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THE WAR

 

 

 

The documentary sources we can tap into so as to reconstruct Gerhart’s and Vera’s lives during WWII are scarce. The Münch-Pound correspondence went on with the same regularity in 1939 as in previous years, but there are only seven letters exchanged in 1940 (the last Münch one dated in April). It was in 1940 that Olga Rudge noted that a July 12 letter from Ezra was opened by censors (Conover 139). There are three more letters in 1941, and then the correspondence either stopped or did not survive to the archives. Fortunately, we have the 13 chapters of Vera Lawson’s memoir, Germany 24 Hours a Day. In it, she describes the life under war conditions and provides clever insights into the German environment from her position as an American, a writer, a woman, and wife of a luckless artist. Although the memoir gives lots of detail and much can be inferred from it, there are only very few names and dates in this work. Then, there is a noticeable decline in the quantity of music reviews once the WWII started: there are just four reviews in 1940, three in 1942, and one in 1943 in the Münch-Medina archive. The few music works that survived the war are also important for our understanding of Münch’s life. Finally, there is a graphic novel based on the memoirs of Alan Cope, an American soldier with whom the Münch-Lawson became friends at the end of the war.

In 1939, the political scene had increasingly worried Münch, who in March thought he would soon have to do military service, possibly as telegrafista (Letter to Pound March 8, 1939). The war started in September: by October, Münch thought he would be taken for military service as an interpreter (he spoke English, French, Italian, German and according to Alan Cope, had a good understanding of Latin and Greek). Despite Münch’s success with the audience and music critics in the March recital season, low finances and pressure from Vera’s family continued to be an issue.24 In August 1939, Münch was thanking Pound for a check, and new plans for concerts in Rapallo were being made. Münch suggested late December, after his recital season (in Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, and Berlin again25). The Rapallo concert was again cancelled for various reasons. First, Münch fell ill at the end of his December 1939 recital tour,26 and in January 1940 his father too became seriously ill and was about to undergo an operation in Dresden. Münch had also an engagement in the Munich Radio on the 21st of January.27 At some point in 1940, he wrote five more lieder for baritone with texts by Brentano, Lenau, Eichendorff, Nietzsche.

Spaziergang. Juan Arnulfo Tello, barítono. Miguel Valdés-Brito.

In a letter to Pound on April 1, 1940, Münch told him he had performed 8 concerts and got a new musical agent: Hermann Kempf, from Frankfurt. The four reviews of 1940 in the Münch-Medina archive are dated March and April 1940.28 The following are the recital programs of December 1939 and March/April 1940:

 

Program December 1939 Program March/April 1940
Bach-Liszt. Fantasy and Fugue in G minor. D. Scarlatti. 4 Sonatas.
R. Schumann. Fantasy in C major. F. Lizst. Mephisto Waltz.
J. Brahms. Variations on a Handel-theme Op. 24. R. Schumann. Symphonic Variations Op. 13.
A. Scriabin. Sonata (possibly no. 9). F. Mompou. unknown piece.
M. Balakirev. Islamey. F. Chopin. Sonata in B minor.
A. Scriabin. Sonata No. 5 Op. 53.

 

In the same letter, Münch reported he had engagements for both solo recitals and orchestra performances. He was also busy transcribing his own works and apologized again to Pound for not having a Vivaldi transcription ready yet. Gerhart was hoping that his increasing fame would cause the Propaganda Ministerium to free him from military service, but he was drafted in spring 1940 (possibly late April or May). According to Vera,

He had no party protection, no nazi bonzen behind him - only the best press in Germany, which constituted a genuine recognition because it was not flavoured with brown adulation. Keitel himself crossed his name off a list of musicians considered to be too valuable to be thrown into battle. (Germany VI)

It is not known how many of the engagements as soloist Münch had mentioned to Pound he was able to fulfill. Vera recalls “watching colleagues who had managed to wangle their way free of military duty taking his place in concerts where he was to have been the soloist. We have a converging testimony about this from the music critic Walter Dirks, who in an undated review in the Frankfurter Zeitung remarked: “… in the choice of the soloist: Gerhart Münch, whom one would have liked very much to hear in Frankfurt for the first time with an orchestra, was kept away, as soldier.”

The first months, in Ingolstadt were devoted to training and Münch was assigned “to a construction unit that fixed roofs in the dead of winter” (Guibert 211). It must have been at this time that Münch received a make-believe-piano (a keyboard on a board) made by Vera for him to practice (Sheridan 225). This went on until Münch’s handwriting became unrecognizable and Vera decided to take this situation into her own hands. She sneaked into the military barracks and had an agitated discussion with a colonel. By showing him the music reviews, Vera tried to persuade him to discharge Münch from the army. He refused, but offered to transfer him to a post in Augsburg, where Münch could use his talent under a captain (Captain H.) who was a music-lover. Münch was transferred to Augsburg and his new duty was to prepare and play concerts for military audiences, with constant leave to do private work. Alan Cope provides a similar account of the transfer:

Vera battled with the local High Command until she finally got them to see that they were sacrificing a German artist for absurd reasons…So he played for the soldiers. That’s how he saved his hands, maybe even his life, but it was devastating for him. The whole time I knew him, he suffered from serious bouts of depression.” (Guibert 211)

It was also in Augsburg that Münch premiered his intense Capriccio Variato (for piano and orchestra) on the 27April 1942 (Medina 41). In Augsburg, Gerhart was able to live with Vera in a hostelry. According to her, the military concerts were well attended and enthusiastically received, "the exception to this rule, was generally when the rank and file were forced to enjoy themselves and quite honestly preferred a pair of pretty legs to Bach or Chopin" (Germany VI). In Canto 80, Pound makes a reference to these concerts:

or did they fall because of their loose taste in music        
"Here! none of that mathematical music!"
Said the Kommandant when Münch offered Bach to the regiment (LXXX/530)

Not only Bach, but also contemporary music was not completely welcome to audiences. A well-known German pedagogue complained to Vera about having to listen to Ravel and Debussy in a Münch recital (Germany II). Music critics never complained about the inclusion of Scriabin and Ravel, but in their reviews relegated them to the margins. The comments on Münch’s performance of Scriabin’s sonatas are noticeably shorter than those dedicated to romantic or baroque music.

It is not clear in what exact year Vera sent Pound a revealing letter marked only with an “end of June” date. The year is more likely 1941. In this letter, Vera tells Pound that Münch’s vacations from the army were used for concerts, and writes how weary she is of the constant uncertainty of never knowing when they (Gerhart-Vera) would be able to plan another musical season. In this year Münch might have composed the music for a new translation of Midsummer’s Night Dream (translated by Rudolf Alexander Schröder). The music for this play has not been located, however it has been suggested that the Shakespeare Suite, a piano work of 1951, might be based on this earlier orchestral piece. 1941 might also have been the year when Vera Lawson started publishing poems in the Frankfurter Zeitung. In November 1941, Münch told Pound he was asked to play in Rome in early December. It is very probable that they met in Rapallo. Münch said to Pound in a short note dated 1941: “arrivedici a Rapallo…and many thanks for everything you did for us!”  This might have been the last time both friends met in Europe. The Medina catalogue does not register any composition in 1941.

One single military recital program has made it to the Münch-Medina archive. It is dated March 1942, and the recital was shared with German pianist Otto Ludwig, Austrian tenor Julius Patzak and the Hungarian soprano Felicie Hüni-Mihacsek. Both singers belonged to the Munich State Opera. By the end of April, Münch had a recital in Frankfurt and also premiered Capriccio Variato (piano and orchestra) in Augsburg, on 27 April. In Brussels in late September, he premiered his new Concert d’Été for piano and orchestra with the Brussels Radio Orchestra with the “greatest of success (Dresdner Anzeiger 30 September 1942).

Capriccio variato. Rodolfo Ponce Montero, piano.

         In the same period, early Autumn 1942, Vera spent two months in an unusual “rest from bombs and the general strain of existence…as a paying guest on the small estate of the X family near Badenweiler.” In December Münch performed another recital in Berlin and he was back there again in January 1943 to critical acclaim.29 But then, Münch spent 8 months in Belgium starting March 1943. Vera recalls:

My husband was given leave for private concerts in Brussels in the early winter of 1943, due to the agitation of Belgian friends who wished to save him from the front; and to the dismay of the Propaganda Ministry who wished immediately to send him back again, not approving of his good standing in Belgian circles. A complete nervous breakdown, and eight months in a Belgian Lazarett foiled their plans, and led to his official discharge from the army in winter 1944 (Germany VI).

This nervous breakdown had various precedents. In 1935 Pound told Olga Rudge that “Münch has been nearly off his head with worry about his god damn country [Germany] . . . the problem of being interned in event of war” (Conover 122). Münch had reported more than once to Pound of having been handicapped by a nervous crisis (August 1938 and March 1939) and in a previous letter (probably 1941) Vera had also told Pound about Gerhart’s “battle with dark depressions. The Belgian military hospital referred to by Vera must have been the Hopital Français, where he finished the piano solo work Concert d’hiver. This is the only 1943 composition in the Medina catalogue. It is a four-movement work that surely reflects much of what his emotional state must have been during those difficult months - it veers from fierce and dramatic themes to melancholic and meditative parts.

Intermede, Part II of Concert d'hiver. Rodolfo Ponce Montero, piano. 

While Münch was in Belgium, Vera in Munich received a card requiring her presence at the Arbeitsamt [Ministry of Labour]: she was assigned to work in a munitions factory. She fled Munich for Moosburg, where she could stay without registering at the local police station. According to Vera, she had three powerful reasons to avoid Munich: the air-raids were increasing in frequency and violence; she wouldn’t work for Germany against the Allies of her own free will; and she feared for her life because she had

typed for further distribution forty copies of the protocol for which the three Munich students had been hung... After the papers had left my hand, I realized the typing could easily be traced to my French Remington portable… The mother-in-law of one of the victims had told me a few days previously that her house and telephone were being watched and I had better avoid her until matters quieted down. (Germany VI)

Vera might be referring to Christoph Probst, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the members of the resistance group The White Rose, executed on 23 February 1943. After a month in Moosburg, she was located there by the Arbeitsamt and received another card; she went back to Munich for a week and then returned to Moosburg again, managing to avoid working for Germany by continually moving about. In Moosburg, she took refuge in the house of a certain Frau Freudenberg, where she would meet some of the men who would later participate in the Free Bavarian Movement. Although while in Moosburg Vera used to wander through the countryside on a frequently unproductive search for eggs, butter or honey, she could recover some strength. She had been continually undernourished and only then could finish an opera libretto with a metaphysical theme that she had promised for Münch. The text and the music were burned to ashes in the 1945 Dresden air-raids. Although she was cared for and protected by friends, the news that she was American had reached the official ears in Moosburg. This coincided with Münch’s return to Dresden in October 1943. Vera moved back to Munich, where life (as elsewhere) was not easy: frequent air-raids,30 increasing denunciation, thefts, bribery; the supplies were difficult get and the black market was the main source of exchange.31 Vera wrote she “was alone in Munich, my husband avoiding the Volkssturm by living in Dresden with his mother, unregistered at the police station. I sent him his ration tickets each month via the Munich-Dresden train. In as much as I gave the conductor a package of cigarettes with the envelope containing the irreplaceable tickets, they always arrived at their destination” (Germany IX).

Münch was in Dresden with his mother, avoiding the Volkssturm [Nazi militias]. In early 1945 he experienced one of the most horrific bombings of the WWII. Between 13 and 15 February 1945, in four air-raids, British and American air forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city. According to Wikipedia, an estimated number of 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed.32

Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1994 041 07 Dresden zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Vera shares some of Münch’s impressions of the bombing:

My husband in fever-delirium so often spoke of a love-couple which he had stumbled over on a main cross-section, a boy and girl still embraced with tiny shrunken black bodies and huge heads a - ghastly travesty of youthful passion - that it has been seared photographically into my brain and has become the symbol of war to me… I was not there, but I have been through the Dresden terror so often that I feel as though I had experienced every minute of it, including the twenty terrifying minutes during which G. lay on one side of the street without protection and the phosphorous bombs rained down on the other side. I too met the frightened giraffe galloping away from the flames near the zoo, the old lady in her night-gown blinded by smoke, the grotesque drunken plunderers offering their looted brandy to whomever they met. (Germany XI)

After the Dresden bombings, Vera was anxiously waiting for news about Gerhart when she learned he was alive and on his way to Munich on foot. There she waited for a week until a young aviator told her that Münch lay ill with diphtheria in Bad Wiessee where he had arrived after walking more than 500 km. Vera found him “flushed with fever…I hardly recognized the red-eyed man, skeleton-thin, who greeted me with the words: ‘I could not find my mother.’” Vera moved him to an overcrowded and overworked hospital across the lake, where she took care of him. When Münch was discharged, they returned to Bad Wiessee, where they found it difficult to find a place to stay. Most landlords would not give them a room after discovering they did not have much with which to bribe them, and Vera struggled every week to obtain permission from the town hall to remain in the little town, despite having medical certificates stating the need for rest and recuperation. Not much later, Münch suffered an extreme post-diphtheritic paralysis:33

my husband could swallow no food, could digest nothing, his heart protested against the strain put upon it, his eye-sight suffered and he grew daily thinner, collapsing on the street, when out of bed, yet fearing to remain in bed because the possibility of a chance bomb dropping from one of the many planes flying over-head toward Rosenheim, Bad Tölz, Munich. We felt the end of the war drawing near, but I did not think he would live to realize it. (Germany XI)

According to Vera, during the last week of April 1945, a body of trained SS took over the town as American combat troops had already entered the mouth of the valley. On May 2, Bad Wiessee was under artillery fire and Vera dodging bullets and grenades ran through it to fetch a cart. She put Gerhart in the cart and escaped with him to the woods, where they hid in a cellar, joining the fifteen pregnant women that had fled the town earlier. At mid-night, they were advised to flee again “as a concentrated air-raid had been planned for the following night to eradicate the entire valley unless the SS. gave up the resistance. Due to Münch’s poor state of health, they could not leave with the others and had to remain in the cellar. The fighting continued all through Thursday. On Friday morning, wearily astonished to be alive, they discovered that American troops were patrolling the town.

After the war ended on May 8, Vera and Gerhart remained in Bad Wiessee for the following months, recovering from illness and undernourishment. Vera says she was the only American civilian in town and enjoyed a comfortable position with both the German population and American occupation army. Many Germans – including acquaintances, friends and strangers, some who had offered help and some who had denied help to her during the war - were suddenly requesting favours, perhaps out of fear of the American occupying forces. Vera remarked that “the third army combat troops greatly overvalued my talent for interpretation, but I enjoyed my position as unofficial go-between and a taken for granted exemption from the non-fraternization regulation.” It was in Bad Wiessee that they met American soldiers Jim Post and Alan Cope: Alan’s memoirs have been published in a graphic novel by Emmanuel Guibert (Alan’s War. The Memories of G. I. Alan Cope). Cope recalls:

They were renting the first floor of a small house in Bad Wiessee. There was almost nothing in it except a typewriter and a piano. They served us tea; we brought them cigarettes and a few bottles of wine. And Gerhart played. Jim Post and I spent unforgettable hours listening to a REAL pianist. He played all sorts of things, a lot of Chopin and Brahms. He also played some Scriabin, a discovery for me (Guibert 205).

During this time, Pound had been arrested in Sant’ Ambrogio and incarcerated in Pisa in an American Disciplinary Training Center under indictment of treason. From May to September 1945 he was not allowed to write or receive any letters. Neither Dorothy nor Olga, nor his daughter Mary was allowed any contact until 18 September. Two days later, Pound could write his first message to his wife in months. By October he was inquiring about Gerhart and wanted his son, Omar, who was a private in the U.S. Army of Occupation in Germany to try and find him. During these months of uncertainty and lack of any communication in the Pisan camp he wrote canto 75, an homage to Münch, which included the manuscript of the violin part of his reduction of Janequin’s Canzone de gli uccelli, which had become Pound’s favorite song after Gerhart had left Rapallo in 1935. The first lines suggest he knew or assumed Gerhart was in Dresden during the bombardment but did not know whether he was alive or dead:

Out of Phlegethon!     
out of Phlegethon,      
Gerhart
art thou come forth out of Phlegethon? (LXXV /470)

By the end of January 1946, Pound wrote to Dorothy: “Still no news Basil [Bunting], Nancy [Cunard], Vera & G. [Münch]” (Letters in Captivity 255). Two weeks later, he complained: “Still no news of Vera & G” (February 15, 1946, Letters in Captivity 271). Only in her letter of 23 March 1946 could Dorothy report that Omar had found them, knew their address but could not communicate directly as mail was not working between German towns and he would need an American friend in town to write to (Letters in Captivity 297). Dorothy was able to take up contact with Vera only on May 23, when civilian mail was allowed in Germany (Letters in Captivity 341).

Münch had a serious relapse in February 1946 which put his life in danger again. However, it was in 1946 that he returned to composition for the first time since 1943: Marsyas und Apoll is dated March 3 1946, in Wiessee. The first reference to Münch’s narrative text Hermotimos also appears in 1946 (Marginalia 37).

At a certain point, Münch was offered a music professor post by music critic Karl Holl at a music school he expected to found in Frankfurt (Medina 14), and he also applied for a job in the American Conservatory of Music in Heidelberg (Lawson 108). No further references have been found of either of these music institutions, and it is more likely that nothing came out of them. By a typewritten program kept at Münch-Medina archive, we may assume he resumed radio performances in July 1947. This shows that Gerhart did try to find work in Germany after the war. In 1947 Münch started writing ErdLeben, a poem in 14 cantos. From the Canto I of “Tanz ist alles” (February 21 1947) comes one of the very few sections which depart from the predominantly metaphysical theme and could be read as a reference to his personal circumstances:

Leere im Rücken, Chimärengebell!
Keine Umkehr!          
Starr den Blick auf die          
Stapfen im treibenden Sande geheftet:     
Leert noch ein Glas    
Auf die Leere!
            (Labyrinthus 46).     

Emptiness at my back, bark of chimera     
No return!       
Fixed stare on 
the deep footprints in drifting sand
Empty another glass  
To emptiness!
             (Labyrinth. Tr. Roxana Preda)

By September 1947, Gerhart and Vera went to Boston to live with Vera’s family, who “wanted Gerhart to make ends meet American style, meaning, play in fancy nightclubs” (Cope 239). He was really depressed, and so was Vera. The family sent them to a psychiatrist, who then told them: “It’s very simple. Leave them alone. Give them $400, a plane ticket for wherever they want to go, and say goodbye.” They went to California straight to Alan Cope’s house. Later they would live in the Big Sur, where Münch reconnected with Henry Miller. But that is another story.