Toch, the world's most forgotten composer

Ernst Toch was a celebrated composer with operas in constant rotation, that is until Hitler came to power.


In Santa Monica, California, during the late 1930s and early '40s, émigrés who had gathered there used to tell each other a story about two dachshunds meeting on the Palisade, and how one sighs and says to the other: "It's true, here I am a dachshund, but in the old country I was a St Bernard."

Sigh indeed. But in the Old Country (Weimar Germany), my grandfather Ernst Toch really had been a St Bernard - one of the foremost composers in the modernist Neue Musik movement, slotted generationally between Schoenberg and Hindemith and regularly featured in all the latest music festivals, with operas in constant rotation, that is until Hitler came to power.

Toch had been born in Vienna, in 1887, into an entirely unmusical family (his father, a Jewish leather merchant, lower middle class but ascending, a bare generation out of the Galician shtetl himself); his musical education, such as it was, was largely self-cobbled (he liked to talk about his rapturous discovery, as a young boy, of Mozart string quartet pocket scores, and of the systematic way he'd gone about, copying them out and improvising after the repeat signs, "and was I flea, a mouse, a little nothing, when I compared what I did with what he had done, but still I continued in this manner, allowing him to correct me").

His mother, he would later recall, had been "a deeply religious being". Him not so much: by the time he had ascended to the firmament of Berlin cultural life in the late '20s and early '30s, raising his daughter (my mother Franzi) alongside his even more assimilated wife, my grandmother Lilly, most religious trappings had fallen away. Nor was he especially political (he was mainly very, very busy composing).

But, surprisingly, he seemed to realise instantaneously following Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 that it was time to leave, and taking advantage of the fact that he'd been selected to represent Germany at an international musicological conference in Florence that spring (one of two such envoys, the other being Richard Strauss), he simply never returned, travelling instead to Paris, from where he sent Lilly a pre-agreed all-clear cable signalling that she should join him, which read in its entirety, "I have my pencil." As if that was going to be all he would need. From there he headed, briefly, to London and New York before reaching Los Angeles, where he threw himself into teaching and film-scoring (the studio heads quickly pegged his modernist idiom as perfect for chase scenes). His efforts in this regard were all the more frantic in that, back home, his large family (he had more than 60 cousins) were clamouring for help in escaping, and every affidavit had to be secured by a separate surety bond (in the end, fully half of the cousins would nonetheless perish).

Meanwhile, Toch's personal creative wellspring began to dry up, in part owing to "the benign echolessness of the vast American expanses". One of his last such pieces before what became an extended dry spell came in response to word, in December 1937, that his mother had died back in Vienna, news to which he responded with a rousing Cantata of the Bitter Herbs, a Passover piece that he conceived in his own mind as "non-denominational and broadly universal".

But then, on the far side of the war, his inspiration began to resurface, specifically around a series of works that summoned the image of the rainbow on the far side of the flood (the portion Toch claimed as his own in a Genesis Suite the émigrés sequentially composed as a group exercise around this time).

Notwithstanding Toch's late-life surge, which lasted to his death in LA in 1964, he would refer to himself as "the world's most forgotten composer," a wistful joke that betrayed a certain painful validity. Perhaps owing to the fierce independence of his creative path (he was a follower of no school), his work got dismissed as too traditional by avant-gardists and too avant-garde by traditionalists.

But, with the passage of time, those artificial distinctions are beginning to fade, and Toch's oeuvre is being reassessed in terms he would have preferred, as a single link in that long chain of the musical tradition. As such, it is prized for the mastery of its craftsmanship and the depth of its inspiration.

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