Berthold Goldschmidt is belatedly recognised as one of Britain's finest modern composers. In the last interview before his death he told Edward Pearce about neglect and rediscoveryby Edward Pearce / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
He died on 17th October, aged 93. Berthold Goldschmidt had been actively composing music in his second musical career for about ten years. His first career began in Germany where he was born in 1903 and continued in England where he came in flight from the Nazis in 1935. The second career has been almost triumphal, including an ardent reception at the Wigmore Hall last year for his fourth quartet. It merges with retrospective admiration for the work of the first career, including rave reviews for the recording of his operas Der gewaltige Hahnrei and Beatrice Cenci. How he came to England is a story in itself, which he described to me earlier this year when I visited his flat in Belsize village where he has lived for 61 years. Being Jewish in Hamburg in 1935, he was paid a visit by the Nazis. Why, they asked, did he not respond with a “Heil Hitler” salute? “I thought we weren’t supposed to do that,” he replied. The subject was changed. How did he make his living? “I have piano pupils.” “Ah, how much do you charge?” “Three marks.” “Three marks! But my daughter is charged five marks.” From which contact, conversation took on a gentler form until the Nazi official leaned across the table and hissed: “Get out of here!” He got out, came to England, and for 25 years worked steadily and with solid recognition. He was part of British musical culture, a prize-winning composer of opera, a conductor-in the mainstream. But from the early 1960s until well into the late 1980s he was an unperson musically. Goldschmidt was told by the avant-garde establishment in Britain and abroad that he was not wanted, would not be performed and that his music would be sent back unconsidered. He was a musician good enough in his German days to have worked as Erich Kleiber’s assistant, to have won the Festival of Britain Opera prize (with Beatrice Cenci) in 1951, to have worked with Deryck Cooke on the assembly from fragments of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, to have written long ago his cello concerto for Emanuel Feuermann. The man himself was impressive-short, vigorous, bright-eyed, making a half-hearted attempt at crustiness which quickly gave way to friendly and cheerful animation once talk was underway. He told me of a letter by Sir John Drummond, the former head of Radio Three, to a Goldschmidt fan who, after the Ciaconna Sinfonica was performed at the Proms in 1993, had written asking for more Goldschmidt: “…I was glad to include a work by Goldschmidt. But he must not think now that he has to be represented at every prom. There are according to Groves Dictionary 20,000 composers to be considered.” But by magnificent condescension, Goldschmidt was represented again this year by his Passacaglia and Sir John, whom the lawyers would probably prefer to have me call “quirkish,” loftily mentioned the fact to the composer at a BBC party: “We are going to do a work of yours at the Proms, but I didn’t suggest it. Simon Rattle wanted it.” Goldschmidt recalled his reply: “You may be forgiven.” There is much to forgive. In 1959 William Glock became head of Radio Three, where he rapidly established autocratic powers with the governors feebly giving way to him. The new regime was happy to play establishment classics by the dead, but broadly denied the right of performance to living composers writing music that might be called tonal, accessible or “conventional.” The BBC was quasi-monopolist as commissioner and promoter of music. What it approved went out to fanfares, what it would not touch lay on the desk. A few living composers such as Britten and Walton were too well established to kill; but Edmund Rubbra, whose music is now seeping back on record and who had been a big feature of the Proms in the 1940s and 1950s, died as a publicly performed composer 25 years before his death. Unlike Goldschmidt, he did not survive to see his rehabilitation. The names can be multiplied. Glock and his successors ruled like the Red Queen in Alice. Goldschmidt gives his own account. He personally had civil relations with Glock, but the controller (a nicely authoritarian word) looked at his score and said: “No, no, that kind of thing you can’t perform any more.” Not that diktat in music was confined to the BBC. In Germany, Goldschmidt talked with an old friend from his pre-Hitler Berlin days who was now running classical music for West German radio. “What are you doing?” this man asked him. “I’m still a composer and conductor. What about doing a performance of my cello concerto?” “Out of the question.” “Why so?” “We are measuring by a yardstick which requires the score to look like the design for a new modern bungalow or an architectural blueprint. Any conventional score is not even looked at.” If Goldschmidt were to send his Cello concerto, it would be returned unopened. He did send it, and returned unopened it was. The capricious despotism at the BBC sustained by its license fee subsidy has not fully gone to this day. But the sane figure of Nicholas Kenyon, the present controller, and the wholesome menace of Classic FM have improved things no end. The effect upon creative artists-people writing music in order that the music should be heard and finding themselves under intellectual house arrest-can only be comprehended through the experience of one of them. I asked Goldschmidt how it felt in the late 1950s suddenly to be excluded by a double barred door from the monopolistic outlet for serious music. He responded by playing me a record. It is called Mediterranean Songs and involves settings of works by English poets from Shelley to Bernard Spencer. All have a mediterranean setting, but all are profoundly melancholic and, chief among them, is Shelley’s Stanzas written in dejection, near Naples. “I could lie down like a tired child/And weep away the life of care/Which I have borne and yet must bear/Till death like sleep might steal on me.” It is a splendid and resonant work. He had written it when already apprehensive about musical survival. It gained from the BBC the pre-Glock statutory performance for a new work by a known composer. “There was a very nice reception from the press… and that was almost 40 years ago… never again.” “Never again” almost summed up the rest of his career. After Glock had come to power and Mediterranean Songs had been denied further performance, Goldschmidt gave up composition. “I said, all right, I’ll call it a day.” Goldschmidt conducted and did his work with Deryck Cooke on the Mahler Tenth Symphony. But for 25 years, composition stopped. Goldschmidt reacted to his experiences with a mixture of philosophical resignation and sharp comment. “What can you do if the director of a gallery decides to display abstract paintings-black spots on a canvas-but shrug your shoulders?” This sort of thing had happened before, he argued, with the neglect of Bach, with Palestrina being thought old-fashioned by his own son, and with the more recent unfashionability-not with the public though-of Brahms and Sibelius. Glock, he said, thought Brahms a second rate composer and did not think Sibelius a composer at all. He spoke with respect for the main modernists professionally. “They are first class musicians. The quarrel is with the bigotry-they won’t tolerate anything which belongs to a different turn of thought. That is a kind of fascism, musical fascism which had very killing effects upon professional possibilities.” Later pronouncements of modernist chic seemed to him shallow and short-lived. Here was Pierre Boulez telling us: “Opera houses are a nuisance-they ought to be burned down.” “And the next day,” said Goldschmidt drily, “he conducts at Bayreuth. And ever since he has been conducting opera.” The same Boulez, ultimate fashionplate of late modernism, vapidly proclaims: “Sch?nberg est mort.” Goldschmidt shrugged-“I can’t take them seriously. Polemics for political reasons have got to be sneezed at.” On musical affinities Goldschmidt disliked the word “influences.” He was vastly eclectic, simply listing the music being played in his youth: “Nielsen, Shostakovich, Szymanowski, Leoncavallo, French composers, Milhaud, Satie and of course Debussy-Prokofiev came after. In Berlin alone there were Busoni, Richard Strauss, Hindemith.” Goldschmidt was a little irked at the way influences are attributed to him now that his music is played again. “When I wrote my first quartet in 1925-26, Shostakovich was not yet known and his first string quartet appeared ten years later. But now sometimes, the press, when they hear my first quartet, they say, ‘obviously influenced by Shostakovich.’ And I am going up the wall.” The England to which he came and whose culture he seems to have taken in at the pores is integral to some of his best music. The poems which he set for Mediterranean Songs are all English, none of them obvious and, in the case of Bernard Spencer, refined and beautiful, but neglected 20th century poetry. Not many English-born musicians have this sort of range. Goldschmidt was amused. He had lived in England for 61 years. His involvement with this country was rather longer than Handel’s, but people, including nice, friendly people, still insisted on thinking of him as this German composer in England. “I go through London on the bus and look at younger people thinking ‘well, I have lived in England longer than you have.’ In this country it matters where you were born. Yet it’s completely irrelevant where you were born!” But Goldschmidt was chiefly amused by it all. Here was “this German composer” who had set a classical English play, Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci, perhaps the most successful attempt by a post-Jacobean poet to write verse drama. He was particularly proud that several good judges-Bernard Keeffe and David Drew for example-had said that the setting of the English words could not have been done by any other composer. He also spoke with warmth and gratitude of the English composers who have been supporters and admirers of his work. He had quite a number of “first class English friends”-Colin and David Matthews, and Robert Simpson, “a marvellous friend of mine.” I mentioned to him that it was through Simpson, composer and simply the best music planner Radio Three ever had, that I had first encountered his name. In The Proms and Natural Justice, the measured and courteous reproach to Radio Three which Simpson published in 1981, he set out two long lists: those who had had less than 60 minutes of music performed at the Proms over the previous ten years and those whose representation in that period had been zero. Berthold Goldschmidt, I did not need to remind him, was on the zero list. One cannot help going back to the words of John Drummond: “I was glad to include a work by Goldschmidt, but he must not now expect to appear in every prom.” “I have been in this country for 61 years,” said Goldschmidt, “and with the performance of my Passacaglia in July 1996 after the Ciaconna Sinfonica in 1990, I shall have had 17 minutes of the Proms.” But the news had stopped being black since 1987. The Ciaconna Sinfonica, which Drummond graciously allowed at Rattle’s wish, accomplished the breakthrough. The story is reasonably well known. Rattle was to give a concert of exiles’ music in Berlin. There was a tiny hole in the programme-about 15 minutes. So Rattle, a neighbour of Goldschmidt, called on him and asked if he might have something of about that length. There was the Ciaconna Sinfonica on a tape-13 and a half minutes long. Rattle gratefully took it up. It was a mighty and echoing success in Berlin. The ordinary German music-loving public being no more like the German returner of unopened scores than a similar audience here is like William Glock, they fell about and cheered in the aisles. Performances and recordings have multiplied. Yo-Yo Ma played in New York the cello concerto written originally for Feuermann and not heard since William Pleeth did it in 1954. There have been or are planned Goldschmidt performances in Madrid, Hamburg, Barcelona and Frankfurt. The older music is being retrieved from drawers and 40 year-old tapes. In the case of the Passacaglia given in July at the Proms, we have a work which was written in 1925 when the composer was 22 and performed by his mentor Erich Kleiber. It had been lost for decades when researchers found it and told the publishers, Boosey&Hawkes, who sent it to Goldschmidt asking him what to do. “Throw it away, I said, it can’t be a good piece.” “No, we don’t throw pieces away even if a composer asks us to. We never know.” “Well do what you like with it. I don’t want to see it.” So they sent it to Simon Rattle and he said: “I’m going to do that. It’s a powerful piece.” And so, on 25th July 1996 a second performance was given, 74 years after the premiere. The Mediterranean Songs have been done (beautifully said the composer) by the Gewandhaus with Zagorsek and both his operas are being talked about in hushed voices as contemporary classics. The insolence of office is having a full reply made to it. And the best part of the reply was that Goldschmidt had returned to composition.