The year of Leonard Bernstein is now upon us, 2018 being the composer-conductor’s centennial, an occasion to be marked with numerous performances around the world. The centennials of several other important musicians—the soprano Birgit Nilsson, the violinists Henryk Szeryng and Ruggiero Ricci, and the composers George Rochberg and Gottfried von Einem—fall this year, as well. Einem would have turned 100 yesterday, yet few people will have marked the occasion, or even recognized the name of this important postwar Austrian composer. Perhaps one reason for Einem’s anonymity (at least beyond Austria’s borders) is that no tidy description—modernist, serialist, neoclassicist, minimalist—can be used to describe his music, which ranges across many styles and periods. Einem, who died in 1996, unabashedly resisted the avant-garde orthodoxies of the 20th century, composing music that was richly melodic and lushly textured. That his pieces happened to appeal to the public was enough to earn the scorn of certain critics who believed that tonality had had its day, and that those who still embraced it were hopelessly outdated.
Einem grew up in prosperous surroundings—though his birth father was a Hungarian count, he was adopted and raised by an Austrian diplomat of means. His first musical epiphanies involved Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wagner’s operas moved him deeply—as with so many musicians who came of age in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, a pilgrimage to Bayreuth made an impression for life. Upon hearing Mahler’s Ninth for the first time, Einem noted in his diary: “most brilliant symphony of recent times.” Mahler’s music would continue to nourish him, especially later, when it was banned by the Nazis; when enemy radio stations such as the BBC would broadcast the symphonies, Einem surreptitiously listened in.
Einem’s métier was the theater, both the opera and ballet. He got his start as an assistant at the Berlin Opera and later worked at Bayreuth, the Dresden State Opera, the Vienna State Opera, and the Salzburg Festival. With a solid grounding in traditional harmony and counterpoint, and a keen interest in jazz, Einem began writing music for the stage. His opus 1 was the ballet Prinzessin Turandot, which premiered in 1944 to great acclaim. What many who admired the piece did not know, however, was that Einem had hired a young musician to assist him with the rehearsals, a Jew named Konrad Latte who was maintaining an almost inconceivable underground existence in Nazi Germany. Einem was one of the artists who took great risks to protect him, offering the young man money, ration cards for food, and false identification. “For a couple of months,” Latte would later recall, “I went around Berlin as Baron Gottfried von Einem.” By this time engaged to a member of the von Bismarck family, Einem had already been arrested once by the Gestapo, so there was much to lose in cultivating this friendship, and in introducing Latte to other musicians who could help, as he did. Latte survived the war and went on to have a career in music. To commemorate Einem’s part in the story, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, posthumously bestowed upon him its highest honor for non-Jews, the title “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Although a wonderful introduction to Einem’s music is his two-act opera Dantons Tod, set during the French Revolution and based on a libretto by the composer’s teacher and friend Boris Blacher, several orchestral pieces also make for excellent entry points. His early Concerto for Orchestra—a work that German critics skewered for its idiomatic use of jazz (then considered “degenerate music” and tantamount to “cultural bolshevism”)—is representative of Einem’s early biting style. More overtly romantic are the pieces of the 1960s, such as the Philadelphia Symphony, an exuberant three-movement work in which the carefully calibrated dissonances only augment the sense of humor and fun. A very different sort of composition is Einem’s Nachtstück (or Night Piece), with its hints of Bruckner, Franz Schmidt, Richard Strauss, and above all, Mahler. It opens with an orchestral hammer blow that gives way to a long, mysterious, ruminative string line that must have been inspired by Mahler’s Ninth. The string writing is luxuriant and intensely moving, and the general tone of lamentation is interrupted at times by joyful passages in the woodwinds—joyful, yet not without an underlying sense of unease. Indeed, that ominous opening chord strikes periodically throughout the piece. This is a song of the night replete with yearning and foreboding, as much a depiction of the 20th-century human psyche as it is an essay in nocturnal tone painting. The string passages leading to the piece’s climax are particularly evocative: the line seems almost lost, meandering without hope, desperate for some consolation, only to be killed off by the final hammer blow—that which began the work brings it to a close.
It’s an unsettling piece, one that I want to hear again and again, yet it would have been considered wildly unfashionable in its time. By 1960, the world of classical music belonged to the brazen revolutionaries, to seminal figures such as Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage. What would the composers attending the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music have made of Einem’s seemingly backward-gazing scores? We know, at any rate, what Einem thought of them. “I love a well-sung phrase, or a beautifully played string movement. Why should one always have to mistreat an orchestra, so that they have to scrape their bows on the ground or in a filled or empty toilet?” The aristocratic Einem could be famously crass, though if there’s a crude passage in his music, I’m not aware of it. What his pieces have in common with the composers he venerated—with the Bachs, Schuberts, Mozarts, and Mahlers of the world—was the one thing he felt to be most important in art, a quality considered passé for a good portion of his life: “Beauty, in my opinion, is what one needs as comfort,” he once said, “not only in times of difficulty, but also for its own sake.”
Listen to Gottfried von Einem’s Nachtstück, performed here by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Cornelius Meister:
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