Saturday, November 9, 2013

Forbidden Music (Follow up to The Rape of Europa)

In addition to stealing art from Jewish collectors and banning so-called degenerate art, Hitler also eliminated as many Jewish composers (and performers) as possible. After I posted on The Rape of Europa and the recent find of many lost and even unknown works by Picasso, Klee, Chagall, and others, I recalled reading a book review in The Wall Street Journal by Norman Lebrecht about that era: Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas. Haas was the producer of Decca's Entartete Musik series. Mr. Lebrecht was a little let down by Haas' book, which he hoped would provide background to the making of that series:

Decca's restitution was an extraordinary adventure into the unknown. Almost everything that Mr. Haas recorded was novel, unexpected, often unbearably poignant. At a Prague recording of Pavel Haas's effervescent opera "The Charlatan," none could ignore the proximate facts of the Czech composer's fate—incarcerated in the nearby Terezin camp, then gassed, age 45, in Auschwitz. By the time classical recording hit a mid-1990s downturn and cost-cutters pulled the plug on the series, Mr. Haas had produced 31 albums and rewritten a sizable chunk of the verdict of history.

The scale of dispossession defies belief. Goldschmidt told me that he was personally acquainted with more than 100 composers who fled Germany. My hope was that "Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis" would tell the romantic story of Mr. Haas's quixotic mission. Perhaps prompted by an academic publisher, he decided to cast his net wider and seek to place the Nazi prohibition in a broader context of German cultural anti-Semitism. The first third of the book tell us little that we have not read elsewhere. Oppression begins with the appalling pamphlet "Das Judenthum in der Musik," issued by Richard Wagner under a pseudonym in 1850 and again under his own name 20 years later. In it Wagner claimed that Jews could not achieve originality in German art. Hitler used this charge as his manifesto for cultural cleansing.

But he notes that

His chronicle is nonetheless a valuable compendium of untold stories, a corrective to standard histories of music and an essential reference point for anyone engaged in the culture and politics of the 20th century.

Be warned that the risk in reading "Forbidden Music" is that you will lose many hours of your life relistening to the Entartete Musik series and its triumphant restorations. Korngold's violin concerto is now, finally, at the center of concert repertoire. The works of Terezin composers Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullman and Hans Krása are widely played. Hans Gál's symphonies are appearing on record. Eisler is sung all over, and once-forbidden music is seeping into the musical DNA of the 21st century, the Nazi purpose defeated.

Terry Teachout also reviewed Haas's book for Commentary magazine.

One composer Lebrecht mentions is Walter Braunfels, whose Jewish father had been baptized in the Lutheran church and had himself become a Catholic. Braunfels encountered Hitler early in the latter's career, when he wanted the composer to write an anthem for his National Socialist movement. As this essay in the January 7, 2011 issue of The New York Times noted, his grandson told that story, and the Braunfels' revival has continued after the Entartete series ended production:

Evidently the future dictator was unaware that Braunfels was of Jewish descent, the son of a jurist father who had converted to Lutheranism. Raised in that faith, Braunfels embraced Roman Catholicism after serving at the front in World War I. “If our name had been Bernstein,” Stephan Braunfels said, “Hitler would have had to know better.”

“Die Vögel,” which presumably took that Mephisto to Braunfels’s door but then disappeared for decades, has been making something of a comeback. In 1996 Decca issued a studio recording in the short-lived series Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) to respectful reviews. Now a video version, filmed last year at the Los Angeles Opera, is available on an Arthaus DVD.

As James Conlon, who conducted, suggests in an accompanying essay, we hear the music now without bothersome distractions. “The importance of knowing who was part of the avant-garde and who was not fades with time,” Mr. Conlon writes. “It is the essence of the music, in my opinion, not its historical-musicological placement, that matters. Had ‘Die Vögel’ been written in 1875, would we listen to it differently because, at that time, it would have been progressive? Should we continue to ignore a work such as this because we consider it old-fashioned?”

Like other composers crushed by the Third Reich, Braunfels has been getting a second chance over the last quarter century or so, with “Die Vögel” (after Aristophanes, with a Christian overlay) only one piece of a larger picture. His discography has expanded to include large-scale compositions like the Catholic mystery opera “Verkündigung” (“Annunciation”), the bewildering but intoxicating comedy “Prinzessin Brambilla,” a large-scale set of muscular but sumptuous orchestral variations on a theme of Berlioz (“Phantastische Erscheinungen Eines Themas von Hector Berlioz”) and the majestic Te Deum as well as chamber music.

Now Decca has released Braunfels’s magnum opus, the opera “Jeanne d’Arc” (written between 1939 and 1941 as “Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna”), which could raise his profile another notch. Recorded live at its concert premiere in Stockholm in 2001, the score plays like the missing link between Wagner’s otherworldly “Parsifal” and Kurt Weill’s jazzy, machine-age “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” with perhaps a jolt of the Stravinsky of “The Rite of Spring” mixed in. The theatrical premiere at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2008 is tentatively scheduled for DVD release by Arthaus in the fall.

If you are wondering about the connection between this targeted destruction of art and music in Nazi Germany and the English Reformation, it is of course indirect. Nevertheless, the common issues of destroying the legacy of a material culture, the art, architecture, books, and music (although the polyphonic music of late medieval England did survive through the talent of William Byrd, although much was lost) are poignantly similar.

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