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Critic’s Notebook: Michael Haas' "Music in Exile" Previewed

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Music of Exile: The Untold Story of the Composers who Fled Hitler
Michael Haas
Yale University Press

Michal Haas has been at the forefront of championing neglected composers for as long as he has worked in music – and few people have enriched curious ears around the world immeasurably as much as he has. His “Entartete Musik” series on Decca was and remains a collector’s dream, its many releases having often brought composers like Krenek, Korngold, Ullmann, Schulhoff, Rathaus, Pavel Haas et al. to their first or at least wider attention. In the 2000s, he curated a series of phenomenal exhibitions on composers for the Jewish Museum in Vienna, that especially drew me to that town, starting, for me, alas with the one about the Korngolds, which turned out to be the penultimate exhibit, followed by a last exhibit on Hanns Eisler.

Shortly thereafter, he came to work with Exilarte Centre in Vienna, which focuses on archiving, studying, presenting, and promoting music suppressed by National Socialism. The summation of his experiences and discoveries fills two books for now, Forbidden music: The Jewish composers banned by the Nazis (2014) and recently Music of Exile: The Untold Story of the Composers who Fled Hitler, which is the book that was presented tonight in the very space that used to host his elaborate exhibits.

Whereas Forbidden Music focuses on the composers and their work that the Nazis banned, dispelled, shot and gassed, the follow-up focuses on the essence and meaning of composing in exile, on what happened to the music of those composers unfortunate enough to have to seek exile and lucky enough to receive it. What happened with and to these exiled composers’ music. Some, like Robert Fürstenthal (1920-2016), an autodidact from Vienna, stopped writing altogether – Fürstenthal became an auditor for the US Navy in San Diego. It was only when he met his one-time high-school sweetheart, by now a microbiologist at Harvard, that he started composing again upon her insistence. The results, unpublished, were still very much in the vein of Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Joseph Marx. When asked why, he replied: “When I compose, I am back in Vienna.” Walter Arlen (1920-2023), too, composed for the drawer and did not see a proliferation of his works until he was in his nineties when several recordings of his music were made in Vienna. Until then, writing music for Arlen was simply a therapeutic activity. But when the aged, now blind composer, was present at these recording sessions, his ears and memory still proved in top form. Asking one performer mid-song, if he mightn’t have missed an f-sharp in a chord, the pianist sheepishly replied “I thought it might be a mistake”. “No, it wasn’t.”

Walter Bricht(1904-1970) – like Korngold saddled with a music-critic father – was one of the most productive composer-performers of his generation, constantly in high demand in his native Vienna and beyond. The Rosé Quartet performed his chamber music; his symphony was programmed by the Vienna Philharmonic. But when Austria annex-joined Nazi-Germany, and it was discovered (apparently even to Bricht’s surprise) that he had had three Jewish grandparents, his career was in acute danger. Definitely so, after Bricht turned down an offer to be made an “honorary Arian”. He emigrated to the US, where he taught at the Mason College of Music in West Virginia before teaching in New York and, after 1963 at the Indiana University School of Music. Apparently, he was the pianist taking on the orchestral part when Paul Wittgenstein did a play-through of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand before the composer – after which Ravel excitedly came over to Bricht, ignoring Wittgenstein altogether. Wittgenstein didn’t hold the slight against Bricht and went on to commission several works from him… a movement of which was performed at the subsequent recital by David Hausknecht.

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Egon Wellesz, Symphonies 1-9
Vienna RSO, Gottfried Rabi
Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) has been served a little better than Arlen, Fürstenthal, Richard Fuchs, or Walter Bricht, as far as the reception of his music is concerned. The symphonies have all been professionally recorded, even if the patchwork recording sessions don’t come close to unleashing the full potential of these (largely) grandiosely gorgeous symphonies. Starting with this form at the age of 60, he put even symphonic late starters like Brahms and Bruckner to shame, and over the course of his first five symphonies, he appears to be working his way through music history, starting with a language where Mahler meets Elgar and arriving at a more terse, post-romantic point that incorporates lessons from his former teacher Arnold Schoenberg – before finding his uniquely own voice in the last four symphonies.

The recital following the chat between Haas and his colleague at the Exilarte Center, Gerold Gruber, included no Wellesz, but it did include a gorgeous song – “In der Fremde”, to a text by Heinrich Heine – of Richard Fuchs’ (1887-1947), that exemplified that composer’s heady distillate of all that exemplifies German romanticism: Humperdinck, Rheinberger, lots of Strauss, Wagner, Bruckner and was beautifully phrased by mezzo-soprano (and Exilarte project manager) Josipa Bainac. She also lent her voice, densely concentrated, with a saturated vibrato and controlled pianissimos, to two of Walter Arlen’s songs. In the rendition of Fürstenthal’s “Lovesong”, it was hard to understand the words or, for that matter, what language they were supposed to be in, but the baritone’s sincere interpretation – a daisy chain of blurbs of sound – still allowed for the wistful Viennese coffee house beauty to shine through.

Julius Bürger (1887-1995), the first composer whose estate Exilarte acquired, a Schreker-student and later a close colleague of Dimitri Mitropoulos’ at the MET, was represented with a piano reduction of the second movement of his Cello Concerto – an Adagio that is titled in the score with: “To my mother, who was murdered on this day.” She was shot in transit to Auschwitz while five of his brothers were murdered in the extermination camp. It is a lament of touching expressive simplicity, deeply moving, yet audibly difficult to play for the beautiful-toned soloist, Christina Basili.

In its way, the recital was telling both as to the riches we miss out from not knowing unknown music – and the pitfalls that seldomly performed music faces: When there isn’t an established interpretative tradition, a living performance tradition, alternative performances to draw on, works are at the mercy of the performance at that moment. Any given performance, however well-meaning, might turn off listeners who would well possibly fall in love with a different, perhaps more fortuitous one. Just another reason, why we can only be grateful to those involved in working towards the inclusion of excellent ignored music, dipping our ears in beauty we might otherwise so easily miss. Music of Exile appears to be yet another of Michale Haas’ invaluable contributions to that end.

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