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BEFORE THE WAR, 1938-1939

 

 

 

The first months in Germany saw the Münch-Lawson couple trying to adjust to the new environment and making their best efforts to push forward their careers, Gerhart as a pianist/composer and Vera as a writer.10 Münch was counting on possible opportunities of doing work for the Munich Radio. In June 1938, he announced to Pound that two compositions from 1938, a Trio and a Cello sonata, had been accepted there for performance; however, this did not happen as late as March 1939, and there is no further evidence in the Münch-Pound correspondence that the pieces were finally performed. Münch’s visit to John Knittel in May 1938 in Switzerland also attests to his efforts to make his way through as a composer. He wanted to meet Wilhelm Furtwängler, hoping that the conductor would play his Midnight Mass, a work he had started in late 1936, but which has not survived. Although Münch was optimistic after this encounter11 we have no sign that Furtwängler acted in Münch’s favor in any way.

To sum up, Münch composed a trio, a cello sonata, and a piano concerto in 1938 (this might be Capriccio Variato, a work premiered in 1942 in Augsburg). Though he had been optimistic about opportunities to show his compositional work to the larger public, he did not succeed in having these, nor the 1936-37 works (Midnight Mass, Concerto de camera, and a String Quartet12 ) performed. In the words of Vera Lawson:

The climb to recognition was grilling up-hill work for my husband. Neither of us could wag our tails like well-behaved poodles in the “salons” to which we were once invited and usually never again. Neither of us would have any contact with a party organization…. (Germany II).

In the same vein, Münch told Pound in a letter of April 12: “I could work with the Party, but until now preferred not to do so.” On her part, Vera was also finding it difficult to make a career. The few published texts and the fact that some manuscripts were lost during WWII makes it hard for us to know more about Vera’s work as a writer during these years.13 Southwind in the Alps and Yesterday are two poems referring to the years lived in Germany. The first one is representative of the attachment to nature the couple shared throughout their lives. The importance nature had for Vera and Gerhart is reflected not only in some of their poems, or in Münch’s philosophical affinities,14 but also in their life choices: whether in Italy, Germany, USA, or Mexico they always preferred living in small rural areas, or places which allowed access to natural environment. In the two years before the war, the couple frequently visited the nearby woods and came back to Italy’s coast for short holidays.

Southwind in the Alps.   
Blown near,     
Across the still imprisoned fields,   
By your hot breath;   
The winter hills approach     
To lay the hoarded iron of their years        
Upon the silver gleam           
Within my soul. (
Seasons/Estaciones, 32)

Yesterday is a reference to their previous life in Italy, a country whose relaxed lifestyle, weather, food, and Mediterranean landscapes they were continuously missing while in Germany.

Yesterday    
Within your heart grew once the roots of olive trees,      
And through your blood there coursed the richness of pressed oil.       
Dark ivy cast its leaves in shadow on your soul;   
You once were wrapped in dust blown from a fragrant earth.   
Across the evening hills slow hours threw their veils,      
Or cypress-tress lay black upon the moon-gold soil;         
Then in you deepened night while waiting in the dawn,
And from the coming sun two flames glowed in your eyes.        
Oh thus I saw you once clothed in a laughing light,         
And drank the singing wine again within your words. 
(Seasons/Estaciones, 21)

 

Münch - A Pianist in Germany.

When Münch returned to Germany, the musical circles were not familiar with his name. Münch had given his very first recital at the age of 9, in 1916, and at 13, he played Franz Liszt’s second Piano Concerto with the Dresden Philharmonic, conducted by Edwin Linder; he also performed the same work in Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Brussels, and Zürich (Schafer 333). He graduated from the conservatory at 15. Then in 1926, at the age of 19, Gerhart started traveling around Europe, especially in France and Italy. After his return to Germany in December 1937, he was not booked for a piano recital until October 1938, a performance closely followed by another one in November. Both concerts were tremendously successful and led to two more recital seasons in March and December 1939. The word spread around quickly and Gerhart was soon regarded as a pianist “who belongs to the first rank of German pianists, way above the level of the star virtuosi” 15; “the last scion of an extinct race of giants” 16; “a master of the piano of the highest class.” 17 Judging from the 23 rave reviews kept in the Münch-Medina archive (spanning 1938-1943, some of them referring to the same event), it can be easily inferred that Münch would have made a brilliant career in Europe - probably similar to that of Walter Gieseking, to whom he was compared - had the events of the WWII not prevented it. Critics noticed the discrepancy between his piano ability and his fame, and attributed it to his having spent the last ten years (1927-1937) away from the German piano scene. To make matters worse, Münch’s first concert agent was a brother of the famous pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, who, according to Vera, “was a poor one” with a “lack of interest and corresponding ability to pocket cash” (Germany chapter VI).

The following are the October/November 1938 and March 1939 programs:

 

 October 1938  March 1939
 Fr. Chopin. Ballade in F minor.  R. Schumann. Sonata in G minor.
 J. S. Bach. Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major.  J. S. Bach-Busoni. Toccata in C major.
 Fr. Chopin. Impromptu in F sharp.  Fr. Chopin. unknown piece.
R. Schumann. Sonata in G minor. R. Bocquet. Sonata.
M. Ravel. Gaspard de la nuit. F. Liszt. Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody.
G. Münch. 3 Etudes pour piano. M. Ravel. Gaspard de la nuit.
  A. Scriabin. Sonata in F sharp No. 3 Op. 23.
  G. Münch. 3 Etudes pour piano.
 
 

Three important musical preferences that Münch had throughout his life reappear in these programs: early, romantic, and contemporary music. As they included Bach, Scriabin and Ravel, these programs were in some respects similar to the ones performed previously in Rapallo. Except for the 1933 June recitals of Mozart sonatas for violin and piano (Schafer 331) and a few Chopin performances, which Pound allowed occasionally, classical and romantic music were absent from the Rapallo programs. This time, romantic music made a strong show.

Modern and contemporary music was always present in the Münch 1938-1943 piano recitals, as the programs show. He included composers like Scriabin (1872-1915), Ravel (1875-1937), Roland Bocquet (1878-1956), Federico Mompou (1883-1987) and Luigo Perrachio (1883-1966). Later he would premiere in Mexico the music of Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mario Lavista, and many others.

Münch’s own compositions did not exclude the influence of Scriabin and early music. From the earliest pieces  in the Münch-Medina Archive, the Trio of 1938 suggests a creative space allowing Münch to explore a romantic expressiveness which he was sure wouldn’t please his admired friend Ezra Pound. He wrote he was “writing a Cello-Sonata and a Trio, but too romantic for being used in Rapallo...”  and that he was “sure you will disapprouve [sic] with the compositions but there is not much to do about ones Credos.”18 The theme of the first movement is illustrative of a romantic pathos of the work:

rsz cornejo 2

Some features of this Trio illustrate how Münch integrated the various interests he had as a musician in his compositions: the influence of Scriabin’s harmony surely came from his pianistic repertoire, in which Scriabin was one of the favorites, while the highly contrapuntal writing, some modal-like melodies tinged with added chromaticims and modal progressions might have derived from his recent experience as transcriber and arranger of early music to be performed and/or researched at Ezra Pound’s suggestion. Scriabin was to remain an important influence in Münch’s music throughout his life, as is proven by his piano works: Cuatro Presencias, Prelude Tenebreux and Poem Lunimox, Un petit rêve,19 Scriabin dixit (flute and piano).

In writing about Münch’s performances, most German critics agreed on an organic sense of form, an outstanding technical skill, strong expressiveness, and ample dynamic range.20 Thus, the return to Germany seems to have opened a new creative space for Münch, both as a composer and pianist, in which his bond to romanticism was freely expressed. From the pianistic stance, more surprising than the constant references to a romantic expressiveness in the criticisms, is the question posed by the music critic Heinz Joachim, who wondered if “the pianist preferred this (romantic) art because it corresponds to his nature most, or because he regards it as a complement to his being?”21 From a philosophical point of view, Detlef Kehrmann established that Münch’s life and oeuvre share a common metaphysical foundation, a number of whose features can be identified as romantic: a certain “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“cultural uneasiness”), an exaltation of the Dionysian aspect in life and art, an interest for the archaic and the mythical in ancient Greece, and a re-enchantment of nature as a contrast to and shelter from the technologized world (Kehrmann 11). Apart from matters of nuance, these preferences and desires have an uncanny similarity to Pound’s own.

The ideas and the semantic dimension in this list is reflected in Münch’s article “Musik and Malerei” (“Music and Painting”)The following excerpt addresses romantic composers and music, revealing Münch’s conception of what a composer is and how the philosopher Ludwig Klages influenced his understanding of the link between art (poets) and Dionysus:

A Chopin or Scriabin, aren’t they creators of works that had never been imagined before and cannot be paraphrased by analogy? Are they not terrifyingly like the one-god and his powerful and violent will to legislate? On the other hand, in its comfortable completion, is not the late-romantic music precisely expressing the turmoil, longings, and stirrings of that from which, in his deep loneliness and abandonment, godless man is cut off? Scriabine finally appears as a telematic vessel and crystalline concentration of musical elements that have a life of their own. With his effort to give them back to the macrocosmos, but also with his consecrating sacrificial gesture, which submits to an egocentric brain, he forces us to face the banishment of threatening storms in which danger and magic are equally revealed as in man-willed clangor. When Klages says about poets that they are “all and each followers and late devotees of Dionysus,” it seems that the fatal destiny of the musician is to be the opse, the tragic latecomer. (Metaphysische Marginalia 254. Tr. Roxana Preda)

By the end of 1939, Münch could in fact have felt he arrived too late: he was just at the very beginning of a rapidly ascending career as a pianist - the 1939 December recital season had been his fourth in Germany – but at the same time was again witnessing a world war slowly unfold. In this context, on November 10 and 11, he composed settings to Hebbel’s poem Nachtlied (“Night Song”) and Lenau’s An die Melancholie (“To Melancholy”). The following lines from Nachtlied might well be read as a reference to his own feelings at the unfolding war:

Herz in der Brust wird beengt;       
Steigendes, neigendes Lehen          
Riesenhaft fühle ich’s weben,          

Welches das meine verdrängt.

The heart in my breast is crowded 
with the rise and fall of life; 
I feel it weaving about me, an immense thing
that squeezes mine out.22

Nachlied. Juan Arnulfo Tello, barítono, Miguel Valdés-Brito, piano. 

Also in November, he finished the Kreisleriana Nova, a century after Schumann’s first Kreisleriana, a four-movement composition premiered in the second and last recital season of 1939. There is at least a double romantic reference in this work. First, the title is an homage to Robert Schumann, the romantic composer per excellence. Schumann’s work in turn is an homage to another romantic character, Johannes Kreisler, a literary creation by E.T.A Hoffmann. Schumann described Kreisler as “an eccentric, wild Kapellmeister.” Kreisler was a sensitive musical genius and like Schumann, had few social skills. We may wonder if Münch did not identify himself with certain traits of Kreisler and Schumann. The piece was well received by the critics, who found it similar in spirit to Schumann’s work, perhaps due to the contrasting nature of the A-B-A sections in the 1rst, 2nd, and 4th movements. Reviewers also identified a multiple stylistic junction in this work, as did Dr. Herbert Meißner, who found in it links to both romanticism and impressionism (Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten, 7 December 1939).

Kreisleriana Nova II-IV. Heriberto Cruz Cornejo, piano.

Kreisleriana Nova IV. Heriberto Cruz Cornejo, piano. YouTube.

 

 

The months leading to the Second World War.

In a letter of March 8, 1939, Münch again apologized to Pound for not having a Vivaldi transcription ready yet. As ever since 1935, they had been discussing a possible visit to Rapallo. Various reasons seemed to have prevented Münch from doing the Vivaldi work. He had recently been requested to compose the music for a play, Don Gil, by Tirso de Molina, which, despite having gone “decently well,” was not a commercial success. Münch’s health had been changing from bad and worse, mainly due to a nervous trouble. Besides, he was about to start a tour, performing in Hamburg, Leipzig, Frankfurt and Berlin. On top of this, Münch was also finding musical dilemmas with the Vivaldi concerto he was supposed to work on. Although he found it “formed and well-shaped and neat…it is a bit thin and the ‘Virtuoso-Parts’ are sometimes empty…The difficulty: how to make Alive these 16 bars here and there. Without playing on contrapunto. I’d like to cut out a lot but I fear this will be considered as capital sin.” Pound suggested to present the same concerto in two forms: “one very simple and admittedly BARE and then the same one, dressed up a la MUNCH, a la Strawinsky or whomever.”23 This discussion was motivated by Münch’s plan to perform again in Rapallo. He proposed to include unknown German music in the recital program. Pound replied that Vivaldi was a “GOING Train. There is a mild Vivaldi boom/ pity that you haveing been on it at start, shd/let the kudos go to Casella etc/.” Pound accepted, for practical reasons, to do a mixed program, or to have recourse to a German composer. The concert did not take place: Münch was not able to travel to Rapallo before Pound’s trip to the USA in April 1939.