By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Since the mid-1980s there has been a steady increase in interest in the achievements of the many European émigré artists and thinkers who were forced to flee Europe and Nazism after 1933. This fascination with the émigrés has strangely coincided with their gradual passing from our midst. When the first investigative scholarly foray into the “intellectual migration” and its consequences on American culture was undertaken by Bernard Bailyn and Donald Fleming in the late 1960s, the prominent émigrés were about to retire from leading positions in the academy and in cultural life. Such figures as Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera and Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago had already transformed the landscape of American intellectual life. Forty years later, they have entered into this country’s history, a generation whose presence has ended through the normal cycle of old age and death. But the continuing interest in those figures and their emigration has run parallel to the phenomenon of a general assimilation of the horrors of 1933-1945 into the narrative of our history. That process has included the establishment of Holocaust museums and the unwitting aestheticizing and sentimentalizing of the events and the tragedies in film and media. It is as if the generation that bore some responsibility for letting the Holocaust happen and for maintaining an at best ambivalent attitude toward the émigrés as survivors—particularly here in America—had also to pass from the scene before a candid assessment of the careers of the émigrés and a true celebration of their courage and achievement became possible.
Tonight’s program is about the achievement of some of these émigrés in music, but it is not designed to offer the familiar story. It is fitting to celebrate famous, endangered individuals who brought their brilliance to the United States, as well as to elsewhere in the Americas and England. These “happy endings” describe the transformative influence of these émigrés in the cultures into which they came; the nations that accepted them became the winners. In music, we think of Schoenberg and Hindemith. Countless American students (now middle-aged adults), graduates of conservatories and universities, are able to tell their neighbors and children stories of legendary teachers with thick accents and peculiar habits who changed their lives by introducing them to ways of thought and interpretation that the emigration brought to America. Indeed the emigration brought a level of understanding of Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Heinrich Schenker, the Second Viennese School in music, Abstraction and Expressionism in art that changed the course of American arts and letters. In the sciences, particularly physics and biology, the émigrés catapulted the United States into preeminence.
But there are many strands in the story of emigration. In addition to its successes, there are cases like that of the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, individuals who came at early stages in their careers, and for whom the experience of emigration was a chance to reinvent themselves and achieve something of distinction, sometimes at cost to themselves, others, or truth. In these cases, it was the émigrés who were the winners, for they may never have been able to achieve great careers in their homelands. For them, the very discontinuity of their lives, despite its cost, allowed them to fashion new identities and embark anew with incomparable determination. Often, the younger the émigré the more promising the possibilities and less devastating the cost, as the examples of Lukas Foss and Andre Previn testify.
There was also a large group of professionals, however, that failed to acculturate and ever really feel at home. Some had achieved fame in the old country but lost it immediately in the new. Others, no matter who they were, could never adjust. The suicide of the writer Stefan Zweig in Brazil is a most poignant example. Many talented émigrés were unable to find a foothold in America. Their promising academic and musical careers were viewed as threats by an already highly developed American infrastructure of professionals. For every Walter Trampler and Felix Galimir who made it into the Boston Symphony or NBC Orchestra, there were countless others whose lives and careers were distorted by being forced out of their countries of origin. Here we can find music teachers, artists turned lawyers and salespeople, all artistic careers cut short and hopes dashed. Some émigrés were forced into premature retirement. This was particularly painful fate for Alfred Grünwald, the famous librettist of the last great era of Viennese operetta.
A significant percentage of these émigrés glorified the Old World. They were grateful for sanctuary, but their lives were laced by nostalgia, bitterness, and envy. Their failure in comparison to their fellow expatriates was not necessarily a function of quality, but of the countervailing pressures of opportunity, luck, happenstance, and connections. On tonight’s program, Julius Bürger falls in this nebulous category of an émigré who did fine work in relative obscurity. For these individuals, however, what made life worth living was the recognition of their fortune compared to those who did not make it at all, and the opportunity to watch their children flourish.
The difficulties and price extracted by dislocation become truly apparent when we look at the most promising but not fully established émigrés such as Egon Wellesz and Marcel Rubin. It is sometimes hard to focus on this category of émigré, especially when our tendency is always to commend the United States and other nations like England and Mexico, which gave the refugees the promise of life. Most importantly, the comparison is always with the truly forgotten ones, those who were not given sanctuary. When the Evian Conference was held in 1938, only the Dominican Republic expressed itself willing to take Jewish refugees from Europe, and the number they accepted was limited to 100,000. The United States turned away the St. Louis and used a quota system essentially to close its borders. Hitler would have been more than willing to let the Jews flee in the years 1933-41, but he discovered that nobody wanted to take them. It is disturbing to try to calculate the ratio between survival through emigration and death in the Holocaust. The emigrant, whether a Jew or a political refugee, was trapped in a bitter logic between the need to be grateful for having escaped and bitterness at the disfiguration of their lives and expectations.
With the exception of Korngold, the names of tonight’s composers are certainly not as well known as other émigrés such as Schoenberg, Milhaud, Weill, or Bartók, but that is just the point: to give hearing to those who successfully emigrated but whose careers did not quite turn out as they had wished or expected. An ambivalence toward their condition manifested itself in their work. Unlike the well-known modernist revolutionaries whose artistic idiom, despised by the regime they fled, necessarily became a statement of political resistance, tonight’s composers were not radicals in either art or politics. They continued to compose in the styles that resisted a pronounced break from the traditions appropriated by their oppressors. This artistic vision is obviously fraught with ambivalence and irony. Hitler mixed aesthetics with racism. A composer could write the most “proper” music, but still be forced to emigrate if he were Jewish, as did Korngold. Other émigré composers were something of a thorn in the sides of those, who, following the theorist Theodor Adorno, sought to link modernism with the cause of freedom. The rebellious Rubin turned to the example of French music rather than to that of either Strauss or Schoenberg. Wellesz, a student of Schoenberg, stands as a compelling reminder that, for all of their surface modernism, the achievements of the Second Viennese School were distinctly within a tradition of Viennese classicism. Wellesz demonstrates just how much Schubert, Mahler, and even Bruckner lay behind the compositional ambitions of Viennese modernism.
The émigrés on tonight’s program faced a nearly impossible position of being exiled from their native traditions but also not part of the well-defined musical resistance or the host culture into which they arrived. Their difficulty is reflected in their destinies. Egon Wellesz, like the other Austro-German émigrés Hans Gal and Hans Keller, maintained a life in music in England, but all three made their mark not primarily in composition and performance but in scholarship and writing. Fellow composer Berthold Goldschmidt lived long enough to experience a brief flurry of revived interest in his music after decade of obscurity.
Marcel Rubin didn’t like emigration for aesthetic, cultural, and political reasons and wanted to return after 1945. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, despite incredible success as a film-music composer in Hollywood, wanted to relocate to Vienna and take up his lost career as a composer of concert and operatic music. Unlike Kurt Weill, who so easily jettisoned his European past and embraced Americanism with alacrity, Korngold and Rubin simply waited to resume where they had left off. Many of their contemporaries thought this impulse deeply misguided. Schoenberg never wanted to return to Europe (and it is slightly ironic that his papers and archives are now back in Vienna). Yet many others did so, such as Adorno, Martinu, and Thomas Mann. But this was no solution either. Rubin was able to mitigate the contradictions when he returned to post-1945 Austria in part because of his deep left-wing political commitments. In this sense he resembles Hanns Eisler, who together with Arnold Zweig sought to establish a new society in East Germany. But Korngold, the great Viennese prodigy and once lionized by the Viennese public, was shocked to discover how unwelcome he was in post-war Vienna. It was as if the surviving native population was all too happy to continue living out the fantasy of a Vienna without Jews. In different ways it became apparent to each of these composers that the emigration experience could not be reversed, despite an ardent desire to do so. Whether they stayed, returned, or moved on to other locations in Australia or Israel, the émigrés continued to feel the powerful consequences of living in a state of constant transit, as it were—a condition of in-betweenness, in which their bags, metaphorically speaking, were never entirely packed or unpacked. Perhaps music is the most adept vehicle to communicate this complex response. This is the proposition that tonight’s concert explores.