April 06, 2007

Object lesson

Two of my greatest music score bargain finds have been Richard Strauss. Back in my Tanglewood days, a field trip to a used book store in northern Connecticut yielded a four-dollar Boosey vocal score of Salome. And a few years back, I rescued this two-dollar treasure from a discard sale at the Boston Conservatory library.

Die Frau ohne Schatten cover
That's an original Fürstner piano-vocal score of Die Frau ohne Schatten. I can see why the library was getting rid of it, as it's rather beat up: the spine is falling apart, the pages are brittle, most of the corners are cracked and disintegrating. For cheap score study, though, it's perfectly serviceable.

Actually, I'm not sure this particular copy ever any shelf time at all. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up at home and this came tumbling out:

Staatsoper Berlin program with swastika
The Staatsoper Berlin performed Die Frau on June 22, 1940, and the previous owner of the score, a man named Gustav Grossmann, saw fit to hang on to the program. I'm not sure why—he doesn't appear among the personnel:

Staatsoper cast list
(Click on the image to enlarge. The only names I knew are Torsten Kalf and Walter Grossmann; no doubt opera buffs will recognize many more.) Grossmann did work for the Staatsoper, however. He stamped the score with his address:

Gustav Grossmann address stamp
Based on the markings in the score I'd guess he was either an assistant conductor or a répétiteur. The only thing I've been able to learn about him is that he conducted the German premiere of Zemlinsky's opera Der Kreidekreis in 1934, shortly before Zemlinsky left Germany forever. (The performance was repeatedly disrupted by a claque of brownshirts.) No reference books, English or German, mention him. He must have survived the war—the score has pencilled notes regarding either a performance or a broadcast of the opera in 1959, conducted by Karl Böhm. (The singers mentioned seem to be the same as those on Böhm's 1955 Decca recording.)

I could probably find out more about him if I really tried; maybe someday I will. Right now, though, I don't want to know more about him. For me, the power of this particular artifact lies in its mystery. I don't know what Grossmann's personal or professional connection with this particular piece was. I don't know what he did or didn't do during the war. I don't know why he kept the program—an innocent souvenir? A rueful reminder? Secret pride?

Most importantly, I don't know by what path this score, with its potent accessory, ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. And because I don't know, I'm forced to imagine, which inevitably leads to a consideration of what I would have done had I been in Grossmann's place, in any of the numerous scenarios, charged or benign, that could have transpired. It brings up the very real possibility that, in certain situations, I may not have been as heroic or courageous as I would like to imagine.

I've been revisiting the life and music of Anton Webern over the past few months. Webern's relationship to the Nazis was, to put it mildly, an unfortunate combination of naïveté, patriotism, and opportunism. He deplored the anti-Semitism, but was entranced by the strong German nationalism, the prospect of German culture once again taking the lead after the disaster of World War I. As his Jewish friends were forced into leave, Webern never could bring himself to denounce the Nazis. Maybe he thought that Kristallnacht and the like was just a phase, that cooler heads would prevail, and everyone would come back. They never did, and the break with his former colleagues (particularly Schoenberg, who had been like a father) must have been distressing. One of the sadder episodes in Webern's life involves the solo piano Variations, written in 1936: Webern dedicated the piece to the Jewish pianist Edward Steuermann as a token of friendship. Steuermann, shortly to flee Europe, never acknowledged the gift, disgusted by Webern's refusal to speak out.

Of course, Webern's pain is trivial compared with those who were exiled or who perished in the camps. But still, I get the sense that I would have rather liked Webern as a person, and I want to go back in time, shake him by the shoulders, and tell him, convince him, that these people aren't who he thinks they are, that they're not going to change, and that he has to take a stand, that even remaining silent is a stain that he'll never be able to wash away. And then I wonder what someone from fifty years in the future would be shaking my shoulders about. One of the most amazing things about that 1940 program is that it contains absolutely no hint that there's a war on. In the face of even that epochal conflagration, the urge to maintain the façade of a normal, everyday life must have kept many people from refusing to recognize what was going on until it was too late. That's why I hang on to the program, to remind myself that the right thing to do isn't usually the convenient thing, that a path through life that avoids unpleasant obstacles is liable to lead one down dark, dead-end streets. Sunlight can burn, but the alternative is living in perpetual shadow.

10 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

OMG. What a find. It trumps my best by quite a bit: a crumbling hard-cover full score of Pelleas that I grabbed at a SUNY/Stony Brook library sale for twenty-five cents.

That's Torsten Ralf, not Kalf.

The really big operatic name in the cast, by me, is Margarete Arndt-Ober, a great mezzo who sang, more or less, forever. I have a recording of Brangaene's Watch that she made in maybe 1915 - and she's the Witch on the first complete recording of Hansel und Gretel, made in 1944, sounding nearly as good as 30 years earlier. Her characterization of the Witch is quite something, and what I would give to hear her as the Nurse.

Alex Ross said...

Wow! What a find. I have scores marked with such names, and I always wonder who they were.

Grossmann seems to have been the music director in Stettin up until the mid-thirties. Then he must have joined the staff of the Staatsoper, which experienced something of a conductor shortage after Hitler came to power (Klemperer, Szell, Leo Blech, Fritz Zweig, and Zemlinsky all were Jewish, and Erich Kleiber left for political reasons). But given the Zemlinsky association I doubt Grossmann was a Nazi. He may well have lost his Stettin job on account of that politically ill-advised "Kreidekreis" performance.

Steven said...

Very interesting. I feel that the bit about Webern is maybe a little more nuanced than that- with Steuermann, while he might not of acknowledged the gift, he did go around playing the Variations a lot and teaching it to his students, which isn't exactly scorn. I expect that Steuermann felt the same way about Webern's attitude as you do now. Some of Webern's children, who were then adults or close to it, were very pro-Nazi, and I read that there was a rule that the Webern family couldn't speak about politics at home, which implies that there was disagreement. When Webern writes Schoenberg in America, he often says things like "I get up and go to bed with the thought of how one could put an end to this reign of terror and what might rescue us!" (jan 17, 1934- in Moldenhauer pg. 412). Webern also talks in his letters about leaving Austria for America from like 1933 on. On the other hand, he does say to people like Steuermann that he thinks this is a phase that may work itself out. Keep in mind that his works were on public display as degenerate art at this point, and he was receiving censor. I feel that rather than being merely naive, Webern was caught up in the complex conflicts of interest that lay with his family and possessions being in Germany, and for Webern, leaving would have meant severing ties with family, which was very important to him. To me, he seems more terminally indecisive to me than idealistic in these matters.

What I think is a more interesting discussion than whether a composer was an enabler of atrocities or not is whether a composer's music was an enabler or not. Certain pieces have a lot of integrity, and they won't let you use them for sundry purposes. Webern's music is that way; I feel like authoritarian types would always be allergic to it. Can you imagine anyone marching to late Webern? Any Webern? Or J.S. Bach is another example. I don't feel like it can be taken too much out the world that it was intended for. On the other hand, as wonderful as Beethoven's 9th is, it can be placed into sundry contexts and the affirmation is just as strong. It writes a blank check of affirmation, whereas Bach and Webern have all kinds of worries and clauses written into them. Seeing what ends up as a television commercial is like that for me, also. Those pieces that end up selling diamonds are the same ones that can sell Nazis, I think.

Oh well, I've spent too long on this and must stop.
-Steven

Alex Ross said...

Problematic for the "disagreement" thesis are passages from Webern's letters such as this one (May 2, 1940): "This is Germany today! But the National Socialist one, to be sure! Not just any one! This is exactly the new state, for which the seed was already laid twenty years ago. Yes, a new state it is, one that has never existed before!! It is something new! Created by this unique man!!!....Each day becomes more exciting. I see such a good future. It will be different also for me."

If you think he wrote that just for the censor, see Louis Krasner's testimony of how Webern talking himself in circles trying to reconcile his support for Hitler with his undying love of Schoenberg: “Even Schoenberg, had he not been a Jew, would have been quite different!” (Louis Krasner, as told to Don C. Siebert, “Some Memories of Anton Webern, the Berg Concerto, and Vienna in the 1930s,” Fanfare, Nov./Dec. 1987, p. 338.)

Matthew said...

Lisa: thanks for the spell-check. Black-letter always gives me fits.

Steven: it was my understanding that Steuermann didn't play the Variations in public until many years after Webern died, but I haven't checked this thoroughly. On the family dynamic, it should be noted that Webern's son was a party member, and that, during the war (probably as a result of that connection), Webern did recieve occasional government stipends. Whether this was something bestowed on Webern or something he asked for in order to support his family is unclear.

Steven said...

Alex: Thanks for the quote. Characteristically histrionic. Of course he contradicts himself, one day crying out for the regime to fall and another glorying in the rightness of the National Socialism. All I mean is that when you pair his Nazi praise and denunciations (and in the letters, as we've just seen, there are both, and there are plenty of other examples of both), it's hard to know what Webern thought, IMO. Either he was lying to Schoenberg or he was lying to the recipient of the letter you cite, or he couldn't make up his mind. When one reads Webern's letters, he's extremely one thing or the other; everything is the greatest or the end of the world. Not that indifference or indecision, no matter how impassioned, would be any kind of vindication, but when I read those things together, what seems the most believable picture for me is someone who really believed both things and would waffle in an end-of-the-world kind of way, and when I wonder why someone would be like that, I think of all the people I've known that have one story of their lives for one group of people and another for the other. Usually those people are caught between worlds, which is why I mentioned the family politics thing, which was related in Molderhauer.

Also, when it comes to people assembling quotes for some kind of gloss about Webern, I don't think I've read an bio-article or book that seemed impartial. There are the hero worship types (Moldenhauer, for example), and then there are these people that are the bitter "you think Webern was so great, let me tell you the real story" types. I can't say that I've devoted a great deal of research to the subject, and it's not really a burning question for me (so maybe this means I should shut up); but as I said, I'm more interested in the music than the person- I can't imagine someone listening to most of Webern's music not being spurred to introspection on some level (maybe early romantic pieces aside), and introspection is what people like Nazis don't want. Even if the content of the music was arrived at by accident or without a good creation-story, the music is what it is.

Matt: I wasn't able to find any record of Steuermann playing the variations in a superficial search- maybe you're right, my memory failed me, and he never played it. I'll poke around and report back if I find something interesting.

best,
steven

Matthew said...

Steven: you're right, there's a need for a new, somewhat more impartial Webern biography. (If only my German were more reliable: see spell-check above.) I tend to rely on Moldenhauer, because even when he's trying to spin the evidence, he still tells you what the evidence is. (For example, he discounts most of Krasner's stories as over-dramatized and ill-remembered, but he does give Krasner his say, and often times at length.)

The common trope on Webern (not totally invalid, in my opinion) is that he created such a perfect, hermetic, completely orderly sound-world in spite of—because of?—his utter inability to navigate the real world with such precision. But I think it's more interesting, and more complicated than that: though the idea that German nationalists would ever warm to Webern's music seems incomprehensible to us now, you wonder if Webern himself realized this and compartmentalized the musical and patriotic aspects of his intellect, or if he really thought that what he was doing was the future of German culture, and that's one of the reasons he stayed (kind of like Heisenberg intending to safeguard the future of German physics).

Alex Ross said...

Yes, it would be very good to have a fair-minded Webern biography. Or a Schoenberg biography, for that matter. The Stuckenschmidt is information-packed but out of date, strangely organized, frustrating in many ways. And both Stuckenschmidt and Moldenhauer are out of print — I paid a cool $60 for my copy of the latter. I also treasure my copy of "The Death of Anton Webern," a really bizarre book. On one page it notes that the man who shot Webern died in Mt. Olive, North Carolina, adding helpfully that the Mount of Olives was “the scene of the agony and betrayal of Jesus Christ.”

For me, Webern's Hitler rantings are testimony more to the general bewitchment of the Austro-German intellectual class than to any deep flaws in Webern's own person. What's especially odd in his case is that he resisted the Hitler idea early on and then later fell for it — the opposite pattern from what one finds in Strauss's case, or, for that matter, Claus von Stauffenberg's. Perhaps for him it was simply a way of feeling that he belonged to something, after so many years of isolation. The fact that these letters date from the early war years suggests what Schoenberg called "war hysteria."

It has sometimes been claimed that the writing of 12-tone music was in some way intrinsically anti-fascist. The Webern case — and that of Paul von Klenau, who tried to theorize 12-tone writing in Nazi terms — is useful in deflating that dubious notion.

Steven said...

Matt: In my pragmatic view of human behavior, I feel that Webern believed in safeguarding the future of German culture (sometimes) because he stayed, and would have believed differently if he left, and that he stayed because of all his ties with family and possibly, as you say, because he was not a skilled navigator of the world, and was tossed about, I think, with the opinions and mood of all the people that he came in contact with.

Alex: your comments about "war hysteria" remind me that one might need a variety of psychological devices to get through an experience like WWII, even if you're one of the rank and file. I think especially of Sebald's lectures and essays reprinted in "On the Natural History of Destruction"- Sebald notes that, aside from the physical destruction of records of what happened in Germany, Austria, etc during the war and immediately afterwards due merely to the general destruction of objects that were sitting around (as well as for various intents and purposes) preventing us from piecing things together, most civilian witnesses found the gritty details of the war almost impossible to talk about in a frank and clear manner afterwards. Sebald's essays focus specifically on the Allied carpet-bombing that targeted civilians (in preference to military targets), carried out towards the end of the war and how they could have almost escaped any kind of description on the part of the people who lived through them, but his argument works on other levels. I recall that I read the first time in Moldenhauer that the German signal on the radio for an air raid was a cuckoo. There are a lot of essays about people living through the bombing of Britain, but not so many about living through Dresden. The war put tremendous psychological pressure on everyone. Looking at a concert program from 1940 does give the impression that everything is going on as it had, but in reality the things were pretty awful, and German civilians who lived through these events often did not feel at liberty to talk about the suffering of civilians that were not marginalized or subjected to attempted genocide. I don't want to suggest that this is any kind of conceptual key, but it's another factor at work here, I think.

If you're not near a library, there are a few pages of Sebald's first essay in that set posted to view on Amazon.com-

http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Destruction-W-G-Sebald/dp/0140298002/ref=sr_1_1/102-0032840-9901713?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176007568&sr=8-1

Of course I've heard the 12-tone-anti-fascist thing, and of course 12-tone method doesn't say anything about content and is not inherently anything, but I think it's interesting that the Second Viennese composers, and the Darmstadt types, produced music that I can't see being put into the service of fascists or other totalitarians, or even our corporate fiefdoms and duchies, and I feel like that is part of why people like Milton Babbitt or Glenn Gould would connect 12-tone with democratic ideals in their polemic. It has kind of a Stephen Corbert truthiness about it.

BBound said...

This was such a lovely post!