Kurt Sanderling goes east

Affidavits are important

The mass exodus of “non-Aryans” from Germany after Hitler’s rise to power is well worn historical territory. The list of artists, intellectuals, political figures, and generally famous people who fled Germany for the west is a who’s who of the 20th Century; off the top of my head, and bearing in mind that it’s not even 6:00 AM yet, I can think of Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Max Beckmann, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Gropius, and Henry Kissinger. On the other hand, I’ve been sitting here staring into space for the better part of twenty minutes trying to think of anyone besides Kurt Sanderling who zagged when they zigged and went to the Soviet Union.

Sanderling was born in East Prussia in 1912, back when it was still physically connected to Regular Prussia (in the aftermath of World War I, it was cordoned off from Prussia, separated by the Danzig Corridor in Poland, while still being in what the Weimar Republic called the Free State of Prussia). Sanderling left for the big city at age 19, obtaining a position as repetiteur with the Berlin State Opera. This gig only lasted two years before Hitler began his reign of terror. It turns out that Sanderling actually tried to zig before being forced to zag. According to his obituary in The Guardian, he secured a position as a coach with the Metropolitan Opera but the job fell through “owing to the absence of an affidavit.” This preposterously vague phrasing naturally piqued my curiosity. Of course, I couldn’t find any details about what exactly this affidavit was, but it’s safe to assume that it was for immigration purposes. Let’s take a brief detour into the world of my day job!

Immigration to the United States was handled by individual states for the first hundred years of the nation, and it wasn’t until after the Civil War that states really began enacting any actual laws about immigration. The Federal govenment was not given authority over immigration enforcement as a matter of law until an 1876 Supreme Court decision, Chy Lung v. Freeman, which essentially codifed immigration as a foreign relations issue and therefore not something the states could legally administer. The Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, in the Department of the Treasury, was established through the Immigration Act of 1891 and Ellis Island was built in 1892. Immigration was subsequently moved to the purview of the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1914, where it would remain until 1940, at which point it became the responsibility of the Department of Justice. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was founded in 1933 and its power in the public consciousness remains to this day as everyone I know who knows what I do for a living seems to think I work for the INS, which was dissolved into three entities in 2003 under the banner of the Department of Homeland Security. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious about our nation’s immigration enforcement mechanisms: it started about money, then became about labor, then became a security matter in the lead up to World War II. That feels like a perfect microcosm of the progression (or regression depending upon your perspective) of most liberal societies.

Of all the landmark laws in the history of immigration in the United States, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 stands out. It was a highly restrictive quota system which provided visas for “two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census” and completely barred anyone from Asia. The mechanism through which these rules were enforced changed drastically. Through a process entertainingly called “remote control,” prospective immigrants were now “required to apply for visas at the U.S. consulate or embassy closest to their homes where they were interviewed and their applications evaluated.” Previously, an immigrant’s application for admission to the United States in the form of a valid visa took place at a port of entry to the United States. It is rather interesting to consider this in the context of current events which I’m happy to do basically in this space and this space alone because you all seem like nice people.

There are, therefore, several possible ways that our friend from three paragraphs ago, Maestro Sanderling, could have failed to secure a visa to the United States. The quota on visas issued to Germans (or Prussians if they broke it down like that) may have already been reached, although that wouldn’t really explain the missing affidavit being the key such as being worthy of reference in an obituary 80 years later. The cynical view is that the affidavit was made a requirement out of thin air as a pretext to keep him out on account of his being Jewish. The most generous explanation, and I have to say the one that I think is the most probable, is that he may have been unable to provide evidence of his coaching position with the Metropolitan Opera, which likely would have been in the form of an affidavit from some appropriate authority. And so, while most of the German Jews fleeing in the 1930s went west, Kurt Sanderling, on invitation from an uncle working in Moscow, went east.

It took him almost no time to establish himself as one of the preeminent music makers in the Soviet Union, leading the Moscow Radio Symphony and the Kharkov Philharmonic simultaneously. By 1941 he was named Permanent Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic alongside the great Yevgeny Mravinsky. Sanderling remained in that position for nearly 20 years, a time when it must be noted for biographical effect that the Leningrad Philharmonic was unequivocally in the conversation of the best orchestras on the planet. The world did not find out about this all-consuming musical force until after Stalin died, naturally, but when they did, they were convinced of its might, most notably through the famous collection of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies 4, 5, and 6 which appeared on Deutsche Grammophon (there is a mono set of these same pieces around from 1956 in which the Symphony no. 4 is conducted by Sanderling). Only slightly less famous is Deutsche Grammophon’s release of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 with Leningrad and Sanderling, a staple of the catalog to this day in spite of the God-forsaken cut in the finale that was still in vogue at the time. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Sanderling recorded one of my favorite takes on Das Lied von der Erde with Leningrad in 1958. Mikhail Dovenman absolutely kills it.

In 1960, Sanderling took up the post for which he became best known, that of the chief conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for 17 years (he also led the Staatskapelle Dresden from 1964 to 1967). Sanderling released a number of very fine recordings with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra: an excellent Brahms cycle, superb takes on the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies - performances that are every bit the equal of Mravinsky’s justly lauded set - and of Mahler’s last three works, one of the best Sibelius cycles there is, and some of the finest Shostakovich ever put on disc. Sanderling’s Shostakovich is particularly valuable given how close he was to the composer, someone who Shostakovich himself said “accompanied my life,” keeping company with Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Galina Vishnevskaya in that respect.

It is fascinating to consider the musical situation in Berlin during this time.

But wait, first of all, let’s take a second to marvel and shudder at the way that we as human beings are able to compartmentalize history with the passage of time. We become desensitized to the stuff we know by understanding the very facts as they’re presented, and the more time has passed, the more desentisized we are. Hey, remember that time when they built a literal and physical wall in the middle of one of the world’s great cities? It’s easy to just sort of process the Berlin Wall in the context of the Cold War, but when you really stop and think about it, it’s absolutely insane. Could you imagine what we would think if we watched them build a wall with checkpoints in the middle of Chicago? We would think the world was ending!

Anyway, it’s 1961 and the German Democratic Republic throws up a Antifascistischer Schutzwall under the guise of keeping the fascists of the West from jacking with the socialist utopia in East Germany. Kurt Sanderling, having spent more than twenty years in the Soviet Union after being run out of Germany by Hitler, is plying his trade in the Konzerthaus while a mere two kilometers down the Voßstraße (!) Herbert von Karajan, twice-registered Nazi (this is not in and of itself meant as a judgment of Karajan but merely a striking counter to Sanderling’s position), is becoming the center of the Western musical universe at the Philharmonie. And we haven’t even gotten to my favorite conductor, Otmar Suitner, who led the Staatsoper/Staatskapelle Berlin during the same period. I think I’m going to research all this and write a book, because that sounds fun.

Sanderling finally began to develop the international reputation worthy of his talents in the ‘70s as he began guest conducting in the West. He released quite a few recordings with various outfits, including a quite lovely and well known traversal of the Beethoven Piano Concerti with Mitsuko Uchida and the Concertgebouworkest. He had three sons and all became conductors, one of them being quite a good one. He retired from conducting aged 95 when he felt that he couldn’t conduct to a personal standard and died just a couple days before turning 99.

As God is my witness, I will get to the bottom of this affidavit situation. There’s a whole alternate timeline where Sanderling’s entire career is the opposite of what it was. What a fascinating thing to consider!