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Hans Gál: The composer silenced by the Nazis – and musical snobs

Composer Hans Gál

It’s high time we rediscovered the noble music of Hans Gál, says Thelma Lovell

Centenaries are ten a penny, but here’s one you might not know about: 1919 saw the premiere in Breslau of Hans Gál’s first opera, Der Arzt der Sobeide (“Sobeide’s doctor”). Why does this matter, and who in any case was Gál? We begin with a story.

In Edinburgh, in the early 1940s, there was a young student midwife who was also a decent amateur violinist. As musical networks have ways of connecting people, she was invited to play quartets at the house of an Austrian exile. This was Hans Gál: a distinguished composer and scholar who in 1938 had been obliged to flee his country on the familiar absurdist grounds of his Jewish origin.

At that time, at the age of 48, what had he achieved? Merely dozens of remarkable compositions in every genre: choral, operatic, symphonic, chamber music. Then there was the Austrian State Prize for composition, and the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory. Yet weighed against the offence of his Jewishness – guilty as charged – this counted for less than nothing. (Can we never be done with anti-Semitism?)

So Hans Gál made the difficult journey to Britain. Despite the assistance of the great musicologist Donald Tovey, there followed a period of considerable hardship, including internment as an enemy alien. Finally, Gál was appointed to an academic post in Edinburgh, where he stayed until his death at the age of 97. There he was able to combine teaching and writing with his essential métier of composition. He had, too, a devoted wife and in time three children.

A happy ending, then? On the whole, yes, within the usual constraints that life and chance impose on us all. Yet apart from the fact that few are unscathed by a forcible rupture from their homeland, and that in Gál’s case personal tragedy struck in the form of his younger son’s suicide, there was a troublesome professional problem.

It was a question of fashion, the dictates of which apply to the arts as much as to Topshop; the effect of this was to diminish his public standing and limit his opportunities for an audience – crushing for a composer, whose central need is to be heard.

Gál shared the fate of many of the brightest composers of his generation who happened to be part of the German cultural scene but with the wrong type of ancestry. The facts are recounted in precise, withering detail by Michael Haas in his book Forbidden Music.

Having been forced out on non-musical grounds from their central European homelands, many of Gál’s cohort were rejected for a second time on the grounds of producing the wrong type of music for the post-war taste of the critical establishment. Maintaining stylistic links with the old Austro-German tradition was now discredited by the bien pensants. The mistaken supposition was that music of the astringent persuasion had been a special target of the Third Reich and hence had an overwhelming moral claim to be supported. It all went with a dream of a future cleansed of kitsch Nazi aesthetics. The vision was of an artistic path carved out by uncompromising modernism.

The truth however, was that composers such as Gál (as in the case of the more high-profile Korngold) ended up as the neglected victims. To add insult to injury, promotion of the Darmstadt project – the epicentre of contemporary blistering atonality – appears to have had some links to former Nazi officialdom.

In Britain, there was the towering influence of William Glock to contend with. As BBC Controller of Music, he represented an elite zeitgeist. His mission was to open ears and minds and enlarge public taste, in the Reithian spirit of improving our minds. All well and good – and Glock did have a wide range of interests – but missionary enthusiasts tend to shout the loudest and make it difficult for others to get a word in edgeways.

The situation is more fluid now, because we’ve settled happily in the big tent of musical fusion. Composers can pick and mix, and cross over and (dare one say?) culturally appropriate to their hearts’ content. The disjuncture of revolution always turns out to be a half-truth: the new cannot obliterate what came before, but in time (if it’s any good) takes its seat next to its predecessors.

What does Gál have to offer us? Above all, a distinctive, original voice. The quality is evident: he uses a rich vocabulary of melody, timbre, textures and structures to reveal still-unexplored possibilities of the tonal language to which he retained lifelong loyalty. We recognise the legacy of Bachian counterpoint and Schubertian melody but, like all the best artists, Gál treats his inheritance as nourishment rather than template.

This leads to another point: not only is Gál’s music genuinely good, but it also puts us in touch with a cultural heritage of inestimable value, restoring another link between the early and late 20th century. The command of musical architecture is always assured, resulting in works of a refined strength – beautiful but never trite. An early photograph shows us the man: sensitive, thoughtful, his eyes alert but with a slightly other-worldly expression.

Glyndebourne triumphed last year with Samuel Barber’s rarely performed Vanessa. Isn’t there somewhere in the UK that will stage one of Gál’s four operas? We need to know; we’re missing out.

On a personal note: like his adored Bach and Schubert, Hans Gál was not made for hype and self-promotion. He was self-effacing, devoted to the furtherance of music rather than his ego. He had a significant role to play in setting up the Edinburgh Festival, though didn’t make a fuss about it. And that young woman violinist happened to be my late mother-in-law.

Thelma Lovell is the author of A Mirror to the Human Condition: Music, Language and Meaning in the Sacred Cantatas of JS Bach