KAROL RATHAUS - COMPOSER
Phone: 212-860-5541 * Fax: 917-677-8247
Extremely scarce and important two page autographed letter signed by the Polish-Austrian, later American composer on his personal letterhead, Flushing (Queens), January 13, 1952.
January 13, 1952
Dear Friend, I have expected at least a short note from you assuring me about your safe arrival home. Not having received it, I still hope that everything went well and that you are sound and safe and submerged in the many businesses you have to attend to.
To-days note, hurriedly conceived has a special function and a transitory one: to re-establish a contact and to let you know how things are going.
1. Opera. The choice of Brewster was a happy one. He is slow but excellent (And his slow tempo may be conditioned by Joë Krumgold who is plenty busy with his own films – but willing otherwise and cooperative.) What “numbers” are ready in text: I started to compose music, especially the choral prologo and the opening ariette of Shulamith (wizard’s wife). I will keep you informed and as soon as we have more of the libretto, you will get a copy.
2. Erich Acosta. The reason for my delay was – Heinsheimer. He made me an offer 2 ½ years ago and was exceedingly nice about it. I felt that I will have to move carefully to get away and not to offend him. I succeeded in both quite recently and I am happy. Please be good enough and remind me what I am to do now. A) letter to Mrs. B? b) mat and serve of the new version send to where? right away? (nothing changed?) Please do another right away so I may send you whatever you may need. –
The semester is coming to its close. Jan 16 is the concert of my students in composition – we are working night and day (In addition the usual final exam, papers, grades, graduation etc!!)
How is it to be home! How is Israel now?
With my best wishes and best personal regards,
Rathaus (1895-1954) writes to a friend he likely knew in his younger days in Germany and then moved to Israel. Despite the psychological struggle biographers portray of Rathaus during his American period, this letter is a happy one, one in which he feels excited about composing a new biblical and the fact that he had diplomatically handled the powerful and notably difficult G. Schirmer executive Hans Heinsheimer well. The big mystery is the opera itself. The work which he had planned to write for twenty years was never completed and the manuscript is not in the authoritative Karol Rathaus Papers archive in the Queens College Library. The subject of the biblical character Shulamith (female version of Solomon) was not new to the stage. The famous Yiddish Theatre composer Abraham Goldfader wrote a Yiddish operetta called “Shulamis” for Boris Thomashefsky in 1882; which was a huge Yiddish theatre hit. The operetta was eventually utilized in the first Yiddish language feature film entitled “Shulamith” in 1931. Rathaus left Germany for France in 1932 and discussed writing a Jewish opera that year. Based on the year of film’s release, it very well could have influenced Rathaus to write what would have been his second opera, based upon the biblical story of Shulamith.
In 1950, Rathaus scored an Israeli children’s puppet opera film entitled “Out of Evil” for his friend, director and screenwriter Joseph Krumgold. (Who is mentioned in our letter.) He also mentions Townsend Tyler Brewster as a librettist. Brewster was a poet, playwright and Queens College alumnus, who later would lecture for several years at the college. Despite biographers claim that he was not interested in Judaism as a religion in composition as many Jewish composers of the day were, apparently that was not the case. One must keep in mind, an opera is the most ambitious and time consuming of musical undertakings.
Hans Heisheimer was also a refugee from Germany. A powerful music publisher, he had worked for Universal Edition in Vienna and was on a business trip at the time of the Anschluss and never returned. After a stint at Boosey where he managed Bela Bartok, he went to G. Schirmer where he was the Vice President and one of the most powerful names in Music publishing. Rathaus, if he started to significantly compose would have been an important part of the Schirmer catalog.
Rathaus, a pupil of Franz Schreker, with fellow classmates; Alois Haba, Ernst Krenek, Berthold Goldschmidt and Stefan Wolpe were considered to be among the new innovative composer geniuses studying and working in Berlin prior to 1933. Rathaus was a prolific and groundbreaking composer while he lived in Berlin. While Rathaus’s composition output declined after he came to America, his reputation did not suffer and he made Queens College into one of the important conservatories of music in the country. Composers who previously would not have decided to matriculate to Queens, came to study with Rathaus and in addition to attracting students, they also attracted important faculty ever increasing their influence. Some of his pupils included: Sol Berkowitz, Gabriel Fontrier, Leo Kraft, Sol Novak, Raul Peskow and George Sturm. Berkowitz, Frontrier and Kraft spent their careers at Queens building upon Rathaus’s legacy. Rathaus suffered from the after effects of tuberculosis throughout most of his adult life and did not live long past this letter. Rudolf Bing in 1952, two years into his stewardship as General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera decided to present “Boris Godunov” in English as a vehicle for his star bass-baritone George London. The house had been using the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement and Bing decided to task his old friend from Vienna days, Karol Rathaus to take Mussorgsky’s original score and create a brand new faithful arrangement. Rathaus spent the better part of 1952 working on this project which was presented for the first time on March 2, 1953. The production ran at the Metropolitan Opera through the 1960 season. As the opera arrangement was a paid commission on a deadline and the Shulamith opera likely was not, “Boris Godunov” took up his free time and the Jewish opera project was put on the back burner. Rathaus passed away on November 21st, 1954, slightly less than two years after he wrote this letter. We have learned Townsend Brewster, his librettist for the project, born in 1924 is apparently still living, but we were unable to speak with him in time to learn more about that project. The manuscript’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
Rathaus letters are exceedingly rare and this letter is quite important as it dispels several issues which have been raised by biographers and writers about his American period. We recently appraised the archive of one of his most important pupils. I can clearly state based upon what I read within those papers that Rathaus was revered in his lifetime as a composition “god” by not only that composer, but his fellow pupils.,