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Braunfels Is an Obligation for Me

Walter Braunfels at the Piano (click for full picture)

Walter Braunfels is a composer whose music died twice. Once when the Nazis declared his music “degenerate art”. And then again when post-war Germany—and the art-subsidizing powers that were—had little use for the various schools of tonal music; when the arbiters of taste considered any form of romantic music—almost the whole pre-war aesthetic—to be tainted.

Before the war, Braunfels was the second most performed opera composer in Germany behind Richard Strauss. During the war, Braunfels—a ‘half-Jew’ by the Nuremburg laws but a Protestant who converted to Catholicism—went into ‘inner exile’. His works were banned. After the war, performances of his music were few and far between, and even now there are just a handful of recordings of his music. So the re-premiere of his Great Mass in Stuttgart—the first performance since its actual premiere in 1927 under Hermann Abendroth—was a big Braunfels event. Even his octogenarian son attended, greatly moved to finally hear the vast work in concert, a work he remembered well from listening to the singers’ rehearsals at home while hiding beneath the grand piano.

Finally on April 18th 2010, the Mass unfolded again in its humble, almost 100-minute glory when Manfred Honeck and his Stuttgart State Orchestra performed it at the Stuttgart Liederhalle—the crowning part of Honeck’s three-year focus on Braunfels during his time in Stuttgart. The Mass is in eight parts: an Offertorium is placed before the Sanctus and an Interludium before the Benedictus. Not only its dynamic and emotional scope, but its length too, is of Mahlerian proportions. Talking with Manfred Honeck right after the performance, we wondered why it had taken so long for the second performance of such an important work, especially considering that the work hadn’t been lost.

“Yes, it sat there, bid its time,” Honeck muses, “unrecognized for its greatness, underestimated, and perhaps a couple times someone got as far as the second page, saw what lineup it required, and quietly put it back. ‘We can’t sell that, it’s a whole evening’s worth of music, it would need a special occasion.’ And I suppose that special occasion never came up. Even anniversaries of his birth [his hundredth in 1982] or his death [50th in 2004] weren’t considered, which is too bad. But if a work is good, its time will come. And the time has come. And it really was about time.”

Honeck became a Braunfels devotee when he was asked by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to conduct Braunsfels’ opera Scenes from the Life of St. Jean, composed during the war. “That was my first encounter with Braunfels and I was a little hesitant at first and asked for a score. But the deeper I went into the score, and the more I got to know this music, the more I was convinced. And I was even more moved when I heard his story, which touched me a lot.”

available at AmazonW.Braunfels, Te Deum,
M.Honeck / Sjönberg, Jonsson / Swedish RSO
Orfeo 679071

available at AmazonW.Braunfels, Te Deum et al.,
G.Wand / Rysanek, Melchert / Cologne RSO (WDRSO)
Profil 6002 [mp3]
The BRSO performance had to be postponed, but with Braunfels now on his mind and the score studied, he performed “Scenes” with the Swedish Radio Orchestra, which played the world premiere. (The performance has since been issued by Decca.). “It was a great experience and I thought, ‘This is a great opera’. And while preparing that opera, I got to know more and more about Braunfels and I told the family that I wanted to get yet more—and they sent me scores. Small pieces, large pieces… and I was amazed by the Te Deum that was among those scores. It’s a great Te Deum; I love Bruckner’s Te Deum, and I saw Braunfels’ in that line. And in some ways it’s perhaps even a greater piece. And I was really amazed. So I performed it in Stockholm and we recorded it, because at the time there wasn’t a CD of it available. Since then the Profil-Hänssler label has found, cleaned up, and released an old recording of it with Günter Wand which I must say is wonderful, too. You feel the spirit in the interpretation. And not only do you have the Bruckner connection here, but Günter Wand was a student of Walter Braunfels in Cologne, too.”

(The 1952 sound of the Wand can’t hamper the emotional quality of the performance, but Honeck’s grasp and Orfeo’s crisp sound make it the obvious first choice; the Wand is the disciple’s pick.)

I must confess, it took me a while to grasp the Te Deum in either recording—the music should be straight forward, but the ears had to get used to it, anyway. (And while I’m in confession mode, I’ll add that the Bruckner Te Deum has so far failed to touch me in any performance, too.) By now I’ve listened to the Braunfels a couple dozen times, though, and the investment of time has paid great dividends. The Pittsburgh audience and chorus were apparently quicker on the uptake: When Honeck performed the first movement of the Te Deum with them, Honeck was amazed (a favorite word of his) with the reaction of the people to Braunfels’ music. “The choir, they fell in love with that movement. Of course, it’s a very romantic movement, it’s a Lohengrin-moment in music…” “But it is great” he hastens to add, as if the Lohengrin reference had cast that into doubt.

I don’t, in any case, hear a clear Lohengrin in the Te Deum until the third movement (about three minutes in), but instead I hear Braunfels’ own densely beautiful romantic music in that first movement, along with a few moments that could remind of other composers, notably a brief Orff resemblance toward the end of the massive 20-minute first movement.

Honeck gets carried away with enthusiasm, speaking about the Mass with even more superlatives in his speech than light editing has left in here: “There are a lot of composers who would all be in the repertoire today, if it hadn’t been for the Second World War and the very ideological aftermath: Braunfels, Fortner, Blacher, Hartmann—all of them. It’s too great a music, such fantastic music… I mean, in a way it’s a shame that after 80 years we are only now, finally, giving the second performance of this Great Mass. Sure, it asks for a children’s choir on top of the regular choir, and four soloists… but that isn’t in and of itself unusual for a mass. It’s got this big organ interlude, the big choir, and the orchestration! It’s fantastic. What a connection with Gustav Mahler’s music. For example, the part where the choir exclaims ‘Iudicare, iudicare’ (from the Credo: ‘Judge, judge… the living and the dead’), he uses the little drum in the exact same way Mahler does in the beginning of his Sixth Symphony. There is no Mass that uses so much percussion. Glockenspiel, tam-tam, big drum, small drum etc. And yet it’s never ostentatious and always obvious when he uses it why he uses it. It always goes with the words. And that’s his art. He takes the word first, and then he composes around it. And this inspiration for the instrumentation comes from the words. The word is first with Braunfels, always. You feel it all the time. Even in the Angus Dei: ‘dona nobis pacem’… To end a piece with a boys’ choir is really unbelievable. What is the reason to end a piece with the boys’ choir? The innocence of children, the idea of peace carried forward by children… ‘Give us peace’—children have peace, even if they are cruel, but they are innocent, you know? And just the idea is amazing. With Braunfels, it’s never about himself.”

Braunfels’ hand at drama and his careful consideration of the text betrays the opera composer, not only in the Te Deum, but also in the Great Mass. That Mass isn’t a liturgical work; in any case it wasn’t intended for a church service. But it also isn’t, minor similarities apart, like Verdi’s ‘secular’ Requiem either, because it speaks directly from a sincere spiritual urge. “The works addressed a need of my father,” Braunfels’ son said after the performance, suggesting it was far removed from being absolute music in the guise of a mass.

The music is of the kind of angular romanticism that we know from his colleagues K. A. Hartmann or Boris Blacher or Harald Genzmer (as opposed to the ‘double-cream school’ of 20th century romantics à la Joseph Marx or Erich Korngold), and not always easy to digest. The Credo is dark and almost threatening as it begins over a low pedal point before some hope from the trumpet is shone upon it. A trombone solo follows, then the children’s choir enters. The rest of the singers join in, making it sound almost like an operatic slave-worker chorus -- until this longest of sections (25 minutes) builds up to a stunning climax on “et vitam venture saeculi.” The following Offertium offers the necessary respite and tenderness to recover. The Interludium for organ, brass, and strings leads into the longest instrumental section ahead of the Benedictus and could be sold as Zemlinsky. When the Agnus Dei finishes on “dona nobis pace”—give us peace!—it is the boys choir, after a perilous upward soprano leap (Hello Verdi!), that has the last word. The Mass ends most touchingly with “pacem” on their lips and dying away.

It would be childish to suggest that the performance, which was recorded to be broadcast and presumably published on CD, couldn’t be bettered. The soloists, for one, did not all excel. Roughly in declining order of excellence, we had dry precision and articulate accuracy, if not exactly excessive beauty, from soprano Simone Schneider; seasoned expressive ability amid occasional ambiguity from mezzo Gerhild Romberger; lots of (audible) effort and some beautiful moments from tenor Matthias Klink; and uncoordinated, indistinct wobbles from bass Attila Jun. The orchestra could probably have used a few more days in rehearsal, too, but their performance was spirited and committed enough to ensure that the work got the fastidious, warm performance it deserved.

A Performance that is important to Honeck, who has made Braunfels his personal cause. When we talked about how he wants to carefully, gently introduce Braunfels in Pittsburgh, he explains: “I want to help Braunfels wherever it is possible. And of course people might say I’m a Braunfels specialist, but other conductors are performing him also, and I hope that even more will take up performing his music.”

Moved by Braunfels’ vita as much as by his music, he adds: “It’s a shame that those artists who were banned by the Nazis have remained in obscurity. Just imagine how these artist must have felt, or Braunfels, how he must have felt when he had hoped to be performed after 1945, to continue his success, only to find out that his music was no longer wanted. And with 1945 over, it was—still, after those years of inner emigration—a disaster for him. What a story. Because the music is so good, I’d do it anyway, even without the story. But in the combination of his personal history and the quality of his work, it’s really an obligation for me.”

See also:

Best Recordings of 2010 - "Almost List" (14.1.11)
Listen What the Cat Dragged In: Walter Braunfels, Jeanne d'Arc (17.11.10)
Summer Opera: Braunfels and Grétry (11.6.05)

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