Rudolf Schwarz – from Belsen to Bournemouth

He arrived in Bournemouth in a blaze of publicity seventy years ago as the first post-war musical director of the re-formed Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in its brand new home – the re-commissioned Winter Gardens – but the appointment of Rudolf Schwarz was not without controversy and even elicited questions in the House of Commons. A somewhat reserved character, he is perhaps not as well-known beyond the orchestra as more stellar music directors such as Sir Dan Godfrey, Sir Charles Groves and Constantin Silvestri, but Rudolf Schwarz was less concerned with acclaim – his instinct was always to follow the music.

‘He is an incredibly important figure in the history of the orchestra,’ says Howard Dalton, a lifelong BSO concert regular, avid collector of orchestra memorabilia and volunteer at Bournemouth Library’s Music Zone. ‘Under Schwarz the orchestra’s reputation was certainly enhanced and its profile accelerated; he took it to the next level. I saw him conduct and he was very elegant, diffident rather than dictatorial, but he got the most out of his musicians and they went with him.’

Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1905, Schwarz studied with the composer Richard Robert and played viola in the Vienna State Opera before moving to Germany and earning a fine reputation for his grace and precision as first conductor at the State Theatre in Karlsruhe until his dismissal by the Nazis on racial grounds in 1933.

In 1936 he became a director of the Jewish Cultural League (JKB), under which Jewish artists performed for Jewish audiences. Convinced there would be no full-scale conflict, Schwarz remained in Germany, but when war did break out in 1939, he was arrested and imprisoned. He was released in 1940, only to be rounded up and deported in 1941 when the JKB was dissolved. He was sent to Auschwitz where, after ten weeks of hard labour, he was selected for the gas chamber but reprieved at the last moment. His hands were tied behind his back and he was hoisted up, breaking both his shoulders. He was then transferred to Sachsenhausen, where a second threat of deportation for gassing and a further stay of execution followed.

In several biographies it is said that the wife of noted German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler used her influence to save Schwarz, but not so. According to his stepson, Peter Ohlson, Zitla Furtwängler met Schwarz in September 1946 in Copenhagen, the day after he had conducted his first concert since the war. ‘Knowing that her husband had claimed, rightly, that he had saved Jewish musicians, my stepfather assumed that she had saved him and tried to thank her, but she denied having done anything for him,’ says Peter. ‘Almost a year later, the real person who had tried to help him was made known to Schwarz, as he said in an interview with the News Chronicle in January 1957, but he did not want to make the true story public and the misinformation about Zitla Furtwängler stuck. Quite bizarrely, Jews in the camps who had legal cases pending against them were spared death. The day after war broke out, my stepfather was arrested on a charge of money-changing and imprisoned, but the case was never brought. After he was released ten months later, he was eventually rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, but it was possibly because of this outstanding case that his life was spared.’

In January 1945, Schwarz was sent to Belsen and by the time it was liberated three months later, he weighed less than seven stone and was close to death from typhus. He spent months in hospital before being moved to Sweden, where through a mutual friend he met Greta, who was to become his second wife. He worked as a cashier until in early 1947, his brother, Benno, in England sent him a notice advertising a post with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra.

His nephew Kurt, who attended the audition, remembers that Rudolf conducted two concerts – first Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, then lighter music for the second: ‘He included the “Blue Danube Waltz”, which he played with a great sense of style, being Viennese himself originally.’

The committee voted decisively for his appointment by 29 votes to six and caused consternation in Britain’s post-war classical music world, raising objections that a home-grown conductor had not been found. A question was asked in the House, but regardless, the appointment was announced in May 1947.

‘I have been able to get first-class musicians,’ Schwarz told the Bournemouth Times. ‘As for the quality of the playing – well, that is for the public and the critics to decide.’ He needn’t have worried: his debut concert on 18 October was well received as he conducted Wagner’s Die Meistersinger overture, Debussy’s ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’, Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ and Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘Mr Schwarz’s technical and disciplinary methods are evidently exacting,’ reported the Bournemouth Daily Echo, ‘yet there exists between players and conductor that loyalty without which results such as have been heard cannot be attained.’

The review also noted his reticence in gesture, the first instance of a common thread that ran throughout his post-war career – that he struggled to communicate what he wanted on account of his broken arms. ‘In fact it didn’t prevent him from lifting his arms above his shoulders, it’s not as simple as that,’ says Peter Ohlson. ‘What that particular injury results in is massive nerve damage, so mobility and control in his arms may not have been fully available to him.’

From his arrival in Bournemouth, some musicians had difficulty adjusting to Schwarz’s baton technique, but having voted unanimously to confirm his appointment, the members of Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra forged a strong bond with him. He was their man.

The workload in Bournemouth was tremendous. In his first season he conducted 150 concerts at a rate of four a week – a symphony concert on Thursdays, orchestral concerts on Tuesdays and Sundays and a ‘pop’ concert on Saturdays. When Schwarz enquired who the guest conductors would be, Winter Gardens manager Lawrence Harker told him: ‘You are the guest conductors.’ ‘But what if I get ill?’ he asked, only to be told: ‘You won’t get ill. Bournemouth is a very healthy place.’
In 1948 Schwarz took the orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall, its first London concert since 1911, premiering ‘The Smoke’, Malcolm Arnold’s landmark overture; a special train was chartered to ferry supporters from Bournemouth. He returned with the orchestra in 1951 for two Festival of Britain concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.

Reflecting on his time in Bournemouth years later, he said he doubted he would ever be as happy as he had been there. He was given a thunderous send-off at his farewell concert in October 1951, but he maintained close links and was a great friend of his successor, Charles Groves – he even sold him the home he had bought for his family after he and Greta married in Bournemouth in July 1950.

Rudolf Schwarz was awarded a CBE in 1973. He last conducted the BSO at Poole in 1982 and, following Greta’s death two years later, effectively retired from music. However, his friend and biographer, Ray Carpenter, the BSO’s former principal clarinettist, remembers fondly their various meetings to reminisce.

‘Ray told me he once asked Rudi whether or not he ever spotted the notes that used to be passed to members of the wind section,’ says Howard Dalton. ‘Schwarz said that of course he knew, because every time a note was written, Ray had to take over the main part. What he may not have known was that the notes were invariably betting slips and racing tips!’

Rudolf Schwarz, with his wife Greta, arrives at Poole Arts Centre to conduct Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the final time

According to Kurt Schwarz, a common note in rehearsal would be ‘Beautiful, but…’ and Rudolf was known for caring about the welfare of his musicians. He understood the musicians’ mentality and how much mischief to let them get away with.

‘The audience loved him, too, idolised him even, but for him it really was all about the music,’ says Howard. ‘That is why he couldn’t understand why the musicians went on strike in 1951 over a row about playing in the bandstand. He was very upset. After he had left, when the orchestra nearly disbanded in 1953, Charles Groves stood on the corner of Westover Road selling raffle tickets. Rudolf Schwarz would never have done that, it wasn’t his style.’

If public relations were not his strongest suit, in private Rudolf Schwarz more than left his mark, says Peter Ohlson. ‘My stepfather never wanted to carry a grudge, he was a very forgiving man. He was a huge influence on me. He was very patient, perhaps too patient with me as I was terribly idle, and never once got on my case. He was very generous and kind, a gentleman.’

Rudolf Schwarz died in London in 1994.

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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