With the release of a new CD of Karol Rathaus’s piano music, numerous performances of his compositions this season and an unabashed enthusiasm for the research of his works, I thought it would be ripe time-wise to write a blogpost on precisely what triggered my interest in this composer’s life & works.
How did I get so hooked on the music of Karol Rathaus? The simple answer is no less complex than the status of any modern relationship or the segmental invariance of a Webern String Quartet:
In other words, It’s complicated!
However, I must confess, that if it weren’t for Karol Rathaus, I would have most likely become a doctor. Yes, the white-robed type that can draw your blood with a straight face and yearns for an ever-flowing fountain of Valium.
Who the heck is Karol Rathaus? His last name is already problematic, conjuring perplexing images of a political forum and its legislative constituents. (Rathaus means “Town Hall” in German). However, this connotation is of no relevance to Karol Rathaus, who was a musical genius, masterful composer and top-notch pianist in one. That he never quite achieved the recognition he deserved is also of no relevance to us, since the music he left behind speaks volumes of his compositional wizardry.
Karol Rathaus was born in Ternopil, which belonged to the Polish enclave of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. This information alone, is enough to trigger an onslaught of impostor syndrome (the latest addition to dictionary.com’s database) throughout one’s life, for escaping a soberly utilitarian economic backwater to the splendid, cultural mecca of Vienna can take its tolls on one’s psyche. The story resembles somewhat that of the goat, which was roaming around the Bronx the other day.
Rathaus had moved to Vienna as a teen and soon became a star pupil of Franz Schreker at the city’s prestigious Academy of Music, before following the entire class up to Berlin, the city of his dreams. It was here that Rathaus found his sanctuary and felt most at home. It was here that he produced some of his finest works ranging from minimalist film scores to resplendent, scintillating symphonic works. With the rise of Hitler in power, Rathaus escaped through London and Paris to the U.S., where he spent the remainder of his life as a professor of composition at Queens College in New York.
For a more detailed examination of Rathaus’ story, I urge you to check out Dr. Haas’ blogpost entitled Alien Soil and the Slow Death of Karol Rathaus as well as a new documentary film currently in production, directed by the Deych brothers.
The story of my journey with Karol Rathaus begins much earlier as a kid out of college…
In Hindsight: Dionysus on the Rocks
To understand the full picture, one has to step back and view life from the lens of a modern-day pianist and freshly baked college graduate, ready to embark upon an international career in an oversaturated market. Armed with 20 or so piano concerti and an unshakeable ‘Iron Horse’ mentality towards life’s obstacles, one is spouted out of college with a Masters Degree stamped on their forehead and hasn’t a clue of the journey that lies ahead. One soon wonders whether it was because I drank too much or too little? After all, Dionysus was a fervent representative of both luscious grape vines and poisonous ivy twigs.
Soon after, raging stories and factual data pertaining to the “death” of classical music encroach upon your everyday life: the disarray of grey-haired audiences, chapter 11 bankruptcies, piano moving companies being paid to demolish instruments… and you soon become a wretched personification of chaos – like any character from a Wyatt Mills painting. Upon succumbing to a serious back & neck injury, I had the final straw. It was time to leave – a “Wnexit” was in order.
And so, by 2012, I enrolled in pre-med studies. Medicine was my new gig. Period. I was super excited about the prospect of joining the “anesthesiologist-cum-flautist” or the “ex-pianist-turned-alpha-wave-researcher” club one day. Although I continued to practice, I was entirely fixed on the notion that my “career” as a concert pianist was now officially over. By the following year, my concert schedule had trickled down from performances involving four continents to two, small recitals.
But I wasn’t going to leave, just like that…
PRE-WNEXIT: The Grand Finale
Every exit strategy has to have a grand ceremonial gesture of sorts, such as the inauguration of a magniloquent Eros statue or the eating of scrumptious haggis throughout the night. I wanted my grand finale to be of no less stature than François-René Duchâble’s TNT experiment involving blowing up one of his pianos in mid-air or the more recent JB Gill, who exchanged a singing career for 160 turkeys.
I wanted my last contribution to be truly grand and the opportunity presented itself most fortuitously over a savoury mélange at the cozy X-Celsior Caffè Bar overlooking the St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. I was invited to have coffee with a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor hailing from this very city – Walter Arlen, who was looking for a pianist to record his complete solo piano and song repertoire, including one small work for violin and piano. It was a life changing experience to learn about this man’s unique story of survival, his harrowing journey of escape to America, first job as a furrier, the heart-throbbing suicide of his mother and other degrading familial events, such as the aunt who had to publicly clean the sidewalks of Vienna with a toothbrush.
Within a short time, I was booked to record his works together with a stellar cast including Daniel Hope, Rebecca Nelsen and Christian Immler at the Casino Baumgarten villa in Vienna. It was an exceptionally inspiring and moving experience to have had the composer present at all times during the entire session.
Yet, nobody had any idea that I was finishing up my chemistry homework in secret during every intermission.
The organization that had arranged the entire project, Exil.Arte, was both a record label and research centre located in the heart of Vienna at the time. It had only recently been granted permanent exhibition space in the very rooms where many of the émigré composers had once studied. Letters, scores and memorabilia started to pour in from all over the world and there was once again an excitement in the air – a major void in 20th century music history could finally be filled once again. The countless individuals who were capable of writing music under such extreme circumstances while faced with a morally corrupt justice system showed the tremendous strength of their characters and the ability to survive any obstacle thrown their path.
Soon after these recording sessions were over, I received boxes upon boxes of music from other notable émigré composers and it was through this route that I was eventually introduced to the music of Karol Rathaus.
Onto the second year of med studies (and an increasing number of meds), I was now faced with an awful dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?
Bring in Dr. Rathaus: “Ordo ab Chao”
Humans are a complex phenomenon that involves trillions upon trillions of molecules interacting with one another in universal rhythm. Within these ambiguous patterns of vibrations lies a subservient matrix of ideas, traditions, beliefs and thought patterns. Personhood has evolved to express these conflicting ideals within a cerebral interplay of negation and resignation.
From the hidden depths of the human soul can stem dark, borderline-insane thoughts that are sometimes forbidden from reaching the broad spectrum of daylight. The music of Karol Rathaus brings a whole new expression to the ordered chaos of the human condition.
Behold comrade, kindred and country!
The music of Karol Rathaus is difficult to place within the tapestry of other 20th century music composed during the Interwar period, which has caused even bona fide musicologists to leave out his music altogether. One can hear the grittiness of Shostakovich, the folklore of Bartok, the seduction of Szymanowski, the melodrama of Strauss, the mystique of Scriabin, the neoclassicism of Stravinsky – even elements of jazz. But in the end, this is distinctly Rathaus, and one is never fully convinced with a defined taxonomy.
In this way, Rathaus is the perfect antidote to an increasingly crazy world.
The Third Piano Sonata: A Return to Traditional Forms
Take, for example, the nightmarish split 13th chord that opens the third piano sonata, op. 20, marked merely Langsam or slowly that requires the use of an ultra-supple wrist and very precise neuromuscular grip strength. The story hasn’t begun but we are already enraptured by a foreboding state of doom, gloom and horror. The duality between the two opening bars is retained throughout the entire movement and resembles the bubbling potion of Dr. Jekyll & Hyde.
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. First movement. mm. 1-2.
FYI: This sonata is included in my upcoming recital at Carnegie Hall.
The music can instantly change course and shocks its listeners with explosive bursts of drunken exaltation. This is precisely the kind of music that Bernard Herrmann revelled in, calling Rathaus’s film scores for The Murder of Dmitri Karamazov as “one of the most imaginative achievements in sound film.”
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. First movement. mm. 87-88.
Now, this is the kind of excitement that we pianists crave: it’s like a massage for every finger pad, collateral ligament and all the mini flexor & extensor tendons. Sure, it’s challenging but at the same time allows the pianist to showcase a broad spectrum of dynamic splendour.
The tantalizing second theme is characterized by a more fleeting yet unsettling, accordion motif that dances away nervously throughout its 10 bar segue. Do we hear the subtle, hypnotic musings of a Dr. Caligari, perhaps?
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. First movement. mm. 27-29.
The second movement, titled Scherzo (Italian for ‘a joke’), is anything but humorous from a musical standpoint. In fact, the movement takes the dramatic levels of a typical Chopin scherzo up to an entirely different sphere of rhetorical power.
The music is aghast with furious bursts of rumbling octaves in the bass, petrifying angular, melodic leaps and petulant, supersonic passages marked “to be played very clearly”.
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. Second movement. mm. 33-35.
There is a small moment of reprieve in the middle. However, we have to wait for the more tender moments of the third and fourth movements to fully catch our breaths.
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. Fourth movement. mm. 75-80.
The sonata was written around the time of his groundbreaking ballet “The Last Pierrot”, which catapulted him to the very forefront of Central European composers of his generation. The third and fourth movements, especially, incorporate many of the theatrical aspects of Pierrot’s meandering trials and tribulations, including elements of sentimentalism, grotesquerie, fleeting gestures and jazz.
Rathaus. Sonata No. 3, Op. 20. Fourth movement. mm. 24-26.
So, why does each daily dose of Rathaus have such an uncanny calming effect on the psyche, almost like a bizarre form of nourishment for the brain?
To be honest, I really don’t know!
I do know, however, that you won’t find a single sugar coated note in the music of Rathaus – no daffodils fancying a serene water pond or hummingbirds eloping over a raptors’ nest – no, this music is absolutely terrifying. It is the music of humanity’s cry for help. It shocks and stirs a message of grief, not to be understood by one human but by everyone – everywhere. For an audience, it fosters a timeless message of unity and compassion for the darkness of human existence should never be a subject of taboo.
Recollections of a Resurrected Pianist
Deep inside I never left music behind. Somewhere in the back-burner of my cerebellum, I was still working out the precise phrasing and pedalling of a Schubert sonata while walking onto a tram. I was still working out the counterpoint and harmonic rhythm of WTC fugues. Yet, each day, I was eroding and grew more and more frustrated with the impression that my life was breaking down into pieces without music. Faced with a grappling self-esteem and torn identity, I eventually fell into a state of deep depression, often lying for days without getting out of bed. I realized that a life without music is an entirely meaningless one. Four years was the absolute limit. With a deluge of tears and carpe diem epiphany, 2016 brought on an explosion of creative, artistic energy.
Music can be a powerful drug – when taken in excessive amounts, it can cause horrific side effects, but in just the right amounts can be intoxicating and delectably satiating.