My Grandfather’s Last Tale
The Atlantic | Sunday, Dec 01, 1996
The mission? To carry forward the musical legacy of a once-celebrated composer, as part of the duties of a musically ungifted oldest grandson. The stops along the way? The modernist frenzy of 1920s Vienna and Berlin and the artistic lassitude of 1940s and 1950s expatriate Hollywood. The culmination? The stage of an adventurous opera company in a little town in eastern Germany that was by turns an SS and a Stasi stronghold
by Lawrence Weschler
Toch in 1960
SCHEHERAZADE had had enough—or so the story goes. She'd told a thousand tales and had no more to tell. Her sister tried to rally the poor girl: didn't she realize that unless she took up the skein once again that night, not only would the Sultan order her killed on the spot but he'd resume the homicidal binge her tales had so tenuously forestalled, killing yet another maiden each and every night thereafter? Scheherazade, utterly drained, couldn't bring herself to care. For a thousand nights she'd been unspooling her improvisational yarns, anxiously awaiting the promised return of her young lover, Alcazar, who a thousand days earlier had retreated into the backcountry to organize a revolution and her liberation. But by now it was surely clear that he wasn't coming—and, hopeless, she was all told out.
At that very moment Alcazar came bounding over the balcony ledge and rushed to enfold his lover in a passionate embrace. Just one more night, he urged her: if she could keep the Sultan distracted for just one more night, he and his men would launch their insurrection that very eve. But couldn't he see? Couldn't he understand? she pleaded in reply. She simply had no more tales to tell. Think of something! he called as he vaulted back over the balcony ledge. And he was gone.
Disconsolate, Scheherazade lapsed into a deep late-afternoon drowse. All her tales seemed to rise up about her, as if in a pell-mell debauch: Aladdin and Sinbad, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, greedy caliphs and crafty viziers, flying carpets and slicing daggers, soaring falcons and chess-playing apes . . .
And already it was nightfall. With a boisterous fanfare the Sultan and his courtiers came barging into Scheherazade's quarters, avid for tales, and yanked the maiden from her storm-tossed dreams. Why, the Sultan boasted, his girl's stories were so enthralling that time and again he'd imagined himself right there—in the very thick of the action, shoulder to shoulder with her myriad protagonists. So, Scheherazade, what was it going to be tonight?
For the longest time it seemed that the answer would be nothing. Shaking, silent, Scheherazade strained for inspiration. None came. The Sultan's concern gave way to anger and presently to scalding rage. Still nothing.
Finally, at the end of her tether, Scheherazade burst forth into narrative—her own: the tale of a young girl, hopelessly ensnared, desperately longing for deliverance by a long-lost love. In the distance explosions could be heard, and flames licked the horizon, but seamlessly Scheherazade wove even these into her tale. Messengers came charging into the palace, urgent with bulletins. The Sultan, transfixed, brushed them away: nothing short of miraculous, the way this girl could spin such lifelike tales!
On and on Scheherazade unfurled the story of her own liberation. So rapt had the Sultan become that even as Alcazar and his troops stormed into the royal chambers, even as they clamped the despot in heavy iron coils and dragged him away, delirious, he still seemed to half-believe that he was in the midst of an indescribably marvelous tale.
Alcazar rushed forward to embrace his consort once again, in triumph but in calamity as well. Scheherazade, having given her all, had indeed told one tale too many: utterly spent, she collapsed, pale and depleted, into his arms, and—opera being opera—proceeded to die.
Stoking and Stumbling
FOR years I'd been trying to arrange a premiere for my late grandfather's final opera, The Last Tale, and I'd pretty much given up hope.
My grandfather was Ernst Toch (pronounced Talk, with a husky-breathy bit of Middle European business tucked away at the very end), and though his is hardly a name to conjure with nowadays, there was a time—oh, there was a time. In Santa Monica, where he spent much of the latter half of his creative life, the émigrés used to regale one another with a story about two dachshunds who meet one evening out on the Palisade. “Here it's true,” one assures the other, “I'm a dachshund. But in the old country I was a Saint Bernard.”
Otto Klemperer, Prince Hubertus zu Löwenstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Toch, 1937
Back in the old country my grandfather was a Saint Bernard—in Weimar Berlin, that is, during the mid and late twenties and on into the early thirties. Born in 1887, and thus wedged, generationally speaking, between, say, Arnold Schoenberg (b. 1874) and Paul Hindemith (b. 1895), Toch was at the forefront of the modernist Neue Musik revolution that swept Middle Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. His chamber opera The Princess and the Pea received its first performance at the Baden Baden Festival in 1927, right alongside Hindemith's Hin und Zurück, Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, and Darius Milhaud's L'Enlèvement d'Europe. His First Piano Concerto was given its premiere by Walter Gieseking, his Cello Concerto by Emanuel Feuermann. His orchestral works were regularly featured under the batons of such eminent conductors as Erich Kleiber, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. He collaborated with the theatrical luminaries Max Reinhardt and Berthold Viertel, and with the novelist Alfred Döblin (of Berlin Alexanderplatz fame) and the satiric poet Christian Morgenstern. In short, he was at the very center of a vast, energized, and energizing echo chamber—one that was soon to come crashing all about him, and so many countless others, with Adolf Hitler's rise to power, in January of 1933. It was Toch's most recent opera, The Fan, that William Steinberg was rehearsing in Cologne when Nazi brownshirts came storming into the hall and literally lifted the baton out of his hand. Not long after that the once-respected German musical monthly Die Musik came out with a special anti-Semitic issue featuring portraits and photos of my grandfather alongside the likes of Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Weill—their features retouched so as to make their faces appear vaguely sinister, their noses exaggerated, the pupils of their eyes dilated, the entire cavalcade of images framed by dire quotations, in bold Gothic type, from the long-dead German composer Felix Draeseke (“Our sole salvation lies in anti-Semitism”) and from the Führer himself (“The Jew possesses no culture-building power whatsoever”).
However fortunate in securing refuge in America, Toch was never to recover that lost sense of cultural resonance and buoyancy—not that his reputation exactly amounted to chopped liver in his newfound home, his own late-life estimation of himself as “the world's most forgotten composer” notwithstanding. During his first decade in California his film scores were thrice nominated for Academy Awards. His Third Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. But when, in the last years of his life, he composed his Scheherazade opera—a work he grew to consider the summary achievement of his career, and one that would prove to be among his own last tales—no opera company was waiting eagerly in the wings to produce it, as there had always been in Berlin. It remained unproduced at his death, in 1964.
In the next years his widow, Alice (more commonly known as Lilly), alongside her other efforts at stoking the flame of his musical legacy, ceaselessly endeavored to get the opera produced. As I entered my late teen years (I was twelve when my grandfather died), she recruited me in those efforts. When she died, at age eighty, in 1972, her role as executor of the Toch estate fell to me.
It was a role to which I was in many ways singularly ill suited. If Toch was a dachshund who'd been a Saint Bernard in the old country, he was also, musically speaking, a Saint Bernard who had arisen from a family of dachshunds. Most composers come from families that are in some way already deeply mqsical. Not Toch: there were no particular musical propensities in any of his antecedents, and there have been virtually none in any of his descendants either. This is particularly dismaying in my case, because not only was my mother's father this singularly accomplished composer but my father's mother, in the years before the Nazi Anschluss, was the celebrated head of the piano department at the Vienna Conservatory of Music.
None of this seemed to do me any good: the genes must have canceled each other out. For years, along with my younger brother, I labored away at piano lessons, and my grandfather even composed occasional pedagogical exercises to ease us on our way. About three or four years into the process—I must have been about nine at the time—my brother and I mounted a full-court press on a medley of those works, and were brought before the old man to display the results. I did my best to impress him, and he did his best to be encouraging. But after we left, or so I was told years later, he turned to my grandmother and said, “With the younger one, maybe, there's a chance.” (Indeed, with time my brother was able to attain a certain amateur proficiency.) “But with the older one—it's amazing; I've never seen anything like it—it's absolutely hopeless.” Shortly thereafter, and quite mysteriously to me at the time, though I wasn't about to ask any questions, the pressure to persevere with those dread piano lessons suddenly subsided. I quit, and that was it for any formal musical training in my life.
Nor did I have any particularly vivid memories of Toch himself. As I began making contact with conductors, performers, and academics in my various halting campaigns to propagate his work, I was surprised to find how well known he remained to many of them. He was repeatedly described to me as a “musician's musician”—a master craftsman many of whose most sublime achievements were principally recognized by other musicians.
Toch and the author, 1952
One would hardly have described him, though, as a “grandson's grandfather”—or at least an utterly assimilated, all-American grandson's idea of a grandfather. In fairness, his last twelve years (my first twelve) were a time of feverish productivity on his part, culminating in two years of labor on that opera. At any rate, he had precious little time for us grandchildren (there were four of us, the offspring of his and Lilly's only child, our mother, Franzi). He was seldom around. In retrospect I realize that it wasn't just that he always happened to be away—at Yaddo, at the Huntington Hartford Foundation, or at the MacDowell Colony; in rented lodgings in Vienna, or Zurich, or above Montreux. What he was specifically away from was us—or, rather, all the mundane, quotidian, frivolous responsibilities, and maybe even temptations, we represented.
When he was in town, ensconced in the Santa Monica home Lilly had had designed and built for him on the far slope of the Franklin Street hill, with its magnificent view of the eucalyptus-girdled Brentwood Country Club golf course and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance, a languorous, Da Vinci-like backdrop, our visits were relatively infrequent and invariably quite formal. In particular, extreme quiet was rigorously enforced—quite an ordeal for four children. Couldn't we see? The closed draperies behind the bay window of my grandfather's studio would be pointed to, self-evidently: Ernst was working!
On those occasions when he did emerge, he was a sweet and even playful, though somewhat distracted, presence. He was inordinately fond of monkeys and could do marvelous simian turns. He loved clowns and clowning and anything associated with the circus (he had even composed a raucous Circus Overture, André Kostelanetz's recording of which he would occasionally play for us). But he wasn't any good at the only thing that really mattered to me in those days, which was the Dodgers. He had never even heard of Sandy Koufax, a circumstance that left me almost speechless with stupefaction. And speaking of speechlessness, we could never take him to a restaurant or on any other social outing, because, it was explained to us in reverently hushed tones, he was afflicted with perfect pitch and such sensitive ears that any conversation registered as music. The inevitable racket of intercutting conversations at a restaurant registered as very, very bad music—an actual torture. We were urged to understand.
So I can't really say I got to know him well. Such knowledge as I do have came flooding in during the last few years of my grandmother Lilly's life, as she labored to fill me with an awareness of the particulars of her husband's life and music and the relentless requirements of the music's propagation. My mother clearly wasn't going to take up the task: widowed by my father's death in a car accident when I, the oldest, was only ten, she obviously had her hands full raising four children. Beyond that, as the late-arriving only child of a couple whose “only real child” (as she often put it) had been her father's music, she was always going to have a conflicted relationship to the task at hand.
So I was the chosen one, and during the last two years of my grandmother's life I spent long weekends and vacation weeks at her side, rifling through boxes teeming with scores, manuscripts, tapes, LPs, contracts, and professional and personal correspondence, ordering a lifetime's profusion for eventual transfer to the archive she established at the University of California at Los Angeles and helping her to prepare for the year-long oral-history project to which she had, in conjunction, committed herself.
Scheherazadelike, she kept herself alive that entire last year slogging through those boxes and completing almost thirty taping sessions (which eventually yielded nearly a thousand pages of transcript), telling the tale of this composer husband to whose needs she had subsumed her own life almost completely.
Within a few weeks of the last session Lilly died—or maybe, her duty done, she finally allowed herself to die. The people at the UCLA oral-history program asked if I would check and edit the transcript myself, since by then I was probably the person most familiar with its contents and especially with Lilly's high-Viennese accent. I took six months off from college and threw myself into the project. At times I felt a little like Hart Crane in that wonderful early poem of his about coming upon an attic cache of his grandmother's love letters. Like him, I'd ask myself,
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is this silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble.
I did a lot of stumbling. At times my grandmother seemed to be trying to take me by the hand through much of what I literally could not understand. In one taped passage she was getting set to relate the name of the specific site on the Italo-Austrian front where Ernst had spent a particularly dreadful but crucial period in the trenches during the First World War. Since she was the only one left who remembered the name of the place, she made sure to slow down and enunciate the name with extraordinary precision, as if for all posterity. The place, she pronounced ever so distinctly, was “Hot Potato Shit.” I must have replayed that bit of tape a hundred times, speeding it up, slowing it down, splitting it off onto different channels. (I dream about it to this day: Hot Potato Shit.) I must have spent twenty hours in the research library poring over ancient, yellowing gazetteers. Haupt Tatra Spitz? Hohe Tauern Spitz? I didn't, and I still don't, have a clue.
Nor, in the end, did I have much of a clue about how to promote my grandfather's music, as is evidenced by the fact that you, dear reader, most likely still haven't heard much, if any, of it. In the first few years I replicated Lilly's methods—the excruciating post-concert backstage sieges of visiting conductors and chamber groups, the endless carping at far-flung publishers and courtship of radio programmers and recording czars. I was not entirely without success. I managed to get Toch's 1948 treatise, The Shaping Forces in Music: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint and Form, reissued in paperback. By way of a preface I included the English translation of a contemporary letter by Thomas Mann, who praised the volume as “beyond any question…the most amiable book of instruction and perception in the field of music that has ever come to my knowledge—lucid, clever, ... cheerful and comforting; endowed with a liberality that dispels superstition and false pomp; broadminded, benevolently progressive, yes, optimistic. ...” I helped to midwife a few recordings, and during the centennial of Toch's birth, in 1987, I was able to secure a smattering of performances and radio specials. I did what I could to keep the music in print and the archive in good order.
But gradually I resolved to let my grandfather's work fend for itself, confident that in the fullness of time it would find its own level; for the most part I got on with my own life and career as a writer. In this context I might relate something I've often found odd and even a bit unnerving. Although I have no musical aptitude per se, whenever I write, or review my own or other people's writing, almost all my judgments about the process tend to get framed in musical metaphors: questions of pacing, modulation, tone, harmonics, counterpoint. I'll sense that a given passage is out of key, or could use a little more syncopation, or needs to shift from the dominant to the subdominant—and I don't even know exactly what any of those terms mean. I have a profound sense that I am engaged in a compositional enterprise involving the sequential deployment of material across time in a “formful” manner, which is to say within a transparent architectonic (one of my grandfather's favorite words) structure. When teaching writing classes I often assign my grandfather's book. Though I can't fathom a single one of its nearly 400 musical examples, I understand exactly what he was talking about on every page, and subscribe to virtually all of it, feeling I couldn't have parsed the matter better myself. When I'm alone, typing at my keyboard, I often hear music in my head, especially as my pieces approach their climaxes; almost invariably the music in question (when I stop to think about it) turns out to be my grandfather's. In fact, passages of my own turn out, in pacing and melody and formal structure, to be virtual transcriptions of passages from his quartets or symphonies. It can get to be a little spooky.
Anyway, as I say, I got on with my career and resolved to let my grandfather's music proceed on its own. But there was this one painful exception to the rule: his last opera, whose ongoing lack of performance continued to taunt me. Over the years I did what I could. There were various close approaches and one excruciating near-miss, with Seattle's vigorous young opera company. I tried to limit my advances to major opera companies, since such an important work, it seemed to me, deserved a significant debut. But the work itself presented problems, or so I was repeatedly told: the soprano lead was fiendishly demanding, for one, and the length of the piece was awkward (ninety minutes in a single act). Nearly a third of a century after its composition I was beginning to lose hope.
But then one morning early last year I awoke to find that a single-page note had come spewing out of my fax machine the previous night: a letter from the Deutsch-Sorbisches Volkstheater, in Bautzen, Germany, informing me (not asking my permission or anything, simply informing me) that they were planning to present the opera that coming November and going on to say that although they were somewhat strapped financially, and hence unable to pay for my flight, they would be happy to put me up in a local hotel for a few nights if I could somehow make my own way to Bautzen. The letter concluded by inquiring whether, on that basis, I'd be interested in coming.
Perplexed, I consulted my household atlas. Bautzen turned out to be a small provincial center in the eastern corner of the former East Germany, just north of the Czech border and about thirty miles outside Dresden in the direction of Poland. Its name was also given, in parentheses, as Budysin, and looking again at the fax's letterhead, I saw that the theater was listed also as the Nemsko-Serbske Ludowe Dziwadlo Budysin.
My initial reaction was, well, mixed. I was thrilled that the opera would at last be performed. But in Bautzen—who'd ever heard of Bautzen? And, more to the point, by the German-Serbian Folk Theater?
This did not sound altogether good for the Jews.
“I Have My Pencil”
Toch with his fiancée, Lilly, during the First World War
LILLY Zwack and Ernst Toch were both born in Vienna, though in very different Viennas. Lilly's father was a banker, and she was thus a princess of the highly assimilated Jewish aristocracy—a class whose idolatry of things German and corresponding disdain for things Jewish (specifically Eastern European Jewish) could verge on the anti-Semitic. Ernst's parents were more conventionally Jewish. His father was a processed-leather dealer whose family had attained relative financial security only with his generation. The father naturally assumed that Ernst, his only son, would take up the family business, and was quite discomfited to see him inexplicably tending toward music instead. He did everything possible to discourage the tendency, and indeed almost all of Ernst's musical education had to take place in secret.
Ernst appears to have been some kind of prodigy when it came to the universe of sounds, and Vienna being Vienna, it was perhaps only natural that such an aptitude inexorably turned toward music. The brief tenancy of an amateur violinist in the Toch household afforded the boy his first exposure to sheet music: within a few nights of rapt attention he had figured out virtually all the fundamentals of musical notation.
A few years later, when still only age ten, Ernst made the “decisive discovery,” as he later put it, of pocket scores—specifically, miniature editions of ten Mozart string quartets, which he happened to notice propped up in a music-shop window. He hoarded his pfennigs and bought one of the booklets, smuggling it home and studying it late at night under the bedcovers. “I was carried away when reading this score,” he wrote much later. “Perhaps in order to prolong my exaltation, I started to copy it, which gave me deeper insight.” Soon he managed to buy all ten of the scores. After having copied three or four of them, he began to make out the structure of the individual movements. When he started to copy the fifth, he decided to stop at the repeat sign and try his hand at improvising the development. He compared his efforts with the original. “I felt crushed,” he later recalled. “Was I a flea, a mouse, a little nothing ... but still I did not give up and continued my strange method to grope along in this way and to force Mozart to correct me.”
A young Ernst Toch composes at the piano
He would never receive any formal compositional training. Though supplemented as an instructor by Bach and the other masters of the high tradition, Mozart remained the reigning god in Ernst's pantheon. “If Mozart was possible,” he would sometimes declare, “then the word impossible should be eliminated from our vocabulary.” Whenever he encountered anyone complaining about Mozart's dying so young, he'd erupt, “For God's sake, what more did you want from the man?”
By his middle teens Ernst was already composing quartets of his own; he completed six by the age of seventeen. A schoolmate borrowed the last of these and managed to show it to Arnold Rosé, the first violinist of the eminent Rosé Quartet. A few weeks later Ernst received a postcard notifying him that the piece had been accepted for performance—his first.
And yet, for all this early success, he never imagined that he would be able to convert his beloved hobby into any sort of vocation. In 1909 he was well on his way toward a medical degree at the University of Vienna when, seemingly out of nowhere, he received word that he'd won the Mozart Prize—the coveted award of a quadrennial international competition for young composers, which he had entered three years earlier on a lark. The prize came with a stipend for study at the Frankfurt Conservatory. He was elated that at last he'd be getting some formal training. Instead, when he arrived, as he later recalled, the head of the conservatory's composition department, Iwan Knorr, insisted on studying with him. Indeed, the new quartet (op. 18) and other works Toch produced in quick succession showed that he had already attained full maturity as an heir to the late-Romantic tradition of Brahms.
Following his time at Frankfurt, he was appointed professor of composition at the nearby Mannheim Hochschule für Musik.
Toch, the Austrian army conscript
During return visits to Vienna in the ensuing years his courtship of Lilly began—a courtship that took on added urgency with the onset of the war and his drafting into the Austrian army. Over the next five years he fell largely silent, with the exception of an idyllic serenade for string trio composed, improbably, in those mud-choked trenches at Hot Potato Shit. Working frantically behind the scenes, Lilly eventually managed to secure him a cultural deferment (ah, the exquisite exigencies of the late lamented Hapsburg Empire!), and he was pulled back behind the lines to Galicia for the latter half of the war. Within a week of that pullback virtually the entire squadron with which he'd been stationed was wiped out in a gas attack.
When the war ended, the couple, now married, settled in Germany. As Toch's creative energies resurfaced, it became clear that his five years of silence had veiled a profound inner transformation. His next string quartet (op. 26) scandalized the audience at its Mannheim premiere, in 1919. “The musical revolution did not come about suddenly,” he wrote years later, summarizing the dynamics behind the Neue Musik upsurge in which he played so vivid a role. “Gradually, composers began to feel that the old idiom of tonality had exhausted itself and was incapable of utterance without repeating itself, that the once live and effective tensions of its harmonic scope were worn out and had lost their effect. ... Indeed, [breaking free of that tonality] was refreshing, even an inner need, ... as refreshing as a plunge into cold water on a tropical summer day.”
By 1923 Toch had secured a ten-year contract, complete with a generous monthly stipend, from one of Germany's most prestigious music publishers, B. Schott's Söhne. He showed an increasing predilection for experimentation. For instance, he composed a suite for mechanical player piano that allowed intricate chords of well more than ten notes. And he forged an entirely new genre with his Geographical Fugue for Spoken Chorus, a rigorously patterned sequence of place names (“Trinidad, and the big Mississippi and the town Honolulu and the lake Titicaca / The Popocatepetl is not in Canada rather in Mexico Mexico Mexico”) splayed into a strict fugal canon and intended to be spoken, rather than sung, by a traditional four-part chorus: Weimar Rap. Given its premiere at a 1930 music festival in Berlin as a trifle, a sort of musical joke, it was ironically to become perhaps Toch's most famous and influential piece. A young American in the audience, John Cage, was particularly captivated, or so he told me years later, when I met him while researching an article about his and Ernst's dear friend the musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky. “Ah, yes,” Cage said, that marvelously sly twinkle in his eye. “Toch—boy, was he onto some good stuff back there in Berlin. And then he went and squandered it all on more string quartets!” Years later, in 1962, Toch revived the genre in his “Valse,” arranging the clichés of typical American cocktail-party banter into 3/4 time—taming all that nerve-wracking chatter, that is, into a more rigorous and endurable sort of noise (“My, how super-dooper / Hold your tongue, you strapper / Let's behave, not like babies, but grown-ups / She is right / She is right!”).
Another of Toch's musical divertissements from that bountiful period was a chamber opera composed, as it happens, a third of a century before The Last Tale and in many ways its obverse. Based on a charmingly mischievous libretto by Christian Morgenstern, Egon und Emilie begins as a dapper contemporary couple enters stage center and the woman energetically begins regaling everyone with how great it is to be singing like this and embarking on an opera. She waits expectantly for her consort's riposte—which doesn't come. Demurely seated, he says nothing. She tries to rouse him again and yet again: nothing. The more frantically she endeavors to provoke him, the more agitated the accompanying music becomes—and still nothing. Finally she flees the stage entirely, a broken woman. Whereupon, twenty minutes into the piece, the man gets up, clears his throat, and announces, in a level if somewhat disdainful voice, that he for one can't stand opera, it's all so completely artificial, and he has no intention of indulging such nonsense any further. Curtain falls: end of opera, end of evening.
As daft as that opera may have seemed at its Berlin premiere in 1928, with the passing months it began to take on a prophetic aura. For there were others, too, who had no intention of indulging this nonsense—this marvelous cosmopolitan capital city with its four year-round top-notch orchestras, its three full-time opera houses, and its dozens upon dozens of theaters, all trafficking in the latest idioms—any further.
Upon Hitler's rise to power Toch took the measure of the new reality almost immediately, much to Lilly's surprise—he'd always seemed so apolitical. It was time to go. For purposes of escape he took advantage of having long before been selected (along with Richard Strauss) to represent Germany at a musicological convention in Florence in April of 1933. He never returned to Berlin, instead fleeing to France. After he had established himself in a Paris hotel, he let Lilly, back in Berlin, know that the coast was clear for her and their five-year-old daughter to join him by way of a coded telegraphic message that read simply, “I have my pencil.”
He had little else. His publisher had abandoned him. His music was being burned, and the plates broken. Concerts of his work were canceled. The only traces remaining of his once vibrant reputation were doctored photographs in exhibitions of “degenerate music.”
It would be several years before he even found a new home. With Paris thronged by refugees, the family moved to London, where Toch managed to secure some film work at the behest of his old Berlin collaborator the director Berthold Viertel. (The scenarist of the film in question, Little Friend, was Christopher Isherwood, who later described his own experience of the project in his novel Prater Violet.) Within a year Toch was invited by Alvin Johnson, of the New School for Social Research, in New York, to be among the first to join the faculty of Johnson's celebrated University in Exile.
Once in New York, Toch endeavored to repair the shattered music-publishing part of his career by joining up with Schott's longtime American partners, a company called Associated Music Publishers (AMP), which, itself unaffected by Hitler's rise, was only too happy to have him. Because his former performance-royalties collection agency, the German firm GEMA, had expelled him, however, along with all its other Jews, he had no way of collecting royalties from performances of any of his works anywhere in the world. For this reason, AMP urged him to join GEMA's principal American counterpart, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Though there were some technical obstacles to his doing so, these were quickly smoothed over by the intercession of a new friend, George Gershwin. Gershwin had originally approached Toch, as he did several other émigrés—Stravinsky famously among them—in an attempt to get some formal compositional training. Gershwin had become obsessed with the notion of composing a conventional string quartet. Much to his frustration, however, neither Toch nor any of the other émigrés was willing to tamper with such evident native genius.
The trouble came a few months later, when AMP was bought out by ASCAP's chief rival, BMI, and the new management summarily decreed that it would no longer publish or promote the work of Toch or any other ASCAP composer. Several decades later BMI's ownership of AMP (or any other publisher) was suspended owing in part to antitrust allegations, but in the meantime its impact on Toch's career proved devastating. He was now forced into a second sort of exile, his works scattered among an ill assortment of publishers, none of which was ever to show much interest in promoting its own small share.
MORE problematic yet, for Toch and many of the others, was what his colleague Ernst Krenek referred to as “the echolessness of the vast American expanses.” From a world of continuous, almost febrile anticipation, in which their ongoing work had been charged with pressing significance (audiences would not only experience the work almost as soon as it had been written but also spend hours and hours arguing about it), Toch and the others had moved into a cultural scene characterized at best by its “unlimited indifference and passive benevolence toward anything and anybody,” in the words of the conductor Henri Temianka, who was referring specifically to the ethos of southern California. At worst—and, unfortunately, this worst was generally the rule—modernist émigré work met with almost allergic hostility.
The Seattle Times, 1932
From the start, from even before the start, Toch had tried to meet this reaction head on. In 1932 he had toured the United States as a guest of the Pro Musica Society, playing piano and lecturing at chamber recitals. At a news conference prior to one such concert he exhorted his interlocutors to open themselves to new sounds. He warned them of the consequences of trying to force those sounds into such pre-existing mental compartments as classical, Baroque, or Romantic. “In such a case,” he explained, “either the music remains outside of you or else you force it with all of your might into one of those compartments, although it does not fit, and that hurts you, and you blame the music. But in reality it is you who are to blame, because you force it into a compartment into which it does not fit, instead of calmly, passively, quietly, and without opposition helping the music to build a new compartment for itself.” The assembled reporters absorbed this lesson impassively and then posed a few mundane questions, such as what was the composer's favorite food, to which Toch replied, “Steak tartare.” The next morning's paper predictably featured a large photo of Toch at the keyboard under the headline “EATS RAW MEAT.”
In 1935, again partly thanks to one of Gershwin's interventions, Paramount commissioned Toch to score its new Gary Cooper-Ann Harding vehicle, Peter Ibbetson, which won Toch his first Oscar nomination; within the year he moved his family to California. Over the next decade his services were in considerable demand in Hollywood, where, owing to the perceived eerieness of his modernist idiom, he was quickly typecast as a specialist in chase scenes and horror effects. (Channel surfing across late-night TV, I continually bump up against his distinctive strains: Dr. Cyclops; the midnight sleigh chase in Shirley Temple's Heidi; Bob Hope's The Ghost Breakers; Ladies in Retirement, which earned him another nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the Hallelujah sequence in Charles Laughton's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)
In December of 1937 Toch received word of the death of his mother, in Vienna. While attending the ritual prayers for the dead at a local synagogue he conceived the idea of a memorial cantata based on the Passover Haggadah. Having strayed considerably from the more circumscribed orthodoxies of his youth, Toch insisted that he was drawn to the universal implications of this tale of the liberation of the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors. But surely his developing Cantata of the Bitter Herbs took on more urgency during the terrible months of its creation. As he was composing a particularly haunting chorus based on the psalmist's text “When Adonai brought back his sons to Zion, it would be like a dream,” Hitler's forces were triumphantly goose-stepping their way into Vienna, sealing off the town of his birth.
The Anschluss initiated a vertiginous period of desolation in Toch's life. Gnawing anxiety about the fate of trapped friends and relatives (he had more than sixty cousins in Austria) was sublimated into time-consuming negotiations with international bureaucracies in desperate and often futile attempts to gain their freedom; more than thirty didn't make it out, and Lilly's sister, too, perished in Theresienstadt. The financial pressures of sponsoring a burgeoning family of dispossessed exiles, and of meeting U.S. affidavit requirements by showing that he could, if necessary, support still others, forced him to channel ever larger portions of his creative time into the most lucrative possible employments—teaching on the one hand (he was appointed to a composition chair at the University of Southern California) and Hollywood on the other. The studios' notorious caprices, such as the blanket elimination of the upper registers from one of his scores as a cost-cutting measure, increasingly grated on him. Furthermore, the loss of any sort of responsive audience rendered the few hours he was able to preserve for his own work increasingly hollow. As he complained to a friend in a 1943 letter, “For quite some time ... disappointments and sorrows render me frustrated and lonesome. I become somehow reluctant to go on writing if my work remains more or less paper in desks and on shelves.”
Underlying all his anxiety was the fear that he had squandered his musical vocation, that he had lost everything—even, in effect, his pencil. Indeed, these years were parched by the most harrowing dry spell of his life. Although from 1919 to 1933 Toch had created more than thirty-five of his own works, from 1933 to 1947 he struggled to create eight.
And yet somehow, perhaps tapping a primal source available only to one brought so low, Toch was on the verge of a stupendous regeneration. In letters at the end of the war he began exploring the image of the rainbow, token of renewal. For his own renewal he returned to first things—that is, to the string quartet. “As for me,” he wrote to another friend, “I am in the midst of writing a string quartet, the first of its kind after eighteen years. Writing a string quartet was a sublime delight before the world knew of the atom bomb, and—in this respect it has not changed—it still is.” The quartet (op. 70) bore as a motto lines from a poem by Eduard Mörike: “I do not know what it is I mourn for—it is unknown sorrow; only through my tears can I see the beloved light of the sun.” And through the shimmery pizzicato of the third movement the listener can see it too.
Toch was simultaneously completing his book The Shaping Forces in Music, a labor born of his frustration as a teacher at the lack of texts capable of integrating modern and classical styles. As for most existing theoretical work, “there seemed to be,” he wrote to a friend, “a break all along the line, either discrediting our contemporary work or everything that has been derived from the past. To my amazement, I find that [traditionally based] theories are only false with reference to contemporary music because they are just as false with reference to old music, from which they have been deduced; and that in correcting them to precision, you get the whole immense structure of music into your focus.”
The years after the war paradoxically proved the most difficult of all, for now extraneous obligations threatened to strangle Toch's reviving vocation. Tormented by these conflicting pressures, he was felled by a major heart attack in the autumn of 1948.
He almost died. Later he would say he'd undergone a “religious epiphany.” Pressed to explain what he meant, he noted that the word “religion” derives from the Latin religare, meaning “to tie, to tie fast, to tie back.” “Tie what to what?” he went on. “Tie man to the oneness of the Universe, to the creation of which he feels himself a part, to the will that willed his existence, to the law he can only barely divine. ...”
As soon as he had recovered sufficiently to travel, Toch returned to Vienna, the city of his childhood, to compose his first symphony. It would be followed, during the remaining fifteen years of his life, by six more. Such a complete symphonic flowering so late in a composer's life was virtually unprecedented in the history of music.
The first three symphonies, surging once again in his modernist idiom, should be interpreted as a musical triptych—a sustained outpouring from that single epiphanic source.
To his First Symphony, Toch assigned a motto from Luther: “Although the world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.” His Second Symphony, dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, a man he revered (he would insist that the symphony had been not only dedicated to Schweitzer but “dictated” by him), carried the biblical motto from Jacob's wrestling with the Angel: “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” For his Third Symphony, in 1955, Toch deployed a quotation from Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther: “Indeed I am a wanderer, a pilgrim on this earth—but what else are you?” The lines accomplish a harmonic conflation of the German and the (wandering) Jewish traditions, and at the same time transmute intimate autobiography—Toch would often refer to this piece as his musical autobiography—into a microcosm of universal human history.
Toch's productivity continued unabated until his death; he moved through almost thirty opus numbers in fifteen years. But what he was really on the lookout for the entire time, as he told anyone he thought might be able to help, was a good libretto. At one point he felt he'd found an ideal opera subject in Lion Feuchtwanger's late novel Jephta—a sort of Hebraic Iphigenia in which a great Jewish general is required to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of victory. But he couldn't wait for a writer to adapt the text; the music erupting inside him poured forth instead as his Fifth Symphony.
In 1960 the Hungarian violinist Feri Roth, who had recorded several of Toch's quartets, mentioned to Toch that he'd recently been talking with the noted playwright and scenarist Melchior Lengyel about a dramatic piece Lengyel had composed years before in Budapest but had begun to feel might work better as a libretto. It sometimes seemed that there were almost as many Hungarian émigré artists on the fringes of Hollywood as there were Germans. (Gottfried Reinhardt, in his delightful memoir of his father, Max, tells a story about visiting the Clover Club, a gambling casino on Sunset Boulevard, one evening in the company of Otto Preminger. As it happened, they were the only two non-Hungarians at the roulette table, and the agglutinative language of their neighbors so grated on Preminger's nerves that finally he “brought his fist down on the baize, shouting, 'Goddammit, guys, you're in America! Speak German!'”) Lengyel, who had collaborated in Budapest with the young Georg Lukacs and had scripted Bartók's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, was also quite successful in Hollywood, providing the stories for both Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. But now he was looking for a composer.
Roth brought the two men together. Lengyel summarized his idea for an opera based on Scheherazade's last tale, and Toch seemed sufficiently intrigued that Lengyel offered to have the text translated. When the translation arrived one morning some weeks later, Toch retreated into his study with the manuscript and, quite unusually, didn't emerge for lunch. When Lilly, concerned, eventually broke in with a snack tray—also quite unusually—she found him radiant with excitement and the manuscript already copiously scrawled over with musical motifs.
Ernst and Lilly
It is easy to see in Lengyel's story the themes that so called out to Toch, a man in his seventy-third year whose life had been haunted by motifs of tyranny and deliverance, of exhaustion and renewal, of blockage and release. It is a bit harder to see how a man of his age and relatively fragile constitution could summon the sheer physical stamina required for such an ambitious undertaking. But almost rapturously possessed, Toch threw himself into the project, composing some of the most intricately layered and subtly modulated music of his entire career. Indeed, so possessed was he during the two years of the work's composition that he managed to remain entirely oblivious of the onset of the cancer that would claim his life not long after its completion.
The end, when it came (or at least his awareness of its approach), was relatively sudden. He was rushed to the hospital, and was dead within a few weeks, of stomach cancer. The sketches left by his bedside were for a new string quartet.
As Complicated as the
Knots It Unties
THE German-Serbian Folk Theater, in Bautzen. To begin with, it turned out to be Sorbian, not Serbian, as I discovered flipping through a tourist brochure shortly after my arrival at the hotel. The Sorbs, otherwise known as the Wends (and no particular relation to the Balkan Serbs, though they have sometimes displayed a confusing tendency to spell themselves “Serb” as well), apparently constitute a kind of historical hiccup, ethnically speaking—an ancient “Slavonic,” which is to say Slavic, people stranded behind the lines deep in Germanic Saxony, with Bautzen as their cultural capital. The brochure detailed all sorts of distinctive folk costumes—exquisitely dentilated lace aprons, collars, and headdresses for the women, stiff black caps or top hats for the men—none of which were in evidence as I gazed out my hotel window onto the town's main square.
Nor, for that matter, was there anything particularly Sorbische about the Deutsch-Sorbisches Volkstheater. Sorbs had been somewhat coddled by the East German regime—that is to say, considerable subsidies had been lavished upon “Sorbische” cultural institutions in exchange for Sorbian political quiescence. But despite the fact that the existence of a distinctive Sorbian “nation” is recognized in the German unification documents of 1990, Sorbian culture has clearly withered considerably over the past several decades, such that at the Volkstheater the staffing and programming—on the musical side, anyway—have virtually nothing distinctively Sorbian about them. One veteran could recall the token programming of at most three or four pieces by Sorbian composers in the entire twenty years he'd been there.
While walking around the neighborhood the afternoon before the premiere (Bautzen is a picturesque town spreading out from a medieval fortified core that commands an escarpment over the swift-flowing river Spree), I happened upon a somewhat more pertinent feature of local history. In the bowels of the judicial building, according to a plaque only recently set into its outer walls, the East German security police—the regime's dread Stasi—had maintained one of their principal interrogation and incarceration centers for political prisoners; the center itself had been closed since 1992. Indeed, as I learned from a pamphlet I picked up in a nearby kiosk, Bautzen since the beginning of this century had been an internment center for successive regimes. (A vaster complex on the outskirts of town had been used by the Nazis—and was mentioned in the epic Schindler's List, under the name Budysin—and then by the Soviets as an internment center for ex-Nazis.)
According to the pamphlet, the interrogation center inside the judicial building must have been a truly dystopian institution. The pamphlet quoted Walter Janka, an East German publisher and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who had served time there under both the Nazis and the Stasi. The Stasi forbade him to have any reading or writing materials, and when he complained to his interrogators that not even the Nazis had promulgated such a blanket policy, he received the chilling reply, “Well, we're not in Nazi times anymore.” Among the torments favored by the Stasi were extended stints in isolation and standing erect for days at a time in so-called tiger cages. For a while, I learned, the town's two biggest employers had been the various Sorbian associations and the two prisons.
So I was not entirely surprised, when I attended the opera's final rehearsal later that day (the company had decided to dispense with the opera's original title and produce it as Scheherazade), to see that the director, Wolfgang Poch, was framing his production at least in part as a political allegory. His casting had a vaguely subversive edge to it, with the role of Scheherazade going to a lovely Dutch soprano, Marieke van der Meer, who provided the focus for the contest between a Russian Sultan (the bass Oleg Ptucha) and an American Alcazar (the tenor Robert Lischetti). More to the point was Poch's inspired shading of the Sultan's court, which was portrayed as foppishly servile to the tyrant's every whim—right up, that is, until a moment near the end, when it seemed to melt into the woodwork, as if it had never played any role in bolstering the despot's terrible rule (“Sultan?” the courtiers seemed to say. “What Sultan?”).
Poch, as it turned out, was a West German, a journeyman opera director and a veteran of more than 150 productions and assorted head postings in houses all over Europe, who in 1993 had applied to take over this regional company almost on a whim, and had grown more and more convinced of its potential. A high-strung enthusiast, tall, lanky, and somewhat frail, with a great bobbing Adam's apple as his paramount feature, the sixty-year-old director described his efforts to widen the provincial company's range and heighten its visibility through challenging programming; earlier, for instance, it had tackled the world premiere of Weill's Der Kuhhandel. Poch had come to know Toch's music in his university days, in Berlin. The son of a half-Jewish mother who had survived the war by passing as an Aryan, Poch made it something of a mission to resurrect the work of this man who had been so unjustly forgotten. For years, completely unbeknownst to me, Poch had likewise been trying to produce the Scheherazade opera, and he had almost succeeded when he headed the company in Baden Baden, the site of some of Toch's most celebrated triumphs at annual music festivals during the Weimar era. His devotion was touchingly lavish, and the more he talked, the more it seemed that this opera in particular had grown to exert an almost demonic hold over him.
Scene from the opera's 1995 premiere
I frankly didn't know what to expect from such a marginal-seeming production. But as the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the first-night crowd, I was more and more pleasantly surprised. The stage set was steeped in a sort of Klimt or Hundertwasser Orientalism, and if the staging was a bit static, the musicianship of the orchestra, under the direction of Dieter Kempe, a veteran Bautzener, was astoundingly competent—a legacy of East German cultural policy, perhaps; I was assured that the East was teeming with such proficient regional ensembles. The singing of the principal players, especially Van der Meer, was generally transporting and at moments luminous. (Van der Meer, I learned, had been born exactly two days before Toch died.) The reviews in the next few days were almost uniformly favorable, with several critics calling for further performances in better-established venues. A CD recording session has been slated for 1998 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra.
I attended two performances in Bautzen, on consecutive nights, and in both cases the audience, made up primarily of local people, seemed authentically taken with the piece, showering the ensemble with repeated ovations. But in neither case did more than a few of the audience members register the blatantly allegorical connotations of Poch's staging—or so it seemed, on the basis of conversations I had with several people afterward in the lobby and near the coat check. Charming, I was told, captivating, wonderfully moving. But apt, relevant, pertinent? My questions met with blank stares.
This would never have been the case in nearby Poland, where the tradition of subversive mass readings of stage and literary works is so entrenched that for years every production of Shakespeare was viewed primarily (and sometimes exclusively) as a barely veiled commentary on Polish reality. From what I could tell during those few days in Bautzen, anyway, the former East Germany may have been different: the capacity for such an ironic reading, the sense of imaginative play or subversive engagement or even simple curiosity about the past, seemed to have all but completely atrophied, like a muscle kept too long in a cast.
The first night in particular this hollowed-out response rankled. I couldn't help thinking that a similar pusillanimity—a sort of timorous mass thoughtlessness, to cast matters in their best possible light—had abetted not only the Stasi regime but the Nazi dictatorship before that. Seen in that light, this willful obliviousness was as responsible as anything else for the calamitous breakup of my grandfather's career. Yet it was also true that it was Germans, and these provincial Germans in particular, who had gone to the trouble (as performers) to resurrect Toch's languishing last major opus and (as an audience) to open themselves to that act of reclamation. My ambivalent feelings were in some sense an echo of my grandfather's. Shattered as he had been by his repudiation and exile—an exile that had begun when he was almost exactly the age I was now—he had insisted all along on seeing himself first and foremost as an heir to the Austrian-German tradition. He had thus remained within the German-Jewish assimilationist tradition that seemed to treasure the German cultural heritage—that seemed to need to treasure that heritage—even more than did the Germans themselves. How else to account for his return to Vienna, of all places, so shortly after the war—Vienna, the fount of some of the worst anti-Semitism in all the German lands, both before and during the Nazi period—except to say that yes, Vienna was all that, but it was also the very headwaters of his creative vocation? Or, beyond that, to account for his choice of Luther, of all people, as the voice behind his First Symphony, composed there? After all, when Luther spoke of a “world with devils filled,” Jews were among the principal villains he had in mind. There were knots upon knots in all this, and, standing a trifle awkwardly amid the champagne glasses and the passing canapés at the post-premiere party, I was reminded of an observation that another knotted and knotty Viennese Jew, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once made—how philosophy unties knots in our thinking, hence its result must be simple, but philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties.
The next night, though, for some reason things did seem simpler. Maybe I was just being lifted higher by the music itself, as I grew more familiar with it. The vexing political context seemed to fall away, and as Scheherazade struggled through her block and into the transporting narrative, I experienced an overwhelming sense that my grandfather had drawn together all the disparate themes of his own life in one transcendant summary exaltation. Things that had seemed chopped and broken and scattered—the shards of both his life and his music—were retrospectively realigning and resolving themselves. As Scheherazade's last aria reached its lyrical climax, I found myself remembering a letter Toch had written to a young would-be composer not long after his own heart attack—and on the verge of his astonishing regeneration—in 1949. “A composition must grow organically, like a tree,” he had urged the young man to understand. “There must be no seams, no gaps, no foreign matter. The sap of the tree must pass through the whole body of it, reach every branch and twig and leaf of it. It must grow, grow, grow, instead of [like a mismatched suit] being patched, patched, patched.” I could see that Toch had been talking not only about the composition of a piece of music but also about the composition of a life—and, for that matter, of a family line. And as the audience now rose in ovation, showering particular kudos on their beloved Poch, who stood there drained and pale, trembling in his triumph (for, as none of us realized at the time, he was already riddled with a cancer that would claim his life within a few months—this would be almost his last tale too), I found myself realizing how for Ernst the spiritual challenge was the same in both instances. I suddenly recalled some lines from one of the last notes he ever wrote to Lilly—the one with which, Scheherazadelike, she had chosen to conclude her oral history before herself going on to die. It consisted of a poem in which he acknowledged all the sacrifices she had made in his behalf over the almost fifty years of their life together, assuring her that he was aware of the suffering such sacrifices had often entailed—an awareness that was his despair. Yet he begged her forgiveness: it couldn't be helped, for, as he, and she, and now I concluded by way of explanation,
Ich treibe nicht—ich werde getrieben
Ich schreibe nicht, ich werde geschrieben!
I do not press, I am pressed—
I do not write, I am written!