Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Alfred Schlee: music publisher as hero?

We usually think of music publishers as functionaries at best. They are facilitators rather than creators, and they occupy the one role in the creation of new music that is seemingly motivated by finance rather than art. All that is grossly unfair, of course, and role of music publishers in distributing and disseminating new music is all too easily overlooked.
Even so, the wartime activities of Alfred Schlee are truly extraordinary and deserve to be better known. Schlee found himself at the head of Universal Edition, Austria's leading new music publisher at the Anshluss in 1938. Difficult times for all concerned, but UE found themselves in deeper trouble than most, as the Nazis were in the process of banning a large section of the UE roster. Taking Milhaud and Krenek out of circulation was one thing, but banning performances of Mahler was really going to have an impact on the company's bottom line. Worse still, the Nazis wanted UE in German hands, so Goering personally oversaw its takeover by Schott and later Peters.
So what did Schlee do while all this was going on? Well, he didn't panic. He was a personal friend of the mayor of Vienna, who, while a member of the Nazi party, was also an Austrian nationalist. The mayor made sure that the Gestapo was kept at arm's length while Schlee did what he had to do. He began salting away all the company's entarten scores – which included large chunks of the output of Schoenberg and Weill – pretty much anywhere he could think of. Apparently the organs of village churches around Austria were filled with the manuscripts, as was Schlee's own house.
Then there was Webern. The ascetic composer did himself no favours in terms of the financial viability of his lifestyle, but Schlee ensured him an income throughout the war by employing him as an arranger and reader.
After the war, UE was re-established as an Austrian company, and then began the second heroic phase of Schlee's career. From the late 40s onwards, the company, under Schlee's directorship became a heaven for Soviet bloc composers who were having a hard time at home. So names like Ligeti, Kurtag, Schnittke and Denisov appeared on the international scene thanks largely to his single-handed support.
Alfred Schlee's name is known today mainly through the many works that were written in 1991 to mark his 90th birthday. The composers included Messiaen, Schnittke, Kurtag and Birtwistle – quite a line-up.
He was by all accounts a very private man. Pierre Boulez, another high-profile signing to UE, said "If you want to know something about him, you have to ask someone else." That privacy might explain why there is no photograph of him to be found on the internet. There is a good, if frustratingly brief, obituary here though:
There aren't many publishers in the history of music who would warrant the biography treatment, but Alfred Schlee is surely the exception.

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