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An Introduction to the Life and Music of an Unjustly Neglected Student of Franz Schreker
by Dr Phillip Silver
Phillip Silver is Associate Professor of Music, at the University of Maine. Contact: Phillip.Silver [at] umit.maine.edu
The experiences of the Polish-born composer Ignaz Strasfogel comprise one small facet in the tapestry of upheaval wrought by National Socialist racial policy. Beginning in 1933 an entire generation of artists and intellectuals were separated from their cultural bases and forced into involuntary exile, becoming a veritable ‘lost generation’. In 1937 Berthold Brecht expressed their distress in a poem entitled On the Name Emigrants.
I always found the name false they gave us: Emigrants.
This powerful sentiment, although widely accepted, was not universally agreed upon. The composer Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps in a conscious reference to Brecht’s poem, regarded the process in a more positive manner, comparing exile in the United States to being ‘driven into Paradise ’. Many, if not most, refugees would agree with this statement on at least purely political grounds. After years of vilification, humiliation, ostracism and an exponential growth in danger to life and limb, entering into a society where one could once more ply one’s talents free from racially derived victimisation would certainly be analogous to an arrival in Paradise .
But for creative individuals cultural sophistication and aesthetic standards are of paramount importance for artistic acceptance, as they comprise a substantial part of the foundation upon which creativity is carried out. And here difficulties did arise, perhaps not overwhelmingly so for those who brought established reputations with them (though there are unfortunate exceptions), but certainly much more so for the large number of artists who arrived with their careers at relatively nascent stages. This is not to say that exile led to failure for large numbers of them, only that the lines of development upon which endeavours were focused in Germany often required modification as a result of the new situation.
The Polish-born Ignaz Strasfogel shares a fate similar to many of the young musicians forced to flee Nazi Germany. Although his early compositions demonstrate considerable great precocity, the temporal requirement for economic survival led to this aspect of creativity being relegated to a subservient position. While Strasfogel was to achieve a considerable degree of success in the United States as a conductor, both symphonic (as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic) and operatic (at the Metropolitan Opera), he never succeeded in establishing himself as a composer. After a certain point, it becomes evident that, much like Berthold Goldschmidt in the United Kingdom , he gave up the attempt.
Ignaz Strasfogel was an artist blessed with abundant talent which extended into several areas. His composition teacher, Franz Schreker, encouraged him to apply himself to composition, apparently acting as intermediary with Universal Edition in an effort to gain Strasfogel a publisher; Artur Schnabel regarded him as a rare pianistic talent and encouraged him to make performance his primary goal. As if this wasn’t enough, his conducting ability was also highly regarded that by his 23rd birthday Strasfogel had been appointed Leo Blech’s assistant at the Berlin State Opera.
What music there is, (and it is all of an extremely high calibre), was written in three distinct compositional phases. The first, pre-exile, includes his Second Piano Sonata and his brilliant transcription for piano solo of Franz Schreker’s Kammersymphonie, published by Universal Edition when Strasfogel was only sixteen. The works of the remaining two periods were written in exile, with one phase occurring during the 1940s and the third, a marvellous late blossoming, beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s.
Strasfogel’s music across all three compositional periods possesses remarkable stylistic cohesion. It would not take a knowledgeable listener long to perceive the influences that shaped his musical language, including melodic and harmonic structures derived from Berg, colour and underlying rhythmical elements derived from Schreker and an interest in neo-Classicism for formal structure (passacaglia, fugue) that is at times contrasted with an almost improvisatory degree of freedom. In the late work there is, at least to my ears, a hint of Ives as well. A danger in reading about these influences without actually hearing the music may leave an impression of a language whose character is basically derivative in nature whereas the reality is that the synthesis of these elements, coupled with an exceedingly personal means of expression, results in a highly individual production.
Phase 1: 1909 to 1933 – A Prodigious Talent Realised
Born in Warsaw on 17 July 1909 , Ignaz Strasfogel was the only child of his father’s second marriage. Little background information is currently available about the family though one branch of it was known to have been involved in the restaurant business in France where, in 1900, they may have opened the first Jewish restaurant in Paris . Ignaz’s father was a salesman and said to have been a good provider for the family. There were step-siblings from the first marriage and Ignaz was particularly close to his step-sister, Gustava, affectionately known by nickname as Tusne or Tossi.
In 1912, after the death of his father, Strasfogel’s mother, Tsiporah, née Goldberg, relocated to Berlin . She was a Berliner by birth and, according to information Ignaz provided his sons, anti-Semitic comments she overheard in Warsaw induced a state of considerable anxiety that resulted in her return to Germany .
Ten years later Strasfogel passed his entrance examination and was admitted to the Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik where he entered the programme for piano performance. His teachers at the Hochschule included Leonid Kreutzer (1884–1953) and Richard Rössler for piano studies, and Franz Schreker (1878–1934) for composition studies. Strasfogel also had important musical encounters with Busoni (1866–1924). His earliest surviving works date from this year.
During this period he was a frequent guest at the home of Artur Schnabel and a close friend of Artur’s son, Karl Ulrich (1909–2001). By all accounts Strasfogel won the friendly competition in pianistic prowess that developed between them. (Werner Grünzweig, head archivist of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin , recounted that many years later when Karl Ulrich was asked about Strasfogel he very amusingly turned the discussion away from musical matters by remarking upon Strasfogel’s outstanding bicycling abilities!)
Three years after his entry to the Hochschule he composed his First Piano Sonata and surprised Schreker by presenting him with a superb transcription for solo piano of the Chamber Symphony, Op. 23. With its stunning exploitation of pianistic colour and the immense technical demands upon the performer this transcription is comparable with Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Schreker was so impressed by this achievement that he persuaded Universal Edition in Vienna to publish it.
One year later Strasfogel composed his Second Piano Sonata for which he received the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize for composition. Kolja Lessing notes that surviving correspondence between Schreker and Strasfogel indicate that Universal Edition planned to publish it, but for reasons that are unclear, it never happened. The following year Strasfogel began to compose outside the purely pianistic medium completing his First String Quartet; incidental music for a play by Gottfried, and a setting of Eichendorff’s In der Fremde for voice and piano. This is his last surviving composition until 1940.
At this stage the multi-faceted nature of Strasfogel’s talents as pianist and conductor obtained growing recognition. In 1927 Joseph Szigeti asked Strasfogel to accompany him on a performance tour that brought Strasfogel to the United States for the first time. He also toured as accompanist for Gregor Piatigorsky and Carl Flesch. Together with Flesch he recorded a number of compositions for the HMV label in 1929 (Strasfogel’s small recorded legacy also includes several works recorded with Lauritz Melchior in 1938).
Over the next several years (1929–31) he worked in Düsseldorf as a correpetitor at the opera. It was there, while working under Jascha Horenstein (another former student of Schreker’s) for a performance of Wozzeck, that he met Alban Berg. This must have been an extraordinary event for him as Berg’s musical language exerted a strong influence upon Strasfogel’s own music.
During this time he focused on conducting, participating in the class of Julius Prüwer at the Berlin Hochschule. He also worked as a musical assistant to Max Reinhardt and composed incidental music (none of which has survived) for first productions by his son, Gottfried Reinhardt. By 1932 he was employed as assistant conductor at the Berlin State Opera working under the renowned Leo Blech (1871–1958).
Phase 2: 1933–40 – Breakdown, Exile and Acculturation
A potentially brilliant future in Germany came to an abrupt halt early in 1933 when, as a result of early Nazi legislation, Strasfogel, along with thousands of German Jews working in the arts, was dismissed from his position. For a short period he was able to work under the auspices of the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Association of German Jews) but the stressful nature of the time ultimately led to a nervous breakdown.
The intercession of friends led to his emigration to the United States in 1933. He initially went to Indianapolis where the family who has sponsored him resided and later that year met and married the music critic Alma Lubin, who vigorously supported his endeavours until her death in 1990. After a brief period spent in Chicago the Strasfogels settled in New York in either 1934 or 1935. From this point onwards Strasfogel struggled to obtain visas to enable him to bring over family members still in Europe and in either 1937 or ’38 he succeeded in having his mother come to New York where she lived until her death in 1948 or ’49. Other members of his family were not so fortunate, among them his beloved stepsister Gustava who was to perish in Auschwitz .
His career as pianist and conductor made rapid strides in New York where in the late 1930s he accompanied such artists as Lauritz Melchior in performance and recording. By 1940 he was working as an orchestral pianist in the New York Philharmonic and shortly after this appointment became assistant to Artur Rodzinski there. On 8 May 1945 Strasfogel conducted the New York Philharmonic in a concert given in Central Park to celebrate V-E Day. One week later in his weekly radio address to the citizens of New York , Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor, extensively quoted from a letter Strasfogel had written to him:
Here is something which is so typical of our attitude and of our country. It is a letter from Ignace Strasfogel, the Assistant Conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. You know, the Philharmonic Orchestra played at the V-E Day ceremonies at Central Park . It happened that Maestro Ignace Strasfogel was the Conductor, and he said in his letter to me, ‘It was a glorious day for everyone, but I should like to tell you how it was such a particularly great day for me, how my personal participation in the Victory celebration was one of fate’s little ironies. In 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, I lost my post as assistant conductor at the Berlin State Opera, along with other victims. I tried in vain to procure work elsewhere, and finally, I had a nervous breakdown. Shortly thereafter good friends and music lovers heard of my plight and brought me to this wonderful country. Here that same year I married an American girl, and in later years I became an American citizen. Can you not understand then, that to conduct the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in a program commemorating the downfall of Hitler’s gangsterism on Tuesday last, gave me the most exquisite satisfaction of my entire life’.
Second Compositional Period, 1940–48 – Failure, Disillusion, Silence
Strasfogel’s second compositional period began in 1940. During that year he composed the Prelude, Elegie and Rondo for the guitarist Andres Segovia although it seems unlikely that the dedicatee performed the work. It is nonetheless is a major addition to the guitar repertoire, and deserves public exposure, a fact pointed out in the June 2004 edition of the American Music Center’s online magazine NewMusicBox. In an article discussing contemporary American Classical guitar music Mark Delpriora notes:
There also exists a major work of great power by the Polish composer Ignace Strasfogel (1909-1994), a copy of which was found recently in the archives of Andres Segovia. The Prelude, Elegie and Rondo, written around 1940 for Andres Segovia, is an unknown masterpiece of polyphonic writing in the stylistic vein of Paul Hindemith and Artur Schnabel.
Between 1946 and 1948 Strasfogel composed several works, the Prelude Fugato for piano solo, a powerful composition that harkens back to his work of the 1920s, a work for piano and orchestra (also available in a version for piano alone) entitled Variations on a Well-Known Tune (‘Home on the Range’). This work is Strasfogel’s only essay into a semi-popularist vein. According to the composer’s son Ian Strasfogel, his father had high hopes that this work would assist in establishing him as a composer but he was to be disappointed. Two years later he composed an additional work, The Children’s Room for voice and piano, a setting of seven poems by his wife Alma Lubin. Ultimately, the inability to generate public interest in his music led to a lengthy compositional hiatus, lasting 35 years.
During the period 1951–74 Strasfogel worked at the Metropolitan Opera. Initially hired as a correpetitur specialising in German repertoire, in 1956 he began conducting performances as well. Beginning with Eugene Onegin, he conducted a repertoire that included La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, The Marriage of Figaro, Die Meistersinger, Der Rosenkavalier, Rigoletto, Tannhäuser, Tosca, La traviata, Die Zauberflöte and Vanessa. Upon leaving that post he divided his time between European and American engagements that included:
1974–77 – conductor and director of the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg
1979–81 – lecturer at the New School for Social Research, New York
1980–81 – Musical Director of the Mozart Opera Project at Mannes College , New York
1986–88 – Director of the Opera Department at Curtis Institute, Philadelphia .
Third Compositional Period 1983–93 – A Late Blossoming
Strasfogel’s third and most extended compositional period began in 1983. Included within this final outpouring are several wonderfully sensitive sets of works for voice and piano, the Second string quartet, several works for piano solo and violin and piano and his final work, Die einsame Geige, for violin solo, composed 1992–93.
Strasfogel’s final years were darkened by the onset of Alzeheimer’s Disease. He died in New York City on 6 February 1994 .
Ignaz Strasfogel was a private person who did not divulge much of his inner thoughts. He spoke little about his family, conditions in Europe before his emigration, his music and such matters. While the privacy he sought during life will undoubtedly follow him into death, his music should not. This is strongly wrought material, infused with melodic, harmonic and structural integrity and imagination. In many respects it can be compared to the music of another outstanding émigré artist, Ernst Toch, in that it exudes honesty and excludes anything artificial or extraneous to the musical argument. One can say with complete assuredness that what is lacking in quantity is compensated for by quality.
With the exception of four Millay settings, none of Strasfogel’s music is currently in print. I was able to obtain a copy of the transcription of Schreker’s Kammersymphonie through Universal Edition but this was certainly not a recent reprint! All of Strasfogel’s manuscript copies are held in the archives of Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Künste, Robert-Koch-Platz 10, Berlin D-10115, Germany . They will be happy to provide photocopies of any requested work.
Catalogue of Music by Ignaz Strasfogel
I. Berlin Period (1922–27)
iii Gavotte I
iv Gavotte II
vi Menuet plus Trio (en Musette)
Capriccio nach 5 Kupferstichenvon J. Callot (date unknown)
Scherzo No. 1 for piano (1924)
String Quartet No. 1 (1927)
Six Schreker Transcriptions (1927; Verlag Ullstein):
i Der Geburtstag der Infantin : (a) Die Marionetten; (b) Menuet der Tänzerknaben
ii Ein Tanzspiel: Gavotte
iii Der ferne Klang: Waldszene
iv Der Schatzgräber: Wiegenlied der Els
v Die Gezeichneten: ‘Ah, Welche Nacht!’
In der Fremde for voice and piano (1927)
II. First New York Period
III. Second New York Period (1983–93)
Strasfogel’s Music in Print
Four Millay Songs for baritone and piano (1983-86)
Margun Music, 167 Dudley Road , Newton Centre , MA 02159
Contact: Ann Stimson
Telephone: (617) 332-6398
Fax: (617) 969-1079
Email: MargunMu [at] aol.com
Strasfogel’s Published Articles
‘This Matter of Style’, OperaNews, Vol. 29, No. 17, 6 March 1965 , pp. 8–11
‘So You Will Audition’, Aria, October 1979, pp. 30–31
‘Enescu, Artist and Man’ in Lincoln Center program notes for Alice Tully Hall Concert, 15 October 1981 , pp. 39–40
‘An Interview with Strasfogel’, T he NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] Bulletin, September/October 1982, pp. 5–6 and 8–9
‘Some Musical Encounters’, Musical America , January 1983, pp. 18–21.
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