An Introduction to the Life and Work of Karol Rathaus

Karol Rathaus was born in the town of Ternopol on September 16th, 1895. Ternopol belonged to the Polish enclave of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, known as Galicia, and had a population of roughly 32,000 inhabitants. Galicia was often referred to as the ‘backwater’ of the empire, as revealed in a letter written by Rathaus’ close friend Soma Morgenstern: “In Vienna, people made such fun of Galicia and threw their hands up in horror at the mere mention of the place, that for many Galicians, it was very difficult to admit to coming from Ternopol”.

Although Rathaus first learned to speak Polish, he quickly picked up German in his youth and started taking his first piano lessons at the age of six. As a promising child prodigy, Rathaus often frustrated his father, who strongly discouraged a career in music. Nevertheless, Rathaus was allowed to join the Vienna Music Academy after his eighteenth birthday, on the condition that he study law alongside music.

In Vienna, Karol Rathaus absorbed the rich Viennese tradition of music through the works of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Alexander Zemlinsky and became the star pupil of Franz Schreker, a pedagogue who many students revered, including Ernst Krenek, Jascha Horenstein, Julius Bürger, Joseph Rosenstock. Within one year, he discontinued his law studies and enlisted in the Austrian army as a cavalry officer. However, his military career was short-lived after contracting tuberculosis, which permanently scarred his lungs.

While still a student at the Vienna Music Academy, Karol Rathaus completed his first two major works for solo piano, the Variations and Fugue on theme by Max Reger op. 1 and the First Piano Sonata, op. 2 – both of which garnered many positive reviews. Rathaus then followed Professor Schreker and his classmates up to Berlin in 1920. He moved into a pension behind the Academy and was no longer required to take exams for any courses related to orchestration or composition, having surpassed all examination levels.

Although Berlin was wracked by high levels of criminality and inflation during the early 20s, it also remained artistically vibrant. Rathaus felt most at home in Berlin and produced some of his finest works there, ranging from minimalist film scores to scintillating symphonic works. Rathaus also met the love of his life in that city, Gerta Pfefferkorn, whom he married in 1926 and never separated for any substantial periods of time, except for his trip to the United States in 1938.

Between the years 1923-1926, Rathaus returned to Vienna due to the crippling hyperinflation of Berlin, which made it impossible to live there. Vienna, on the other hand, had become overrun by citizens from neighbouring territories who didn’t want to lose their Austrian citizenship, following the defeat of Austria and the loss of the empire. This unpleasant situation gradually made the city of Vienna ‘alienating’ toward newcomers. Berlin was still considered culturally more dynamic than Vienna, but numerous Viennese composers, such as Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek and Egon Wellesz flourished and thrived there, with the establishment of important organizations such as the International Society for Contemporary Music and the music publisher Universal Editions. Karol Rathaus wrote several works for solo piano during this time, including the innovative Second Piano Sonata, op. 8, while completing his doctoral dissertation on the Dictatorship of R. Traugutts in the Polish Rebellion of January 1863.

The Second Piano Sonata, op. 8, written in 1924 and until recently declared to be lost , is a fiendishly difficult work requiring enormous amounts of stamina and interpretive insight. It joins the ranks of other works considered to be on the fringes of musical expression, such as Hans Eisler’s Piano Sonata, op. 1, or Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No. 1, op. 12. Martin Schüssler opines that Rathaus’ Second Piano Sonata was an attempt to free himself from ‘functional harmony and the formal constraints as suggested by traditional sonata form’.

Karol Rathaus has often been referred to as a proponent of the Neusachlichkeit movement in music, also known as the New Objectivity movement. This musical aesthetic evolved as a reaction to pre-war Expressionism and favoured greater motivic and harmonic unity, as opposed to nihilistic escapism and unrestrained indulgence. Rathaus had attempted to tame the chaos of Expressionism through his own experimentation, though he frequently admitted to having not succeeded and discouraged attempts to associate his music with the New Objectivity label.

Karol Rathaus had an ambiguous relationship with the music theories proposed by his contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg. On one hand, Rathaus saw twelve-tone composition not as revolutionary but as an organic development stemming directly from the breakdown of tonality. He often defended Schoenberg and his methods against detractors and went as far as to compare twelve-tone composition as the musical equivalent of “splitting the atom – destructive, but able to create a new order from chaos”. On the other hand, Rathaus never resorted to this method of music composition at any point in his life and his resistance to twelve-tone serialism hardened considerably as he aged.

Karol Rathaus’ first major breakthrough was in the field of ballet music with Der Letzte Pierrot (The Last Pierrot) op. 19 – a work that catapulted him to the forefront of young composers in his generation. The ballet is based on a traditional Commedia Dell’Arte plot, featuring the masked-clown Pierrot yearning for the love of his lost Columbine. Der Letzte Pierrot was showered with praise from the press after its premiere in 1926 at the Staatsoper in Berlin, with numerous follow-up performances taking place in Rostock, Stettin, Warsaw, and Düsseldorf. The solo piano music arrangement for this ballet was made available separately and included two popular extracts from the original ballet: Columbine’s Waltz and the Workers’ March; Karol Rathaus recorded these works with himself at the piano.

After the success of Der Letzte Pierrot, Rathaus was increasing his royalty advances with Universal Editions as material proof of his growing significance as a composer. His orchestral works were performed by leading orchestras in Germany, Austria and Poland and his chamber music became more established. If Universal Editions rejected any number of his submissions, it had little effect on Rathaus’ reputation. He also became more politically engaged at this time by becoming involved with progressive, left-wing, Jewish social circles. In his Memoirs of a Moralist, the poet Hans Sahl portrays Berlin of the mid-1920s in the following manner:

This period seemed to have its own Esperanto that assumed that anyone speaking it had seen the latest stagings by Piscator, Jessner, Reinhardt, read the latest criticism by Kerr or Ihering, that one was up to date on the latest concert news concerning Furtwängerl, Toscanini, Klemperer, Kleiber, Bruno Walter, – knew about Tairov’s ‘Unleashed Theatre’, ‘Dybbuk’, ‘Habbima’ and Meyerhold’s latest touring productions throughout Germany – about the Negro dancer Josephine Baker, the ‘whispering Baritone’ Jack Smith, about Eisenstein’s ‘Potemkin’ and Chaplin’s ‘Gold Rush’, about Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’, or Hermann Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ – about the Six-Day Race – Fritz Kortner as ‘Richard III’ – Elisabeth Bergner as ‘Rosalinde’ about Albert Bassermann in Sternheim’s ‘1913’ about Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ and Mies van der Rohes ‘Sky Scrapers of glass and Steel’ not forgetting Freud, Einstein and atonality!

Karol Rathaus returned to writing solo piano works in 1927 and penned his Third Piano Sonata, op. 20 as a way of resorting back to traditional forms. In this work, he offers no meter and appears to draw random bar lines, providing the performer with a greater amount of metric freedom. The music critic Erwin Stein did not offer the work a positive appraisal and Universal Editions decided to decline publication. Stein viewed Rathaus’ compositional weakness in this work as a lack of integrated structure compensated by musical inflation. Nevertheless, pressure from Rathaus resulted in the eventual publication of the sonata, despite Stein’s negative appraisal. The premiere of the Third Piano Sonata was performed by Bruno Eisner on November 10, 1927 and garnered many positive reviews. The breakthrough, however, came with Walter Gieseking’s performance in New York as part of the Aeolian Hall series that same year. The conservative New York Times critic, Olin Downes, wrote that Karol Rathaus was “at heart a romanticist”.

His Trois Mazurkas (Three Mazurkas), op. 24 from 1928 are based on the traditional Polish dance form and were successfully premiered by Leopold Münzer in Hamburg with further performances in Berlin. Interestingly, Rathaus often incorporated Polish folk into his works, often providing the performer with straightforward, interpretive details such as, “to be played in the rhythm of a Mazurka.” Karol Rathaus’ treatment of the Mazurka dance form is not characteristic of a traditional Mazovian dance, nor was Rathaus ever a staunch Polish nationalist throughout his life. Instead, each Mazurka imbues the Viennese tradition he had inherited in his youth, incorporates adventurous quartal and quintal harmonies and features the occasional ‘krekhtsen ‘ of a Yiddish folksong.

In order to sustain international acclaim, Rathaus’ colleagues recommended that he write an opera, viewing him as a natural composer of the theatre. Cinema was still in its infancy and opera was, for the time being, the mass entertainment option that everyone craved, having far more significance in popular culture than it has today. Yet, everyone agreed that opera had to be contemporary and speak to contemporary audiences. In post-World War I Germany and Austria, society had been turned upside down, and old stories regarding historic legends and fairy tales no longer appealed to the public.

In 1930, Karol Rathaus set out to write his first opera Fremde Erde (Alien Soil) with the librettist Kamilla Palffy-Waniek, a prize-winner of Universal Editions’ libretto competition. The plot was decidedly controversial regarding the exploitation of immigrant workers and Rathaus may have been already begun contemplating a move away from Europe, in writing an opera on the subject of migration. Fremde Erde received mixed reviews with the Berliner Zeitung describing it as “boring, occasionally unintentionally amusing when things got too melodramatic.” The failure of the opera may have been partially triggered by the language used between the extremes of social classes, which was not differentiated enough. In 1930, after waves of similar contemporary works, the public demanded ‘veristic’ operas , much in the way that Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins (Mechanic Hopkins) had premiered a year earlier.

In 1930, Karol Rathaus became the first serious composer to write a film score for a German film, resulting in a fruitful collaboration. The Moscow-born film director, Fjodor Ozep, was very impressed with Rathaus’ works for theatre and invited him to write the soundtrack for his upcoming movie called, Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (The Murderer Dimitri Karamasov). The film was based on an extract from Dostoevsky’s novel and immediately became a financial success, bringing Rathaus prestige and excellent press coverage as a newly-established film composer.

In a 68-page essay written on the topic of film music, Karol Rathaus describes his unique approach to writing film scores: “music does not illustrate the visual but drives the visual in the same way that music in opera does not illustrate the drama, but is the engine of the drama.” This approach was in stark contrast to the Hollywood film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, in which the music amplified the visuals. Rathaus employed three different strategies of applying music to a movie: 1) large, symphonic representations, when there is dramatic room for musical expansion; 2) closed, musical forms accompanying the dialogue, which are mostly of a lyric nature; 3) closed, diegetic musical forms, such as dances, songs and pieces that are a part of the action.

With the rise of Hitler in power, Rathaus escaped from Berlin together with his wife Gerta and his son Bernhard, settling for a short period in Paris, France followed by London, U.K. In these cities, he found it increasingly difficult to compose due to rising antisemitism and meagre work prospects. Little is known about Rathaus’ output during the London years, except for a few film music commissions, such as Broken Blossoms directed by John Brahm and The Dictator directed by Victor Saville. The Incorporated Society of Musicians made it impossible for newly-arrived U.K. refugees to secure teaching positions or performance gigs outside of the film industry. Ernst Toch, another exiled composer who sought refuge in the U.K., reflected similarly upon his experience in a letter penned to his friend Hans Gál:

I can only offer at most an introduction to [Alexander] Korda, but I can’t promise much. It certainly didn’t help [Nikolai] Lopatnikoff – but take it anyway. You have to put up with everything we’ve already been through and continue to go through. During my time in London, I wrote to every studio in town and begged for appointments. 98% were DIS-appointments and 2% resulted in stumbling a few steps forward by way of a couple of contacts. It’s astonishing that somehow things work as long as you stay patient. Only when I left London was I told that it would have been better had I had an agent. So for good measure, I’ll pass this bit of advice on to you. Nevertheless, here I have five agents and not one has ever managed to do anything for me. Ultimately, you have to do everything yourself.

During the summer of 1938, Karol Rathaus decided to leave Europe entirely and embark on a new life in the United States. He had to temporarily leave his wife and son behind and hoped to secure a teaching position on the new continent. Rathaus’ brother Rudolf helped him to secure a Polish passport that enabled him to stay in the U.S. for over a year. This provided him with additional time to secure career opportunities that would not have been possible on a six-month tourist visa.

Rathaus’ first several months in the U.S. were fraught with financial difficulties and several failed performances. For example, it was impossible to transfer his music rights from Nazi-occupied Vienna and the Broadway premiere of Friedrich Hebbel’s play Herodes und Mariamne, that Rathaus had written music to, was cancelled. In Hollywood, the only work available was that of a supplementary composer, who orchestrated and expanded upon the musical ideas of another credited composer. These jobs were not well paid and Karol Rathaus was too experienced and well-known as a serious composer to take up such a job. He would also have trouble securing a highly coveted and union-protected studio job, such as those held by Erich W. Korngold, Hans Eisler, or Franz Waxman, due to the limitations of his visa.

Karol Rathaus eventually settled upon a professorship of composition at the newly-established music department at Queens College, CUNY – a position he kept until his death in 1954. Rathaus’ students remember him as a remarkable pianist who could easily transpose works at whim in the interest of demonstrating certain tonal attributes. This was a common trait among Viennese-trained musicians, such as Erich Zeisl, Erich Korngold, Ernst Toch, Hugo Kauder, Walter Bricht, and Hans Gál – each of which had similar testimonials made by their students. All students were taught using a piano in the lecture hall rather than the use of a gramophone. They demonstrated their points on the piano, playing everything from memory – a method of teaching that dates back to the days of Eduard Hanslick’s history courses at the University of Vienna.

Upon completion of his monumental Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 45 in 1939, Rathaus went on to write 28 compositions on American soil, most of which were didactic in nature. At one point, his friends recommended that he return to and improve certain works, but their pleas were ignored. For example, Jascha Horenstein once wrote in a letter: “If you could fix these passages, this work would give you the same prominence of Honegger or Hindemith,” to which Karol Rathaus replied, “as the work is not by Hindemith, there is no danger of it ever being published.”

The stress of having to forcefully abandon one’s homeland can leave deep scars and psychological wounds in the psyches of refugee musicians. The fact that Karol Rathaus could no longer attribute any opus numbers to his U.S. oeuvre was an indication of his coming to terms with a life he hadn’t planned for. Numerous other exiled composers, such as Robert Fürstenthal, Walter Arlen and Julius Bürger (another Schreker pupil) suffered similar fates upon immigration to foreign lands and used composition as a form of therapy to silence the traumas of the past. Rathaus’ son Bernhard believed that “Hitler killed the composer Karol Rathaus.”

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