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Composed: 2018

Length: c. 88 minutes

Orchestration: clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, electric guitar, viola, and cello

About this Piece

Film by Hans Karl Breslauer (Austria, 1924, 80min), based on the novel of the same name by Hugo Bettauer (1922)

Music by Olga NEUWIRTH (b. 1968)

At a Glance

“The City without Jews”

Die Stadt ohne Juden is a satire from 1920s Vienna. In this novel and its subsequent silent-film adaptation, a city’s population falls on hard times and is persuaded to blame its troubles on the Jews among them. The Jews are duly banished to an imagined “Zion,” but the city and its people soon find that neither their wallets, their stomachs nor their hearts are fuller. The edict is rescinded, and all’s well that ends well—except, of course, that it wasn’t.

The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth was commissioned to compose a new soundtrack for a restored print of the film in 2018. Mixing live and electronic sounds, shards of melody with clouds of dissonance, her score at once illustrates the action and story of the film while making an acute commentary on its themes, notably a perennial nostalgia for a rose-tinted past, the unquiet specter of anti-Semitism, and the synthetic appeal of demagogues everywhere. Peter Quantrill

About the Program

Remember, this is 1924. It is meant to be a satire.

You may find yourself struggling to retain this basic information during the course of Die Stadt ohne Juden. As the author of the original story, published two years earlier, Hugo Bettauer would have sympathized with your confusion: he gave his story a subtitle, “A Novel from the Day after Tomorrow.”

Even he could hardly have anticipated how quickly satire would become reality. A few months after the release of this silent-screen adaptation, Bettauer was murdered in his office by a young thug. A different fate awaited the film’s director, Hans Karl Breslauer, who became a sketch-writer for the Austrian papers and then, in 1940, a member of the Nazi party. He died in Salzburg in 1965.

Many lines of the screenplay continue to speak an eerie truth to power, subtly underlined by the new score which Olga Neuwirth composed for the premiere of a restored print in 2018. The film’s second life, and concert-screenings such as this one, have often given Neuwirth cause to explain how she first encountered the film years before its public rediscovery, in a search for her own past; how she studied each frame before starting composition; how she had to suppress her feelings while at work “or else the film would have had music which is just an expression of my fury.”

Many listeners tend to think of art music and film music as distinct endeavors with separate aims, aesthetics, and audiences. The days are past when Satie, Korngold, Shostakovich, and Copland moved fluently between stage and screen, always writing in their own voice. Philip Glass is the modern exception who proves the rule, by couching his scores (for The Hours and the Qatsi trilogy) in a tonally assuaging lexicon of arpeggios and pedal points.

Well, maybe. For the last 30 years and more, Neuwirth has contested such orthodoxy. Born in Graz in 1968, she studied in Vienna and San Francisco, and wrote her Master’s-degree thesis on Hans Werner Henze’s score for an Alain Resnais film, L’Amour à mort. She adapted David Lynch’s noir thriller Lost Highway for her first opera. Anyone who has heard that, or seen the 2014 Neuwirth-scored original of Goodnight, Mommy (in German, not the recent remake starring Naomi Watts), will find themselves at home with the longshore drift of her music for Die Stadt ohne Juden.

Restless swirling currents pick up and leave behind half-familiar motifs like so much musical flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of a ship which once bore a cargo of Austro-German music, from Bach and Haydn to Henze and Neuwirth. She remarks: ‘I do not want to go for pure illustration or “Mickey Mousing,” as Hanns Eisler called it, but sometimes I do it anyway, when I think it is needed or when I see it is fun’: a quick-tempered slap, a ticking bedroom clock, the babel of the demagogue’s triumph, the sweet relief of a lover’s return.

Bobbing and eddying to the surface are fragments of musical salvage: snippets of tavern songs, Viennese operetta, far-right rallying cries contemporary to Bettauer’s era and to our own, even the butt-end of a famous English march for a short-selling, cigar-chomping banker in London (U.K. government bonds are “the gifts that keep on giving”: Crispin Odey of Odey Asset Management, September 2022).

However, the score never succumbs to the death by a thousand quotes which is the fate of countless post-modern artworks terminally afflicted with “irony.” Neuwirth again: “It was important for me not to overdo any of the characters but take them seriously, so that the viewer does, too.” A flavor of klezmer suffices for the Jewish neighborhood of “Utopia” (a flimsy filmic disguise for the Vienna evoked by the original novel), like the electronic phantom of sententious hymns for the Chancellor of Utopia as he so-reluctantly banishes the Jews from his city: “I’m a friend of the Jews and an admirer of their brilliant qualities.” (“You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”)

The happy reconciliation of the film’s ending is Breslauer’s invention, too. In Bettauer’s novel, the Mayor of Vienna welcomed back the exiles. “Fanfare sounds, trumpet sounds, [the Mayor] entered the balcony, stretched out his arms in blessing, and gave an inspiring speech that began with the words: ‘My dear Jew!’” The cynicism of such a gesture is not lost on Neuwirth, whose music does what only music can do, which is to evoke both sentiments at once while adding a modern gloss of painful hindsight. Sometimes, the bad guys win.

Indeed, the slow, pulsing, alienated nature of the soundtrack to Die Stadt ohne Juden seems to place an unfathomable gulf between the film’s audience and its subjects, reflecting the chronological and cultural distance between us and them. After the swell of the organ, the wheeze of the accordion introduces the sickly scent of nostalgia. During the course of the film, Neuwirth’s music leads us through a distorting hall of mirrors in which we suddenly see our own times looming into view, larger than life. But this is 1924. It is meant to be a satire. —Peter Quantrill