The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Holocaust survivor composer Hans Gal was the Haydn of the 20th century. Part 1 of 2.

November 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Sunday marked the start of Kenneth Woods Week – which will have a couple of interruptions or different posts for variety — on The Ear.

Woods is a man of many talents, interests and projects.

He is also a good friend of this blog.

But more importantly, he is a distinguished graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Music who is becoming a major player on the world music scene (see Sunday’s post for details) and he is engaged in a major multi-year project: the rediscovery and revival of the Viennese composer Hans Gal.

As an introduction, here is a link to a biographical sketch of Gal, whom I expect we will hear performed more and more in the coming years, thanks in no small part to Woods — a native son whom I hope will be booked for a guest stint by the Madison Symphony Orchestra — and AVIE Records:

Woods (below) gave The Ear an extended interview about Gal that will run in two parts, today and tomorrow.

How did you discover the music of Hans Gal?

I became aware of Gál (18990-1987) through my involvement in the music written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp (below) during World War II. There were several truly great Jewish composers who were held there before being murdered in Auschwitz – Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann.

This music only started to become known in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and around that time, Henry Meyer, the legendary 2nd violinist of the La Salle String quartet asked me if my student quartet would like to learn the Third String Quartet by Viktor Ullmann with him.

Henry should have been the one to premiere and record this piece with the La Salles – it was their kind of music (they’re probably most famous for their Deutsche Grammophon recording of all the Schoenberg, Berg and Webern quartets), but this music was completely lost during his long playing career.

Even more poignantly, Henry himself had survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where Ullmann was murdered a few weeks after finishing the quartet. He was the perfect musical and spiritual guide to this repertoire. Learning this amazing piece with Henry was a truly life-changing experience, and we gave the Ohio premiere of the work in 1993 (we think we were the second US quartet to play it).

Through working on the Ullmann, I became fascinated with this entire lost generation of Jewish composers. Gál  (below) was a name I knew from his work as a musicologist – he edited the standard complete edition of Brahms’ orchestral music, which we all use. I was a bit surprised to find my colleague on this disc, Annette-Barbara Vogel describe him as a major composer. At her suggestion, I started tracking down some scores of his.

Gál was lucky — he escaped to Britain before the Nazi’s could capture him, but although he was one of the most important composers in the German-speaking world before the war, once displaced, he never again found quite the platform for his music he had once had.

How would you place Gal’s work in the history of Western music?

Gradually, I got to know a few pieces and was fascinated by them, but even eight years ago when we first discussed recording this recording of his Violin Concerto, Violin Concertino and Triptych with the Northern Sinfonia, there was almost nothing available to listen to. I had to get to know the music first through the scores, and later through a few old radio recordings.

Although my first response was that it was lovely writing, Gál’s music isn’t intense in the way Krasa and Ullmann are — his response to his time was more introspective, about healing rather than anguish. It doesn’t grab you by the throat at all.

Gradually, I became convinced that he was a major, major composer. Like Haydn (below), his greatness is somewhat obscured by his love of humor and understatement, but he’s a great composer, no doubt.

How would you describe the music of Gal and what makes it original and appealing or noteworthy?

There are certain qualities that immediately stand out to anyone who hears a Gál work played well: he is a great melodist, a consummate and imaginative orchestrator and his music is always lyrical and attractive. (Editor’s note: Just listen to the excerpt at the end of this post.) The language feels familiar, and everything works. In that sense, his music is immediately accessible and rewarding.

However, Gál’s music really shows its depth and richness over repeated encounters. Its surface simplicity belies incredible craftsmanship and sophistication. Its genial tone hides really profound emotional content. It is music that tantalizes and draws you back, and where there is always something new to discover — things that seem straightforward, like return statements of a melody, have layers of detail that are always shifting.

How did Gal get overlooked or neglected?

Gál  was 42 when he wrote the earliest work on this disc, the Violin Concerto (below). When that piece was premiered, just weeks before Hitler came to power, Gál was a major figure — director of the conservatory in Mainz, then the top school in the German-speaking world (a job he got on the recommendation of Richard Strauss). He’d already had four operas produced!

Then, at the peak of his career, he was completely silenced — for a number of years before he made it to Britain, nothing of his was played anywhere. Once in Britain, he had a number of things working against him — his music had been, and remained, very much part of the Viennese musical tradition.

He’s an heir to the line of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. He was probably the last great composer in that line. I recently conducted Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, written in 1946, and was more than ever struck by how the piece is a memorial to the German musical tradition. New German-sounding music was not likely to be especially popular after the war in Britain.

After the war, the only part of that line that was considered acceptable was its continuation in the New Vienna School or Second Viennese School — Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and the serial composers that followed them. It’s hard to overstate how powerful the serial worldview was after the war (although Gál and Berg had been close friends and colleagues). Any Germanic composer who didn’t follow that path was considered reactionary and out of step.

Gál not only didn’t follow that path, his music becomes more lyrical, more tonal and more focused on traditional forms after the war. In Britain, this meant his music was treated like a quaint anachronism.

It’s a pity. The music lost in Theresienstadt, which we’ve now re-discovered, has shown us that there was this whole other line after Schoenberg of musicians who understood his innovations but were focused on maintaining connections to tonality, folk music and traditional forms. Berg and Webern weren’t the only possible response to Schoenberg and Mahler. There were other émigré composers to, like Goldschmidt and Krenek.

Looking back, it seems like much of the 20th century discussion about music was more focused on style than on quality. Gál may have been too old school for the music fashionistas of his time, but we can see he was always retro-hip today.

Tuesday: Gal’s range of work and critical reactions to it.

Posted in Classical music

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