TRUTH or fable? The incident shows up neither in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians nor in the research materials of the Orel Foundation, dedicated to composers suppressed by the Third Reich, and the parties involved are long gone. But according to family lore, something thrilling happened when a tin-pot thug and demagogue named Hitler called on Walter Braunfels, the composer of the runaway hit "Die Vögel" ("The Birds"), in Munich. It was 1923, the year of the Beer Hall Putsch, an early Nazi attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic, and Hitler wanted Braunfels to write an anthem for the brownshirts on the march.
"My father told me the story more than 40 years ago," the composer's grandson Stephan Braunfels, an architect, said recently in New York. "Grandfather, who had a temper, was indignant, and threw him out. Afterwards my grandmother declared, 'That Mephisto will never set foot in my house again' " — Mephisto being the glittering trickster from hell who bargains for the hero's soul in Goethe's "Faust."
Evidently the future dictator was unaware that Braunfels was of Jewish descent, the son of a jurist father who had converted to Lutheranism. Raised in that faith, Braunfels embraced Roman Catholicism after serving at the front in World War I. "If our name had been Bernstein," Stephan Braunfels said, "Hitler would have had to know better."
"Die Vögel," which presumably took that Mephisto to Braunfels's door but then disappeared for decades, has been making something of a comeback. In 1996 Decca issued a studio recording in the short-lived series Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) to respectful reviews. Now a video version, filmed last year at the Los Angeles Opera, is available on an Arthaus DVD.
As James Conlon, who conducted, suggests in an accompanying essay, we hear the music now without bothersome distractions. "The importance of knowing who was part of the avant-garde and who was not fades with time," Mr. Conlon writes. "It is the essence of the music, in my opinion, not its historical-musicological placement, that matters. Had 'Die Vögel' been written in 1875, would we listen to it differently because, at that time, it would have been progressive? Should we continue to ignore a work such as this because we consider it old-fashioned?"
Like other composers crushed by the Third Reich, Braunfels has been getting a second chance over the last quarter century or so, with "Die Vögel" (after Aristophanes, with a Christian overlay) only one piece of a larger picture. His discography has expanded to include large-scale compositions like the Catholic mystery opera "Verkündigung" ("Annunciation"), the bewildering but intoxicating comedy "Prinzessin Brambilla," a large-scale set of muscular but sumptuous orchestral variations on a theme of Berlioz ("Phantastische Erscheinungen Eines Themas von Hector Berlioz") and the majestic Te Deum as well as chamber music.
Now Decca has released Braunfels's magnum opus, the opera "Jeanne d'Arc" (written between 1939 and 1941 as "Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna"), which could raise his profile another notch. Recorded live at its concert premiere in Stockholm in 2001, the score plays like the missing link between Wagner's otherworldly "Parsifal" and Kurt Weill's jazzy, machine-age "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," with perhaps a jolt of the Stravinsky of "The Rite of Spring" mixed in. The theatrical premiere at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2008 is tentatively scheduled for DVD release by Arthaus in the fall.
Braunfels, born in Frankfurt in 1882, took off as a concert pianist, an improviser and a composer while still in his 20s. Maestros like Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski championed his work. So did Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had lost his fiancée to Braunfels about a decade before but bore no grudge. In 1925, when the conservatory in Cologne stepped up to the rank of university, Konrad Adenauer, then mayor of that city, appointed Braunfels co-director of the new Staatliche Hochschule für Musik. Braunfels led the institution with distinction until 1933, the year of the Reichstag fire, an act of political theater that proved critical in establishing Nazi rule.
The new government promptly relieved Braunfels of his duties and outlawed his music. Other banned composers gave offense with lurid subject matter or musical innovations that the regime considered decadent. Braunfels had nothing to fear on that count, but as a "half-Jew" he was tarred with the same brush.
Yet he remained in Germany. "In his deepest heart he was so rooted in German culture that he couldn't imagine being happy or writing music in England or America," Stephan Braunfels said. "According to Hitler's plan the half-Jews were not scheduled for deportation to the concentration camps until 1947."
Under duress Braunfels sold his palatial residence in Cologne for next to nothing and retired to a lonely country home near Lake Constance. There he composed prodigiously in genres ranging from chamber music to grand opera. Rehabilitated after the war, he tried without success to pick up where he had left off, performing and returning to his old post in Cologne. "Verkündigung," written from 1933 to 1935, was heard at last in 1948 but made no mark. Mr. Conlon has said that Braunfels was silenced twice, the second time by postwar audiences and critics to whose ears his music sounded reactionary.
"Lieber verbannt als verkannt," an embittered Braunfels is said to have complained late in life: "Better banished than unnoticed."
Stephan Braunfels regards "Verkündigung" as the most beautiful of his grandfather's operas, despite uncomfortable subject matter; adapted from Paul Claudel's play "L'Annonce Faite à Marie" and set during the Crusades, it pivots on leprosy as the forbidding symbol of a tainted spirit. A performance in Munich in December will show how it plays now.
In addition to what is publicly available Stephan Braunfels maintains a cache of private recordings, many of rarely heard works from the 1920s, when his grandfather's success was at its peak. These include "Präludium und Fuge," a powerful essay in post-Victorian baroque, and a curiously scored Concerto for Organ, Boys' Choir, Strings and Brass. (The misty din of horns and trumpets is an especially distinctive hue in the composer's palette.)
The "Great Mass" was revived in Germany last year to critical hosannas. Manfred Honeck, who conducted, sees in it a unique fusion of late-Romantic German style with the French innovations of Debussy. A performance for Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican is under discussion.
Meanwhile a grass-roots resurrection continues apace. On Jan. 28, in the artistically venturesome German city of Gera, near Leipzig, population 103,000, the
There is fascinating lighter fare as well. With its liberal sprinkling of cheeky allusions to Wagner's "Meistersinger von Nürnberg" and Richard Strauss's "Rosenkavalier," the splashy tone poem "Don Juan," on themes from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," may reflect Braunfels's improvisatory panache.
But perhaps the most alluring work yet to be rediscovered is the opera "Don Gil von den Grünen Hosen" ("Don Gil in Green Trousers"). Set in the Spain of Lope de Vega's original play, the score is bewitching in its melodious Latin inflections, and the plot — a gender-bent comedy of errors like "Twelfth Night" raised to a higher power — suggests intriguing theatrical possibilities. At the Vienna State Opera the legendary Lotte Lehmann played the cross-dressing Doña Juana. Paging Diana Damrau.
Stephan Braunfels was 4 when his grandfather died in 1954 but remembers him vividly. "There are films of us together when I was 2 years old," he said, "and they match my memories exactly. He was a big man, with a big bald head like Leonardo da Vinci or God the Father." The composer regaled his family with archival tapes, planting the love for the work that has made Stephan his tireless ambassador.
"I started in Munich in 1965," Mr. Braunfels said. "Rafael Kubelik was doing his great Mahler revival, and I thought, 'Man, my grandfather is as good as Mahler.' I was too shy to go to Kubelik, but I sent him recordings with a long letter. He never answered. I realized that I had to be someone on my own account before I would have credibility as an advocate for my grandfather."
In 2002, once he had put himself on the map by designing the acclaimed Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich's answer to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he felt the time had come.
"The fact that an architect in the news would rather promote his grandfather's music than promote himself," Mr. Braunfels said, "that would impress people. And sure enough, suddenly doors opened."
Yet in the end it is musicians who make the case for a composer. With "Jeanne d'Arc" Mr. Honeck has become a faithful convert. As music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he will lead an abbreviated version of the sprawling "Berlioz Variations" to close the season in June at Heinz Hall and on a short international tour.
"I had never heard of Braunfels before," Mr. Honeck said recently from Pittsburgh. "It astonished me that we could still discover such a great composer. Since 2001 I've done a new Braunfels piece every season. I'm so impressed by the honesty of his music. He never does anything without a purpose. Everything comes from his heart but also shows such an extraordinary intelligence. When people hear it, they love it. The world should absolutely get to know the whole spectrum of his music."