Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Music history rewritten

How do you rate the composers Paul Dessau, Carl Zelter and Albert Lortzing? Well if you were one of the musicologists advising on the restoration of the historic Konzerthaus in Berlin the answer seems to be pretty highly.

The Konzerthaus (above) is one of the outstanding designs of the great European neo-classical architect Karl Freidrich Schinkel. It was built as a theatre in 1821, but also had a chequered history as a music venue including the Berlin premiere of the Flying Dutchman, and most notably the first-ever performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1826. In 1789 Mozart attended incognito a performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and when the second violins played a wrong note legends says he shouted to the orchestra: 'It's D you're supposed to be playing, damn it'. Romantic opera was born in the Konzerthaus with the first performance of E.T.A Hoffman's Undine in 1816. Among the c
elebrated conductors who worked there were Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber and von Karajan.

Following a bombing raid in April 1945 a fire completely destroyed the interior, and the theatre remained a shell in the communist East Berlin until 1979, when redevelopment started to create a cultural centre in the Gendarmenmarkt Square. The reconstruction of the theatre involved an authentic rebuilding of the exterior, while the interior featured an enlarged adaption of Schinkel's original concert hall that picks up many of the original details, and includes a superb Jehmlich organ.

For five years after re-opening in 1984 the restored Konzerthaus served as the main concert hall for the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and the home for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. The challenge came when the wall fell in 1989, and the unified Berlin found itself with two superb concert halls (the Konzerthaus and Philharmonie) and two top class orchestras (the Berlin Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic) within a short walk of each other. The Konzerthaus responded with imaginative programming including themed mini-seasons, and a concentration on early and new music. Among the contemporary music projects this year has been a 70th birthday tribute to Helmut Lachenmann (right).

The sumptuous interior decoration of the concert hall features the busts of thirty-six composers, which can just be seen in the photo of the beautiful hall at the head of the article. When I attended a concert of baroque music there on Sunday (C.P.E and J.S.Bach, and Boccherini) I found some surprising choices, and omissions, among the honoured composers. The 'A' and 'B' lists are as follows:

'A' list - downstairs - Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mozart, Gluck, Telemann, and J.S. Bach.

'B' list - upstairs - Lortzing, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Smetana, Bruckner, Wolf, Strauss, Bartok, Schönberg, Prokofiev, Britten, Dessau, Eisler, Shostakovich, Stravinski, Janacek, Debussy, Reger, Mahler, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Zelter.

Surprising inclusions first. Hanns Eisler is not really a surprise given his connections with East Berlin. Paul Dessau was also literally politically correct for the GDR cultural czars. He worked under Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter in Germany before leaving for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. His compositions expressed his antifascist beliefs , and his collabarations with Bertolt Brecht, who he followed to Hollywood, included music for the 1938 Paris performance of the play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. (The photo to the right shows Dessau with Brecht behind him). During his time in Hollywood he composed for a number of movie studios, including somewhat unbelievably scores for Alice in Wonderland and other animated Disney films, surely the ultimate clash of ideologies?

In 1946 he joined the US Communist Party, and in 1948 he returned to Germany and settled in the GDR. I well remember the austerity of East Berlin's central Alexanderplatz in the 1970's, and it was still pretty bleak last week despite re-unification. It must have been the most extraordinary contrast to the fairy-tale world of Disney and Hollywood in 1948. Dessau's music is influenced by his Jewish background, and contains elements of Hebrew and Jewish folk traditions. His 1974 opera Einstein had a notable production at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in West Berlin in 1978 with a cast including Theo Adam and Peter Schreier. In January 2006 a festival featuring six of his film scores is taking place in Lugano, Switzerland.

The two other surprising choices for the composers Hall of Fame are from earlier times. Albert Lortzing was a comparatively minor figure 19th century figure whose main claim to fame is probably his opera Hans Sachs which is said to have influenced Wagner's glorious Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Equally obscure is Carl Friedrich Zelter who is usually remembered as the teacher of Mendelssohn and Mayerbeer, and whose advocacy of the music of J.S. Bach spurred Mendelssohn to his famous performance of the B minor Mass.

Surprising omissions? Your views are as good as mine. But with 'nationalist schools' represented by Smetana, Janacek and Mussorgsky the absence of Nielsen, Ravel and Elgar are surprising. But the two really glaring omissions for me are Sibelius who was presumably persona non grata due to his support for the anti-Russian movement in Finland, and Palestrina who as the greatest ever composer of liturgical music was presumably a non-person as far as the Soviets were concerned (although isn't Bruckner also usually considered to be a 'Catholic' composer?).

The location of the busts is also interesting. Lortzing and Zelter are tucked away almost apologetically in the far corners behind the stage, while there is a nice group of 'fellow travellers' which includes Shostakovich, Eisler, and Dessau, and somewhat provocatively Britten, who of course was a great supporter of Russian musicians, albeit those that were invariably on the wrong side of the regime.

Are Paul Dessau, Carl Zelter and Albert Lortzing due for a revival? Your comments please on who should be, and who shouldn't be, on the 'A' and 'B' lists when music history is next rewritten.
Picture credits - Concert Hall - Konzerthaus, Helmut Lachenmann - Max Nyffeler,
Dessau and Brecht - Michigan State University Department of Theatre

Report errors, missing images and broken links to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to
Furtwängler and the forgotten new music and Copland and Eisler.

7 comments:

Chris Hertzog said...

No Debussy? No Berlioz? No Puccini? No Verdi? No Vivaldi? No Chopin?

And Eisler and Dessau instead of better known (and better) German contemporaries like Hindemith or Berg?

Pliable said...

Chris, I've checked my hand written notes taken in the hall and I have to confess that Debussy was there - my error.

But you are absolutely right about no Berlioz, Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi and Chopin.

And isn't Reger an odd choice?

Anonymous said...

The choices are not so odd. It's an orchestral concert hall, so Palestrina doesn't belong. Although Lortzing was a opera composer, he was a local, Berlin-born and trained, just like Zelter. Sibelius, Nielson, Ravel and Elgar have traditionally not been highly regarded in German concert halls, and it is actually a bit surprising to see Stravinsky and Debussy.

Now here's a question: which composers have their names engraved in the facade of Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College in Claremont, California?

Hucbald said...

That was an absolutely fabulous post, pliable: So fascinating I was spellbound all the way through.

I'd have to agree with Anon that, while Palestrina may have been a non-entity to the atheistic GDR administration, he is nonetheless not associated with concert hall music, and so wouldn't fit in there.

I think any time you honor composers with busts in a setting like that, questions will arise as to inclusions and omissions. But yes, Reger borders on the bizarre by his presence.

Anonymous said...

No, Reger was a local boy, too. The namea that really ought to be on the list but are not are Busoni and Schreker.

Garth Trinkl said...

No one has mentioned Lortzing's
revolutionary opera "Regina" of 1848, and his role as a model all-around cultural worker in peoples' theater. Zelter's position is more complex. He was a friend of Goethe's, founded the Royal Institute for Church Music in Berlin, and championed Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn.
His inclusion seems to me a slap at the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime. (And a replacement candidate for the unacceptable Hans Pfitzner, whose opera Palestrina is, of course, now beloved in Germany, but which elited mixed response when revived in London and New York City in 96-97.)

I give up: which composers have their names engraved in the facade of Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College in Claremont, California?

I can find that The Mable Shaw Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bridges as a memorial to their daughter, who died in 1907, but I can't go further since that site apparently uses the word "nudity" and a poltergeist has tripped up my computer's anti-porn filter.

Konrad von Swalwagner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.