The Development of an Americanized View of Rathaus and its Consequences for the Reception of His Music

by Martin Schüssler [1]


The first biographer of Karol Rathaus considers the question “Is Karol Rathaus, a Polish, Jewish, or American composer?” by referring to a variety of biographical material, especially Rathaus’s letters to his friends and selected aspects of his career. He studied in Vienna, emigrated to Berlin in 1926, to France in 1932 (to avoid the Nazis), and to the U.s. in 1940. His artistic identity was influenced by the struggle for economic survival reflected in the shift of main area of activities from concert to film music. He found it difficult to adjust to his new countries (Austria, Germany, France, U.S.) and during his American years, while teaching at Queens College, became resigned to composing only “occasional” and insignificant pieces, without attempting to promote his earlier more experimental and far more successful works. In this phase of his life, Rathaus was a member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences, wrote pieces on Polish themes, and participated in numerous charitable activities on behalf of Poland. Nonetheless, Rathaus’s most creative and original compositions date from 1920s and belong to the modern style called Entartete Musik by the Nazis; yet due to his perception as an “American composer of Polish origin” his work was forgotten and neglected. [Maja Trochimczyk]


Is Karol Rathaus, a Polish, Jewish, or American composer? Rathaus, about to enter his fiftieth year, reflected on this question himself — not so much in his compositions, but rather in his writings. In 1942, Rathaus had already been living in the U. S. for four years, teaching at Queens College for two of them. Three years before the end of the war, there was already a lively debate going on in his circle of friends about the future political order in Europe. In 1942 the collapse of Nazism in Germany was already a foregone conclusion for Rathaus and most of those around him.

Did Rathaus identify himself as a Jewish composer? In a letter written to his friend, writer Soma Morgenstern, at the end of December of that year we read:

I still concern myself with the fate of the Jews. That isn’t because it is a problem which affects me personally in a close way. I assure you that this is not the case. Of course I see my own person apart from the problem of the future of the Jews. Not because I do not feel that I belong to them. But first of all I am too old, secondly I am an artist, and thirdly (and for the two reasons I mentioned first), I will probably stay here in America. But it is all the more in my thoughts for that. [2]

Rathaus was not concerned with finding a Jewish religious identity here, as was the case with some other emigrants. He had never felt bound by his faith and was not about to start once he was in the U.S. His thoughts had little to do with religion and much more to do with the question, as yet hypothetical, of what political conclusions the Jews would have to draw for themselves from what had happened in Europe. The ideas reflected in Rathaus’s letters to Morgenstern are simply an exchange of ideas between friends, and do not claim to be more than thinking aloud. In another letter he says:

I do not see any chance of a comprehensive solution to the Jewish question in the world, especially not in post-war Europe. I fear that very little will change in this respect after this war. Oh, Antisemitism will die down for a while. But it will break out again as soon as the social pressures among the completely proletarianized Jewish masses erupt. And the Jews, decimated and reduced to merely scraping a living on the lowest level, have absolutely no opportunity to prepare themselves for it. They are—in the structure of the world—a community. But don’t try to fix “statistically” what kind of community they are! You can’t define them, either nationally or as an economic grouping. And the mysterious, Romantic magic surrounding a group of people bound together by a common fate just won’t do as a heading to encompass all the aspects of the Jewish problem.[3]

But more than this issue, Rathaus’s thoughts were occupied with another question which he saw as closely bound up with the Jewish theme: “As the opportunist I always was, now that, once again, Poland had ceased to exist, I discovered my bleeding heart for something which seemed finally and irrevocably buried, the Polish ‘Cause’.”[4] Does this concern with “The Polish Cause” reveal Rathaus, the Pole? Rathaus was born in 1895 in the Polish town of Tarnopol in Galicia, which belonged at that time to the Austro-Hungarian empire. This was where he spent his early years, and he returned to Tarnopol on many trips after beginning studies at the Vienna Academy of Music and later at the Berlin Musikhochschule. Soma Morgenstern, too, came from Galicia, as did a mutual friend of both, the novelist Joseph Roth. But, even though Rathaus’s mother tongue was Polish, he never felt himself to be a Pole. He was, in fact, inordinately proud to receive confirmation from the authorities in 1923 that his nationality was German-Austrian. Rathaus, the German-Austrian? Rathaus’s studies at the Vienna Academy of Music, begun in 1913, were interrupted by the First World War and only resumed in 1919. In 1920, together with many of his fellow-students, he followed his teacher Franz Schreker to Berlin. But after a short time, the hopeless task of trying to earn a living in the German capital forced him to return to Vienna — which he hated. It was only from 1926 that he lived permanently in Berlin, the city he regarded as the hub of cultural and musical life, and where he felt at home.

During his time in Vienna, Rathaus had already won widespread recognition as a composer, principally for his piano music. The first performances of his two symphonies (the First in Darmstadt in 1924 conducted by Joseph Rosenstock, the Second in Frankfurt in 1926 under Hermann Scherchen) had attracted considerable attention. With the first performance of his ballet Der letzte Pierrot [The Last Pierrot] in the Berlin Staatsoper, Rathaus experienced his greatest triumph, one which marked his breakthrough as a composer. Der letzte Pierrottransposes the traditional story of Pierrot and his search for Columbine to the 20th Century, where he looks in vain for his beloved in modern factory landscapes and dance halls, only to find her at last as a figure in a waxworks, and thus feels himself to be, as Rathaus puts it, a late comer, a stranger from an age long since lost.

Following the success of the ballet, Rathaus’s orchestral works were now performed by conductors of the stature of Kleiber, Furtwängler, Scherchen, Horenstein and Klemperer, and his chamber music found a place in the repertoire of the most eminent musicians of the time. Even the failure of his opera Fremde Erde [Strange Soil], at its first performance in 1930 in the Berlin Staatsoper scarcely left a mark on his reputation as one of the most prominent composers in Germany. From 1928 onwards, Rathaus also composed theater music for Max Reinhardt’s productions, working together with—among others—Alfred Dîblin.

Finally, Rathaus’s compositions for the new “talking pictures” were a huge success. The Murderer Dmitri Karamazoff, produced in 1930 and directed by Fedor Ozep, is a “musical film” in a particularly real sense. The cuts were made according to the length of the musical sequences and not the other way around, as is the normal practice in the film industry. After that, one film music commission followed another. He worked not only with Ozep, but over the next few years with the directors Granowski, Brahm and Duvivier. Rathaus had mixed feelings about his success in this genre. He enjoyed the fame (and the huge fees), but was very aware at the same time of the danger of being regarded as only a composer of “utilitarian” music.

In 1932, foreseeing the Nazis’ seizure of power, Rathaus emigrated to France, where he worked almost entirely as a composer of film music. He was hardly able to find any opportunity to perform his “ambitious” (serious) music publicly. When the crisis in the French film industry deepened in 1934, Rathaus and his family moved to London, where he found it very difficult to find a foothold in the film-making industry. A visit to Hollywood to sound out the possibilities there also elicited no reponse. It is a pure fairy tale—although one repeated many times—that film agents were waiting at the border for Rathaus. In fact, no suitable offer of work was made to him in Hollywood. His attempt to establish a reputation as a composer on Broadway met with the same success: his two shows Another Sun (with Fritz Kortner), and Herodes and Mariamne were both flops.

Meanwhile, Rathaus’s creative powers had diminished. Though he had earlier enjoyed a reputation for dashing off works in record time, for example, the work on his Piano Concerto took several years. The Third Symphony, begun in England, was only completed after a period of study at Yadoo. He earned a little money now from the composition of “Educational Music”: small-scale, unambitious pieces for chamber groups. When Rathaus was offered a position as a teacher at the newly founded Queens College near New York in 1940, he accepted. This is all the more surprising as he had hitherto always avoided teaching. It was his conviction that being a serious composer and teaching at the same time were incompatible with each other. In his letters and magazine articles and in remarks made to his friends, he had repeatedly stressed that a composer must be free to work, and not tied down to a teaching post.

It is clear that Rathaus’s sense of his own artistic identity had changed by 1940. The long struggle through various phases of emigration had exhausted him, while the constant battle to earn a living and the need to constantly readjust to new circumstances had worn him out. He had achieved success in Germany and this caused him to complain, even in his first French exile, that there were great difficulties involved in living abroad:

. . . for someone like me, who tried, despite all the necessary detours, to keep to a clear line based on spiritual principles of art and life, and who was for precisely this reason so inextricably bound up with the life of the mind in Germany. Perhaps it was pure chance, mere coincidence, that I was successful in Germany, and virtually only in Germany. I was content to be judged, without exception, on the quality of my work, I was never forced to go around the long way, I never needed to invoke the help of social circles—is this kind of success purely on the strength of the works one writes imaginable anywhere else? Who knows?[5]

The fact that there was less interest in his serious compositions than in his film music was a source of deep disillusionment to Rathaus. He needed an active relationship with his public, he was not a composer to write music just for his own bottom line. Can we say then that Rathaus’s acceptance of the position at Queens College was an admission of failure as a composer? On the face of it, the answer seems to be no: after all, Rathaus wrote some 50 pieces over the next few years. But his letters— not only those now kept in the “Rathaus Archive” of Queens College, but especially those still in private hands—make it clear that Rathaus now saw his real role as a pedagogue, a task which soon brought him more satisfaction than he had believed possible. The music he wrote were no longer works with a social message, compositions through which he wanted to change society. Instead, he wrote pieces for specific circumstances: for example, since there was an excellent horn player at Queens College he wrote a piece for the horn; an impending ceremony at the college produced a celebratory work. In addition, Rathaus wrote music commercials during college vacations because he needed the money. And, of course, he wrote music simply for his own enjoyment. Because he was no longer bound to observe the stylistic dictates of the times, works with quite heterogeneous styles followed on, one from the next. Of course they are all attractive pieces, written by a master craftsman with a rich fund of original ideas. But, in contrast to the pieces written in the 1920s, they are no longer conceived and composed as contributions to an evolving mainstream of music in an on-going historical context. The kaleidoscopic nature of these “American” compositions, juxtaposing pieces in quite contrasting styles, bears witness to this, as do Rathaus’s own statements.

The composer’s friends did what they could to combat his sense of resignation, but many of them were unable to understand why Rathaus now preferred to ignore his works from the 1920s and 30s, why he made hardly any attempt to get even his new works performed, and why he had lost the urge to see his works in print. When, for instance, Horenstein made some constructive criticisms after a performance of the Vision Dramatique, suggesting improvements and urging the composer to send it to a publisher, Rathaus declined in a friendly tone, saying that he had long since put the piece aside and—since it was not by Hindemith—there was no danger that it would be published.[6]

Nor did Rathaus ever mention his European phase to his students. Those I have spoken with had no idea that their teacher had enjoyed such prominence in Europe. To all outward appearances, Rathaus seemed a friendly, satisfied, confident personality. Those of his friends who knew him better, however, describe him as a man deeply embittered by the fate he had suffered, which had, in his eyes, destroyed his aspirations as a serious composer. His son put it dramatically: “The Nazis killed him”— meaning that being driven from Europe as a refugee had made Rathaus capitulate as a serious composer. On top of this, he was depressed by political developments in post-war Germany, particularly—as the above-mentioned citation from the letter to Horenstein hints—in the world of music, which had put Hindemith at the head of new developments in German music. Rathaus did not think much of Hindemith, who had not exactly distinguished himself as a fervent critic of the Nazi regime.

Published by Theodore Presser, 1957. Polish Music Center.

Rathaus’s growing enthusiasm for his teaching activities at Queens College, and his horrified reaction to the war in Europe, led Rathaus to identify more and more with his host country, the United States, which now became his home country. He had had an Austrian passport up to 1938, then a Polish one (it was easier to get an American residence permit via the “Polish quota”); he now became an American out of inner conviction. Is this, then, Rathaus, the American composer?

Following Rathaus’s death in 1954, his widow Gerta Rathaus and the “Karol Rathaus Memorial Association” made great efforts to propagate the composer’s works in the U. S. and Europe. The Association’s activities were devoted exclusively to spreading those works which had been composed in the U. S. This was rooted in the fact that, on the one hand, the manuscripts of these pieces were part of his estate, while the works published in the 1920s, on the other, were not so readily available. Another aspect to the Association’s approach was that works such as the music to the theater piece Die Ehe [The Marriage], a play with a Communist message written by a socialist writer, or the social criticism of Fremde Erde, an “emigrants’ opera,” were very much out of tune with the climate of thinking in post-war America. Finally, Gerta Rathaus’s own personal musical taste played a crucial role in ensuring that pieces such as the Bihm Variation or the Piano Pieces after Scarlatti were presented to the public, but not the more modern works written in the 1920s. These “American” works of Rathaus, it must be said, had no prospect of being played in Europe—they were not recognizable as “Contemporary Music.” In addition, Rathaus’s pre-war music had fallen into total obscurity there, and there seemed to be no one who remembered it had ever existed. Public awareness of Rathaus’s complete oeuvre has suffered considerably from the unfortunate circumstance that the Karol Rathaus Memorial Association failed to draw attention to it. Thus a number of factors contributed in preventing Rathaus’s music from being rediscovered after the war; in fact the revival of interest in it is hardly more than three years old.

The phenomenon of the “Polish” Rathaus should also receive mention here. Several compositions, primarily written in the U. S., bear witness to the composer’s renewed interest in the 1940s in his Polish origins: Mazurka (1941) and Three Polish Dances (1942). The fact that the second piece is dedicated to Paderewski is perhaps explained by Rathaus’s involvement in Polish exile organizations. The orchestral piece Polonaise Symphonique and Gaude Mater Polonia for four-part mixed choir and piano, both written in 1943, are works whose titles point to their Polish nature, and are a direct outcome of Rathaus’s intense patriotic interest in these years.

The tenor of his ideas, as can be seen in the many letters Rathaus wrote on this theme, was quite clearly a nostalgic reminiscence of his childhood in Galicia, which generated a strong emotional tie to Poland in him. Rathaus’s interest in Poland went far beyond discussions of political issues, however. He read Polish patriotic literature, attended meetings of Polish cultural, artistic and political organizations, and became a keen student of Polish history. In addition, he occasionally went to events organized by Polish expatriate clubs and was on the “Music Committee” of the Polish Institute of Arts and Culture of America, together with Jerzy Fitelberg and Bronisław Huberman. His friends viewed this development sceptically. Morgenstern was under no illusion concerning Rathaus’s discovery of his “Polish roots,” and told him point blank that he saw it simply as a phase in the process of growing older:

My dear friend, you have now reached the age where one begins to remember that one was once very young. One is still young, but no longer very young. And when we were very young we lived in Tarnopol (. . . .) That’s what you are confusing with the Polish soul. But she can’t help it—and can’t go along with it either![7]

Rathaus, by the way, took great exception to his friend’s remarks—probably because they were so close to the mark. The entry on Rathaus in the Brockhaus-Riemann Music Dictionary designates him as “an American of Polish origin.” Is it is really important to correct such a statement? Isn’t it irrelevant whether he was a Pole, an Austrian, a German or an American?

In conclusion, however, there is one further piece of evidence that this case of “mistaken identity” had negative consequences for the public awareness of Rathaus’s music. When the rehabilitation of music by European composers denigrated and banned under the Nazis as Entartete Musik [“perverted music”] finally, if very late, began in Germany, nobody thought of Karol Rathaus. After all, he was an “American composer of Polish origin.” And, moreover, one who had emigrated in 1932 before the Nazis seized power. A few years ago when interest in this field began to expand to the so-called “exile music” of European composers—what a discriminating term for music written by German and Austrian expatriates, and wrong into the bargain!— Karol Rathaus was again forgotten, as he was an “American composer of Polish origin.” In this way his name slipped through the meshes of every musicological net—and it is only now that his pre-war works are at last beginning to be rediscovered.


[1]. Martin Schüssler is the author of Karol Rathaus (Frankfurt am Main: 2000) and program notes for two CDs with music by Karol Rathaus: Der letzte Pierrot op. 19 / Symphonie op. 5., Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin, with Israel Yinon cond., CD recording, DECCA 455315-2 (1998); Polonaise symphonique, op. 52, Piano Concerto, op. 45, Vision dramatique, op. 55, Uriel Acosta, Donald Pirone, London Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, cond., CD recording, KOCH 3-7397-2H1 (1997).

[2]. Letter, Karl Rathaus to Soma Morgenstern, December 7, 1942, Rathaus-Archive, Queens College, New York. This and all letters cited here were originally written in German.[Back]

[3]. Letter, Rathaus to Morgenstern, December 25, 1942, Rathaus-Archive, Queens College, New York.[Back]

[4]. Letter to Morgenstern, December 7, 1942.[Back]

[5]. Letter to Hans Heinsheimer, April 24, 1933, Stadt und Landesbibliothek, Vienna.[Back]

[6]. Undated letter, Rathaus-Archive, Queens College, New York.[Back]

[7]. Letter, December 18, 1942, Rathaus-Archive, Queens College, N.Y.[Back]

Dr. Martin Schüssler researched Rathaus’s music since 1992, completing his doctoral dissertation in 1997 at the Freie Universitat Berlin. This pioneering work drew upon hitherto unknow sources in Europe and the U.S. including the composers’ private papers. Dr. Schüssler published several articles on Rathaus and helped to “rediscover” the composer’s music by editing his works for publication and performance. His book, Karol Rathaus appeared in the series “Perspektiven der Opernforschung” as no. 6 (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Lang, 2000).