Hidden Melodies

When the history of 20th-century music
is written in the next several hundred years, will it bear much resemblance to how we think of it now? I have long suspected that there is a hidden history of classical music during this period that would one day surface. I tried to write part of it in Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. My suspicion has been confirmed by the many musical discoveries I have made over the years. Certain kinds of music were suppressed because they were too traditional and did not conform to the avant-garde dominance of the concert hall and academy that lasted for half a century. More obviously, music by Jewish composers was suppressed in Nazi Germany because it was considered genetically tainted.

Both reasons for obscurity apply to German composer Günter Raphael (1903-1960). If you have not heard of him, you’re not alone: I saw no mention of him anywhere, and I have been scouring for neglected composers for 30 years. In this 50th anniversary year of his death, the CPO label has done something magnificent. With one stroke, it has rehabilitated this man’s music by releasing a 3-CD set (CPO 777 563-2) with four of his five symphonies, Nos. 2-5, plus his huge Choral Symphony Of the Great Wisdom, based on the words of Lao Tse. I was staggered to have works of this significance and magnificence drop into my possession as if from nowhere; I would not have known enough to ask for them. For proof of my hidden history thesis, I will now simply point to this music and say: QED.

In the autobiography of German composer Kurt Hessenberg, we get a glimpse at Raphael’s earlier renown:

My teacher, the composer Günter Raphael, had at that time, above all of course in Leipzig, a much greater reputation than today. His 1st Symphony had been premiered in 1926, and hence before my time, by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Gewandhaus with great success. I myself attended, besides a number of orchestral works, chamber music and organ works, the first Leipzig performance of his Requiem at the Gewandhaus in 1929 under Karl Straube. This important early work made a deep impression on me. Unforgettable also were the premiere by the St. Thomas Choir of two works for a cappella choir: the 12-voice Psalm 104 and the 8-voice Motet “Vom jüngsten Gericht”, as well as of the Divertimento for orchestra by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm at the Gewandhaus at the beginning of 1933.

Furtwängler also premiered Raphael’s Fourth Symphony. Other famous conductors were attracted to Raphael’s works, including Sergiu Celibidache (who conducts the Symphony No. 4 in this collection), Leopold Stokowski, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (who conducts the Fifth), and Wolfgang Sawallisch. He was in the major leagues until the Nazis came to power and informed him, through Reichsmusikkammer Peter Raabe, that “you are, you know, simply a half-Jew, and in the Third Reich it is not wished that ‘social events’ be organized by such a person.” Raphael was thrown off the faculty of the Leipzig College of Music and, starting in 1939, performances of his music were prohibited. Strangely enough, the tuberculosis that eventually killed him most likely saved him from the death camps, as various doctors kept him out of reach in sanatoriums and hospitals. Despite his illnesses and precarious existence, Raphael was very productive during and after the war.

However, after 1945, his reputation never recovered its pre-war eminence. This might have been due to the fairly conservative idiom in which he wrote and the almost total lack of any influence of the avant-garde on his music. Also, after World War II and the horrors of Nazi genocide, many artists considered that what had recently happened was inexpressible; therefore, the only appropriate thing was to express nothing. This was the course chosen by many composers in their increasingly violent and abstract works. The more repugnant the world, the more abstract the art. Raphael did not choose this path, resulting in his (temporary) irrelevance.


Raphael wrote on a grand symphonic scale rooted in German Romanticism, but with a contemporary vigor. In his early symphonies, one hears echoes of Bruckner, Wagner, and Mahler, but he is not so beholden to themthat his music sounds derivative. Raphael had a profound sense of classical architecture, melodic flow, and contrapuntal development that keeps the listener gripped throughout these expansive works. His fugal writing is particularly brilliant. The symphonies are so well constructed that they bear repeated listening and do not reveal all their secrets at once. To give some sense of their almost Brucknerian scale, the Second Symphony lasts more than 46 minutes; the Third is 40 minutes long; and the Choral Symphony consumes 72 minutes. None is less than half an hour in length.

These mammoth pieces share none of the sense of decay or the centrifugal forces found in much of the contemporaneous music in the German-speaking world. For Raphael, the center held; things did not fall apart. This makes his voice nearly unique. His work was constructive in one of the most destructive periods of human history. What inner resources did this man have to write in this way? I have not found out enough about him to begin to answer this question, but I hear in his music his firm refusal to break the mystic chords with the past. His extraordinary fecundity during his period of “inner exile” recalled to me the courageous words of Victor Ullmann, a Jewish composer who did not survive the camps: “We did not simply sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep, but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate without our own will to live.” In this sense, it is the sheer persistence of Raphael that attracts and inspires. It is as if he is saying, “Despite you, I shall continue in the great tradition.”

In that tradition, Symphony No. 2 is an unqualified success. It is an amazing mixture of things: The brass chords in the second movement sound eerily like a premonition of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo. At its end, one hears a slight echo of Richard Strauss. The third movement reverie, marked molto adagio, is mesmerizingly beautiful and noble, very much like one of Bruckner’s extraordinary visions. The pizzicato strings in the prestissimo could come out of a grotesque Mahler march. The last movement has a Korngold-like opulence.

No. 3 is another gem, less beholden to the models of German Romanticism mentioned earlier. It is a somewhat leaner, more incisive work, but still on a grand scale. It generates considerable power. I love the way Raphael places his gorgeous string sonorities under some jumpy, anxious motifs in the winds. It makes for wonderful contrasts. In the second movement, one again hears huge orchestral forces deployed contrapuntally, as if Raphael were writing an enormous string quartet. (I cannot wait to hear his six string quartets. Please, CPO, do these next.) After a sprightly scherzo, there is more fugal writing leading off the fourth and final movement. I can think of only one other early 20th-century composer who could write with this kind of contrapuntal genius in his symphonic works — the great Carl Nielsen.

In the first movement of Symphony No. 4, I hear harmonies similar to those of Frank Martin — less the acerbic ones from his orchestral works than the sweeter sounds from his oratorios. In fact, the vocal and choral writing in the oratorio-like Choral Symphony is also redolent of Martin’s great works in this medium. Like Martin, Raphael was able to use a version of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method in this work and the Choral Symphony without succumbing to its doctrinaire dissonance. Raphael called it “tonal 12-tone.” The Fourth may be my favorite of the four symphonies in this set, as it is invested with a magical, mysterious atmosphere and reaches for (and achieves) a kind of exaltation that lifts the spirit. It is the most optimistic in orientation. It is also the one, for reasons stated below, that cries out for a new recording. In Raphael’s Fifth, the opening allegro is electrifying in its energy and telegraphic intensity. This is perhaps the most modern sounding of the five works here.

As for performances, the Middle German Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Alstaedt, beautifully captures Symphony No. 2, recorded in 2007. No. 3, with the same orchestra (but this time under conductor Matthias Foremny), gives an alert and completely convincing interpretation, recorded in excellent sound in 2003. The Berlin Philharmonic, under Sergiu Celibidache, provides No. 4 with a visionary performance, but the recording from 1950 has its defects. It sounds as if the tape (or was this made from an old, warped LP?) was stretched in places, giving the instruments an off-pitch sound. The North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, gives No. 5 an intense and exciting interpretation, recorded in somewhat constricted 1960 sound; and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Chorus, under Michael Gielen, give the Choral Symphony an excellent performance, recorded in 1965.

The one thing I am left wondering is whether, despite the magnificence of these works, Raphael achieved a style of his own. Because of the more or less traditional means with which he wrote, one is not immediately apparent. Part of the reason is that he may not have striven for a “style.” But the more I listened, the more clearly one came into focus. I am not ready to put it into words yet, but the test will be if I can hear another of his works, without knowing it is his, and nail it. (I am very excited that Toccata Classics has in preparation a recording of Raphael’s music for violin.) All praise to the CPO label for this adventurous and now essential release that reconfigures the history of 20th-century music.


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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