Without this beat my life would fall apart

This month’s Score column was bumped for space, but I wanted to post it somewhere in the scholarly interests of Benno Sachs, as biographical information about him in the literature is fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate.

On September 8, at the Gardner Museum, the Boston-based chamber orchestra Phoenix offers an relic of an exclusive club: Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”), arranged for 11 instruments by Benno Sachs. The arrangement was intended for Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Club for Private Musical Performances), an outlet for that singularly adamant composer’s evangelical fervor. From 1918 to 1921, the Verein offered Viennese audiences the latest in modern music, under the most high-minded and uncompromising of conditions. Programs were rehearsed extensively, even obsessively; works would often be played multiple times on the same concert, the better to appreciate new and complex scores. And the Privataufführungen were, indeed, private—only club members could attend, a firewall against hostile critics and audiences that had marred performances of Schoenberg’s own music.

Schoenberg appointed a handful of his students as the group’s “performance directors”: composers Alban Berg and Anton von Webern; pianist Eduard Steuermann; violinist (and future Schoenberg brother-in-law) Rudolf Kolisch; conductor and editor Edwin Stein; and Sachs. He might not have enjoyed as high a profile as his fellow directors, but Sachs—who had studied law before turning to music*—had directed choruses at opera houses across the pre-World War I German Empire, practical experience that translated well to the Verein‘s exacting standards and schedule. His version of Debussy’s “Prélude” was intended for the group’s ambitious fourth season, but the season never transpired. Instead, the Verein was forced to disband—done in not by critical hostility or audience indifference, but by catastrophic hyperinflation that gutted the Austrian economy.

Sachs became an editor, proofreader, and occasional arranger at the Viennese music publisher Universal Edition until 1938, when the Anschluss brought Austria under Nazi domination. The following year, Sachs and his wife Elly emigrated to the United States. As Schoenberg had done a few years earlier, Sachs made his way to Boston, where, unlike Schoenberg (who promptly resettled in Los Angeles), Sachs stayed.

But there is evidence that Sachs never really found his American footing. He published a few piano arrangements and light works under the New-England-ish pseudonym of “Edward Stanton.” (One such number, a little polka called “Dresden China,” is a long way from Schoenberg’s atonal intricacies, but nevertheless shows the clean, conscientious musical craft Schoenberg desired from all his students.) For a couple of years, he taught music theory at the Boston Conservatory. But after his wife’s passing in 1950, Sachs seemed to almost completely disappear from the record, turning up only as an accompanist for intermittent musicales organized by local German teachers. He died in Cambridge in 1968; today, only his resourceful Debussy arrangement abides in the repertoire.

—Matthew Guerrieri

The Phoenix Orchestra performs music of Wagner, Ives, Debussy/Sachs, Roberto Sierra, Julia Wolfe, and Jonathan Bailey Holland, September 8 at 3pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (tickets $15-$36; 617-278-5156; http://www.gardnermuseum.org).

*I found multiple sources referring to Sachs as a medical doctor, but this seems to be conflating him with a slightly older Benno Sachs, a Viennese dental surgeon who also, confusingly, emigrated to the U.S. sometime in the 1930s.

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