Obituaries: Alfred Schlee

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The Independent Culture
ALFRED SCHLEE was one of the most important and least prominent arbiters of taste in 20th-century music. The enthusiasms of the conductors and pundits fill the headlines; Schlee, head of the Vienna-based music publishers Universal Edition for 40 years, was more concerned with filling his catalogue, and he chose his composers with an impeccable ear for their likely development.

The list of Universal composers testifies to the acuity of his judgement: it bristles with names like Berio, Birtwistle, Kagel, Messiaen, Part, Rihm, Schwertsik and Shchedrin. The basis of his success was his unfailing intellectual curiosity - Pierre Boulez, one of the modernist jewels in the Universal crown, said of Schlee: "He always has his nose in the wind."

Schlee was born in Dresden in 1901, studying piano, cello and music theory at school before moving on to Munich University to take courses in musicology with Adolf Sandberger and composition with August Reuss. Schlee was already showing a deep interest in modern art: he was in close contact with the Bauhaus circle in Dessau and the architect Oskar Schlemmer, and in 1925 he got to know the conductor Erich Kleiber, then busy preparing for the premiere of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck.

Schlee had intended to go on to a PhD in Vienna, but the combination of two factors - his father's sudden illness and the hyper-inflation that was then beginning to bite - put further study beyond his financial means. He took to the keyboard and the pen, acting as accompanist to the singers Mary Wigman and Yvonne Georgi and writing ballet criticism. In 1924 he took up a post as Dramaturg at the Stadttheater in Munster, where he also worked as repetiteur. It was now that he first came into contact with Universal Edition (which, founded in 1901, was exactly the same age as he was); among the jobs he was given was the editing of a special number of Anbruch, the periodical of Vienna's musical avant-garde. In 1927 Hans Heinsheimer, the visionary head of the operatic section of Universal Edition, offered Schlee a job. Universal became his life - and he saved its.

His first important job was as Universal's representative in Berlin, where the Nazis' cultural policies were putting large sections of the Universal catalogue out of bounds: Arnold Schonberg and Alban Berg were both Jewish; so, too, were Gustav Mahler, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Krenek, Karol Rathaus and many others; and Anton von Webern, though an enthusiastic national socialist, also wrote "degenerate" music. For the Nazis, indeed, Universal was a "Jewish publisher". Schlee watched the exodus of his friends with a heavy heart, bolstered by his conviction that Hitler's regime couldn't last.

Schlee returned to Vienna in 1938, and his finest hour began, as Germany's swallowing of Austria was repeated in music-publishing microcosm. With the weight of Hermann Goering behind them, the German publishers Schott bought up Universal; the prize was passed to another firm, Peters, when it was decided that Schott wasn't reliable either. Schlee decided he would have to act if Universal was to survive.

With the help of some of the more humane officials in charge of Vienna, Schlee set about preserving the Universal catalogue. The mayor of Vienna was, of course, a Nazi, but he was also a Austrian nationalist, and Schlee saw that he would be useful in preventing the wholesale loss of Universal to Germany. Highly placed helpers made sure the Gestapo were kept off Schlee's back - they called on Universal only once, confiscating music by Kurt Weill and Franz Schreker.

But Schlee saw the danger and immediately began removing scores and instrumental parts to safe havens, often in semi-official transport, on the grounds that the material had to be protected from bombing. Works of Schonberg and Weill were hidden behind organs in country churches; Schlee's own house in Semmering was used to secrete scores; and until the war Schlee did what he could to export his forbidden music, correctly reckoning that the Nazis were even more interested in gaining foreign currency than in suppressing Jewish composers.

After the war, and with Universal re-established as an Austrian, not a German, business, Schlee now began to expand the company. He had already contracted Rolf Liebermann and Frank Martin to Universal, with a view to publishing them "when that Hitler is out of the way". Gottfried von Einem, whose mother had been instrumental in safeguarding condemned music, became a Universal composer; so, too, did Luigi Dallapiccola, Bohuslav Martin and Mario Peragallo.

Schlee enthusiastically embraced the avant-garde, bringing into his fold Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Mauricio Kagel, Friedrich Cerha, Sylvano Bussotti and others, and extended his helping hand to Eastern bloc composers - Gyorgy Kurtg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Edison Denisov, Alfred Schnittke - being given the official cold shoulder by the Communists who had taken over their homelands.

Schlee was an intensely private man. Pierre Boulez, who knew him for nearly 50 years, confessed, "If you want to know something about him, you have to ask someone else." That privacy was maintained even in death: Schlee's funeral was over and done with before the world knew he had gone.

Alfred Schlee, music publisher: born Dresden, Germany 19 November 1901; married 1960 Margarethe Molner (two sons); died Vienna 16 February 1999.