The South Bank’s year-long festival, “The Rest is Noise”, is an ambitious attempt to encompass the most innovative music of the 20th century.The book by Michael Haas, Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale, £25), is an equally ambitious attempt to recall how much great music was lost or forgotten — in some cases, until the author rediscovered and recorded it for London/Decca. Taken together, the concerts and the book offer a rare opportunity to experience and understand works of genius that somehow survived the best efforts of the barbarians to suppress them.
In January, at the first of two concerts that I attended, the London Philharmonic under Sir Mark Elder performed three pieces that epitomised Vienna 1900: Anton Webern’s early tone poem Im Sommerwind, Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces of 1909, and Mahler’s Chinese song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. As Haas points out, long after the Holocaust, Schoenberg’s former pupil Hanns Eisler recalled that the first of these Five Pieces had been entitled “Premonition”, in his view an early anticipation of Hitler: “It is proof of Schoenberg’s genius and nature that he expressed all these emotions at a time when the world seemed safe.” Of course Schoenberg did not foresee Auschwitz in 1909; but he could see anti-Semitism all around him in the world’s music capital, Vienna.
However, it was Mahler, rather than Schoenberg, that brought tears to my eyes: it is impossible to hear the last great setting of Chinese poetry, “Das Abschied”, without feeling that this is the composer’s farewell, not only to life (he knew by then that his heart condition was incurable) but also to the mandarin world of Habsburg Vienna. Schoenberg wrote to Mahler in 1910, begging him to return from New York to “our loathed and beloved Vienna”. Mahler eventually did so, but only in order to die at home.
Last month I heard a second Viennese concert at the Festival Hall, with the Vienna Philharmonic itself under the Californian conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. The focus was again on Schoenberg, but this time his lifelong reverence for Brahms. Schoenberg laid claim to Brahms as his exemplar, illustrated in two late works written in his Hollywood exile: the Theme and Variations of 1943 and his orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 1 of 1937. The latter was especially popular, thanks to a Hungarian dance-like finale in which Schoenberg became a little less Brahmsian, with wild percussion, woodwind and brass.
Sandwiched between these two less familiar works was Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. I guess the inclusion of this warhorse was intended to prove Schoenberg’s point, that Brahms was a “progressive” composer; but for me the more interesting juxtaposition was that of orchestra and pianist. Yefim Bronfman emigrated from his native Russia in 1973 to live in Israel, where his family could escape the suffocating anti-Semitism of the Brezhnev era. Though Bronfman is now a US citizen, he remains a vigilant defender of the Jewish state.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, was secretive about its role under Hitler until March this year, when it finally opened its archives. Almost half its musicians were Nazi party members, far more than the Austrian average, while 13 of them were kicked out for the crime of being Jewish or married to Jews. Five were murdered; none ever returned. As for the New Year’s Concert, with its Strauss waltzes: that too, it seems, was invented by Nazi propagandists.
Its sinister past notwithstanding, the VPO famously makes a uniquely recognisable sound and its Brahms with Bronfman was sublime. Has Vienna learnt anything since Schoenberg’s day? Haas tells the story of the Jewish Viennese composer Erich Korngold, whose family recall what happened when he returned after the war from exile in Hollywood to visit what had been his villa in Vienna’s wealthy Cottageviertel. A neighbour greeted him thus: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Professor Korngold! I don’t believe my eyes! You’re in Vienna! When are you going back home?”