Walter Braunfels described his opera The Birds as “a lyrical, fantastical game”. Based on Aristophanes, the opera became a triumph after its Munich premiere in 1920. For Bruno Walter it was “one of the most interesting new works” of his time in Munich, and the critic Alfred Einstein, who compared the opera with Wagner’s Meistersinger [The Mastersingers] and Pfitzner’s Palestrina, saw it as “a work of yearning for the pure realm of fantasy, art, poetry, and at once a fulfilment of this yearning, a leap into a world beyond time and bias”.
Braunfels began his opera in 1913. He completed it after the shocking experiences of the First World War, which changed his perspective on the world. Now he was driven by the search for timeless alternative worlds. He found the moments of salvation he sought in art, and in his Catholic faith, which was as fundamental to Braunfels as it was to Anton Bruckner or Olivier Messiaen. This can already be seen in The Birds – Braunfels added Christian elements to the classical pagan source material. His faith in a divine order to the world also shaped his Te Deum (1922), a glowing confessional work with a symphonic structure, whose monumental effect is comparable to Gustav Mahler’s Sinfonie der Tausend [Symphony of a Thousand].
Walter Braunfels was born in 1882 in Frankfurt am Main, the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. He trained as a pianist under James Kwast and Theodor Leschetitzky. He chose Ludwig Thuille, the head of the neoromantic Munich school, as his composition teacher. But an even more important figure was conductor Felix Mottl, who he was permitted to assist, and to whom he owed his enduring knowledge of Bruckner and, most importantly, Berlioz. Other strong influences included the circle of poets around Stefan George, the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand and the archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler. These influences may have encouraged his tendency to look to the past, along with his delight in masks and disguises – as can be seen as much in the stage works Princess Brambilla (1909) and Don Gil of the Green Trousers (1924) as in the orchestral transfigurations of Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (1917) or Don Juan (1924).
But this playful approach to shifting identities and lyrical-fantastical visions also presented problems for Braunfels. During the First World War he complained that “too many different kinds of blood” were mixed within him which “pulled [him] in different directions”. “For such unevenly created natures as mine, the only thing that helps is to focus the will completely on a single point – and that is only possible in a monastery”. He thought of his conversion to Catholicism as a similarly clear decision – both an ethical and an aesthetic safeguard.
In 1933, Walter Braunfels lost his position as director of the Cologne Conservatory and his membership of the Prussian Academy of Arts for racial and political reasons. As his works could no longer be performed, he withdrew into “internal emigration”. He found solace, even more strongly than before, in his Christian faith. In the mystery play Annunciation (1933–1935) based on Paul Claudel, the composer’s own situation is reflected in the main characters, lepers rejected from society, and in the corresponding musical style, which is more bitter, and more linear. Another outsider was Joan of Arc, to whom he dedicated his 1943 Jeanne d’Arc – Scenes from the Life of Saint Joan. Tellingly, both these two key works are based on French, not German, source material.
“Mottl’s educational impact can be seen in his sense of style, his assured recognition of what is artistically valuable and his rejection of the sensational, in the way he connects soft naturalism and healthy objectivity, and in his distance from any kind of affectation”. Braunfels paid tribute to his role model Felix Mottl in this sentence, but he could equally have been talking about himself.
He was a conservative, like Hans Pfitzner and Wilhelm Furtwängler. When his music seems natural and unforced – “timeless and out of time” – this lack of external effects is deliberate. His music combines the movement structure of Beethoven or Brahms with the orchestral colours of Berlioz, Wagner and Strauss. Even the operas are more often symphonic than dramatic in structure.
For Braunfels, the beauty of the triad was the basis of all music. He only pushed occasionally at the boundaries of tonality, as for example in his characterisation of the lepers of Annunciation or the conflicted opposing figures of St Joan. The dissonances which open his 14 Preludes, for example, soon resolve into consonance. A sound world related to that of Brahms and Reger proves itself to be the composer’s natural habitat. In setting religious visions and miracles that can only be explained by faith, he employed fantastical aural effects, often chorally heightened. Other memorable details include the cries of individual words in Te Deum or the high bell tones at the end of Annunciation, which begin quietly and then grow to drown out the chords around them, and end up hammered out, almost fanatically.
The music of Walter Braunfels once touched audiences and musicians alike. Although great conductors like Busch, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Klemperer and Walter championed his work, it fell into obscurity after 1945, because it did not fit contemporary ideas of progress. Only the opening up of aesthetic sensibilities since the 1970s has given it a chance again. The rediscovery of Braunfels began with The Birds, which had once been his breakthrough success. A significant work like Saint Joan did not see a staged performance until 2008 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. We can expect further new discoveries.