From the academy to the avant-garde “It is harder to honor the memory of the nameless than of the famous.“
Walter Benjamin It might be harder, but often it is also more interesting, since the path through the yet dark regions of the history of mankind is like a veritable treasure hunt, unearthing undreamed-of valuables again and again. In addition to the finder‘s euphoria about his discovery comes the fact that he contributed to opening up a larger or smaller part of the past, thus saving it from being forgotten. Much has been written about Munich around 1900, one of the most important German artistic and cultural centers at the time, however, usually only about the most renowned protagonists of that golden era of the city, such as Thomas Mann and Richard Strauss. Many of the less famous and successful artists, on the other hand, were rarely mentioned at all, although they had just as decisive an influence on the scene. One of them is the composer and singer Sandro Blumenthal (1874–1919), a versatile wanderer between the establishment and the avant-garde of the German musical and cultural landscape of those years. He became famous above all for his work as a cabaret singer, yet his early work – to which this first recording of his oeuvre is dedicated – shows him to be an equally talented composer of “serious music“.
Sandro Blumental was born in Venice on 30 June 1874 the son of Minna and Carlo Blumenthal, a Jewish banker. There, he attended the Benedetto Marcello conservatory and studied piano, violin and viola as well as composition. During this time, he created principally piano lieder in addition to pieces just for the piano. Several of these lieder were made public by various Italian publishers, among them Non pensare a me!, M’incontri per la strada and Ah non languir! The poem Non pensare a me!, the farewell song of one about to die, is by the Venetian musicologist and composer Taddeo Wiel, whom Blumenthal presumably knew from the conservatory. The sugary, yet distressing ductus starting the lied finally works its way all the way into dramatic desperation. In the poem M’incontri per la strada, probably written by Blumenthal himself, the speaker admonishes her negligent lover in sometimes tender, sometimes stricter tones, accompanied by the piano in figures circling like bells and arpeggios reminiscent of a guitar. Similarly, the enigmatic and melancholy Ah non languir! by Emilio Praga changes between restrained and surging sections. The influence of Giacomo Puccini is evident in all three lieder.
From 1896 on, Blumenthal continued his education at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich for another three years. There, he attended composition classes by Josef Rheinberger, the teacher of famous musicians, composers and conductors, such as Engelbert Humperdinck or Wilhelm Furtwängler. Under Rheinberger‘s tutelage, Blumenthal now also dared to write pieces for larger instrumentations and composed chamber music pieces as well as works for large orchestras. And he did so successfully: Not only were his compositions performed at the public end-of-semester concerts of the academy and praised by the direction of the conservatory, the attending press also confirmed the young composer having great talent, “a sure compositional technique“, “great appreciation for beautiful sounds“ and “natural and fresh feeling“. In addition to a piano quartet in a minor as well as a symphony and an elegy for orchestra, the two piano quintets in D Major and G Major Op. 2 and Op. 4 are part of his work created in those years. The first movement of the quintet in D Major, Allegro moderato , starts with an arabesque piano figure over which a dreamy and yearning theme unfolds in sweeping repetitions. In contrast, the second theme is rather short – a dotted motif, first sounding cautiously in the piano, but then rising to a maestoso, and later dominating the exposition. The cello presents the third theme, a lied-like phrase heard for the first time in the coda of the exposition and calmly bringing the movement to its end. The three-part Adagio espressivo starts tenderly and with restraint, almost Schubert-like. Blumenthal chose two very rare keys here – bright F-sharp Major and soft D-flat Major –, and the movement‘s lyrical tone again and again works itself all the way into the soulful. The most original movement of the quintet is probably the Scherzo , whose jaunty mood is reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The unusually serious Trio with its fugati and an almost painful mood builds a clear contrast to the boisterous prestissimo with hobbling rhythms and roaring chromaticism. The Finale begins with a mysterious and dark, monophonic Molto lento introduction. The first theme of the following Allegro con fuoco
pushes resolutely forward, superseded by the second, lied-like theme first presented by the piano. The air of this highly energetic, sweeping final movement closing the quintet is filled with unbridled dynamism.
A year after the quintet in D Major, created in 1898 and premiered at the end-of-semester concert, Blumenthal wrote the piano quintet in G Major in June of 1899. The advances the young composer had made in the meantime are evident, even if here, too, a true personal style going beyond the musical conventions of the times is hardly discernible. More than before, Blumenthal now relies on the independence of the voices and is striving more strongly for artistic elaboration instead of successful, but at times also dull effects. Already the slow introduction of the first movement, Adagio sostenuto , demonstrates this with its unconventional harmony. But it is also his treatment of the two themes in the following Allegretto deciso e con moto that indicate a more refined style: Particularly the first theme derived from the introduction – an upward sixth jump which is then led down in soft waves – first sounding in the piano, is being further adapted in various ways in a dialog between the viola (nachschlag sighs) and the second violin (upward movement) in the remarkably long transition to the second theme. The second movement, Andante cantabile assai sostenuto , with its two song-like themes is not entirely free of the crooning and the pathos generally associated with salon music. Especially the second theme is being consistently repeated, gaining in drama through the first violin rising to the highest
heights. In the gruff and fierce Scherzo , Blumenthal once again shows his imaginative side with witty and irritating rhythmic finesse such as the change between 3/8 and 2/4 times. For the toned-down Trio , noticeably following classical models, he chose another rather rare key – G-flat Major –, which emphasizes the warm character of the piece. Almost like an improvised fantasy, the final movement begins with a slow Allegretto quasi a piacere introduction. Like in the first movement, the figure of the introduction delivers the material for the first dance-like g minor theme here, as well. The piano and the low strings join the theme one after the other, and as before, Blumenthal creates an overflowing transition to the second theme first introduced by the cello, which is again very cantabile. A nice idea indicates the end of the exposition: The beginnings of the previous movements are once more alluded to in reverse, as it were. The main theme of the first movement is only audible in outlines any more, but finally picks up speed again and leads back to the final movement, which in the end modulates to G Major, coming full circle to the beginning of the composition.
The premier of this quintet marks the end of Blumenthal‘s student days, following which he began to get increasingly interested in a completely different and for Germany yet altogether novel, indeed avant-garde artistic movement: the cabaret. In the fall of 1901, he joined the “Elf Scharfrichter“ (“Eleven executioners“) ensemble, Munich‘s first “Brettlbühne“, as the cabaret is called in southern Germany, which had opened only six months prior and whose goal it was to radically renew the arts. Blumenthal, now under his stage name Leonhard Bulmans, quickly became the busy “Henkersknecht“ (“executioner‘s assistant“), appearing as composer, musical director, singer and violinist. He contributed thirty titles to the repertory of the “Brettl“, including different baroque dances that were often performed as the opening numbers. His pieces for vocal ensemble were also very successful. For these, he was repeatedly celebrated by the press as “being able to create a first-class atmosphere“. Blumenthal contributed to the specific dark and decadent mood of the Scharfrichter with German, French and Italian solo songs such as “Der Tod singt“ (“Death sings“) or “Chanson d’une morte“ (“Song of a dead man“). With his passionate setting of the Erntelied (Harvest Song) by Richard Dehmel, for example, he also dared take socio-critical tones: The repeated notes and the agitated piano accompaniment seem to call the national uprising into being, as it were. As Heinrich Mann, a frequent guest of the Scharfrichter, reports, Blumenthal himself performed the song “very boldly and solemnly“. In November of 1902, Blumenthal then also took over the direction of the Scharfrichter orchestra, which he conducted “with energy, prudence and reliable and artistic taste,“ as a newspaper review said. Both problems with personnel and of a financial nature had been causing the Scharfrichter a lot of trouble from the very beginning, and the troupe was in the red again and again, once more at the beginning of 1904. This time it was Blumenthal who - as the son of a wealthy banker - did his utmost to save it by purchasing the highly indebted theater for an unknown price. Yet his courageous intervention was only able to delay the end of the Scharfrichter by a few months.
Despite this unpleasant development, however, the cabaret genre had not lost its appeal for Blumenthal, and throughout the following years, he continued working as a “Brettl“ composer and singer at different cabaret theaters. In 1905, he was signed on at the Munich “Künstler-Cabaret“ as “master of the modern, darkly romantic composition“, as a contemporary cabaret magazine put it, followed later by engagements at the “Kleines Theater“ and the “Grauer Esel“ cabaret in Zurich, the “Fledermaus“ cabaret in Vienna and the “Linden-Cabaret“ in Berlin. At these theaters, Blumenthal was celebrated by the press as an “exceedingly plain, and yet moving singer and very talented composer“, a “very interesting musical character who performs with quick effect“ and “one of the best representatives of voice accompanied by guitar“.
Between 1901 and 1917, he set numerous poems of older and above all contemporary poets to music. These were published for example by Hofmeister & Günther in Leipzig, Bote & Brock in Berlin or Hainauer in Breslau (today: Wroclaw), now again mostly using Blumenthal‘s real name. In addition to his lyrical main work, some of his instrumental pieces were also published, for example a lute and guitar method, a suite for piano for four hands and a gavotte for string quintet, as well as the two piano quintets from his university days. The latter works show that Blumenthal was by no means satisfied with composing only light music, but rather tried his hand at serious music again and again through various genres. His most ambitious project in this regard was the opera “Sulamith“, which premiered in Nuremberg‘s city theater on 14 April 1907, but turned out to be no more than a succès d‘estime and soon disappeared again from the playbill. Blumenthal spent the last years of his life with his wife and his two children in Berlin, where he died on 1 August 1919 at the age of only 45.