The arbitrariness that exists in music history can sometimes be quite confusing. Why did one composer become famous and another did not? We know all too well that it is not always based on an objective value judgement; all too many really good composers (and/or their works) have totally disappeared from our stages.
Why is Alban Berg’s Wozzeck so often performed and recorded and why has almost nobody heard of Manfred Gurlitt’s Wozzeck? Both operas, based on the unfinished play by Büchner, were premiered in quick succession. Berg’s in December 1925 in Berlin and Gurlitt’s in April 1926 in Bremen.
Masterpiece versus craftsmanship, you say? Not quite. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Gurlitt’s music. Both composers use a new musical language and they are – each in his own way – both progressive.
The immense popularity that Berg’s opera enjoyed from the very first day obviously contributed to Gurlitt’s work falling into oblivion. But: is this the only reason, or is it more complicated?
Manfred Gurlitt’s biography raises many questions. He was born in 1890 as the son of the prominent Berlin art dealer Fritz Gurlitt and his wife Annarella; yet he claimed that his real father was Fritz Waldecker, for many years the lover, (and after his father’s death, husband) of his mother.
Whether his father’s suspicious ancestry (according to the Nazis, he had Jewish blood) had anything to do with this claim, we do not know, but it certainly cannot be ruled out. Especially since young Manfred was a great supporter of the Nazi regime and he signed up as a member of the party as early as 1933.
That did not really help him and in 1937 he was expelled from the party and dismissed from all his positions, after which he fled to Tokyo. Under pressure from the Germans he had to resign from teaching at the Conservatory in 1942, but he did not suffer real persecution. What happened between 1933 and 1937 remains a mystery.