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Unknown Musicians of a Wandering Race

A remarkable concert reintroduces three Jewish composers who fled fascist Europe to America, where two of them pioneered a new art form—the symphonic film score.

The ARC Ensemble, who performed in Pro Musica Hebraica’s “Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe” at the Kennedy Center in May 2015. The ARC Ensemble via Facebook.

The ARC Ensemble, who performed in Pro Musica Hebraica’s “Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe” at the Kennedy Center in May 2015. The ARC Ensemble via Facebook.

Observation
May 21 2015
About the author

Edward Rothstein is critic at large for the Wall Street Journal. His previous essay in Mosaic, “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” appeared in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.


In his program notes to the Pro Musica Hebraica concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington earlier this month, the historian James Loeffler points out that in 1927—just before the period in which the music on the program was written—a Russian-born musician by the name of Gdal Saleski published a “classic, biographical lexicon” under the title Famous Musicians of a Wandering Race.

At the time, this well-worn description of the Jews as a “wandering race” could still be invoked with pride, or innocence. Not for long, however. Loeffler observes that the post-Holocaust edition of the book would refer instead to composers of “Jewish origin,” and by then the book was more of a memorial volume. Still, that earlier phrase remains strangely resonant, evoking bards doomed to migratory journeys, singing of epic pasts, embodying the age-old fate of the disenfranchised Wandering Jew of Western mythology. And there was a certain element of truth in all of that—as the evening’s program bore out.

The concert, titled “Before the Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces of Pre-1933 Europe,” offered music written between 1928 and 1931 by three composers of the “wandering race”: Jerzy Fitelberg (1903-1951), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). But the pieces themselves, beautifully played by the Canadian-based ARC Ensemble, make no allusions to the Jewish origins of the composers; nor do they hint at how Saletski’s phrase fits these figures, all three of whom, in fleeing the Nazis, took a path that ultimately led from their respective nations of birth—Poland, Italy, and Austria—to the United States.

So, aside from their creators’ shared background, in what way were these works “Jewish”? That is a question, indeed, that one might ask of almost any of the offerings of Pro Musica Hebraica (PMH), whose concert series is now in its eighth season. The aim of PMH, a marvelous brainchild of Charles and Robyn Krauthammer, is to draw attention to “lost and neglected masterpieces of Jewish classical music.” (Selections from earlier concerts can be heard here.) Is, then, the main mark of identification simply the fact that most of the composers happen to have been Jews?

At least in the case of this particular concert, it might seem so. In the pieces performed at the Kennedy Center there was nothing like the melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer used by Max Bruch in his 1881 piece of that name for cello and orchestra (even though Bruch himself was, he said, not Jewish). Nor were there Jewish folk melodies of the kind to be found in works by Charles-Valentin Alkan or Maurice Ravel (two composers represented in earlier PMH concerts, the first of whom was Jewish and the second is sometimes alleged to have been), or narrative motifs and coded references of the kind that can be heard in some works by Dmitri Shostakovich (who, though not Jewish, made use of Hebraic melodies).

Nor were we, in listening to the music, meant to place it within the tragic context of 20th-century European Jewish history. We were advised both by Loeffler in his concert notes and by Charles Krauthammer in an onstage introduction that it should not be heard as if foreshadowing the cataclysm to come. Rather, we were to regard our experience of it as an adventure into a less familiar or “neglected” corner of musical modernism.

And this is indeed how it must be heard. At first.

 

The surprise of the evening was the String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Jerzy Fitelberg, a work that in its skittish, aggressive dissonances, its edgy sweeps and mordant gestures, seems to give Slavic modernism a sensuous surface, as if merging the crispness of Sergei Prokofiev and the outbursts of Shostakovich with a love of sheer sonority. Fitelberg, the son of an influential Polish composer and conductor, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory and then moved to Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he fled to Paris, from there made his way to Italy, and finally left by ship for the United States where he settled on New York City’s Upper West Side.

In 1936, Fitelberg received an award from the Library of Congress, and enjoyed an international reputation. But today his name is hardly recognized, and he has no entry in the 29 volumes of the last printed edition (2001) of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The score for this quartet was found in his papers at the New York Public Library; performed by the ARC Ensemble, it will be featured in a forthcoming CD devoted to his work.

The second item on the Kennedy Center program, the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1931-32) by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, made a less indelible impression, though its sweet lyricism and robust nostalgia were marked by exuberant stagecraft. In his autobiography, the composer claimed this as his best chamber work: emotional, vivacious, meditative.

Born into a Florentine Jewish banking family that traced its roots back to 16th-century Tuscany, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was drawn to the great texts of world literature as subjects for his music; he often used Jewish themes as well. In the early 1930s, he became concerned about the fate of Italian Jewry. When the virtuoso Jascha Heifetz commissioned him to write a violin concerto, he seized the occasion to express his pride in his “so unjustly persecuted” people. The concerto, called I profeti—“The Prophets”—glorifies, in the composer’s words, “the burning inspiration that inflamed the [biblical] envoys of God.” Within a few years, his career in Italy had come to an end. After the passage of Mussolini’s racial laws, his music was banned. He and his family made their way to Los Angeles.

And then there was Erich Korngold. Compared with his demonstrative theatricality, Castelnuovo-Tedesco pales. At the Kennedy Center concert, Korngold was represented by his Suite for 2 Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand), Op. 23 (1930). It is, in some ways, extraordinary, forcibly demanding attention from the very start, freely discarding convention, experimenting playfully with form and manners. The suite opens with a declamatory, impassioned solo for piano, followed by an almost provocative response from the cello, eventually leading to a nervous fragmented fugue.

Not all of the work is as compelling as this first movement, but Korngold, who was certainly one of the century’s great musical prodigies, was hailed by Gustav Mahler (who called him a “genius”) and Richard Strauss (“one’s first reaction is awe”). His father, Julius Korngold, an immensely powerful music critic for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, championed his son’s music, but the help was hardly needed, so extensive was the acclaim. The pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother to the philosopher Ludwig), who had lost his right arm in World War II, commissioned Korngold to write a piano concerto for left hand and, later, this suite. Ultimately, like Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Korngold, too, made his way to Los Angeles.

 

So here we have three finely crafted and intriguing works, each showing the influence of a different national style (Polish, Italian, Austrian) and each displaying unusual mastery. It is tempting to hear all of them as reflections of European Jewry’s last stand “before the night”—as music anticipating or heralding the darkness soon to fall. But, as I noted earlier, Loeffler suggests that this is fallacious, if not injurious. All three composers, he writes, have been faulted by critics who find their work lacking in the requisite “pathos and foreboding they imagine music by interwar Jewish composers must possess.” That is why he urges us to approach their music not “as a prelude to war and genocide” but rather “as an expression of a restless moment when Western music was still engaged” in modernist struggles—that is, to hear it “on its own terms, without the aural backshadows” of the Holocaust.

But I don’t really see those backshadows as the main issue here. Nor does the perception of backshadows, where relevant, strike me as different from the general effort to place any work of art within its historical context, to think about what led up to it and in what ways it may have anticipated or prefigured or perhaps even helped to bring into being what would come after. We who arrive on the scene later cannot get away from the knowledge of our situation; we cannot listen with the ears of a composer’s contemporaries. We may even hear more subtle prefiguring than they could have imagined.

Besides, there is more than one way that music relates to its encompassing history. Who, for example, can listen to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera and fail to notice the overripe German cynicism that held the cultural seeds of so much that was to come? Even at the time, this was evident to some listeners. Attending a performance of The Threepenny Opera in the early 1930s, the great scholar Gershom Scholem was dismayed to find himself in an audience “that had lost all sense of its own situation,” cheering a work “in which it [itself] was jibed and spat at with a vengeance.” By the same token, there are also works about which it can be distracting, and detracting, to historicize. We don’t listen to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and visualize the stark wartime landscape of 1944, the year of its premiere. We don’t want to. And perhaps that is the point: neither did Copland want to, or want us to. That is one way we hear this piece in context.

As for our three composers, I don’t think they faded from view because of obtuse critical expectations. The reasons were simpler, and Loeffler makes them evident: their lives were interrupted—largely as a result of their being Jews. In that sense, they are properly thought of as Jewish composers of their time. Nor was their displacement only a biographical phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon, with an immense impact on the course of all of European musical life.

In Forbidden Music: the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, Michael Haas points out that by the first decade of the 20th century, about a third of the piano and violin students at Vienna’s conservatory were Jews. The prevalence of Jews in all aspects of European music was startling, and already then of long standing. By 1940, when the Nazi Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (“Dictionary of Jews in Music”) appeared, there was no shortage of examples, each name carefully labeled with its proportion of Jewish “blood.”

Think, then, of what happened to the musical life of Europe. The 1920s had been a decade of great cosmopolitan ferment. Within five years or so after 1933, it was all over, demolished. The musicians left behind were certainly consequential; they included Hebert von Karajan, Kurt Fürtwangler, Karl Böhm, Walter Gieseking, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, and more. And there were composers, too, like Carl Orff—who wrote fresh incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream so that Germans need no longer be subjected to the music of the Jew Felix Mendelssohn. But an entire stratum of musical life had been stripped away.

The effect this had, not just on Europe but also on the countries lucky enough to take in those lucky enough to escape, has yet to be fully appreciated. Most of the exiles seem to have ended up in the United States, and many in California: not just Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Korngold but Arnold Schoenberg, (the non-Jewish) Igor Stravinsky, and others. In many ways, the prime decades of American art-music can be traced to this influx of émigré musicians. In particular, the great American orchestras were transformed by exiled Jewish conductors, among them Otto Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Bruno Walter, William Steinberg, Serge Koussevitzky (who arrived pre-war), and Georg Solti (who came postwar).

Still another transformation in American culture owes much to the influence of two of the composers featured at the Kennedy Center concert. Moving to Los Angeles in 1940, Castelnuovo-Tedesco began writing film music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other major studios, scoring more than 130 (!) movies in all. Along the way, he taught a new generation of composers, many of whom, including Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and John Williams, also wrote for films.

Korngold is an even more remarkable example. While still living in Austria, he had visited Hollywood in 1934 in order to collaborate with the director Max Reinhardt on the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; just as the Nazis were undertaking to replace Jewish music, Korngold created a score woven out of Mendelssohn. He went back to Austria, but returned here in 1938 when Warner Brothers asked him to write music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Nazi Anschluss in that year made it necessary for him to remain in the U.S., where he proceeded to write the music for, among others, Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, Anthony Adverse, and The Sea Hawk, and thereby, as the New Grove Dictionary puts it, “pioneered a new art form, the symphonic film score.”

Until recent decades, when the model shifted, American movie scores, thanks to Hitler, were orchestral tone-poems, operas without voice, shaping our understanding of what is seen. Which is one reason why, to return to the fascinating concert at the Kennedy Center, I don’t mind backshadowing. Actually, however, it wasn’t the Holocaust that I heard latent and prefigured in the music that night; it was the nascent flowering of an American art form and the incomparable enrichment of American entertainment, an enrichment that lasted for three or four decades—at least until it started to turn into something else.

More about: Arts & Culture, Classical music, Film, History & Ideas, Jewish music