Karol Rathaus was born on 16 September 1895 in Tarnopol (now part of modern Ukraine called Ternipil). According to a 1910 census, Rathaus resided at 2688 Błonie Street with his parents Bernard, a veterinarian, and Amalie. Karol also had a half-brother Rudolf and a sister Dora. Rathaus’s musical gifts became apparent at an early age, much to the alarm of his father, when he began to play the piano by ear at age 5. By the age of 7 young Rathaus was composing, and he completed a piece for orchestra by the time he was 14.

Although he was recognised in the early half of the 20th century as a master composer, Rathaus originally pursued formal studies in law, at the urging of his father, while pursuing music studies as an aside at the Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst (Imperial Academy of Music and the Performing Arts) in 1913. Young Rathaus excelled at his musical studies and by the end of his first year had completed the equivalent of a full 3-year programme. During this burgeoning musical period Rathaus studied piano with Joseph Hofmann and counterpoint and choral composition with the figure that would have a great influence on the young apprentice: famed Austrian composer, conductor and teacher Franz Schreker.

This new period of Rathaus’s life was short-lived as the First World War broke out in July 1914 and shortly thereafter Karol enlisted in the Austrian Calvary. He returned to his studies in Vienna under Franz Schreker in 1919. The following year, Schreker took up a position as director of the Berlin Academy of Music upon the agreement that he would be allowed to take many of his composition students along from Vienna. This included a dazzling array of talent, among them conductors Joseph Rosenstock and Jascha Horenstein (both long-time friends of Rathaus), Ernst Krenek (composer of ‘jazz’ opera Jonny Spielt Auf), Alois Hába (known for experiments in micro-tonality), Julius Burger (composer, conductor and arranger known for orchestral works/work with BBC & MET Opera), Wilhelm Grosz, and Berthold Goldschmidt, among many others of the great ‘Lost Generation’.

Rathaus remained under Schreker’s tutelage until 1921 when he returned to Vienna and gained a doctorate (not in music but in history). His studies were plagued by financial issues and several flare-ups of tuberculosis which was contracted during his cavalry service. This disease continued to wreak havoc throughout Rathaus’s life and, due to these stresses as well as hyperinflation in post-war Germany, he divided his time between his family home in Tarnopol and Vienna where he lived in the second district with partner Gerta Pfefferkorn for the next several years.

Rathaus had already gained recognition as a composer before the completion of his formal studies, having performed his Opus No.1-Variations on a Theme by Reger for Piano at a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus in 1919. Rathaus also secured a 10-year publication contract with Universal Edition which was initiated after a submission of his Opus No.2, the first Piano Sonata. It wouldn’t be until the premiere of his 2nd Symphony (deemed ‘radical’ by critics) in concert at the 1924 Frankfurt Music Festival that Rathaus would gain major success. From this point on Rathaus went from success to success with three notable premieres in his adopted home of Berlin: the ballet Der Letzte Pierrot or ‘The Last Pierrot’ performed in 1927 by the Berlin Staatsoper under conductor George Szell, Overture Op.22 of 1928 under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic, and a mixed but nonetheless successful opera entitled Fremde Erde, Op.25 (Strange Soil) performed by the Berlin Staatsoper under the conductor Erich Kleiber.

This marked an extremely productive period for Rathaus in the realm of classical music as his orchestral works had now gained popularity with the aforementioned conductors as well as with Otto Klemperer and friend Jascha Horenstein. His success spilled over into the burgeoning field of film music and his early presence in the field established him as one of the more recognisable composers in Germany. One notable film composition during this period was for the 1930 film Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (The Murderer Dimitri Karamasoff) with director Fyodor Ozep. Other associations of this period include work with directors Alexis (Alexander) Granovsky, John Brahm, and Julien Duvivier. Rathaus’s talent was seemingly inexhaustible as during this period he also composed music for various theatre productions by Max Reinhardt. The medium of film would provide Rathaus with employment throughout the following decades. He is credited as original composer on over 20 films, in addition to over 40 uncredited film contributions.

Sadly this extremely successful period was not to last, and with the rise of National Socialism Rathaus left Berlin in 1932 for the safety of France where he would continue composing for film. Only two years later, he was again forced to flee, this time to London. The ensuing tumult in Europe left Rathaus struggling to find work for several years. He continued to compose chamber music during the London years, notably including a commission in 1937 for the Ballet Russe titled Le Lion Amoureux which was presented at Covent Garden Opera House. The following year Rathaus conceived a plan to pursue film composing in Hollywood. Although he would eventually gain some commissions through this venture, no immediate offers materialised and two attempted shows on Broadway (Herodes and Marianne & Another Sun) failed to gain him much needed credibility.

Rathaus’s path shares many similarities with composer and fellow Schreker student Julius Burger who, upon the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933, left his work as conductor with Berlin Radio and drifted to the safety of France with semi-regular ‘utilitarian’ work as an composer/arranger for the BBC Theatre Orchestra throughout the early 1930s. Burger also left for the United States in 1938, finding work on a Broadway production of Songs of Norway.

Now living in New York City and without steady employment, Rathaus’s salvation came in an offer to take up the position of Professor of Composition at the newly-formed Queens College in Flushing, NY. Many sources, including Martin Schüssler’s article ‘Karol Rathaus: An American Composer of Polish Origin’ and Boris Schwarz’s paper ‘Karol Rathaus’, make note of the great satisfaction Rathaus got from his position as professor. While he composed some serious music in this period, notably including the 1943 commission for the New York Philharmonic Polonaise Symphonique, a 1945 premiere of Vision Dramatique under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos as well as a 1952 restoration of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov for the Metropolitan Opera Company, Rathaus devoted the majority of his time to the creation of educational music for use by the students of Queens College (such as the choral work Six Polish Folksongs and instrumental piece Country Serenade) and largely abandoned aspirations to continue his former work. Some 50 pieces were written over his teaching years, although the focus of these pieces changed from those with a social message to those of a pedagogical nature.

The tumultuous years of exile compounded with fatigue and ill health took their toll on Rathaus, both physically and emotionally. Much of the current research on Rathaus reveals his sense of resignation initiated by his forced exile in the early stages of success, compounded by the desire of European music circles to move forward and forget the past in the immediate post war years, contributing to the works of this important composer falling through the proverbial cracks.

Many colleagues including Jascha Horenstein noted Rathaus’s antipathy toward rekindling his serious compositional successes of the 1930s and urged him to do so. Many of Rathaus’s own students had only the faintest idea of his previous success on the European stage. Resigned to the fact that he would never again reach the prestige achieved during his former life and content with his important work as an educator, Karol Rathaus died in Flushing, New York on 21 November 1954, aged 59 years.

In many ways Rathaus's compositional idiom was a direct reflection of his multifarious persona. He was born in Galicia as an ethnically Jewish Pole, educated in the Austro-Germanic composition school and embraced by the German musical elite, an exile in France and an American by new identity. Rathaus cannot be pigeonholed into a specific camp or group, and this is paralleled in his music. Although Schreker was nonprescriptive in his teaching and encouraged students to find their own musical idiom, nearly all of his students retained some of the lush, late Romantic Expressionism and Avant Garde musicality with which he was associated. According to Michael Haas, Rathaus does not fall into this genre, nor does he fully commit to Schoenbergian ideas, although he defended this school of thought (Dodecaphony or ‘Serialism’) as ‘an inevitability’ in the progression of musical composition.

Fortunately a concerted effort has been made to safeguard the legacy of Karol Rathaus. This was first undertaken by his wife Gerta (Pfefferkorn) Rathaus through the accumulation of manuscripts, letters, papers, and effects over the years. The collection is now safeguarded in the Karol Rathaus Papers collection at Queens College. The works, spanning from 1919 to 1954, include publications by many prominent publishing houses including Associated Music Publishers, Boosey and Hawkes Publishers, Oxford University Press, Queens College Music Library, the Society for the Publication of American Music and Universal Edition.

Other notable research on Karol Rathaus includes the forthcoming documentary Discovering Karol Rathaus, which includes interviews with leading scholars, musicians, and colleagues of Rathaus. Other examples of a resurgence of his music includes a festival dedicated to Rathaus’s works which took place on the third week of February 2019 on the campus of Queens College.

By Ryan Hugh Ross


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Haas, Michael. Alien Soil’ and the Slow Death of Karol Rathaus. ForbiddenMusic.org. April 16, 2007. Accessed February 6, 2019. forbiddenmusic.org/2016/04/16/alien-soil-and-the-slow-death-of-karol-rathaus/.

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Schüssler, Martin. Karol Rathaus: An American Composer of Polish Origin. The Development of an Americanized View of Rathaus and its Consequences for the Reception of His Music.Polish Music Center-University of Southern California. Accessed February 4, 2019.https://polishmusic.usc.edu/research/publications/polish-music-journal/vol6no1/karol-rathaus/.

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