Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What a Gál!

How great it is that Hans Gál is Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3. He is one of music's most genuine undersung heroes and last year it was wonderful that so many people helped to crowdfund conductor Ken Woods' latest recording in his series of Gál's works with the Orchestra of the Swan. You can listen to the programmes online and for seven days after broadcast here.

Here is an article of mine about him that I think fell down a crack between some editorial floorboards a couple of years ago. Plus a video in which Ken talks about Gál's life and work and we hear a sample of the latter. Enjoy.




Someday an alternative survey of 20th-century music should take a thorough look at the myriad composers who were reviled, then exiled, for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for writing the ‘wrong kind’ of music, and often for both. When that happens, Hans Gál’s star will shine bright.

The Austro-Hungarian composer and scholar was born in 1890 and grew up in Vienna; later he and his family were forced to flee first Nazi Germany, then Austria, for Britain. He wrote prolifically, clocking up more than 100 works, and he lived to be 97. Yet for decades even his finest music lay unrecognised and unplayed.

But in the last year or two, a series of recordings spearheaded by the Hans Gál Society and the composer’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál, has been bringing him back at last to the public notice he deserves.

Gál effectively suffered a threefold misfortune. He believed himself part of the great German tradition of music-making; then the Nazis decided he was not. After escaping to Britain, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man, and his music was sidelined for sounding too German. Earning his living by teaching at Edinburgh University, he continued to write symphonies in the tradition of Haydn and Beethoven as recently as the 1970s – but by then, the musical elite tended to react vituperatively to new music that did not toe the line of accepted contemporary style.

Kenneth Woods is the conductor for several of the new recordings – the latest is Gál’s Symphony No.4 (on Avie Records). When he first realised Gál had written so much music, he says, he was astonished. Though familiar with Gál’s performing edition of Brahms’s symphonies and his superb books on Brahms and Schubert, Woods had had no idea that the academic was primarily a composer. Many of his finest works, such as the early Violin Concerto, had gone unperformed for 70 years.

“It’s tremendous stuff,” says Woods. “It’s the opposite of what people thought they had to conform to at the time; Gál just kept on writing in his own style.

“The standard of his works is uniformly high. To my mind, the closest comparison between Gál and another composer would be Haydn: the surface beauty of the music is there, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What’s vital is the subtlety of what goes on beneath. And because the language is so classical, the writing is very ‘exposed’, making his music tremendously difficult to play.”

Eva Fox-Gál (who was born in Britain in 1944) has made it her mission to champion her father’s works; and her son, Simon Fox-Gál, is the sound engineer on the Avie recordings. “My father was genial, well known for his wit, modest, good fun to be with, and never pushed himself or his own work forward,” Eva remembers. “But that was his outer shell. To know what he was like inside, one needs to listen to his music.

“His writings about other composers are also very revealing about himself. At the beginning of his book on Schubert, he talks about Schubert’s outer persona and how the composer’s contemporaries mistook that for the real person. My father thought that that was what Schubert needed, in order to safeguard his inner core for his work. It’s his defence. I think that was what my father also had to do.”

One of Gál’s most successful works, in the 1920s, was his opera Die heilige Ente (The Sacred Duck), which stayed in theatrical schedules constantly from its premiere in 1923 until it
was banned by the Nazi regime, along with all works by Jewish composers. Gál was appointed director of the Music Conservatory in Mainz in 1929, but the Nazis had him thrown out in 1933.
He and his family returned to Vienna, which they escaped at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. After a false dawn in Britain – in which Gál was much assisted by the great musicologist Donald Francis Tovey, who brought him to Edinburgh University to catalogue the music library – the composer was interned on the Isle of Man.

This was one of the most difficult times of all, says Eva: “That collection of refugees really represented Hitler’s greatest enemies, yet they were seen as a danger. The idea that they were a ‘fifth column’ that put the country under threat was completely ridiculous. There was no understanding of who they were, or of the horrors that they had already been through.” The ever-increasing stress proved intolerable for the Gáls’ younger son, who took his own life before the war was over.

Michael Haas, a distinguished record producer and music curator of the Jewish Museum in Vienna, is among Gál’s most passionate advocates. He describes Gál as an ‘anti-Romantic’: a composer who was convinced neither by the effusive styles of Liszt and Wagner, nor by the mainstream trends of his own time such as atonality, 12-tone ‘serialism’ and the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and Poulenc.
“His antidote to Romantic excesses was to reach back to earlier models,” Haas suggests. “Most people assume the model was Brahms, but I believe that actually it was Mendelssohn. This accounts for his frequent lack of overt emotional abandonment.

“For me, Gál is the ‘Everyman Composer’ of the Weimar years. He was conventional, but not banal. He was far more representative of what musical life was actually like than, say, Alban Berg or Darius Milhaud. It would be like comparing Norman Rockwell with Andy Warhol. I love some of his more expressive works and admire his aesthetic composure and his extraordinary intelligence and cultivation.”

The rehabilitation of Gál’s music is long overdue – but better late than never. “Because the music is so difficult to play,” says Woods, “even when occasional performances were given, sometimes they didn’t make a strong enough case for it. But now, working with great musicians who are hungry to perform it, we hope these recordings will give people a chance to hear what wonderful stuff it is.”