I am standing beside a glass case containing a tailcoat that belonged to one of my musical heroes, the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It shows him to have been not tall and somewhat portly. I have just been listening — on one of the venue’s plentiful headphone ports — to a rare recording of him reading a verse he wrote for his mother-in-law’s birthday. The world of the composer and his fellow exiled composers comes leaping to life in this exhibition, entitled I Return to Vienna When I Compose.
I am at exil.arte, Vienna which is located just behind the Konzerthaus, surrounded by landmarks of the city’s lavish musical history, and housed in the former premises of the Music State Academy. Composers, including Franz Schreker, Joseph Marx and Korngold himself, used to climb these flights of stairs to teach in rooms off the parquet-floored curve of corridor.
A generation of musicians was wiped from Vienna’s history by the Holocaust — some murdered, others exiled. The purpose of the exil.arte centre is to facilitate research into their lives and work — and ultimately to resuscitate their music. A vital part of its work involves gathering into this one location the estates of the figures in question — letters, documents, photographs, recordings, manuscripts and more.
Michael Haas, senior researcher at exil.arte, was formerly curator of Vienna’s Jewish Museum and, as a record producer for Decca in the 1990s, created the groundbreaking Entartete Musik series that issued valuable world premiere recordings of works of that era. His book Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale University Press, 2014) tells the stories of the composers of this devastated generation.
“Following publication of my book, I was contacted by several families who held the estates of parents and grandparents who were former musicians from Germany and Austria,” Haas says.
Their concern, he explains, was that their musical estates seemed of little relevance or value to the countries that had given them refuge; despite all, they felt this material belonged back in Austria or Germany.
“I was able to place initial collections with the Municipal Library in Vienna and Salzburg’s University,” Haas says, “but soon it became clear that they were unable to continue taking the legacies of former Austrian composers and musicians — regardless of their fame or position in pre-war Europe.”
He devised the concept of an exile music centre together with Professor Gerold Gruber of Vienna’s Music University: “He put forward the idea to Ulrike Sych, the president of the university and she not only took it up, but gave us more support than we could have imagined.” In 2015, the centre was absorbed into the university. Here Haas, Gruber, the artistic and scientific project manager Ulrike Anton and a small, dedicated team of archivists seek not only to build a collection, but to advocate for performances, prepare performing editions, and issue recordings and books.
The collection, which currently holds 16 estates, spans figures from the celebrated Korngold to one Robert Freistadtl, who had enjoyed a strong career in Vienna, yet ended up exiled to south-west London, writing music for brass bands. He died forgotten in 1948.
Then there is the frustrating case of Hans Winterberg, whose output included several symphonies, four piano concertos and quantities of works for piano solo and chamber ensemble.
Many of his manuscripts were given to a musical archive in in Regensburg — where, due to contractual conditions upon its handover, his collection remains barred until 1 January 2031. This contract was deleted in 2015, but Gruber says that Winterberg’s grandson has sued the institute in an effort to gain access to it. Winterberg, Gruber insists, was such a fine composer that he would have been the very centre of the Czech-Jewish musicians imprisoned in Theresienstadt, among them Victor Ullman, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, had they lived.
Winterberg survived — he died in Germany in 1991 — but his music cannot be heard unless it can be retrieved and performing editions of it produced.
His story has a further distressing twist. Some recordings exist from the 1950s-70s, when conductors who had known him before the war could champion him; but later, Gruber explains, his music failed to raise interest “because it’s not ‘modern’ enough”.
The next project Gruber plans is a symposium on the Jewish composers who escaped to Shanghai, the last free port that would accept them.
Their far-reaching influence included the importing to China of dodecaphonic music thanks to the composers Wolfgang Fraenkel and Julian Schloss, the latter a student of Alban Berg.
Again, the music can only live if it is played and heard. To that end, exil.arte tirelessly seeks contacts with musical venues and promoters. One notable success is a series of recitals in the concert hall of the Austrian radio station ORF. On January 23, the legendary pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja joins forces here with the singer Sara Hershkowitz to perform music by Philip Herschkowitz (apparently not related to Sara), who was Leonskaja’s own teacher.
Still, achieving performances remains an uphill struggle. “We are in constant contact with the major venues and we have already put on concerts in New York, London, China, Japan and Mexico,” says Gruber.
While one-off projects can be feasible, encouraging programmers to make this repertoire a regular part of their normal concert series is another matter.
“It’s a difficult task to convince people that, even if you don’t know the composer’s name, you should have this music in your series,” says Ulrike Anton.
“It’s the only way that people will become interested in the music, if they can hear and see it somewhere. But the first concerns are always: ‘How are we going to market this? Will it attract an audience? Are we going to fill the hall?’ Everything else comes afterwards. Of course,” she adds, “we never give up!”
Interest is growing, meanwhile, from the families of relevant musicians eager to place their archives in an institution that will take care of them and make them available for research.
The estate of a superstar couple, tenor Jan Kiepura and soprano Marta Eggerth, who together fled to the US, will be the focus of an exhibition in 2020. And exile.arte is encouraging more contributions to its already remarkable collection.
Given content and opportunity, it could become one of the most important resources in the world for the study and revival of this lost generation of musicians.