Reading reports of the 1,500 Modernist masterpieces that have recently turned up in the flat of a Munich pensioner, I learned that the culprit’s name was Cornelius Gurlitt. Ah, I thought, I might have a lead for the German police: wasn’t he the composer who hightailed it out of Berlin when the Nazis came to power and rode out the war in Tokyo – of all places?
Wrong on both counts it turns out, but there is more than one Cornelius Gurlitt in this story. And you don’t have to go too far back in the family tree before musicians start popping up all over the place. The hoard of artworks was assembled, and presumably concealed, by Cornelius’ father, Hildebrandt, whose brother was Wilibald Gurlitt, a name that may be familiar to musicologists as he was one of the main exponents of Hugo Riemann’s analytical theories in the early 20th century.
Hildebrandt and Wilibald’s father was also named Cornelius, so now we’re on the right track. Well, no actually, this Cornelius was an art historian, and a prominent one too by all accounts. But his uncle was also Cornelius, and he’s the one that we’re most likely to have heard of. Anybody who got as far as I did with Associated Board piano exams (Grade 6 – so probably quite a lot of people) will most likely have played one of this Cornelius Gurlitt’s studies in a cold church hall for a grumpy man in a tweed jacket.
But he never went to Tokyo this one. That was Manfred Gurlitt, who was this Cornelius’ great nephew (keeping up at the back?). This Gurlitt was a very interesting character who seems to have made a series of poor judgments that have consigned him to an obscurity wholly unrelated to the quality of his music. He left Germany in 1939 after the Nazis declared, wrongly as it turned out, that he was of Jewish descent – it is easy to understand the problems they had untangling this family tree. So he went to Japan and took up the baton at the Tokyo Philharmonic. But he never distanced himself from the Nazis as they did from him, and was regularly to be found giving performances at the German embassy in Tokyo - a bad move as far as posterity is concerned. Then there’s his operas, the three most famous of which are on the subjects of Wozzeck, Lulu and Die Soldaten. His Wozzeck premiered four months after Berg’s, which was unfortunate. He was also two years behind Berg on Lulu (Gurlitt’s version was called Nana – another unfortunate misjudgment) although he beat Zimmermann to Die Soldaten, a lot of good it did him.
An interesting family then, but one that history is likely to judge harshly for various members’ relationships with the Nazi regime, quite an irony considering the Nazis considered them Jews.