About this Recording
8.573338 - WAGHALTER, I.: New World Suite / Mandragola: Overture and Intermezzo / Masaryk's Peace March (New Russia State Symphony, A. Walker)

Ignatz Waghalter (1881–1949)
Orchestral Music


The music on this recording represents works by Ignatz Waghalter written during the various stages of his tumultuous career, from the youthful comic opera Mandragola, which had its premiere to immense acclaim in 1914, when the founding principal conductor at the Deutsches Opernhaus in Berlin stood at the heart of musical life of the city, to The New World Suite, composed by the 58-year-old Waghalter shortly after he arrived in New York City as an impoverished refugee from Nazism. The tragic element of Waghalter’s life is summed up in the astonishing fact that the Suite lay unperformed and undiscovered for almost 75 years. In 2013 the 200-page score, written in Waghalter’s hand, was found in a sealed envelope amongst the papers the composer left after his death.

The composition of the suite was the outcome of a significant chapter in American cultural history in which Waghalter played a crucial rôle. Forced by the rising tide of fascism to flee Europe, Waghalter arrived in New York City in 1937. Conditioned by his own life-long experience of anti-Semitic persecution, Waghalter was immediately drawn to the growing movement against racial discrimination in the United States, in which African-American artists were intensely involved.

With African-American musicians all but barred from employment with the major symphony orchestras, Waghalter undertook the creation of the first-ever “American Negro Orchestra”. The creation of the ensemble in the United States of the 1930s was an incredibly radical undertaking. Waghalter put all his energies into the project. James Weldon Johnson, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, responded to Waghalter’s initiative with enthusiasm. “The realization of such an idea,” he wrote, “is something I have dreamed of for a number of years…You therefore have my heartiest endorsement of the idea and I am ready to do anything that I can to formulate a plan for carrying it out.” Walter White, who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1931 to 1955, also supported Waghalter’s project. He proposed the creation of a Board of Directors consisting of Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington.

Immense problems confronted the organization of such an orchestra. In 1939 Marian Anderson was barred from singing in Washington DC’s Constitution Hall by the racist management of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Waghalter confronted similar obstacles. After he began rehearsing African-American musicians in his apartment on Central Park West, the residents of the building circulated a petition demanding his eviction if this persisted, so a rehearsal room was found in mid-town Manhattan.

For Waghalter, the creation of the American Negro Orchestra was linked to the struggle against fascist ideology. Interviewed about the project by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in January 1939, he explained his philosophy: “Music, the strongest citadel of democracy, knows neither colour, creed, nor nationality.” In that interview, Waghalter stated that he was working on a new orchestral composition, which was to become the New World Suite.

American musical life was not new to Waghalter and nor was American popular music. As Music Director of the New York State Symphony in 1924–25, he had met Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and, perhaps most important of all, the young George Gershwin, for whose genius Waghalter had boundless admiration. Gershwin’s concept of a Negro opera, actualized in the 1935 premiere of Porgy and Bess, must have served as inspiration for Waghalter’s plan for an African American Orchestra.

The New World Suite consists of ten short character movements encompassing a wide variety of styles, from the sort of music Tchaikovsky might have written for a ballet to movements incorporating jazz, vaudeville and cabaret elements. Waghalter’s music possesses a kaleidoscopic character that captures moments of living experience. Combining a mastery of compositional technique with an apparently inexhaustible melodic imagination, the composer produced a great work that was at once sincere and direct. He was committed to a musical idiom that would reach and move a broad-based public, without condescension or vulgarization. Stuffed full with the most enchanting original melodies, the Suite has immediate and universal appeal. Amidst the deepening sadness and loneliness of Waghalter’s life in exile, the composition conveys boundless optimism.

The work was never performed and the American Negro Orchestra was short-lived. Despite the success of its initial performances, financial problems arising from the interaction of the Depression and a hostile political environment proved insurmountable. Not long after Waghalter had completed the Suite, the Orchestra was disbanded.

The creation of the African American Orchestra and the composition of the Suite in many ways represented a distillation of all that Waghalter had witnessed and fought for. He belonged to a generation of Polish-Jewish musicians, which included Josef Hofmann, Arthur Rubinstein and Bronisław Huberman. Whilst these other child prodigies had grown up in comfortable middle-class surroundings, Waghalter’s family consisted of impoverished working musicians. The fifteenth of twenty children, Waghalter began to use his musical gift to provide financial support for his parents and siblings at the age of six. The family’s struggle to survive unfolded within an environment darkened by the pervasive anti-Semitism that was an inescapable fact of life in Warsaw. Despite the discrimination he experienced, Waghalter retained deep sympathy for the Poles who suffered oppression at the hands of the Russian autocracy. In his autobiography he referred with pride to the revolutionary democratic uprisings that swept through Poland in 1863 and 1905.

Despite his precocious talent as a composer and performer, the young Waghalter felt that his development as a serious musician required training. At the age of seventeen he crossed the border illegally into Germany. Without money and unable to speak the native language, Waghalter arrived in Berlin, one of the great cultural and intellectual centres of Europe.

The story of Waghalter’s rapid rise is remarkable. He came to the attention of Joseph Joachim, who arranged for his admission to the Akademie der Künste. Friedrich Gernsheim took charge of Waghalter’s education, and the young composer’s talent soon gained him notice. Waghalter’s String Quartet, composed at the age of twenty was highly praised by Joachim, who arranged for its publication by Simrock. The Sonata for Violin and Piano (1902) received the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize.

On completing his formal education Waghalter embarked on a career as a conductor. After working for five years at the Komische Oper in Berlin, he spent the 1910 season at the opera house in Essen. Waghalter was then called upon to be the first principal conductor of a new opera house in Berlin, which was to open in November 1912. The selection of Waghalter was controversial. He was not only a Jew, but also a Pole. In the weeks leading up to the opening of the Deutsches Opernhaus, at which Waghalter was to conduct Fidelio, hate mail, including death threats, arrived at its offices. The premiere proceeded without interruption, however, and Waghalter enjoyed immense acclaim.

The appointment at the Deutsches Opernhaus with its brief to present more popular works was a perfect fit for Waghalter, both as a conductor and a composer. Waghalter championed the works of Puccini, conducting the first production in Germany of the Italian composer’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). The premiere in March 1913 was a triumph and, according to contemporary press accounts, Puccini and Waghalter shared an astonishing seventy curtain calls.

As a conductor Waghalter gained immense popularity with the music-loving Berlin public. He was, however, first and foremost, a composer. It had been Joachim who, recognizing Waghalter’s melodic gift, urged him to compose for the voice and after composing several arresting song cycles, he composed his first opera, Der Teufelsweg in 1911.

After the successful opening of the Deutsches Opernhaus, Waghalter completed work on his second opera, Mandragola, based on Machiavelli’s Renaissance comedy. In the story, a rich old man, unable to consummate his marriage and produce an heir with his beautiful young wife, is persuaded that the problem can be resolved with a potion brewed with the Mandrake root (Mandragola). The old man unwisely entrusts the preparation and administration of the treatment to a “doctor”—a young man in disguise—who avails himself of the opportunity to become the neglected wife’s ardent lover. The opera ends with the young lovers in bed, while outside their room the old cuckold happily awaits the result of the miraculous cure.

After resistance from the Berlin censors had been overcome, the premiere of the work was secured for the Deutsches Opernhaus. The first performance in January 1914 was a significant event in the musical life of Berlin, and the audience included Richard Strauss, Ferrucio Busoni and Engelbert Humperdinck. The review published in January 1914 by the authoritative Signale offered the following appraisal of the young composer:

“One cannot avoid the conclusion that we have found in Waghalter the man who can compose for us an entire repertoire of this type of finely conceived comic operas, for which the public has yearned for so long. And he seems to be more capable of this than others for the following reason: while Waghalter has acquired from his training in the German school the most advanced and complete technical capabilities, he has allowed his melodic sentiments to be worked upon by other influences. It is these influences—especially that of the Italians—that enable Waghalter to protect his work against the bloated and clumsy qualities that characterize the German Meistersinger imitators…

“The musical lightheartedness of the work would not alone guarantee its success. What is decisive is that Waghalter has achieved real musical and rhythmic discoveries. And as he is not miserly in dispensing them, it appears that he is able to rely on having an immense supply in his possession.”

The Overture and Intermezzo from Mandragola are gems that reveal Waghalter’s mastery of orchestration. The diversity of musical influences makes it difficult to place Waghalter in any definable stylistic category. What is particular to Waghalter is his continuous discovery of significant melodic ideas and their brilliant development.

Waghalter’s third opera, Jugend, was given its premiere at the Deutsches Opernhaus in 1917. This naturalist tragedy that told the story of young love doomed by bourgeois convention and circumstance, based on Max Halbe’s work, deeply moved a Berlin public whose sensibilities had been affected by three years of war. Between 1917 and 1923, Waghalter’s Jugend was performed over forty times.

Post-World War I Germany proved increasingly hostile to Waghalter. The emerging aggressive nationalism revived resentments over his identity. His 1923 opera Sataniel, based on a Polish fantasy tale, was attacked by critics, who did little to disguise their hostility to the Slavic origins of the thematic material. Even more damaging to Waghalter’s career was the financial bankruptcy of the Deutsches Opernhaus caused by the 1923 economic crash, which led to a reorganization of the institution under a new management. In the midst of the ensuing internal conflicts and intrigues over artistic authority and the allocation of repertoires, Waghalter resigned his position. He travelled to the United States, where he was appointed General Music Director and principal conductor of the New York State Symphony Orchestra.

Though successful in New York, Waghalter’s heart remained in Europe. After a season at the State Symphony (which was soon to merge with the Philharmonic), Waghalter returned to Berlin. He composed several operettas, was highly active in the recording studio, and was appointed General Musical Director of the UFA film studio. He spent six months in Moscow in 1930 as a conductor at the Bolshoy Opera and from 1931 to 1932 was Music Director of the National Opera in Riga. He returned to Berlin shortly before Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933.

With the rise of Nazism, Waghalter was forced to leave Berlin. He fled first to Czechoslovakia in 1934. It was here that he composed Masaryk’s Peace March, which was commissioned for official celebrations of the long career of the 85-year-old president of Czechoslovakia (whom Waghalter admired as an opponent of fascism), upon his retirement from office in 1935. Whilst in Czechoslovakia Waghalter wrote an autobiography, Aus dem Ghetto in der Freiheit (Out of the Ghetto into Freedom), which he concluded with a statement of his artistic and moral credo: “I am determined to serve the cause of Art and Mankind, in accordance with the words of Moses: ‘You were brought out of Egypt to serve your brothers.’”

In 1936, Waghalter and his wife left Czechoslovakia for Vienna. In 1937 they set sail for New York where the composer would remain until his death in 1949. After so many years of neglect, the time is now ripe for the rediscovery of Waghalter’s music.

Alexander Walker

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