Manfred Gurlitt: Goya Symphony

The Goya Symphony from 1938 is a typical work of Manfred Gurlitt as it combines late Expressionism, neoclassicism and free tonality.

Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972) was a student of Engelbert Humperdinck and worked as an assistant répétiteur and conductor with Richard Strauss, Carl Muck and Leo Blech. In 1929 he took a position as conductor at Berlin’s renowned Krolloper. When the Nazis came to power, he was excluded from his profession because of his Jewish heritage.

The Goya Symphony was written in 1938, shortly before Gurlitt flew into exile to Japan. There he accomplished what had become impossible for him in Germany: Manfred Gurlitt became an acclaimed composer, conductor and teacher. Like many other of his works, the Goya Symphony was premiered in Japan. The first performance in German took place as late as 1952.

As in his operas, Gurlitt’s Goya Symphony also shows his opposition against the Nazi regime. The sources of inspiration for this work are paintings of Francisco Goya that Gurlitt saw in 1933 at a visit of the Prado museum in Madrid. Indeed the similarities between the Goya and Gurlitt are obvious. Both fled from their home countries for political reasons: Goya went to France into exile while Gurlitt flew to Japan. Also, both artists criticized the political situation and crimes of their time in their work in a complex and encrypted way. (This kind of “encrypted criticism” connects Gurlitt to another composer that lived during the same time as he did: Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who always found cunning ways to express his divergent opinion in his music.)

The symphony begins with Spanish castanets in a cheerful mood, which is being overshadowed as the music progresses. The playful theme of the first movement stands in contrast to the march-staccato-motives from the second movement. Powerful chords create a threatening and aggressive atmosphere in the third movement. Finally the symphony ends with a movement of variations, where tonality more and more dissolves; here the music feels like a never-ending quest.

Manfred Gurlitt stayed in Japan after the end of the Second World War and he did not return to Europa until 1952. During that trip, he also conducted the third movement from the Goya Symphony for the first time in Germany. However, he did not gain the same success in Germany as a conductor and composer as he did in Japan. So Gurlitt returned to Tokyo, where he died in 1972.

The Goya Symphony was recorded in 2008 by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Antony Beaumont.

Text: Dorothea Schuldt

Manfred Gurlitt: work list