DP's Blog: Cavalier

Posted on Mon, 2013-04-22 14:31 by David Pountney

I have been given a very handsome gong by the Polish government which makes me a Cavalier, though an unhorsed one. This was in recognition of the fact that the Bregenz Festival has, rather by lucky chance than cunning design, become a sort of centre of Polish music in exile. We presented a season focussing on Karel Szymanowski (Krol Roger) in 2009, the rediscovery of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (The Passenger) in 2010, and will present the world premiere of André  Tchaikowsky’s (no relation!) “The Merchant of Venice”, plus various other works, this summer. Obliged to say a few words in acknowledgement of this very pleasant honour, I focussed on the consequences of emigration.

We are currently rather obsessed by the consequences to us as hosts of immigrants, fearful that our fat cat status (still intact in any objective view of the world, despite recessions etc.) might enable other less fortunate people to grab a slice of our good fortune. So it’s a good moment to leave this rather miserable attitude on one side, and look at what happens to people who leave their native countries. In this respect, Poland holds up a mirror to the fate of Europe in the 20th century.

In the case of Szymanowski, an aristocrat born under the Russian occupation of Poland in an area which became Polish after WW1, but is since the end of WW2 part of the Ukraine, it is not quite clear whether he left his country or whether rather it left him, such was the febrile state of shifting borders which afflicted that part of the world. In the early part of his life, the stifling cultural conditions of the Tsarist occupation of Poland obliged him to seek his future as a musician abroad, and supported by his talents as a virtuoso pianist he became a real citizen of the world. This cosmopolitan view is embedded in many of his works, especially Krol Roger in which his Polish sensibility is transported via Sicily to the mystic and erotic richness of Greek and Arab culture. He was “repatriated” to Poland during its brief flowering of independence between the wars, but died of tuberculosis in Switzerland in 1937. Later, the effect of Stalin’s blue pencil at Yalta would result in a kind of posthumous exile in that grotesque and cynical transfer of lands and peoples which moved Russia’s and Poland’s borders Westwards.

Weinberg did not suffer from the earth moving beneath his feet, but rather tramped precariously over it in 1939, threading his way through the invading Nazi troops to reach the Soviet border. There he surrendered his name – an impatient border guard substituted Moshe for Mieczyslaw – a gesture which hampers his recognition to this day as searchers are baffled by Google or Amazon entries under Moshe Vainberg or Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Weinberg remained in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life, and became in effect a Soviet composer, a shift which lead to his being cold shouldered by his fellow Poles who were of course after the war living under the occupation of their “liberators”. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Weinberg belonged to no-one, and sank into oblivion – remarkable for a composer of a gigantic and in its time much respected output.

André Tchaikowsky also famously surrendered his name – his grandmother inserted the name of her favourite composer onto the false papers she used to smuggle him out of the Warsaw ghetto as a five year old. His original name was Krauthammer, so the marketing men would probably say she did a good deed! He emerged from the horrors of hiding in Poland through three more years of war, and became a virtuoso pianist, tormented however by depression and understandable mental instability. Being a homosexual and a depressive was not the recipe for an easy life in Soviet Poland, so he fled to England, and increasingly composed rather than playing concerts, except when desperate for money – which was frequently! He composed a piano concerto, two quartets, some songs and chamber music, and an entire opera – The Merchant of Venice – which will be premiered in Bregenz this summer. He died early – aged 46 – and despite the best efforts of many loyal friends, he lacked official status or champions and, following the pattern of Weinberg, sank into oblivion.

None of this is to ignore that all three men benefited from emigration. Szymanowski was an urbane, sophisticated international figure. Weinberg, even after imprisonment under Stalin, clung to the fact that the Soviet Union had saved his life, even if it took many others. André’s mercurial and vibrant personality found expression in a slightly more liberal English climate, and above all was allowed to express in the most profound form his obsession with Shakespeare.

But the last two especially paid the price of neglect, and were effectively silenced by the absence of any kind of official status. Official status can be a dubious benefit, perhaps most often protecting reputations that deserve to be forgotten, but think of the long years in which Janacek’s reputation was almost exclusively kept alive in his own country, or indeed Dvorak’s as an opera composer – which has only flourished internationally in the last 20 years. The investment of the Bregenz Festival in two forgotten figures is, I thought, a nice example of the soft power that a cultural institution can and should exercise to remedy injustices in the cultural-political field.

This notion was given added poignancy by the fact that the Polish Embassy in Vienna, where this little ceremony took place, is housed in the palatial villa where the author Stefan Zweig was born. Zweig’s family originally came from the little Vorarlberg town of Hohenems, just up the road from Bregenz, from where, as he wrote, a tiny Jewish community fanned out across the world. Zweig should therefore have had the idea of exile branded in his genes, but he didn’t. When his turn came to flee from the Nazis, he went first to England where he buried his head in studies of Erasmus. When war broke out, he fled further to America, and then to Brazil where he naively became a sort of literary spokesperson for the quasi Fascist regime there. Unable to see any positive outcome for the war, and perhaps aware of his compromised position in Brazil, he lay down on a bed, hand in hand with his young wife Lotte, and committed joint suicide.

Zweig’s death might be construed as the last act in a long sequence of flights from reality – now that I have seen the house where he was born I can better understand his fastidious rejection of the manifest brutalities of the politics of the 1930s, and his retreat into studies of Marie Antoinette and elegant conversation pieces for Richard Strauss. But it was also a denial of his significant role as a beacon of artistic independence for the beleaguered and despairing German intellectual diaspora. His role as a figurehead of resistance was outweighed by the despair of exile, an exile he perceived significantly as not only geographic, but also an exile from his own language – something which he had honed into great expressive beauty and precision, but which was now irrevocably associated with thugs and murderers.

Exile, as the Poles know better than anyone, is a two edged sword. This is a significant reality, in a week in which we can acknowledge with some pride that a majority of the new authors accorded the Granta accolade of most talented young British novelists of the decade are not only female, but come from backgrounds scattered across the globe. Immigration brings much to celebrate, but to become effectively stateless can mean sinking into an ever darker black hole. That’s the cue for a rescuer – a Cavalier in fact – preferably on a white horse!