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The dead city

Romanticism rising from the rubble

Artillery Row Books

The opera world is so used to the revival of long-forgotten Baroque operas, even late Renaissance proto-operas, that it is strange how quickly compositions performed with success a century or so ago can disappear from public consciousness. Pop music is littered with one-hit wonders, but why do sometimes decades of success in the classical domain evaporate so suddenly into oblivion?

The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century, John Mauceri (Yale University Press, £22)

Early theatre music was, after all, rarely published and often survives in incomplete hand-written scores or parts, whereas late Romantic music was published and reviewed widely at the time. Music was heard only in performance until the end of the nineteenth century, but of course tunes and motifs entered into popular consciousness even among the masses who never went to a concert hall or opera house. Yet, despite all the multiple means of recalling, recording and broadcasting the music of the last hundred and twenty years, great swathes of it have disappeared from public memory and even the curricula of conservatoires. 

Conductor John Mauceri has released a study of the forgetting of so much classical music, especially music composed in America by refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe. A leitmotif of his work is how often not only music students but professors or professional musicians don’t even know the names (let alone the scores) of the composers who had been household names in Central Europe. These musicians were happily recruited by Hollywood studios and Ivy League colleges on reaching asylum in America a few decades earlier. 

Mauceri’s War on Music is published at the same time as Longborough Festival Opera brings Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt to the professional stage here for only the second time since its triumphant launch across Germany and the world in 1921. The enthusiastic audience at the first night in Longborough was probably puzzled about the obscurity of an opera that utilised techniques from Wagner, Strauss and Puccini but with a voice of its own.

In the opera, Paul is obsessed — and aroused — by the appearance of his dead wife Marie’s Doppelgänger, Marietta. Carmen Jakobi’s simple evocation of a claustrophobic decaying Bruges enclosing a mawkish shrine to Marie, was wonderfully played and sung. Rachel Nicholls was a seductive, slinky Salome-like Marietta who brought out the latent violence of Herod-like disgusted lust in Peter Auty’s fine Paul.

The émigré late Romantics were un-performably passé

Life-long grief was still obligatory back then. Professional widows for half centuries like Cosima Wagner were still mourning strong as Korngold wrote the opera, but it was also an age of mega-grief. A generation before the Holocaust made us familiar with the concept of survivor’s guilt, Korngold was composing it. In an interview, Korngold emphasised “the beautiful idea of how the mourning of the loved ones must, by necessity, be mitigated by a claim to life”. Writing the music after his contemporaries had died in droves in the First World War, Korngold has Paul outraged by his friend Frank’s attempts to draw him back to the land of the living from his vigil before his wife’s image. Benson Wilson’s powerful performance as Frank but also as the Pierrot with his famous song was a highlight.

If Korngold had the same stuff that has kept Puccini or Strauss in the repertoire, what went wrong? His story forms a key case study in Mauceri’s account of how so much modern music has been forgotten, or more precisely assassinated, in his view. 

Born in 1897, Korngold was a prodigy nurtured by his music critic father, Julius, to be the Mozart (another Wolfgang) or Mendelssohn of the early twentieth century. Mahler and Richard Strauss, neither shy about deflating other composers’ pretensions, were impressed by the young Korngold. Strauss attended the premiere of Die tote Stadt in Hamburg, and his presence was taken as an endorsement of the young composer’s growing reputation as his natural successor as master of modern opera.

Young Korngold was sheltered from the modern world by his controlling father and lived in a musical bubble. He later explained why he didn’t drive in Los Angeles of all places because the music in his head might require him to use the accelerator as a sustaining peddle. Another future émigré, Egon Wellesz, noted that the teenage Korngold’s early operas showed that an adolescent could intuit and represent in music “uncannily the emotions and passions he cannot yet have experienced”. 

Did envy of Korngold’s glittering early success condemn him to share Meyerbeer’s fate of being, as Heine, sneered, “immortal in his own lifetime”? Or wasn’t it even worse — to live long enough to be forgotten after so much early fame?

Being Jews banned by Hitler, ought to have made Korngold and his contemporaries heroes after 1945. But both in their new homes in America, and back in post-war Europe, the emigres of the 1930s found themselves virtually boycotted by the post-war musical establishment. In Europe, especially German-speaking Central Europe, the music world was still controlled by time-servers from the Nazi era. Survivors of the Holocaust were skeleton rattlers best kept out of ear-shot.

For anti-Fascists like the young Boulez, the émigré late Romantics were un-performably passé. Tunes were reactionary. Although nowadays the legacy of Korngold’s Robin Hood underpins modern film composers’ work like John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and (as Mauceri shows) the AI generated sound-world of computer games, at the time Korngold and his contemporaries fell victim to the double-effect of Nazi persecution and silencing by the modernist establishment. 

That modernists like Boulez were contemptuous of Korngold’s tunes and the plots of his operas is hardly surprising, but Mauceri points out that both Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn were dismissive of their predecessors on the sound stage — perhaps fearing that their own stints with underscoring films would taint their later compositions. Snobbery more than national socialism proved deadly to the emigres’ music. 

Because of his father ’s vocal rejection of modernism, the son’s music was excluded

Korngold had been delighted when an early production of Die tote Stadt used film back-projection — an anticipation of his Hollywood years, still unimaginable in 1921. 

Schoenberg, too, went there but his twelve tone compositions never caught on, though he anticipated when they would be whistled in the street. Despite that, Mauceri shows that his works have suffered the same silence which smothered Korngold’s music.

Because of his father ’s vocal rejection of modernism, the son’s music was excluded from Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances and concerts promoted by the International Society for Contemporary Music back in Vienna before 1933. Modernists seem often to have assumed that Erich Wolfgang’s music expressed his father’s tastes and condemned it without necessarily looking at the scores or going to hear it. When he met Schoenberg also in exile in Los Angeles, Korngold interrupted the Master’s introductory lecture to him on the twelve tone system by playing Schoenberg’s Six Piano pieces from memory. He had studied the music of the modernists even when they presumed that his was unworthy of their time. To be fair, Schoenberg took the point that Korngold was not a reactionary know-nothing.

With conductors like Longborough’s Justin Brown and the Sinfonia of London’s John Wilson bringing Korngold’s music back in front of audiences, perhaps John Mauceri’s mourning of a lost generation of composers can end with the dawn of early twentieth century music’s renaissance.

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