Obituaries: Berthold Goldschmidt

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The Independent Online
When the 20th century closes and lists are drawn up of the figures who distinguished it, the name of the composer and conductor Berthold Goldschmidt will rank high. But amazingly, after some early success in his native Germany, and his flight from Hitler to England in 1935, he endured more than half a century of semi-obscurity before achieving new recognition and finally, in his nineties, international fame.

Born and brought up in Hamburg, Goldschmidt was the second of the four children of Adolf Goldschmidt and his wife Henriette. Encouraged by them in his early musical ambitions, he was soon attending concerts and operas, and in 1922 he began his studies at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, primarily as a member of Franz Schreker's composition class, but also as a conducting student of Rudolf Krasselt.

After obtaining his diplomas and winning the Mendels-sohn Prize with his Passacaglia for orchestra, he began his career in 1924 as a coach in the Dessau Opera House. Returning to Berlin in 1925, he found through Schreker an entree to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as a freelance celesta player in complicated modern works. Again as celesta player, he took part in the world premiere, under Erich Kleiber, of Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Staatsoper in 1925. Soon after, Kleiber conducted the premiere of his Passacaglia.

Goldschmidt's first important post was as Musical Advisor to Carl Ebert at the Landestheater in Darmstadt, where he remained from 1927 until 1930, when Ebert brought him back to Berlin as his assistant at the City Opera (Stadtischer Oper). Already before leaving Darmstadt, Goldschmidt had begun work on his early masterpiece Der gewaltige Hahnrei, an opera based on Ferdinand Crommelynck's play Le Cocu magnifique. Meyerhold's historic production for the Moscow Arts Theatre had made a great impression on tour in Germany and elsewhere, though the play was also commercially successful, on account of its "scandalous" subject matter. (A London production in the 1930s memorably starred Peggy Ashcroft as the wife who is pushed into multiple infidelities by her monstrous husband.)

Der gewaltige Hahnrei was one of the last works by a Jewish composer to be staged in Germany before the Nazis came to power. After its successful premiere in Mannheim in 1932, Ebert announced a Berlin production for the 1933-34 season at the Staatsoper.

But in fact the opera was not to be seen again for more than 60 years: Harry Kupfer's 1994 staging at Berlin's Komische Oper coincided with the release of Decca's recording of the work and was almost simultaneous with the world stage-premiere of Goldschmidt's second and last opera, Beatrice Cenci - composed with an Arts Council prize, for the Festival of Britain in 1951, to a libretto adapted from Shelley by Martin Esslin.

It was not easy for Goldschmidt to establish a foothold in the British musical world after his arrival in 1935. At first he eked out a living by teaching and coaching. However, a commission from Kurt Jooss for a score for his anti-fascist ballet Chronica proved highly opportune in 1938. Although the ballet had to be staged in a diplomatically censored form, it was successfully toured in Britain and in the Americas shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the war years Goldschmidt had little inducement to compose, and was latterly largely occupied with his work for the BBC World Service at Bush House - where his friendship and collaboration with Martin Esslin began. His main task was to arrange and sometimes to conduct broadcasts to Germany of concerts which featured, among other things, music by such "forbidden"masters as Mendlessohn.

One of his earliest hopes in England had been to work with Carl Ebert at the newly established Glyndebourne Opera. But these were soon dashed, for Ebert and his colleagues had already engaged as many refugees from Germany as current labour regulations allowed. In 1947, however, Goldschmidt received an eleventh-hour invitation to replace George Szell as conductor of Ebert's Glyndebourne production of Verdi's Macbeth at the first Edinburgh International Festival. The critics were enthusiastic, although in several cases they were still under the impression that the conductor had been Szell.

Despite this "successful" British debut as opera conductor, Goldschmidt's talents in this field were exploited only by the BBC. Nevertheless his reputation had been made in Scotland, and led to a long-lived guest-conductorship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra - which ended when Goldschmidt reached 60 .

By then the musical ethos of the BBC had been radically changed. Goldschmidt's three large-scale concertos of the 1950s - respectively for violin, clarinet, and cello - had all been given their premieres in BBC studios. But their musical language which owed more to the classicism of Busoni and perhaps of Hindemith than to the eclectic lushness and romantic expressionism of his teacher Schreker, was ill-suited to the modernist criteria which prevailed in a period already dominated by the influence of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono. With the appointment in 1960 of William Glock as the BBC's Controller, Music, a new era had begun.

Though keenly interested in all new developments, Goldschmidt remained funda- mentally unsympathetic to Schoenberg and Webern, and to their post-war advocates in the so-called Darmstadt school. Feeling himself out of joint with the musical times, he had allowed his Mediterranean Songs of 1958 to acquire the character of a farewell to composition: for nearly a quarter of a century he fell silent and did not resume composing until the time once again seemed to be ripe.

However, he was by no means without support in the BBC of the 1960s. Among his closest friends and associates there were the composer Robert Simpson and the musicologist Deryck Cooke. Recalling Goldschmidt's pioneering performances of Mahler in the 1950s Cooke had turned to him for advice while working on his reconstruction of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony; and it was Goldschmidt who conducted the first performances of the Cooke version, both in England and in Germany.

At the age of 80, Goldschmidt returned to composition, ostensibly in response to an invitation to compose a quartet for the clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and three members of the Amadeus Quartet. In fact the quartet was his first response to a sense that the musical climate had changed once again and that there were new and young audiences for his music both in Europe and the US.

There followed a steady flow of compositions, in which the mingling of classical and modern elements which had been characteristic of his music since the 1920s is developed with new energy and originality. The years of silence had seemed tragic for their waste, but in truth they had not been wasted. For the Berthold Goldschmidt of the last years had lost none of his youthful vigour and humour, but had found a place for himself in the musical world that even his greatet admirers would once have found almost unimaginable.

Berthold Goldschmidt, composer and conductor: born Hamburg 18 January 1903; married 1936 Karen Bothe (died 1979); died London 17 October 1996.