Barry Humphries. Photo credit: Ester Segarra.
“Trawling through the second-hand bookstores of Melbourne in the late 1940s I came across a stack of sheet music published by the famous Universal Company in Vienna in the 1920s. None of the composers were familiar, and yet a distinguished music house in central Europe had deemed them important enough to warrant publication. The bookseller, Mr Evans of Swanston Street, was asking next to nothing for this obscure collection so I bought them all and went home with Ernst Krenek, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Franz Schreker and their colleagues in my weighty Gladstone bag.
In the school library after school hours, I was soon busy researching my haul. The library has since become a research centre purging itself of the dusty, germ-laden stigma of a book room. My mother, who belonged to the age of Laminex, would certainly have approved the banishment of old books. “Barry,” she would admonish me if she caught me reading a second-hand volume, “you don’t know where that’s been.” In that far epoch the school library contained a fairly decent music section and I tried to find references to the forgotten composers I had unearthed in Mr Evans’ shop. I certainly didn’t know where any of them had been and that made my excavations all the more exciting. The sheet music I had rescued bore a single stamped name, Richard Edmund Beyer, and I wondered who he was and why would he put all this stuff in a suitcase and schlep it out to Australia.
Portrait of Barry Humphries by Annie Leibovitz, courtesy of the artist.
I once attended a re-creation in Los Angeles of Hitler’s infamous exhibition of “degenerate art”. My companion was the painter David Hockney and I asked him why he thought so many pictures from this period had survived the Holocaust. “Because somebody loved them” was his simple reply. Herr Beyer must have loved all this strange music to bring it so far to safety. I later met an old lady living in Brighton who was the widow of a distinguished Berlin publisher. When she fled the Nazis her packing was supervised by two Gestapo officers who allowed her to fill her suitcases with prints – no paintings. Thus I was able to see, spread across the carpet in her Melbourne sitting room, a priceless assembly of the best German expressionists, in mint condition.
When I first went to Vienna in the early 1960s I asked in the best classical record shop if they had any recordings by the composers I had discovered. Not only did they not have recordings but they had never heard of the composers I mentioned! Hitler, it seemed, had done a very good job in suppressing a whole generation of music makers whose exciting work is still in the category of unfamiliar repertoire. The Australian Chamber Orchestra will give you a taste of this wonderful music, so full of energy, excitement and optimism and yet reflecting at times a premonitory hint of the cataclysm that would soon follow.”
29 Jul - 3 Aug
Edinburgh International Festival
8 & 9 Aug
Suiji Ozawa Hall