Forbidden Voices: Documentary film on German/Jewish composer Richard Fuchs, also neglected in New Zealand

New Zealand School of Music: Conference: Recovering Forbidden Voices 2014

Film: The Third Richard
An 80-minute documentary of the life of Richard Fuchs, made by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton

Embassy Theatre, Wellington

Sunday 24 August

“Richard Fuchs was a composer believed by his father to be ‘the third Richard’, successor to Strauss and Wagner. He loved German culture above all others. Unfortunately German culture hated him. His music was banned by the Nazis and he was banished, so he fled to New Zealand in the 1940s. No longer persecuted, just ignored. A man out of place and out of time. An enemy in Germany because he was Jewish and an enemy alien in war-time New Zealand because he was German. Through this film, Danny Mulheron discovers the life and work of his grandfather, Richard Fuchs.”

These few lines, which billed this particular event, gave little hint of how extraordinary a story this film uncovered. Richard Fuchs was born in Germany in 1887 and died in Wellington in 1947, From an opening portrayal of privilege and rich cultural life in pre-war Karlsruhe, it followed the heart rending vicissitudes of Fuchs and his family in their struggle to escape from Hitler’s Jewish programme and the Holocaust, and make a new home in New Zealand.

This was the historical framework for the film, against which unfolded an artistic and musical life of amazing creativity that spanned architecture, drawing and painting, and an astonishingly broad and versatile musical oeuvre. Such a rich outpouring of creative talent could be only lightly touched upon in 80 minutes of film, but viewers were treated to some wonderful samples of his musical repertoire that left one with the impression that New Zealanders will be in for some profoundly rewarding listening if more of Fuchs’ music can be performed here.

This composer stands in the grand German Romantic tradition of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner, yet I found all the musical excerpts in the film had a refreshing quality about them that refrained, even in the major Symphonic Movement played by the NZSO, from straying into the overblown heroics of his predecessors. The dark experiences of his life uncovered by some of the other excerpts were deeply moving and full of pathos, yet again free of the almost stifling weight of some Romantic pens.  Fuchs wrote piano compositions (he was an accomplished pianist), chamber music, lieder, choral and orchestral works, and what remains is today housed in the Turnbull Library.

Every excerpt I heard in the film made me want to hear more of this remarkable talent, and I was pleased to be alerted by director Danny Mulheron, to a very comprehensive website covering all aspects of his life and work  Under Recordings one can listen to over thirty items – more than enough to whet the appetite for more of this lovely music. There are also sections covering The Archive, Catalogue, Composer (with 2 CDs available), Publications (including a biography by Steven Sedley) and the Documentary film (available on DVD). This is a rich musical resource, well worth exploring, and there is provision to expand it into his visual arts as well.

I came away from this screening with the clear understanding that New Zealand, and the wider world, deserves to hear much more of this enriching music. The NZSO and regional orchestras are clear candidates for airing his work; it would also sit well in Radio NZ Concert’s Made in New Zealand
slot, and in Chamber Music NZ’s programmes. An ideal “sampler” for this last could comprise a showing of the DVD, informed by the willing attendance of the film makers or Richard Fuchs’ Trustees, plus perhaps a live or recorded performance of some shorter works. I think it would not be long before there were requests to hear more of this haunting and evocative voice so long neglected, very much to our musical cost.



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