There is exactly one famous story about Hans Rosbaud – although, like the subject, it is not as famous as it should be.
This Austrian conductor was sleeping at his home in March 1954 when the telephone rang. On the line was a producer from Hamburg Radio, a bit desperate. Could Rosbaud come to cover for the injured Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, and to oversee the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron,” a mammoth opera that hasn’t been performed since it was left unfinished in 1932?
Rosbaud had never seen the score. His mind probably drifted to the 1930s: Schoenberg had then ominously told Rosbaud that he “had made no reservations at all about performance difficulties” in writing the opera. He clearly assumed that no one would dare to perform it.
When was the premiere scheduled, Rosbaud anxiously asked the radio producer? In exactly one week.
This was a difficult prospect, but not the impossible it would have been for almost anyone. “One is almost forced to apply the word genius to Hans Rosbaud’s masterly mastery of the work,” DailyExpertNews later reported on the performance. Genius enough, indeed, that the broadcast was released on record in 1957, the year Rosbaud directed the staged Zurich premiere of “Moses und Aron” — and “outdone even himself,” as one critic wrote.
The shot still holds up, a fire bubbling up through its brightness. If Schoenberg had been allowed to hear it, he might have repeated the thanks he had extended to Rosbaud for a performance of his “Variations for Orchestra” in 1931, when he wrote in awe that he had heard his work performed “with clarity, with love, with design.”
No musician of Rosbaud’s generation did more to canonize his avant-garde. Igor Stravinsky offered a letter of recommendation for “this eminent musician, this aristocrat among conductors.” Paul Hindemith was a classmate and a lifelong friend. Anton Webern was a house guest.
“When a composer speaks of Rosbaud, the conductor,” wrote Pierre Boulez of the man to whom his masterpiece, Le Marteau Sans Maître, is dedicated, “he is first of all talking about a friend.”
Joan Evans, musicologist and biographer of Rosbaud, has listed 173 premieres he gave from 1923 until his death in 1962. The beneficiaries ranged from Fritz Adam to Bernd Alois Zimmermann via Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Gyorgy Ligeti and Luigi Nono. The Musical Times of London simply praised him as ‘the greatest conductor of contemporary music’.
But this “dream figure” who “would always give the future the benefit of the doubt,” as Boulez wrote, was annoyed by his formidable reputation.
“I am not a specialist in modern music,” Rosbaud told a German newspaper in 1956. “In Aix-en-Provence I am characterized as a Mozart expert; in Munich I am considered a Bruckner specialist. It is dangerous to classify musicians in this way.”
Especially for Rosbaud’s own fate. His public status has never come close to the private respect in which musicians held him, in part because of his advocacy of music that never really caught on. Calm and scientific, this “grim Lincoln-esque” man, as one writer once described him, seemed like the antithesis of a famous maestro. His main functions were not with big-name symphonies, but with less prominent radio ensembles. He made few commercial records, fantastic though they were. He had no interest in fame.
Few conductors therefore have more to gain from opening the vaults. More than 700 of Rosbaud’s performances have languished in archives, most of them at SWR, the successor to Southwest German radio in Baden-Baden, his artistic home after 1948.
Since 2017, SWR has released 59 CDs of those bands, in a project that includes Rosbaud’s work in composers from Mozart to Sibelius. Much remains to be done, not least what essential boxes of 20th century music should be. But despite the variable, mostly mono sound, there is already enough to prove that he was much more than his legend. Without a doubt one of the most important conductors of his century, Rosbaud was also one of the best.
He saw it primarily as his task to help composers articulate their own cause. But unlike others who have pursued a similar interpretative modesty, Rosbaud’s approach was never clinical or didactic. It always had at its core that love that moved Schoenberg. His Bruckner had both humanity and structure; he took Haydn seriously, early and late; his Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were not only intelligible, but glowed with intensity.
Claudia Cassidy wrote her pen on Rosbaud’s signature style in 1962. “Rosbaud gave us a blueprint,” wrote this usually brutal Chicago Tribune critic after hearing him lead Stravinsky’s “Spring Rituals.” “Not the kind that sit inert on the drawing board, but the kind that make skyscrapers soar, throw bridges into space, and spin the imagination into orbit.”
Rosbaud had music in his blood. He was born on July 22, 1895 in Graz, Austria, to Anna Rosbaud, a piano teacher who had taken lessons with Clara Schumann. A single mother who died in 1913, Anna never told her four children who their father was; Arnold Kramish, the biographer of Hans’ brother Paul, traced their paternity to Franz Heinnisser, at one point the conductor of Graz Cathedral.
Raised in a musical family, albeit a destitute family, Hans played at least four instruments. He attended the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, and his first appointment as conductor was in 1921. He later recalled that he was used to “the whistling, ranting and raging” with which the public greeted his Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg with the Mainz Symphony in Germany.
Rosbaud’s main task in Mainz was to direct the music school, and he continued this educational approach to his career after 1929, conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Rosbaud lectured on the orchestral instruments, wrote pieces such as a fughetta for three bassoons as illustrations, and lectured on Wagner before giving act-by-act broadcasts of the ‘Ring’. Bartok, Stravinsky and other composers came to perform; Schoenberg spoke about his ‘Variations’, with Rosbaud giving examples, and also sent thoughts on ‘Brahms the Progressive’.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, Rosbaud’s tastes caught the attention of what he told Stravinsky was a “chauvinist movement.” Forced to enlist a family friend in Graz as a fake father to showcase his Aryan heritage, Rosbaud found that his once-praised support for a particular strand of new music was now causing him trouble, not least when a disgruntled subordinate reported him to the Gestapo in 1936 for seeing music “in a Jewish sense”. He assured exiled composers that he would stay with them and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a job in the United States. He left Frankfurt in 1937 for Münster.
Rosbaud despised Nazism and he probably knew that his brother Paul was spying on the German nuclear program for Britain. Nevertheless, Hans used his abilities for the Nazis and reconciled with that service with small acts of resistance. Berlin seemed sane enough to be appointed general music director of occupied Strasbourg, a city the Nazis tried to turn into a colony in 1941 because of their idea of German art. But Rosbaud endeared himself to the Alsatians, spoke French and protected the musicians and acting with enough decency that even Charles Munch, the fiercely anti-fascist Strasbourg conductor, deemed him impeccable.
Despite Rosbaud’s work in occupied territory, the US military hastened to exonerate him in the denazification proceedings. Stripped of any unfortunate ideological associations in his politics or his aesthetics, he was general music director in Munich before 1945 was over: a short, hectic tenure during which he gave Beethoven and Bruckner bicycles in bombed halls, reconnecting German musical life to his international context, in which Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Stravinsky were given a prominent place.
That work would continue, but not primarily in Munich. An offer from Baden-Baden in 1948 could not be refused, as it offered the opportunity to invent an ensemble from scratch and fulfill a special mandate for new music, including after 1950 the Donaueschingen festival, a hotbed of the avant garden. An energetic 1949 Beethoven Violin Concerto with Ginette Neveu, as well as a heartbreaking Hartmann Second and a courageous Messiaen “Turangalîla” shortly afterwards, show that Rosbaud quickly raised the orchestra to a high level.
But he never aspired to the ensemble virtuosity of the more commercially driven orchestras of the time. His lively 1957 record of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic may be sharper than his 1952 and 1962 efforts in Baden-Baden, but what matters is how their warmth and passion enliven Haydn’s structures, without the attention to establish itself.
The joys of what SWR has discovered are subtle, not sensational. Those who need grandiose statements in their Beethoven may be disappointed, notwithstanding the sharp rush of his Fifth Symphony, the fluid flow of his Sixth, the effervescence of his Eighth. Anyone who wants bombast in their Tchaikovsky will doubt his indispensable Fifth, so full of dark psychological shadows that it almost reminds of Mahler. And in Mahler, Rosbaud’s early plea for who was so characteristic of a conductor who was so often half a beat ahead of his time, he comes close to ideal.
“Mr. Rosbaud does not cut it to pieces or disguise it by ‘interpretation,’” Cassidy wrote of a Mahler Ninth in Chicago in December 1962, in words that also apply to Rosbaud’s 1954 Baden-Baden recording. gives it clarity, precision and understanding, that is to shed light on it without blinding its mysteries.”
The Chicago Symphony, where Rosbaud was guest conductor for a long time between 1959 and 1962, regarded him as the successor to Fritz Reiner as musical director. This provided American recognition for the first time and an opportunity to develop a craft that was honed not only in Baden-Baden, but also in Zurich, where he held positions with the Tonhalle Orchestra, and in Aix-en-Provence. There he directed the annual 1948 summer festival, conducted opera Mozart that Virgil Thomson once called “perfection” in its “animation and orchestral delicacy,” and ventured into Gluck and Rameau.
But Chicago wasn’t supposed to be. Rosbaud was debilitating since kidney surgery several years before, and then Mahler Ninth died and a short stop in Baden-Baden where he said a serene farewell with Brahms’ Second, he died on December 29, 1962, near Lugano, Switzerland. He was 67.