Salzburg Pays Tribute to Gottfried von Einem

BERLIN — When Gottfried von Einem’s “Der Prozess” takes the stage this summer, the Salzburg Festival will pay homage not only to one of Austria’s most important 20th-century composers but also to a crucial figure in its rebirth after World War II.

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Rebecca Schmid
, New York Times

BERLIN — When Gottfried von Einem’s “Der Prozess” takes the stage this summer, the Salzburg Festival will pay homage not only to one of Austria’s most important 20th-century composers but also to a crucial figure in its rebirth after World War II.

His opera “Dantons Tod” (“Danton’s Death”) in 1947 became the first opera — other than those by Richard Strauss — to have its world premiere at the festival. And as a member of the board of directors, von Einem made contemporary opera and theater a cornerstone of programming.

The concert performance of “Der Prozess” (“The Trial”) at this year’s festival, on Aug. 14, with composer and conductor HK Gruber leading the Vienna Radio Symphony, follows a wave of celebrations of the centenary of his birth. “Dantons Tod” received new productions at the Vienna State Opera and the Theater Magdeburg in Germany earlier this year, and the Orfeo label produced a recording of the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst performing three works including the Philadelphia Symphony (commissioned, as per the title, by the venerable American orchestra). On Nov. 22, Gruber brings “Der Prozess” to Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

But von Einem remains a relatively unknown quantity outside his native country. His tonal idiom could not hold its own against the rise of the avant-garde, and by the 1980s, performances of his music became scarce. He died in 1996 at age 78.

Together with director Oscar Fritz Schuh and set designer and librettist Caspar Neher, von Einem had a vision of rehabilitating Salzburg as a nexus of cutting-edge artists, a “Weimar of the 20th century,” as Neher wrote in 1948. The world premiere of “Der Prozess” on Aug. 17, 1953, with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, featured Neher on sets and Schuh directing.

Gruber, a protégé of von Einem, hopes to create a new bench mark with this season’s performance of what he considers “a model of progressive music theater.” He compared the score’s repeated patterns to John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” which had its premiere three decades later.

“The singers have to fit into the orchestra like the wheels of a gear," Gruber said from Rosenburg, Austria, adding that he had adjusted the score’s dynamics to prevent the orchestra from drowning out the singers.

“Der Prozess,” about a bank signatory who is placed on trial for unnamed reasons, reflects von Einem’s own experience with a cold, anonymous bureaucracy. In September 1938, the Gestapo stormed into the Hotel Adlon in Berlin where he was living with his mother, Baroness Gerta Luise von Einem.

She was arrested and held for over a year on charges of treason, while von Einem was interrogated and briefly imprisoned. It was through a Gestapo official that he learned that his real father was not the Austrian military attaché William von Einem but a Hungarian count, Laszlo Hunyadi.

As music writer Joachim Reiber documents in his recent biography “Gottfried von Einem; Komponist der Stunde Null” (“Zero-Hour Composer”), the baroness was subsequently accused of foreign-currency offenses and, by the French authorities, condemned to death for espionage during the war (she was declared free in 1948). While much of her life remains shrouded in mystery, her wide-ranging connections helped her son move in the highest circles: At age 20, von Einem cut his teeth as a coach not only at the Berlin State Opera but also at the Bayreuth Festival.

The von Einems meanwhile helped Gottfried’s teacher, composer Boris Blacher, cover up his partly Jewish roots, and von Einem saved the life of musician Konrad Latte by lending him his State Opera identity card as proof of “Aryan” heritage. The act was posthumously honored by the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 2002.

In 1951, von Einem agreed to help playwright Bertolt Brecht — stateless upon returning to Europe from American exile — obtain Austrian citizenship. In return, Brecht was to write the play “Salzburger Totentanz” (“Dance of Death”) for the Salzburg Festival.

But while Brecht produced only sketches and quickly settled in East Berlin, von Einem was denounced for affiliating himself with communists and discharged from the board of directors. The festival then created an arts council to which von Einem was nominated as chair by Neher, Schuh, the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic and others. As such, “Der Prozess” made it onto the program.

But the Brecht affair only helped conductor Herbert von Karajan, who, according to von Einem’s personal account, repeatedly tried to stand in his way. When von Karajan was named artistic director of the Salzburg Festival in 1956, he rejected the arts council. In 1962, von Einem resigned.

During his time in Salzburg, von Einem had mounted works by Blacher, Frank Martin, Carl Orff and other important composers of the time. He was also responsible for the rediscovery of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in Austria. The performance caused a scandal in Salzburg in 1951, setting off debates as high as the parliamentary level, about what some considered to be the obscene content of the drama.

Although von Einem believed in the power of tonality, “Der Prozess” absorbs everything from jazz to 12-tone music. “I was always eager to be a communicative composer,” he wrote in his autobiography “Ich Hab’ Unendlich Viel Erlebt” (“I’ve Experienced an Infinite Amount”). “For me it is about dialogue with the audience.”

“Dantons Tod” traveled throughout Europe and as far as New York after its premiere in Salzburg. Von Einem’s oeuvre also includes commissions from four American orchestras.

While a work such as the Philadelphia Symphony stands firmly in a neoclassical idiom, its wistful lyricism points to Mahler, whose influence came out in full colors in the cantata “An die Nachgeborene” (“To Posterity”). The cantata’s 1975 world premiere in New York nearly caused a scandal by unintentionally leaving out the line of a biblical psalm — which was quickly restored and accompanied by the personal statement of von Einem during rehearsals that he rejects “any form of nationalism.”

Reiber pointed out in an interview from Vienna that not only von Einem’s tonal idiom but also a generational gap led his music to fall by the wayside. Of his contemporaries, only Orff’s “Carmina Burana” is heard today, he said. Werner Egk and Rudolf Wagner-Régeny, colleagues from von Einem’s Berlin years, are not performed at all.

But the Salzburg Festival is not powerless when it comes to setting trends. The festival’s president, Helga Rabl-Stadler, expressed hopes in a phone call from Vienna that the performance of “Der Prozess” would do “its share” to help place von Einem on “programs around the world.”

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