or expected. An ambivalence toward their condition manifested itself in their work. Unlike the well-known modernist revolutionaries whose artistic idiom, despised by the regime they fled, necessarily became a statement of political resistance, tonight’s composers were not radicals in either art or politics. They continued to compose in the styles that resisted a pronounced break from the traditions appropriated by their oppressors. This artistic vision is obviously fraught with ambivalence and irony. Hitler mixed aesthetics with racism. A composer could write the most “proper” music, but still be forced to emigrate if he were Jewish, as did Korngold. Other émigré composers were something of a thorn in the sides of those, who, following the theorist Theodor Adorno, sought to link modernism with the cause of freedom. The rebellious Rubin turned to the example of French music rather than to that of either Strauss or Schoenberg. Wellesz, a student of Schoenberg, stands as a compelling reminder that, for all of their surface modernism, the achievements of the Second Viennese School were distinctly within a tradition of Viennese classicism. Wellesz demonstrates just how much Schubert, Mahler, and even Bruckner lay behind the compositional ambitions of Viennese modernism.

The émigrés on tonight’s program faced a nearly impossible position of being exiled from their native traditions but also not part of the well-defined musical resistance or the host culture into which they arrived. Their difficulty is reflected in their destinies. Egon Wellesz, like the other Austro-German émigrés Hans Gal and Hans Keller, maintained a life in music in England, but all three made their mark not primarily in composition and performance but in scholarship and writing. Fellow composer Berthold Goldschmidt lived long enough to experience a brief flurry of revived interest in his music after decade of obscurity.

Marcel Rubin didn’t like emigration for aesthetic, cultural, and political reasons and wanted to return after 1945. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, despite incredible success as a film-music composer in Hollywood, wanted to relocate to Vienna and take up his lost career as a composer of concert and operatic music. Unlike Kurt Weill, who so easily jettisoned his European past and embraced Americanism with alacrity, Korngold and Rubin simply waited to resume where they had left off. Many of their contemporaries thought this impulse deeply misguided. Schoenberg never wanted to return to Europe (and it is slightly ironic that his papers and archives are now back in Vienna). Yet many others did so, such as Adorno, Martinu, and Thomas Mann. But this was no solution either. Rubin was able to mitigate the contradictions when he returned to post-1945 Austria in part because of his deep left-wing political commitments. In this sense he resembles Hanns Eisler, who together with Arnold Zweig sought to establish a new society in East Germany. But Korngold, the great Viennese prodigy and once lionized by the Viennese public, was shocked to discover how unwelcome he was in post-war Vienna. It was as if the surviving native population was all too happy to continue living out the fantasy of a Vienna without Jews. In different ways it became apparent to each of these composers that the emigration experience could not be reversed, despite an ardent desire to do so. Whether they stayed, returned, or moved on to other locations in Australia or Israel, the émigrés continued to feel the powerful consequences of living in a state of constant transit, as it were—a condition of in-betweenness, in which their bags, metaphorically speaking, were never entirely packed or unpacked. Perhaps music is the most adept vehicle to communicate this complex response. This is the proposition that tonight’s concert explores.

“Adagio” from the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

By Diane Weintraub

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For Julius Bürger, tonight’s performance, “A World Apart,” is aptly named. Yes, he emigrated to this country during World War II, but he also would have remained a world apart from recognition had he not been discovered in 1990, at the age of 93.

Bürger had enjoyed a prominent career as a conductor and arranger with the world’s most venerable companies, but acknowledgement for his own compositions had eluded him. Lushly orchestrated, his German Romantic style was passé in an era of atonal sensibilities. So he had laid his scores aside and concentrated on building his career, which had begun at the Berlin Opera after studies with Humperdinck and Franz Schreker in Berlin and Vienna. In 1924, at Bruno Walter’s urging, he moved to the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor. Twenty years later he would return to the Met to great acclaim, but first he refined his craft back in Europe with Otto Klemperer at the Berlin Staatsoper, moving to the Berlin Broadcasting Company, then to the BBC in London.

By then it was 1938 and Bürger was growing anxious about the ominous political climate back home. In February, he and his wife decided to make a train trip to Vienna to vote against the election of the Third Reich. During a station stop in Paris, he spotted a newspaper headline that read “Austrian Chancellor Meets with Hitler,” and he instinctively grabbed his wife and left the train. Their luggage was lost but their lives were saved. Five of his seven brothers were killed in concentration camps in the next few years, and his mother was shot on her way to Auschwitz. Knowing how she had always loved the velvet tones of the cello, he subsequently dedicated the Adagio movement of his Cello Concerto to her.

Composed in 1932, the piece displays Bürger’s virtuosity with varied orchestrations and timbral delicacies. Its spare orchestral accompaniment highlights the solo cello’s richly colored line, and the Adagio, in sharp contrast to its flanking, technically demanding Allegro movements, aches with lyrical expression.

In 1939 Bürger emigrated to the United States, returning to New York to work for CBS with Kostelanetz and Fiedler, then to Broadway to conduct the debut of the Balanchine-choreographed Song of Norway. Nine months later he rejoined the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor. In 1954 he uncovered some forgotten Verdi ballet music, combined it with fragments of a dozen of the master’s other compositions and presented his arrangement as the score for the ballet Vittorio. It premiered with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting his Met debut, and the critics lavished praise on the arranger whose score was “brilliant” (Women’s Wear Daily) and “admirable” (The New York Times). Two years later, Bürger triumphed again with an adaptation of Offenbach’s operetta, La Perichole, with Rudolph Bing raving that he had “out-Offenbached Offenbach.”

Yet while renown for his work with others’ music grew, renown for his own was sparse. Two songs written early on in Vienna had been recorded by Joseph Schmidt and become popular in Europe. But of his complex compositions, only the Cello Concerto, performed in New York’s Town Hall in 1952 with Bürger playing piano accompaniment to Latvia’s Ingus Naruns, had been heard. Then, in 1984, his Variations on a Theme by Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach won Indiana State University’s annual Contemporary Music Festival Composition Competition. Bürger heard it played by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra thirty-nine years after it was written.

Then, for seven more years, there was silence. Bürger was old, his wife had died, his scores languished in a dusty trunk in his Queens apartment. Then one day, he recounted his life’s story to his young estates attorney, Ronald S. Pohl, and the lawyer resolved to get the music heard. Within months, he convinced experts to appraise the mostly hand-lettered works. Cellist Maya Beiser read the Cello Concerto score and joined Pohl in crusading for its performance. In June of 1991, with Paul Lustig Dunkel conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, it was featured in a concert devoted to Bürger’s works at Alice Tully Hall, with the composer in attendance. He was ninety-four.

Since then, Bürger’s pieces have been heard in concert halls from Israel to Texas to Los Angeles. Tonight, his music returns home.