Thursday, May 30, 2024

Revisiting Composers Suppressed by the Nazis

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Alexander Zemlinsky, who composed several of the most subtly entrancing operas of the early twentieth century, embodied the cosmopolitan chaos of the old Austrian Empire. His father came from a Slovakian Catholic family; his mother was a Sarajevo native of Sephardic Jewish and Muslim descent. Born in Vienna in 1871, Zemlinsky apprenticed there under Gustav Mahler; had an illustrious stint conducting at the New German Theatre, in Prague; and later landed at the radical-minded Kroll Opera, in Berlin. His mature works draw, variously, on Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Rabindranath Tagore, and Langston Hughes. To what nation or tradition does such a polymorphous figure belong? A sorcerer of orchestration, Zemlinsky wrote music that glimmers ambiguously in the air, and his life seemed to do the same.

In April, I went to Prague for the final installment of a four-year series called Musica Non Grata, which focussed on German-speaking Jewish composers who thrived in the First Czechoslovak Republic, between 1918 and 1938. The principal venue was the Prague State Opera, as the New German Theatre is now known. The German government provided support, memorializing the Germanophone culture that once flourished in Czech lands. Two of Zemlinsky’s operas, “A Florentine Tragedy” and “Kleider Machen Leute” (“Clothes Make the Man”), were presented on the final Musica Non Grata weekend. As it happens, I had recently seen Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf”) at L.A. Opera, whose music director, James Conlon, is a tireless advocate of composers who lost their careers—and sometimes their lives—to the Nazis.

Efforts to recuperate artists who were victims of prejudice might be seen as special pleading. Would the music of the historically oppressed—whether the composers are Jewish, Black, or female—compel our attention if we knew nothing of their struggles? Aren’t we rewriting history to compensate for past misdeeds? Such questions suffer from the dubious assumption that the core repertory has emerged from a purely organic process unaffected by sentimental factors. Consider how the cult of Mozart dwells on his early death, or how that of Beethoven emphasizes his deafness. In any case, no revival of a forgotten composer can be rooted in anything but love, and Zemlinsky’s circle of devotees, while not exactly vast, is steadily expanding.

His musical gifts were never in doubt. Recordings of his work as a conductor are meagre, but his contemporaries praised him as an expert, elegant interpreter of modern and classic repertory alike. Igor Stravinsky, not one to hand out compliments freely, recalled a Zemlinsky-led performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” as the “most satisfying operatic experience of my life.” In Prague, Zemlinsky selflessly promoted not only his fellow-Viennese, like his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg and members of the Schoenberg school, but also Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and Weill. Having begun as an acolyte of Brahms, Zemlinsky brushed against atonality, neoclassicism, and popular song. His openness to myriad influences caused him to be perceived as a weak-willed eclecticist. But Theodor W. Adorno, in a beautiful defense of Zemlinsky’s music, questioned the belief that “force is an integral part of greatness,” arguing that there is genius in sensitivity, empathy, and reticence.

“Der Zwerg” (1919-21), an adaptation of Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” has long been the most often performed of Zemlinsky’s eight operas. I had previously seen productions at the Spoleto Festival, in 1993, and at the Komische Oper, in Berlin, in 2002. The story, in which a dwarf falls in love with a cruelly teasing princess, has autobiographical dimensions: throughout his life, Zemlinsky felt like a freakish outsider. In 1900, he became smitten with the composer Alma Schindler, who found him at once “horribly ugly” and “touchingly sweet.” (She dropped him in favor of Mahler, who was neither.) The omnipresence of antisemitism in Vienna must have shadowed the opera’s conception.

The central conceit of “Der Zwerg” is that the title character, having never seen himself in a mirror, considers himself irresistible. The score tells us that he is, in fact, right; whereas the Princess’s music is dry and brittle, the Dwarf is given the opera’s most beguiling motif—a lush, wistful theme winding its way languidly through D-minor, B-flat-minor, and F-sharp-minor tonalities. In Los Angeles, the tenor Rodrick Dixon, who has made a specialty of the title role, brought to bear the right mixture of lyric and heroic elements; Conlon handled Zemlinsky’s chiaroscuro textures with absolute authority. William Grant Still’s one-act opera “Highway 1, USA,” a noirish mid-century tale couched in a late-Romantic idiom, made for an apt companion.

“A Florentine Tragedy” (1915-16), which the Prague State Opera presented in a concert performance, is another Wilde adaptation: a deliciously nasty story of Renaissance revenge, in which a merchant renews his relationship with his unfaithful wife after killing her lover. To whip up erotic hurly-burly, Zemlinsky borrows heavily from Strauss’s “Salome,” but his refined techniques of motivic development hark back to Brahms. When the merchant enters, stepwise descending figures slither in the bass; these are echoed triumphantly in the final bars, in a strange anticipation of the ending of Olivier Messiaen’s “La Nativité du Seigneur.” The baritone Joachim Goltz delivered a caustic, vividly detailed portrayal of the merchant; Karsten Januschke set an urgent pace in the pit.

Although Zemlinsky is now best known for the sumptuous decadence of his Wilde operas—and for the kindred atmosphere of orchestral scores like “Die Seejungfrau” and the “Lyrische Symphonie”—he also had a flair for urbane social comedy. “Kleider Machen Leute,” completed in 1909 and revised in 1921, rests on a premise of fable-like simplicity: when small-town residents mistake a travelling tailor’s apprentice for a Polish count, confusion and scandal ensue. Zemlinsky fills his score with terse lyricism, adroitly managed ensembles, phantasmagoric instrumentation, and an undertow of terminal melancholy. The production, by Jetske Mijnssen, was minimalist to excess, but Richard Hein, the conductor, and a fresh-sounding cast filled out the picture. In the same period, Strauss was trying to emulate Mozart in “Der Rosenkavalier”; Zemlinsky, with his matchless stylistic agility, came closer to the goal.

In 1938, Zemlinsky fled into exile, a sick and broken man. He died four years later in the suburbs of New York, his achievements largely forgotten. Others met far worse fates. One day in the Czech Republic, I joined the German musicologist Kai Hinrich Müller and other participants in Musica Non Grata on an expedition to Terezín, or Theresienstadt, northwest of Prague. Here, between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis established a ghetto for tens of thousands of Central European Jews, and for propaganda purposes they permitted a modest flourishing of cultural life. Among many wrenching documents at the Terezín Memorial is a meticulously notated bracket for a table-tennis tournament. Composers active in the camp included Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Lena Stein-Schneider. All but the last were killed in Auschwitz. Musica Non Grata organized a moving performance of Stein-Schneider’s “Goldhärchen,” a tuneful fairy-tale entertainment that she wrote after the war. The audience was a group of child cancer patients at Motol University Hospital, in Prague.

During my Czech visit, I also had the chance to hear music by Erwin Schulhoff, one of the most fascinating and uncategorizable personalities of the between-the-wars period. Born in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff received Dvořák’s blessing in his youth and later immersed himself in Debussy and Strauss. After the First World War, he discovered jazz and went through a boisterous Dadaist period: in his “Sonata Erotica,” for solo voice, the singer feigns an orgasm, and in his piano suite “Fünf Pittoresken” the performer executes a movement consisting entirely of rests, decades in advance of John Cage. More soberly, Schulhoff wrote several magnificent chamber pieces for strings, which owe debts to Bartók but possess their own eerie, moonlit allure. In the thirties, Schulhoff began producing martial works on Communist themes. His musical setting of “The Communist Manifesto” kicks off with a slinky, bouncy, almost danceable treatment of the line “A spectre is haunting Europe.”

Several days after the Zemlinsky mini-festival in Prague, the Brno Philharmonic presented Schulhoff’s Second Symphony, which adheres to the neoclassical mode that spread far and wide during the interwar period. It is a minor masterpiece of Bauhaus bustle, stocked with curt tunes and charged with pert rhythm. Dennis Russell Davies, who once led adventurous seasons with the much missed Brooklyn Philharmonic, presided over a deft, characterful performance. The program also included the Symphony in F-Sharp by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was born in Brno, in an apartment building that can be seen from the concert hall. Unfortunately, Davies marred the overpowering Adagio movement by imposing a substantial cut. There is no point in reviving neglected composers if one does not believe in them fully.

When the Czechoslovak Republic fell to the Nazis, Schulhoff made plans to immigrate to the Soviet Union. Just before his departure, however, he was arrested and sent to the Wülzburg concentration camp, in Bavaria. The commandant in Wülzburg treated prisoners with a modicum of humanity, and Schulhoff was excused from some work duties and allowed to compose—just as Messiaen, in the Stalag VIIIA camp, in Görlitz, was given time and space to write the “Quartet for the End of Time.” Schulhoff set about sketching an Eighth Symphony, which would have contained a belligerent chorus in praise of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. He died of tuberculosis in August, 1942, five months after Zemlinsky breathed his last. Both composers seemed destined for oblivion, but their music sings beyond the sadness of their end. ♦

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