Holocaust Music Breaks Its Silence

The story of Franz Schreker flips classical music's greatest cliché on its head. Instead of toiling in obscurity during his life and gaining fame only after death, the Austrian was a star as a young composer—before he was all but erased from history. In 1919, the influential critic Paul Bekker wrote that Schreker was the only operatic author with a claim to Wagner's exalted legacy. During Weimar-era Germany, Schreker's half-Romantic, half-avant-garde dramas sold tickets as reliably as those by any other living composer, aside from Richard Strauss. But with the rise of Hitler's cultural Gestapo, Schreker—whose father was Jewish and whose dramas were shot through with Freudian sexual anxiety—saw all his works banned as entartete, or "degenerate." In 1932, the same year the Nazis took a plurality in the Reichstag, he was hounded out of his prominent teaching post in Berlin. Then his curtain call at the premiere of his final opera was greeted with a chorus of anti-Semitic boos. A year later he died of a heart attack. In the decades after World War II, even Wagner, the Third Reich's favorite composer, was divested of his WWII-era baggage and made safe for the world's classical aficionados. But, on the reverse side of the Nazis' approval ledger, there has never been a fully staged production of any Schreker opera in North America.

This shameful streak will be broken in April, thanks to L.A. Opera and conductor James Conlon's presentation of Schreker's 1918 masterpiece, Die Gezeichneten(often translated as The Marked Ones, or, as it is in Los Angeles, The Stigmatized). And in July, Bard College will produce another of Schreker's onetime hits, Der Ferne Klang(The Distant Sound). This belated revival is welcome, though it alone cannot guarantee that Schreker's music will actually be heard here. To begin with, it remains to be seen whether American operagoers—a canon-focused crowd—will attend these productions in large numbers. Even if they do, it's unclear whether audiences will be able to consider Schreker's music apart from the context of its sad history. When something as monstrous as the Holocaust is invoked, aesthetic judgment sometimes lags behind anthropology. The fact that Schreker's music—or, for that matter, the works of Ernst Krenek and Erich Korngold—has not received its due adds an extramusical gravitas to those rare performances.

Further complicating matters is that even after World War II, the intellectual brain trust in the classical world kicked some more dirt onto Schreker's headstone in particular. In a noted 1949 essay, the heavyweight Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno argued that Arnold Schoenberg's austerely 12-tone, or "atonal," method was the only appropriate response to a post-Holocaust world. The delirious sensuality that Schreker had perfected before his death—an uncanny marriage of bold polytonality and singable melodies—contrasted with Adorno's ascetic world view. As a result, in a later essay he ruled Schreker's music to be in poor taste—even "adolescent" and lacking in moral character. Despite various asides in which the critic admitted that Schreker was Strauss's superior as an orchestrator as well as an inspiration to members of Adorno's beloved avant-garde, he still raged against the composer's "heedless extravagance." The combined force of outright political suppression and academic disfavor goes a long way toward explaining why Schreker's work has gone relatively unnoticed for so long, even in a WWII-obsessed culture. Also important, Conlon notes, is the fact that "many of the musicians who would have been colleagues, friends, and supporters of Schreker and other composers were dead after the war, leaving a hole in our knowledge of this music."

The largely unheard pleasures offered by "degenerate" composers do not stop with Schreker, either. Along with his works, and those of Krenek and Korngold, Alexander von Zemlinsky's catalog is a trove of delights that American audiences hardly ever experience. (However, the New York Philharmonic recently performed a glorious take on Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, which can be heard via the Philharmonic's iTunes subscription pass. And Conlon has presented a Zemlinsky opera as part of his ongoing "Recovered Voices" project in L.A.) Not surprisingly, while attempts to repopularize the "degenerate" composers of Hitler's Germany have been made, they've been fitful and frustrated by the "unlistenable" reputation 20th-century music has today—in part because of Adorno's extreme arguments against tonality. In the 1990s, the Decca label attempted to issue a broad survey of "degenerate music," though the titles quickly fell out of print. (Some are still available, at premium prices, from Arkivmusic.com's on-demand CD service.) The Naxos label is gradually issuing KZ Musik, a 24-disc survey of the music composed by inmates of Germany's concentration camps. Not all of the music is beautiful, as it turns out. How could it be? Consider Erwin Schulhoff, whose 1920s piano études—the witty, jazz-inflected pearls of a free man's soul—were followed by his pounding, monotonous Symphony No. 8, composed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, just before his death. If it's possible to hear a man's spirit bleed out mid-symphony, this work captures that profoundly sad distinction. Musically speaking, that final (and unfinished) symphony is a slog; as a document of human misery, it's compelling as hell. In other cases, anthropological interest and musical brilliance overlap, as with Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which has only ever been available in Decca's set of recordings. Written while Ullmann was interned at Theresienstadt, the one-act work placed popular Jewish song styles from the time into a satisfying (and politically subversive) operatic context. (Ullmann was sent to the gas chambers not long after the Nazis realized, during the first rehearsal, that his Kaiser bore more than a few similarities to Hitler.) It's a brilliant piece, both apart from the circumstances of its creation and within them.

The first time a Nazi-banned composer is performed, the political context of the score will always be lurking in the foreground. But, as with instrumental mastery, so is listening aided by repetition. As much as we can manage it, we ought to be staging an aesthetic rescue, not just a historical one. You might even be able to guilt an opera crowd of Verdi fans into trying out a Schreker piece once every half century or so. But there is a kind of respect we can pay the musicians persecuted by Hitler that goes beyond ritual obligation, and that is to work at listening to their timeless music as music first and foremost. Happily, granting their best material immortality isn't only the moral thing to do, it's also the right cultural call—since that generation's music is the bridge today's classical audience needs to travel in order to make sense of the evolution from the late Romantic period to the mid-20th-century avant-garde. Playing this music is not merely something we owe them. It's something we owe ourselves.