“It was dark, unsettling. And it, in a way, kind of reflected my own family’s dark history.”
That’s how the music of Austrian-born Holocaust survivor Karol Rathaus first struck Canadian pianist Daniel Wnukowski when he heard it for the first time several years ago.
“This man was completely obscure to me, but the music resonated so strongly,” Wnukowski said in a recent phone interview.
Rathaus’ story also resonated with Wnukowski, whose own grandparents survived the Holocaust. This man was once the star pupil of one of Europe’s most important composers, once a major success in Weimar Republic Germany, once a path-breaking composer of serious music for films and once a member of the faculty of Queen’s College in New York City.
“Just upon listening to a couple seconds (of Rathaus’ music), one is immediately transported to the alienation of a Jew in the Weimar Republic era, the impending doom, the hyperinflation,” said Wnukowski. “In an instant one experiences a certain flashback. And I was hooked. It bit me like a bug.”
And yet, Rathaus and his music had fallen completely into oblivion.
In an effort to bring Rathaus’ music back to awareness and back into the concert hall, Wnukowski has released the first volume of a projected four-volume recording cycle of Rathaus’ complete piano works.
The recording – Karol Rathaus Piano Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics) features Rathaus’ Piano Sonata No. 2, Five Piano Pieces, Op. 9 and Mazurkas, Op. 24, along with piano transcriptions of selections from his groundbreaking music for the film The Murderer Dmitri Karamazov and from the work that catapulted Rathaus to fame – the ballet The Last Pierrot.
Composed between 1924 and 1931, the works on Karol Rathaus Piano Music, Volume One bristle with an intellectual complexity befitting a modernist composer steeped in the great Austro-German musical tradition and brood with the dark emotional intensity of the musical expressionists who worked during the time of Rathaus’ greatest fame.
“He absorbed the rich Austro-German tradition of composing through (his teacher) Franz Schreker and had absorbed the rich tradition of Richard Strauss, of Mahler. At the same time, what my CD tries to show is Karol Rathaus taking this rich tradition and trying to embark on his own unique musical language, a very dissonant, unsettling musical language, but distinctly his own,” Wnukowski said.
Daniel Wnukowski performs selections from his own piano trsncrtiption of of Karol Rathaus' ballet The Last Pierrot:
The great success of The Last Pierrot happened in 1926 in Berlin, where Rathaus had been living and working since 1922. The rise of Nazism brought increasing danger for Jews, who were eventually unwelcome in Berlin and all of Germany. Rathaus remained an Austrian citizen until the Third Reich’s 1938 annexation of Austria rendered Rathaus at once neither Austrian nor German.
Rathaus fled Berlin for Paris, then London, eventually making his way to the United States on a visa that gave him six months to find a job.
Just after his visa expired, Rathaus managed to secure a job teaching music composition at Queens College, where he taught until his untimely death in 1954 at age 56.
Even with this appointment in his new home country, homelessness continued to run like a thread through the tapestry of Rathaus’ life story and through the story of the reception of Rathaus’ music. Just a few years before his death, Rathaus opined to his friend the conductor Jascha Horenstein that Rathaus’ name was known, but his music went unperformed. Moreover, Rathaus wrote, ‘In the country where I live very happily, I’m considered a non-native.”
“When one walks into Queen’s College today, one sees two portraits – one of Aaron Copland and then right next to him Karol Rathaus,” Wnukowski said. “And yet Aaron Copland, we hear his music all the time programmed in seasons all throughout the country, whereas Karol Rathaus remains completely obscure.”
Rathaus’ premature death at a time when he seemed to have been the only champion of his music hastened his work’s falling out of view. As time passed, the style of Rathaus’ music may have fallen through the cracks.
“It’s no longer modern enough to be considered new music, and it’s not traditional enough to fit into that cushy kind of festival scheme that everyone likes, you know, Mozart up to Rachmaninoff – that narrow range of music,” Wnukowski said. “And on top of all that, to this day we can’t really say he’s an American composer, we can’t really call him a German composer because of his background and the time he was there, although that’s possibly a close description.”
Rathaus’ national and musical homelessness may have hindered his works’ categorization early on and, thus, how it might be presented in performance. National and stylistic restrictions aside, Wnukowski’s project to record all of Rathaus’ music and his success in bringing it before the public in performances and master classes suggest that the ultimate home for Rathaus’ music may well be in the best place of all – the concert hall.
“It’s a very, very strong part of musical history that I think should come back to the fore. It’s been lost for far too long.”
Listen above to my recent interview with Daniel Wnukowski to hear him talk about how he came to learn of Rathaus and to experience his music, and to enjoy selections from Wnukowski’s recording on Karol Rathaus Piano Music, Volume One.