Jascha Horenstein

Jascha Horenstein was born in Kiev on 24 April 1898.  He was the first child born during his father Abraham’s marriage to third wife Marie Ettinger and was number thirteen of sixteen children for his father. The Horensteins were a well-to-do Jewish family. According to Horenstein scholar Misha Horenstein, the young Jascha received his first piano lesson from his mother and was exposed to a variety of music through various gatherings of the Jewish and Hassidic communities based in Kiev.

In 1906, the family moved to Königsberg. Shortly thereafter, Jascha began lessons with Max Brode on the violin. The family remained in Königsberg until November 1911 when they relocated to Vienna. Jascha was enrolled in the Staatsgymnasium No.2 where he befriended a young Hanns Eisler, also a pupil at the school. Over the coming years, Horenstein would continue to study the violin under renowned violinist Adolph Busch as well as Karl Berla. In 1916 he gained entry into the Vienna Academy of Music where he began his studies in composition with Franz Schreker and harmony with Joseph Marx. It was this course of study that would eventually lead Horenstein to start another lifelong friendship with fellow Schreker student, composer Karol Rathaus.

In March 1920, Horenstein’s primary mentor Franz Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule of Berlin and, under a contract stipulation, any of his current pupils were allowed to join him in order to continue their study. This offer was accepted by many students including Horenstein, Isaak Thaler, Alfred Freudenheim, Karol Rathaus, Alois Hába, Julius Bürger, Ernst Křenek, Alois Melichar, and others.

Horenstein’s oeuvre of compositions from this time has been lost. According to scholar Misha Horenstein, Jascha composed for many media including piano and chamber music as well as voice. He also supplemented his income performing second violin with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for one season until an injury to his finger caused him to abandon his professional aspirations.

Horenstein took full advantage of his time in Berlin and, while he never formally studied conducting, began to pursue the medium as his main focus. This, coupled with the end of his violin career, proved to be the first fruitful steps toward his lifelong career as one of the great conductors of the twentieth century. In 1922, Horenstein made his conducting debut with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler’s First Symphony. This solidified his desire to pursue conducting and he returned to Berlin where he began an apprenticeship under choral conductor and Berlin Hochschule faculty member Siegfried Ochs. This apprenticeship was in association with the Berlin Schubert Choir. His engagements under Ochs garnered the attention of the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler. Thus began arguably the most important mentorship of Horenstein’s career. According to Horenstein’s friend and Artistic Executor Joel Lazar, this association was essential to Horenstein’s orchestral style development and technique as a conductor.

Horenstein’s repertoire was not limited to one style or period of music but included  a wide array of works from traditional Western composers such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as the promotion of late Romantic composers such as Mahler and Bruckner. His repertoire also included works by his colleague Karol Rathaus, Kurt Weill, Alban Berg and Max Butting. Beside these notable composers, Horenstein also championed works by Danish composer Carl August Neilsen and  Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

In 1928, Horenstein’s superior conducting was recognised and, with a recommendation by Furtwängler, he was appointed the conductor of Düsseldorf Opera. The following year Horenstein also gained the position of general music director. Despite these successes, the political arena of the late Weimar Republic began to shift for the worse. The First World War left the former German Empire heavily burdened by unemployment, rampant inflation and an oppressive mandate of restitution imposed by the victor nations in the Versailles Treaty of 1919. These factors, coupled with the anti-Semitic sentiment fanned by the Nazi Party and their aversion to burgeoning modernist music (later deemed degenerate music or ‘Entartete Musik’) made Horenstein a target for attack from the onset of his new tenure in Düsseldorf.

Two particular productions of contemporary works, including a 1930 staging of Berg’s Wozzeck (the premiere was attended by Berg himself) and the 1931 staging of  Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, were successful but served as fuel for populist anti-Semites to militate against Horenstein’s leadership. In March 1933, the passage of the Enabling Act effectively gave Hitler dictatorial powers to govern without consent of the Reichstag or President von Hindenburg.  Horenstein resigned from his position in Düsseldorf shortly after and fled to Paris. It is likely that this move saved his life. He never again held a permanent post in his professional life.

Now based in France, Horenstein embarked on a tour as guest conductor in Warsaw, Moscow and Leningrad and in the latter two cities, spent his summer months from 1934-1937. Also during this period, he started a friendship with composer Dimitri Shostakovich over a mutual admiration of the music of Mahler. Other touring included engagements in Australia and New Zealand as well as an invitation to conduct the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1938.

By the following year, Horenstein had come to the conclusion that residing in Europe was no longer a safe option for him and his family and, on 18 January 1939, they boarded the ocean liner ‘Champlaigne’, bound for New York City. Passage was only secured by using falsified Honduran passports issued by a sympathetic official. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Horenstein reacquainted himself with childhood friend Hanns Eisler, now an acclaimed composer, who aided in getting Horenstein work conducting for films in Hollywood. This was short-lived and soon after, Horenstein joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City. The private university already boasted an illustrious émigré faculty including composer, conductor, and pianist Georg Szell; conductor Otto Klemperer; pianist-conductors Erich Leinsdorf and Eduard Steuermann; critic Max Graf; and composer Eisler.

This appointment gave the Horenstein family security during the war years and Horenstein continued to conduct with many of the major orchestras in the US. In 1944, upon the recommendation of Erich Kleiber, Horenstein was engaged to conduct throughout South America including concerts in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It was not until three years after his return to France (1950), however, that his conducting career began to regain the strength it possessed in the pre-war years. Horenstein began to receive engagements throughout Europe and abroad.

In between engagements, Horenstein began an active recording career with VOX records, commencing the first of a series with a return to his ‘home’ orchestra, the Vienna Symphony, and their recorded performances of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and Mahler’s 9th Symphony. These recordings and those that followed cemented Horenstein’s international acclaim and drew comparisons of his interpretations of works by Mahler and Bruckner to the conducting approaches of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.

Other notable performances include the first Paris performances of Berg’s Wozzeck, the 1959 performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony in the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra to rave reviews, as well as the 1964 American premiere of Busoni’s Dr. Faust at Carnegie Hall featuring German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the 1973 production of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London.

Horenstein’s international career meant a very active schedule. This took a toll on the elderly conductor and in 1971, while conducting Carl Nielsen’s 5th Symphony in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he suffered a heart attack onstage and was caught by the leader of the orchestra. Horenstein continued to conduct after a short recovery and was planning performances of Mahler’s 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies upon his death after complications from heart surgery. He died on 3 April 1973, aged 74.

Ryan Hugh Ross


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