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Rick Jones joins composers from around the world
to celebrate Haydn’s legacy – and see his two skul

Because the town of Eisenstadt in Austria was home to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn for most of his life, it has become the focus of some attention in this, the bicentenary of the composer's death. The proud authorities there have marked the occasion in two ways. First, they have commissioned 18 new piano trios from composers all over the world, which the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, having performed them there, will bring to London in September. Second, they have mounted a display of Haydn's two heads, which, for the cost of a euro, visitors may view in the church where he is entombed.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Haydn had two heads. Between performances of the new piano trios, I paid to see them. They are both skulls. One is clean and white and has a strong, prominent jaw. This is the head Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists - students of the now-discredited science that believes character is determined by skull shape - cut it off and stole it shortly after Haydn died in Vienna. The opportunity to study the head of a genius clearly overcame their misgivings about either the legality or the morality of their action.

The other skull is small and brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's erstwhile employer Prince Nikolaus Esterházy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. "Better any head than none," he said. The provenance of the replacement is unknown, but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years, as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954.

The phrenologists believed the skull would provide evidence for Haydn's genius. More reliable proof was available from the sheer volume of work he produced: the 104 symphonies; 84 string quartets; operas, oratorios, masses, piano sonatas; other chamber pieces including those for long-obsolete instruments such as the flute-clock; and about 600 songs, 400 of them arrangements of Scottish folk songs commissioned by publishers in London, where he had become something of a superstar. Unlike Bach and Handel, Haydn almost never repeated himself, so effortlessly did he compose.

“String quartets would have been too obvious," says Walter Reicher, artistic director of the Haydn Festival 2009, of the decision to commission the piano trios. Haydn's own output in this genre, numbering 30 works, takes the form on from its modest beginnings where the cello doubles the piano's left hand and the violin merely embellishes the right, to a tight-knit but com­bative meeting of three independent voices. In music history, the piano trio is second only to the string quartet as the ideal chamber group.

Every one of the 18 composers has been gathered for the so-called Triothlon: six from Austria, six from Europe and six from the rest of the world, all presenting themselves on stage before the premiere of their eight-to-ten-minute, Haydn-inspired composition. There are 13 concerts to attend in four days and the sight of groups of composers taking the kilometre walk from the hotel to the concert hall in the Esterházy Palace and back becomes familiar. The custard-yellow palace is impressive. The outer wall is decorated with terracotta ancestral busts, one of which is Attila the Hun. "He wasn't really in the family," says Reicher. "The Esterházys didn't go that far back, so they made up their history. One of the family trees includes Adam and Eve."

“I used to play the early piano trios," boasts the American composer William Bolcom in his introductory talk, "but the cellist always complained!" Bolcom's contribution is a witty web of rondo themes that Haydn might have dreamed up. The German Dieter Schnebel takes a similarly light-hearted line and bases his composition on a single phrase from the Joke Quartet (Opus 33 No 2). Unexpected harmonies underpin the skittish theme. Some people snigger. With the original, Haydn won a bet that he could make the audience talk before the end.

Lalo Schifrin, the wealthy Argentinian film composer (Dirty Harry, Mission: Impossible, etc) arrives in time for the photograph. He wears two-tone shades and a shiny blue suit. His coiffed wife towers over him like a bodyguard in a pencil skirt. His piece romances Haydn in gentle tango rhythms and an introspective coda. The Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye comes with a posse of sinister minders. He wrote the piece that Lang Lang played at the Beijing Olympics, but his Haydn inspiration is bitter and lacks charm. He says the Cultural Revolution kept Haydn from him until he was 33. Japan's Yui Kakinuma, his wife trotting behind in a kimono, takes a jaunty theme that spells out Haydn's name, running it repeatedly, varying it minimally and cutting it off abruptly when the time runs out.

The South African Bongani Ndodana-Breen hears jazzy rhythms and singable harmony in Haydn. The Australian Elena Kats-Chernin is a live wire, dressing like a flamboyant hippie and expressing the thrill of the festival in infectious laughter. Haydn, too, made Eisenstadt happy, not even thinking of a minor key until Symphony No 26. Kats-Chernin has had more success than most since turning away from intellectual complexity and scoring a hit with "Eliza's Aria" in a Lloyds TSB commercial. Her Haydn piece opens the Triothlon with a flowing stream of excited quavers that seduces everyone into an accessibly contemporary sound-world.

The Briton John Woolrich teams strings with piano in an aggressive, inward-looking dialogue that sounds both loud and private, like an argument eavesdropped on through the keyhole of a castle chamber. Haydn was a congenial sort, but he didn't get on with his wife. The 83-year-old French composer Betsy Jolas studied with everyone from Milhaud to Messiaen, replacing the latter at the Paris Conservatoire in 1970. Her heartfelt, searching work is the first to mourn abstractly the passing of Papa Haydn. She says her starting point was the country-dance theme from the last movement of the last symphony, No 104 (the "London Symphony"). It comes to us through mist and with the saddest steps.

The six Austrian composers - Doderer, Everhartz, Hödl, Harnik, Krammer and Schedlberger - devise the most extreme works, as if they
alone are determined to rescue Haydn from his pit of classical gentility. Pure, high dissonance matches the mightiest belly hammerings and grotesque, angular dances contrast with the serenest dreamscapes.

Haydn came to London in the 1790s and so does the entire Triothlon experience next month, taking over the new chamber venues at Kings Place for a week. The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt will perform the 18 new works along with a selection of Haydn's own piano trios. To have performed so many premieres in such a short space of time, even rehearsing them on the internet for the benefit of the composers, is a phenomenal achievement, and to repeat it in one of the world's great cities will be no less so.

They will not be the only performers. The Esterházy Baryton Ensemble is to bring a selection of the dozens of works that Haydn composed
for Prince Nikolaus, an amateur exponent of the cello-like baryton, while the singers Lorna Anderson and Jamie MacDougall will perform some
of the aforementioned Scottish songs. Many of them are settings of Robert Burns, whose 250th birthday, let us not forget, we celebrate in 2009. It's a double-header, in a sense.

The Eisenstadt Haydn Festival is at Kings Place, London NW1, 7-13 September. For more information, visit:

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis