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The Paul Bekker collection in the Yale University music library.

Posterity is not kind to music critics. Their writings are quickly consigned to a limbo reserved for period documents, curiosities of limited perspective whose relative value is gauged against present prejudice; critical missteps are the subject of tittering censure, while insights earn patronizing praise for their prescience. A few critics like Eduard Hanslick stand above their time-bound errors and insights by virtue of the coherence of the aesthetic philosophy revealed in their judgments. Others, like Francois-Joseph Fetis, make such manifold contributions to musical life that their stature as historical figures overshadows any critical shortcomings. By such measures Paul Bekker, arguably the most articulate and influential German critic of the first third of this century, ought to be triply blessed. Not only have the bulk of his critical opinions been affirmed by posterity, but the keen and original intellect informing his judgments and the range of his contributions to the musical life of his time should assure him an important place in music history. And yet Bekker's ideas and activity, like the culture of which they were so integral a part, have been largely buried by the tortuous course of events in our century. To recover any measure of Bekker's stature and relevance therefore requires a patient archaeology that reconstructs from historical artifacts those links that reveal the path of our passage from past to present.

During the period of Paul Bekker's critical activity in Europe, roughly 1905 to 1935, a world war, revolutions in communications and transportation technology, and an unprecedented politicization of the arts helped transform the critic's function from a chronicler and arbiter in a relatively stable cultural environment to an active participant in an ongoing debate about the very nature and purpose of art within contested cultural terrain. Bekker's influence extended from the reading public of music lovers to the inner sanctums of cultural power; his interlocutors were the composers, performers, conductors, and administrators -- men and women like Ferruccio Busoni, Luise Dumont, Alfred Einstein, Leo Kestenberg, Ernst Krenek, Franz Schreker, Georg Schunemann, Heinz Tietjen, and Werner Wolffheim -- who shaped German musical life of late Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany, and who themselves increasingly formulated the premises of their works and activities in print. Whenever Paul Bekker took up his pen, whether in writing essays, lectures, books, or private correspondence, he contributed to elevating this often stormy discourse, eschewing polemics for reasoned analysis, prejudice for imaginative insight. In Bekker's passionate engagement in more than three decades of German musical life (including his years of exile in Paris and New York) his voice was that of both a perceptive witness and engaged activist.

Born in Berlin on 11 September 1882, Paul Eugen Max Bekker was the only child of Hirsch Nachmann Michel Bekker (1852-?) and Olga Elsner (18??-1943). Bekker's father, a tailor by trade, apparently abandoned his family in 1888 and emigrated to the United States (no further traces of his activities there have yet come to light). Olga Elsner Bekker, who worked in the costume department of the Berlin Court Opera, subsequently married Julius Panse, likewise an employee of the Court Opera. Bekker's musical education included piano studies with Alfred Sormann (1861-1913) and violin instruction with Benno Horwitz (1855-1904) and Fabian Rehfeld (1842-1920). He was professionally active as a violinist before being engaged as a conductor, first in Aschaffenburg (1902/03), then in Gorlitz (1903/04). Upon his return to Berlin he served a year in the military (April 1904 to March 1905) before turning to music journalism. Bekker's articles appeared in a variety of journals and periodicals, and he served as music critic for the Berliner Neueste Nachrichten 1906-09 and the Berliner Allgemeine Zeitung 1909-11. Along with his essays and reviews, Bekker's monographs on Oskar Fried (1907) and Offenbach (1909), his examination of contemporary opera in Das Musikdrarna der Gegenwart (1909), and, above all, his Beethoven study (1911) brought him to national prominence.

In 1911 Bekker was appointed chief music critic of the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, a position he held until 1923. In the twelve years of his activity in Frankfurt, Bekker became Germany's most widely read music critic; his judicious championship of new music, including the works of Busoni, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Schreker, earned him influence and trust in progressive circles but made him anathema to conservatives such as Hans Pfitzner, whose Die neue Asthetik der musikalischen Impotenz of 1920 was directed against Bekker. In addition to three collections of essays and reviews -- Kritische Zeitbilder (1921), Klang und Eros (1922), and Neue Musik (1923) -- Bekker's books of these years include Das deutsche Musikleben (1916), a pioneering work of music sociology, and a landmark study of Gustav Mahler's Symphonies (1921).

These works, written during and just after the First World War, during which Bekker was stationed on the Western front, give evidence of evolving critical perspectives. In his pre-war Beethoven study Bekker attempted to capture in words the poetic impulses of Beethoven's music, which he described as the product of a personality who was "first a thinker and a poet, and secondarily a musician."(1) Beethoven, Bekker maintained, created music out of a poetic idea. "He never subordinated his ideas to the limitations of tone or of his craft. His whole work is ever a struggle of idea with tone-material, which material he made forever more adaptable, more expressive as a vehicle of thought."(2)

Das deutsche Musikleben of 1916, in which Bekker proposed an outline for Germany's post-war musical life, significantly broadens the range of his critical thought. No doubt influenced by the communal experience of war as well as by having been forced to view Germany's cultural life from afar, Bekker moves from the poetical hermeneutics of his Beethoven book toward an examination of music's social context. "The laws that shape the material in general," he wrote in his introduction, "rest not on laws immanent within the material itself. They are the result of the interaction between the material and society's perceptive capacity: they are sociologically conditioned. The patterns of sound are a societal image translated into musical material; not an aesthetic, but a sociological sound symbol."(3) Social conditions and society's general "perceptive capacity" establish the parameters within which the artist shapes his or her material according to personal predilection. In an anticipation of the critical theory of Adorno and the Frankfurt school, Bekker postulates that composing is by its nature an act of social commentary.(4)

Just a year after Das deutsche Musikleben and in the midst of work that would continue his meditations upon music and society, Bekker published an article entitled "Musikalische Neuzeit" (New Musical Times), in which he identified a basic impulse in new music toward creating autonomous values from properties unique to the medium.(5) In the works of composers as diverse as Mahler, Schoenberg, Rottenberg, Schreker, and Rudi Stephan, Bekker found evidence for a common yearning to create works free from such "extra-musical" influences as poetry, painting, history, and philosophy, just as in modern painting from cubism and futurism to expressionism he noted a "striving for inner independence, toward liberation from the tutelage or collaboration with other arts."(6) Bekker thus argued that in all the arts there was a trend "toward a new solution to the formal problem with elements unique to each art, to regain the organic integrity of the artwork in contrast to Romantic multiplicity."(7) "We must once again learn how to listen to music," Bekker wrote in conclusion, "and wean ourselves of 'understanding' music, that unfortunate legacy of an anti-musical age. Then we will be receptive to the language of the musician who speaks once again not in terms of ideas, but in terms of music; at that point the realization will take hold that 'music making' is the task of the musician, while that of the listener is not understanding music but listening to music."(8)

"Musikalische Neuzeit" marks a significant departure from the concerns of Bekker's Beethoven book and Das deutsche Musikleben. In the decade that followed this article he developed a view of music not as poetic expression or the product of social forces, but as sonic material obedient to its own phenomenological laws. This perspective, outlined in a sketch for a new phenomenology of music entitled Von den Naturreichen des Klanges (1925) and in a 1927 essay collection entitled Organische und Mechanische Musik, is given historical amplification in his 1924 reevaluation of Wagner's works and in a series of radio lectures on music history in 1925, published the following year as Musikgeschichte als Geschichte der musikalischen Formwandlungen. Bekker's thought thus anticipates and accompanies the aesthetic of the Neoclassicism and Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s. Indeed, one of the pioneering manifestos of this aesthetic, Busoni's 1920 Frankfurter Zeitung call for a "Young Classicism," was in fact drawn from his correspondence with Bekker.

In 1923 Bekker left his position at the Frankfurter Zeitung in order to devote himself to freelance activity. Since the end of the war he had harbored a desire to give up music criticism for an administrative position within one of the cultural institutions of Weimar Germany. After several frustrating close calls (including an abortive 1919 nomination by the Prussian Ministry of Culture to be the director of the Berlin Staatsoper) Bekker was appointed Intendant of the Kassel Staatstheater in 1925. This was followed in 1927 by an appointment as Intendant of the Wiesbaden Staatstheater, a position he held until 1932. In Kassel and Wiesbaden, whose productions included both opera and theater, Bekker sought to balance repertory staples with historical revivals and new works, many of which he staged himself. In Kassel he inaugurated a chamber opera series that brought imaginative productions of works by Boieldieu, Cimarosa, Dittersdorf, Gretry, Offenbach, Pergolesi, and Schenk, as well as introducing recent works by Busoni, Korngold, Pfitzner, Schreker, Stravinsky, and the world premiere of Krenek's Orpheus und Eurydike. The greater resources of the Wiesbaden theater (with two performance venues) enabled Bekker to pursue a still more ambitious program that included revivals of major works by Berlioz, Gluck, Rossini, Verdi, and Weber, as well as Wiesbaden first performances of newer operas by Busoni, Casella, Delius, Hindemith, Krenek, Milhaud, Pfitzner, Schreker, Stravinsky, Stephan, and Weill. German or world premieres of Bekker's Wiesbaden years included works by Alfano, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Herrmann, Krenek, Lilien, Milhaud, and Schoenberg. During his Wiesbaden years Bekker devoted himself primarily to writing essays for the theater's programs. His one major book, Das Opern-theater (1931), reflects the practical concerns of an opera director and administrator.

With the end of his five-year Wiesbaden contract Bekker returned to Berlin and music criticism; his Briefe an zeitgenossische Musiker, a series of open letters to musical contemporaries that appeared at the end of 1932, offers a resume of nearly thirty years of critical observations and insight. Shortly after Hitler's rise to power Bekker, under the immediate threat of persecution, left Germany. Publishing business and speaking engagements took him to Switzerland and Italy before he settled in Paris in the fall, where he wrote for the Pariser Tageblatt. In the fall of 1934 Bekker emigrated to the United States; there he wrote for the New Yorker Staatszeitung until his death on 7 March 1937. His last books, Wandlungen der Oper, published in Switzerland in 1934, and his English-language The Story of the Orchestra, published in the United States in 1936, are more popularly oriented historical studies that offer an elegant synthesis of the sometimes contradictory themes in his work by situating individual creativity between the conflicting dictates of social and material forces.

Bekker's writings as well as the record of his activities in Kassel and Wiesbaden bear ample testimony to his significance for early twentieth-century musical culture. However, the fortuitous survival of the bulk of his papers adds an unsuspected dimension to this multifaceted career. An indefatigable correspondent with an admirable penchant for preserving the documents of his private and professional affairs, Bekker left the historian an unparalleled source. These documents not only chronicle the intellectual evolution of one of this century's seminal critical minds, but in reflecting the entire spectrum of Bekker's musical experience -- from his years as a violinist and conductor in Berlin, Aschaffenburg, and Gorlitz to his tenure as a theater director -- they allow us to reconstruct the inner workings of a rich musical culture. The range of Bekker's interests and influence make the Yale Paul Bekker Collection a major repository for twentieth-century German music history; the collection also provides the context within which Bekker's own legacy can at last be fairly and accurately judged.


The Yale Paul Bekker Collection was given by Sarah Bekker in memory of her husband, Konrad Bekker (1911-1981), Paul Bekker's eldest child. Konrad Bekker had left Germany in August 1933 to join his father in Italy and thereafter in France before moving to Switzerland to complete his doctorate in economics at the University of Basel. He joined his father in the United States in November 1936 at which time he was able to bring with him most of Bekker's papers and much of his library. In 1939 in order to finance the publication of his doctoral dissertation (a requirement for receiving his degree) Konrad Bekker was forced to sell selected mtems of Bekker's papers (principally letters from prominent musical personalities and a few manuscript scores) to the Library of Congress, while other libraries acquired a number of books and scores. Nevertheless, what remained, preserved in several dozen boxes, represented the bulk of Bekker's papers, including virtually all his family and business correspondence, as well as several hundred letters and additional items by correspondents represented in the Library of Congress collection. Unfortunately virtually all letters and documents relating to Bekker's life after 1933, including his years in Paris and New York have not survived, presumably destroyed by his widow, Margit Bekker Robert.

Bekker was fastidious about his personal files and was in the habit at the end of every calendar year of putting his papers in order, segregating between personal, family, and strictly professional correspondence. The Yale collection preserves the principal categories established by Bekker, though with additional subdivision within his professional correspondence. However, a system of cross-references facilitates ready access to those inevitable overlapping relationships between the private and professional spheres. Every effort has been made to identify as many correspondents as possible, although additional research with European sources and greater familiarity with the contents of the collection will no doubt yield additional information.

Bekker's voluminous personal correspondence is a testimony not only to his dedication to letter writing, but to his gift for maintaining friendships and professional contacts. Indeed, one is struck by the number of professional friends and acquaintances from his early days in Berlin, Aschaffenburg, and Gorlitz with whom he remains in touch until well into the 1920s. It is only after 1925, when his administrative activities in Kassel and Wiesbaden begin to make increasing demands on his time, that there is any noticeable decline in his private correspondence. However, after 1925, when Bekker had access to a secretarial staff, far more of his own letters survive.

There is a small collection of historic correspondence (including, among others, individual letters by Billroth, Brahms, Goldmark, Hanslick, Lortzing, Mahler, and Reger) whose provenance is uncertain. Several letters are addressed to or were apparently collected by Ludwig Rottenberg, whereas other items are attributable to Bekker's years of research for an unfinished book on Hans von Bulow.

Bekker's family correspondence, which includes many letters by Bekker, is extensive and ranges from correspondence between Bekker and his grandmother, mother and step-father, his three wives, and four children, to letters from various aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. Bekker's somewhat complicated marital affairs require elucidation. His first wife, Dorothea (Dora) Marie Zelle (1876-1974), was the daughter of the renowed musicologist Friedrich Zelle (1845-1927), who had been Paul Bekker's tutor. Six years his senior, Dora Zelle was a talented and intellectually active woman who had known Bekker since at least 1900. They were married in 1909 and their only child, Konrad, was born in 1911. Their divorce in 1920 was amicable and they remained close in later years; indeed, Dora Bekker frequently visited Bekker in his Hofheim, Kassel, and Wiesbaden homes and on more than one occasion during his travels she looked after the children of his second marriage. That second marriage, to Hanna vom Rath, was stormy. Johanna Emmy vom Rath (1893-1983), the daughter of Walther vom Rath, the director of I.G. Farben, one of Germany's leading chemical concerns, was a gifted artist and in her later years one of the principal collectors and art dealers in Germany. Bekker met her in 1918 and against the vehement objections of her family they were married in 1920. That same year the couple moved to Hofheim, where Hanna was to remain until the end of her life. Bekker and Hanna Bekker vom Rath had three children, Barbara, born in 1921, Kilian, born in 1923 (he died on the Russian front in 1943), and Maximiliane, born in 1927. By the time Bekker became Intendant in Kassel strains in the marriage were showing. The separation and divorce (granted in 1930) were protracted and traumatic, and were complicated by a relationship Bekker had begun with Margit (Grete) Reinhard, a soprano who had been engaged at Kassel in 1925 and who followed Bekker to Wiesbaden in 1927. After Bekker left Wiesbaden in 1932 he returned to Berlin with Margit Reinhard. When he moved to Paris, Reinhard sang for a season in Italy before joining Bekker in New York, where they were married in 1935.

Bekker's professional correspondence with organizations is divided according to the principal areas of his activity. His extensive correspondence with newspapers, periodicals, and publishing houses (much of which is directed to editors and publishers with whom he was personally acquainted) gives insight into the complexities of the German publishing world. His dealings with a range of cultural organizations (especially in Frankfurt and Berlin) span his entire career and are a particularly fertile source of cultural politics. Bekker's correspondence with concert agents, on the other hand, is predominantly a product of his early years when he was seeking employment as a violinist and conductor.

The second section of the collection contain documents, receipts, and miscellany, some of which could be of great value in any biographical study of Bekker. Of greater historical significance is the body of official documents, particularly from his years of military service. A third section includes two categories of photographs: documents of family and friends, and a large collection of production stills from Kassel and Wiesbaden; the value of these pictures is enhanced because of the severe bombing losses suffered by the archives of both theaters during the Second World War.

Section four contains a number of Bekker's handwritten manuscripts for books, lectures, and articles. There is what promises to be a fairly complete collection of his published work, although much research remains to be done to establish a comprehensive bibliography of Bekker's writings. Finally, there is a small selection from Bekker's private library, including several books with author inscriptions (including Ferruccio Busoni, Herbert Eulenberg, Paul Hindemith, and Franz Werfel).

Among the music in section five are a handful of printed scores (some with inscriptions, including Ernst Krenek, Ludwig Rottenberg, and Otto Taubmann) and a number of manuscripts, the most important of which are no doubt songs and the only opera by Rottenberg. Notable among the manuscripts is Bekker's own handwritten copy of Wagner's Das Rheingold, which he prepared in 1900 at the age of eighteen.

1. "Beethoven ist in erster Linie Denker und Dichter, in zweiter Linie erst Musiker." Beethoven (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1911), 560; published in English as Beethoven, translated and adapted by M. M. Bozman (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1927), 337.

2. "Er tragt nie Bedenken, die Forderungen der Idee denen des Klanges unterzuordnen. Sein ganzes Schaffen ist ein Ringen der Idee mit der Klangmaterie, die stetig verfeinert und der Aufnahme zartester Erkenntnisse gefugiger gemacht wird." Ibid.

3. "Die Gestaltungsgesetze der Materie uberhaupt beruhen nicht auf innerorganischen Gesetzen der Materie. Sie sind Ergebnisse der Wechselwirkung zwischen Materie und gesellschaftlichem Wahrnehmungsvermogen: sie sind soziologisch bedingt. Das Klangbild ist ein in Klangmaterie umgesetztes Gesellschaftsbild, kein aesthetisches, sondern ein soziologisches Klangsymbol." Das deutsche Musikleben (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1916), 24; translation by the author.

4. Das deutsche Musikleben, 28.

5. "Musikalische Neuzeit," Frankfurter Zeitung (29 July 1917); reprinted in Kritivche Zeitbilder (Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1921), 292-99.

6. "Streben nach innerer Selbstandigkeit, nach Befreiung von der Vormundschaft oder Mitarbeit anderer Kunste." Ibid.

7. ". . .die neue Losung des formalen Problems mit kunsteigenen Mitteln, die Wiedergewinnung der organischen Einheitlichkeit des Kunstwerks im Gegensatz zur romantischen Vielseitigkeit." Ibid.

8. "Wir mussen erst wieder horen lernen und uns das Musik-'Verstehen', dieses leidige Erbteil eines anti-musikalischen Zeitalters, abgewohnen. Dann wird auch die Sprache der Musiker zu uns dringen, die wieder Musik, nicht Ideen sprechen, dann wird sich die Erkenntnis Bahn brechen, dass 'Musik machen' die Aufgabe des Musikers ist, die des Horers aber nicht Musikverstehen, sondern Musikhoren." Ibid.

Christopher Hailey is the author of Franz Schreker (1878-1934): A Cultural Biography (Cambridge, 1993), editor of a German-language edition of the Bekker-Schreker correspondence (Aachen, 1994), and a co-editor of the Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence (New York, 1987). He is currently researching a full-length study on Bekker's life and works.
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Title Annotation:German music critic
Author:Hailey, Christopher
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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