Walter Kaufmann: The Transcendent Exile

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    Walter Kaufmann: The Transcendent Exile
    Walter Kaufmann: Portrait of an Exile [Walter Kaufmann Archive]

    The nature of exile [παρεπιδημος or parepidémos] is rooted in both mythology and history and is often expressed as a fate worse than death. Exile is an early motif in ancient Greek tragedy. The motif reached its peak on Euripides’ great tragedy Medea, written in the fifth century BC. The Romans also passed a law – making exsilium both voluntary exile and banishment as a capital punishment alternative to death. In addition, deportation was forced exile, and entailed the lifelong loss of citizenship and property, a fate that befell the poet Ovid, who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was forced to leave Rome and move away to the city of Tomis on the Black Sea. There he wrote his famous work Tristia [Sorrows] about his bitter feelings in exile. The Italian poet Dante, was also exiled temporarily. Franz Kafka described the exile of Karl Rossmann in German in the posthumously published novel Amerika [Kurt Wolff, 1927]. Klaus Mann in Der Vulkan [1939] and Anna Seghers in Das siebte Kreuz [1942] also wrote searing accounts of exile.

    Diaspora is collective exile; one which the Jewish Nation had experienced for five thousand years before the fraught return to Israel. Jewish exile culminating in the most heinous Holocaust – like the forced enslavement and transportation, and further enslavement of the Black people of Africa – resulted in much great and sorrowful art like the Blues of the Afro-American. But both Blacks and Jews also produced art born of joy and rebirth. This joyousness – quietly celebrated in music, often in near-coded secrecy – was something of an homage to the pain of exile. However, tragically, much of this art in and of exile has been either suppressed or sadly, just forgotten. But the ARC Ensemble, under the stewardship and musical direction of Simon Wynberg, have created a recorded archive of this extraordinary experience with an iconic series Music in Exile. The fourth – and latest in the series is a superb disc, Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann [CHAN 20170].

    A seafaring Walter Kaufmann with two admirers, en route to London [Walter Kaufmann Archive]

    What is remarkable about the Music in Exile series is not simply its [self-explanatory] raison d’être, but much more so the kind of music that was revealed in each of the three recordings [so far]. The first in the series, Chamber Works by Paul Ben-Haim [CHAN 10769, released in 2013], by the composer and one-time assistant to Bruno Walter had music – as a review in Gramaphone that year put it – that “revealed a distinctively lyrical slant all its own… [and unlike music that “evokes the spirit of Jewish prayer and (occasionally) ritual], Ben-Haim…suggests the world of dance and outdoor celebration.” That release was followed by Chamber Works by Jerzy Fitelberg [CHAN 10877, released in 2015] revealed the work of a composer with “the energy and high voltage music of Stravinsky, a focus on linear and harmonic complexity as in Hindemith, and colors of contemporary French music [such as Milhaud], as well as styles of satire” according to Rainer Cadenbach [1944-2008]. Then came Chamber Works by Szymon Laks [CHAN 10983]. Laks, who was incarcerated in Auschwitz and forced to compose and perform by the SS suffered acutely during his period of imprisonment and yet his chamber works on the Chandos release rarely expressed “this disquiet”, according to Mr Wynberg [in his booklet notes].

    Clearly, Mr Wynberg had not only discovered “lost” works by composers eminently worthy of revelation for his beloved ARC Ensemble to perform, but it seems clear that the ensemble’s director displays an uncommon sleuth-like character with a determination to seek a vaunted expression of the triumph of human endeavor despite exile in music; something he, happily, found in the work three – and now four – composers who conquered the devastation of a diaspora. Remarkably each of the releases also reveals new truths about human responses to the impulse to adorn the sound of music. But this fourth release, Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann is remarkably different. Unlike the other discs in the series, this one not only evokes the inquiry into the nature of exile and its myriad expressions of sadness and joy, but due to a set of remarkable historical and geographic, cultural and academic circumstances Mr Kaufmann the journey of exile found him sweeping across the globe. This, together with his characteristic and fascinating musical curiosity, enabled one of the most extraordinary musical careers to unfold, producing quite brilliant music. Happily, some unique pieces appear on this disc.

    Simon Wynberg Artistic Director of the ARC Ensemble [Photograph by Robyn Wynberg courtesy Simon Wynberg]

    Of all the four featured composers in Music in Exile, Walter Kaufmann is perhaps the most noteworthy. A native of the German-speaking erstwhile Sudetenland Mr Kaufmann was born in Karlsbad [now Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic]. The only child of Josephine Wagner and Julius Kaufmann, the young Walter came under the influence of his violinist uncle Moritz Kaufmann before leaving for Berlin to study composition with Franz Schreker and musicology with one of the icons of the discipline, Curt Sachs – both at the Musikhochschule. It was Mr Sachs who introduced the young student to the music of India, virtually unknown little-understood in Europe in the early 20th century. Mr Kaufmann, by his own admission, also found Indian music “alien and incomprehensible”. But he admited: “this music was created with heart and intellect… [and] I decided that the fault [or incomprehension] was entirely my own, and that the right way to understand it would be to undertake a study tour of the place of its origin.”

    By the time he was in his twenties, Mr Kaufmann became an assistant to Bruno Walter and, according to Mr Wynberg’s excellent booklet notes began “conducting at summer festivals in Berlin and Eger, a spa town in Northern Hungary. His “Symphony No. 1, Piano Concerto”, “Suite for Strings”, “Five orchestral Pieces” and a number of songs were enthusiastically received in concerts and broadcasts, from Prague, Vienna, and Berlin.” Between 1927 and 1934, when Mr Kaufmann boarded the SS Conte Verde in Venice, en route to Bombay, he had befriended an array of artists and intellectuals including, writer Franz Werfel and Kafka’s biographer, Max Brod and – later, even Albert Einstein, who would be instrumental in his crossing the Atlantic to Canada [and finally to the United States]. Meanwhile, in Berlin [and elsewhere] German Nationalism was heating up and when he discovered that his doctoral supervisor was also part of Hitler Youth, and with intolerance and persecution intensifying, Mr Kaufmann acquired a visa to India and set sail on what would result not only in a fascinating journey, but also become a whose work was defined by a singular aesthetic so unique that perhaps not even Béla Bartók’s ethnic Hungarian folkloric music can compare with it.

    Walter Kaufmann may have been an exiled individual, but he was far from an intellectual one. He was – what the Palestinian-American professor of literature [at Columbia University], a public intellectual, and founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, Edward Said called – someone who was “…able to transcend the pain of separation without downplaying the human rights violations leading to the estrangement. [Someone in whom] there [was] a constant awareness between the physical exile and the metaphor arising out of the imposition which allows the exiled intellectual to question with freedom while refusing to “minimise the turmoil of exile.” Mr Kaufmann plunged – in short order – into the life of an intellectual exile in Bombay. Within 12 short months he was appointed Director of European Music at the Bombay station of All India Radio, writing its station signature – the AIR Theme – that the Indian National Radio still uses to open its broadcasts each day, some eighty years on. Mr Kaufmann also established the Bombay Chamber Music Society, gave weekly concerts at the Willingdon Sports Club, and hosted the Italian cellist Egidio Verga and violinist Mehli Mehta, father of the illustrious conductor Zubin Mehta. By the end of the twelve years that Mr Kaufmann spent in that country the Society had presented over 500 recitals.

    Walter Kaufmann conducting [Walter Kaufmann Archive]

    Mr Kaufmann also composed symphonic works, concertos, chamber music and several radio and film scores for commercial Bollywood films. As a result of all this arguably frenetic – and enormously successful – activity he dreamt of a future in Hollywood. However, even his friend Albert Einstein –whom he had often accompanied on piano [while Mr Einstein played violin] could not manage to arrange a suitable visa for Mr Kaufmann. The composer migrated instead to England, by virtue of having qualified [as a long term resident in Bombay] and rather quickly made a name for himself, writing scores for two Rank Organisation documentaries on invitation from Sir Adrian Boult. Mr Kaufmann also conducted the BBC Theatre Orchestra, but when war broke out, relocated – once again – to Nova Scotia, where he became head of the piano department at Halifax Conservatory [the Maritime Conservatory] of Music. Thanks to Sir Adrian and Sir Ernest MacMillan, then Canada’s premier musician, Mr Kaufmann was invited to be the first professional conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. With Mr Kaufmann as its conductor, the Orchestra hosted a slew of important soloists in numerous performances including a young Glenn Gould who gave a celebrated performance of Bach’s “D minor keyboard concerto”. In 1956, after 25 years in exile, Mr Kaufmann finally realized his quest to go to the United States and accepted a position at Indiana University’s School of Music in Bloomington. This position afforded him enough time and money to pursue the music that he loved to its fullest extent; to write and publish papers and books based on his extensive [Asian and Oriental] ethnomusicological research. He died of heart disease, having succeeded in making an enormous contribution to music, on the 9th of September 1984.

    Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann

    The music composed by Mr Kaufmann and performed by the Toronto’s ARC Ensemble on this disc represents just a smidgen of his vast output. But ARC Director Simon Wynberg has chosen wisely and the works on this disc bring his exquisitely unique musical voice to life with uncommon drama and emotion. A feeling of loss and nostalgia characterizes much of this music, often evoked by the haunting and transcendent classical Indian modalities. This is a remarkable recording. “The String Quartet No 11” is resplendent in undulant sounds of Indian modes with notes that literally leap off the staved paper forming a vividly hued instrumental palette. “The Sonata No 2 Op 44” that follows is also born of eloquent motifs and gestures, vivid colours, and the edgy anxiety of its first half suggest an homage to Mr Kaufmann’s own film scores. “The String Quartet No 7” – the longest work on this disc – explores exotic-sounding instrumental relationships from which exquisite flashes of colours often emerge in a burst of immaculate harmonic energy. The shortest piece – the “Sonatina No 12 for violin and piano [arranged for clarinet and piano]” contains a panoply of beautifully evocative gestures and tone colours – suggestive of a mysterious world – as well as strikingly and highly imaginative textural variety.

    The final, “Septet [for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano]” is an incredibly positive piece of music. It shows Mr Kaufmann’s sublime understanding of both strings and piano. Throughout this recording the ARC Ensemble sounds completely at home in Mr Kaufmann’s extraordinary sound-world. The rhythmic dares, unexpected changes in mood and lurking Eastern musical elements are all perfectly judged and handled with sublime assurance of Mr Kaufmann’s idiom.

    The music of these Chamber Works by Walter Kaufmann appear to be born of a muted serenity as well as a sense of wonder at the world of both the familiar and unfamiliar landscapes of music. An obsessive perfectionist, Mr Kaufmann polished these works into gleaming gems. As a composer who played the piano, but also had a breathtaking feel for strings, he wrote idiomatically for every instrument. He is never flashy, unlike others more flamboyant contemporaries. Yet, in a strangely “Germanic” way, he seems open to new ideas and also – not surprisingly – took to Eastern musical modes with a sense of zesty adventure.

    The ARC Ensemble photographed by Nation Wong

    The members of the ARC seem to have interiorized all of this and also parley with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains the sense of gracious etiquette associated with noble Western academies. Nothing is forced or exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. The string sound is lucid and the piano and clarinet add warmth land breadth to the music. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the chaste and faultless character of the music of Walter Kaufmann. It is also a fine addition – both musical and intellectual – to the Music in Exile series developed and presented by the ARC’s illustrious Artistic Director, Simon Wynberg.

    Track list – 1 – 4: String Quartet No 11 [before 1939]; 5 – 7: Sonata No. 2 Op. 44 for violin and piano [before 1946]; 8 – 12: String Quartet No. 7 [before 1939]; 13 -15: Sonatina No. 12 for violin and piano, arranged for clarinet and piano [before 1946]; 16: Septet for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano [before 1946]

    The ARC Ensemble – Erika Raum: violin [5 – 7]; Marie Bérard: violin; Steven Dann: viola; Thomas Wiebe: cello; Joaquin Valdepeñas: clarinet; Kevin Ahfat: piano; Special Guests – Jamie Kruspe: violin [16]; Kimberly Jeong: cello [16]

    ARC Ensemble’s new CD Chamber Music by Walter Kaufmann is out today and you can purchase a copy right here

    Join the James Conlon, Robert Elias, Simon Wynberg and the ARC Ensemble for Bohemia, Bombay, Bloomington: The Musical Exile of Walter Kaufmann

    On Tuesday, September 15, 2020 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET, a remarkable live online event will be hosted by two world class music institutions, The Colburn School in the US and the Royal Conservatory in Canada, both committed to the exploration and recovery of music marginalized and forgotten in the wake of National Socialism and World War II. The event will feature an online conversation with James Conlon – acclaimed conductor and Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera, Robert Elias – Director of the Colburn School’s Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices and Simon Wynberg – Artistic Director of The Royal Conservatory of Music’s ARC Ensemble. Also featured will be recorded performances by members of the ARC Ensemble and students from the Colburn Conservatory of Music.

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