Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Music Worth Remembering

I still remember the day I returned home from an errand and switched on the television to the local educational channel. On the screen was a baton wielder in the midst of an interview relating his connection to the Holocaust; he had recently composed a work in memory of his grandparents that were murdered in Riga. I examined the familiar, round, jovial face on the screen and asked myself: How could someone who had personally suffered the legacy of Nazi extermination through familial relations perpetuate the sardonic action of banishing colleagues? At various times during my career, I've been struck by the sad realization that the oppressed can, and often do, turn into oppressors themselves.

By now the world is well aware of the injustices heaped upon not only Jewish artists during the Holocaust, but the decent souls who stood in the line of their defense. Clearly, to deny an established and well-respected artist the right to work, or to be heard and read, as in the case of Viennese author and playwright Stefan Zweig, is to blot out his identity and existence. We know that all of humanity stands to lose when its creative forces are silenced. One cannot help but contemplate the amount of sheer talent and genius that was extinguished at the self-destructive hands of the Third Reich.

Recently I reconnected with Bob Elias, President of The OREL Foundation. I clicked on this site and listened to an audio welcome by founder and artistic director, James Conlon. The OREL Foundation, through their website, is devoted to providing a resource for scholars, musicians, and music lovers. Its aim is to inspire further research and performances of music by composers banned and suppressed from 1933-1945. I couldn't believe the wealth of material on this website available for exploration.

The Dwarf: Rodrick Dixon (L.A. Opera)
As I perused this repository of musical treasures, many of which were unfamiliar to me, I felt a yearning to surround myself with more books and materials devoted to this important subject. For starters, I viewed the live Los Angeles Opera production of Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky's one-act masterpiece, "Der Zwerg" or "The Dwarf" based on Oscar Wilde's fairy tale "The Birthday of the Infanta" on DVD. The story is about a cruel and spoiled Spanish princess "Infanta" that is sent an ugly dwarf by the Turkish sultan as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. The dwarf has never been allowed to see his reflection in the mirror; therefor, he is unaware of his hideous appearance and believes that others laugh at him because they are charmed by his good nature (God has created us all blind to ourselves). As the princess coyly pretends to be enchanted by the dwarf, even teasing him about prospective marriage, he falls hopelessly in love with her. When the dwarf ultimately sees his reflection in the mirror, and learns the cruel truth, that he's a hideous monster and has merely been a plaything, he convulses in despair and dies from a broken heart.

Zemlinsky's expressive score is spell-binding. Orientalist idioms recall those of Mahler and lighter sections, those of Lehar. The music is perfectly suited to Wilde's fairy-tale plot, although the opera's psychological complexity might have been somewhat of an obstacle to its initial success. Ridiculed for having been "ugly as sin" and referred to as "the gnome" by his lover, the Viennese femme fatale, Alma Schindler (who later married Gustav Mahler and a few other leading men), "The Dwarf" might be the closest window we can crack open to probe Zemlinsky's wounded self-image. Although he emigrated to the United States in 1938 to join his brother-in-law, composer Arnold Schoenberg, after having witnessed strong anti-semitism in Vienna, Zemlinsky lived out the remainder of his years in relative obscurity.

My exploration continues. In the next day or two, I'll receive Franz Schreker's "Die Gezenchneten".
I fell madly in love with this prelude. Listen yourself. You might catch strains of "Star Trek: The Movie".

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