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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Berthold Goldschmidt - Stirrings af a Lost Composer

By Norman Lebrecht / January 15, 2003

Ignored for half a century Berthold Goldschmidt is starting to get the recognition he deserves.

The memory that never fades is of an old man on his doorstep, clutching a compact disc. I had gone round to Berthold's for coffee, cake and musical research. He was, at 87, an infallible repository of inside information about Berlin culture between the wars. He was also unfailing good company and a brilliant mimic. When discussing the history of conducting, he would show me not just how early masters - Nikisch, Kleiber, Klemperer, Walter, Furtw…ngler - held their batons, but how they ate spaghetti, how they flirted and walked, how they cracked a joke.

On this spring day, he greeted me with ill-contained excitement. 'What's that?' I asked. 'My first recording,' he glowed. After a lifetime of neglect, some of his chamber music had been etched in permanence on an esoteric label. We went indoors to listen to the sinewy, cross-rhythmic second string quartet, in my view the finest piece of music written anywhere in the world in 1936.

Berthold Goldschmidt had composed it on arrival in England as a refugee from Hitler's Reich, but it was written neither in rage nor in retrospect. It looked, instead, ahead to a new life - a life that, for various reasons, would be stunted by obstacles of British prejudice and incomprehension. More than half a century later he was still living in the one-bedroomed flat on Belsize Crescent that he had rented on arrival; hot water had only recently been installed. Oddly, he was not bitter. 'Bitterness,' he said wrily, 'is a matter of taste.'

Neither of us could have forseen the fame that was about to break. A chain of events arising from an 80th birthday run-through of his 1932 opera, The Magnificent Cuckold, at Trinity College of Music had found him a publisher at Boosey & Hawkes and a flickering of interest abroad. He resumed composing after a 25-year silence. Simon Rattle, who revered Berthold as a mentor, conducted his Ciaccona Sinfonica in Berlin. The Decca Record Company, flush with Three Tenors profits, set out to record his entire life's work as a cornerstone of its Entartete Musik project, restoring music by composers suppressed by the Nazis and since forgotten.

Berthold, reaching 90, was suddenly hot stuff. Berlin, which had booked the Cuckold for 1933, finally got around to staging it 61 years later. The recording sold 2,000 copies in a month in Spain. The BBC Proms made belated reparation. Yo Yo Ma played his cello concerto in New York.

Berthold whizzed around Europe, taking his bows with a quizzical smile. 'I only wish some of my enemies were alive to enjoy this,' he murmured. He abhorred empty praise. When we sat in his living-room, scores on laps, listening to a test-pressing of his music, he would shush my excited first response and play the disc again, awaiting a more balanced criticism. A fanatical accurist, he would heatedly berate me for a tiny elision of historical detail in a film I had helped make, or an article I had written. Truth, for Berthold, was a value that could not be compromised.

It was, I gathered, a Mahlerian legacy he had acquired while growing up in Hamburg, in a fairly comfortable family that owned a furniture store. His father claimed to have attended all of Mahler's concerts and opera productions between 1892 and 1897, performances that were marked by a fervent fidelity. Berthold, aged eight, remembered the darkness that descended when an uncle announced Mahler's death in May 1911.

After the First War, he studied in Berlin with Franz Schreker, whose conservatory class was a crucible of modernism. He won the Mendelssohn Prize at 22 with Passacaglia and had Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer scrapping for the right to conduct the premiere. When the Cuckold was staged at Mannheim in February 1932, he was hailed by one critic as the white hope of German music. Eleven months later Hitler came to power. Goldschmidt,

a progressive and a Jew, was sacked from his backstage job at the Berlin state opera and his music was banned. He emigrated two years later, at the urging of a musicianly Gestapo officer.

In England he encountered blank walls of indifference. His string quartet received its only performance for 17 years in the drawing-room of a Harley Street physician. He scraped up bits of work from the Ballets Joss and, during the Second World War, the BBC. He won a national competition to write an opera for the 1951 Festival of Britain, but Covent Garden refused to stage Beatrice Cenci for being too unEnglish. The composer's letter of protest to the Times earned him powerful enemies. When William Glock imposed an atonalist writ on the BBC in 1959, Goldschmidt, a relentless melodist, saw his last outlet closed and stopped composing.

Consider, now, what damage was done by that bureacratic rejection of a talented, willing and conscientious artist. Set aside the injustice to the man himself, the privations enforced, the hopes that were crushed. For such things, there is no amend.

Consider only the damage inflicted on the national interest of an island that longed to be part of musical Europe but lacked the common currencies of language and technique. Many in Europe scorn English music as amateurish. Goldschmidt was one of many refugees who arrived with a massive competence and priceless experience. He had coached the singers and played celesta for the premiere of Berg's Wozzeck, a milestone opera that underwent 137 rehearsals (or so it's said). He had worked with every conductor worth knowing and was himself an interpreter of consequence: his account (privately taped) of Mahler's third symphony in the BBC's centennial cycle of 1959-60 is beautifully paced and the first to observe the composer's effect of a reverse glissando.

Every line of music he wrote is meticulous. Musicians often complain about British composers who write notes that are beyond the physical range of their instrument - a testament of their sloppiness or ignorance. Goldschmidt's music, love it or not, is unimpeachably correct. He could have taught this country the craft of music, if not the art, were it not for insurmountable rocks of small-mindedness and little-englishness.

Above all, he could have enlarged the tiny canon of English opera. Cuckold is a fun piece, Cenci a painful drama of child abuse. He should have written more, for he was intuitively a man of the theatre. When the artist Zsuzsi Roboz painted a late portrait, she set him in a seedy greenroom, backdropped by a naked actress (he never lost the twinkle in his eye). He died, serenely at home, on October 17 1996.

Too late to lament, all that can be concluded is that the loss is as much ours as it was Berthold's. His music can be heard on BBC Radio 3 every morning this week, marking the centenary of his birth.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001