Hudební Věda

An Unpublished Memoir by Paul Nettl

Preface by Martin Nedbal

Paul Nettl must have written this essay in 1949, because in it he writes that he has been in America for nearly ten years; considering that he had arrived in the fall 1939, the autobiography might have been written in the summer of 1949. Nettl also mentions that his mother-in-law is living with his family in Bloomington, IN; Clara Hutter lived there with the Nettls until her death in 1949. The essay is more substantial than the essay published in Thomas Atcherson’s 1962 book Ein Musikwissenschaftler in zwei Welten, though both of them provide similar basic information. At times, however, subtle shifts in perspective are noticeable between the two essays, such as in relation to Gustav Becking (see my article).

The typewritten essay was originally 30 pages long. Additional pages were inserted into the document at a later point; I include these additional pages into the main document. The inserted material is in square brackets and in bold. I have kept Nettl’s paragraph breakdown and text divisions. In my edition of the German original, I also kept Nettl’s punctuation although it often breaks the rules of German punctuation. Nettl refers to many locations in the present-day Czech Republic by their German names, which are rarely used nowadays. As a result, I provide the current Czech names of those locations in square brackets whenever those locations are mentioned first. All of the footnotes are mine.

Paul Nettl’s biography is not only an important historical document, which sheds light on the history of the no-longer existent German-Bohemian community, on the developments of Central European musicology in the early twentieth century, and on the interactions between European and American musicology during and after WWII, but also a gripping story, particularly in its description of Paul Nettl’s suspenseful attempts to escape Czechoslovakia and later the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939.

Preface by Bruno Nettl

I am happy that Dr. Nedbal did some digging in the Indiana University archives and made me aware of this manuscript of memoirs of my father. I don’t think I ever knew about it, and while there is not much in it that was not, at least in a general way, known to me, it clarifies many details  from his earlier life, particularly the period between 1930 and 1939, and also provides insight into attitudes that he had at this time. Some of these (in particular his feelings about Germany and Germans) had changed by the time he published his 1962 memoir.  I have looked at my records and believe there are only a couple of factual errors. Importantly, Paul Nettl met his future wife, Gertrud Hutter, in 1928, not 1929, and I was born in 1930, not – as implied – in 1931. Also, I believe we departed from Prague, to emigrate, on September 21, 1939, not a day later.

I am very glad to have access to this memoir, because a good many events, as they were related later over the years, changed in detail and in significance, as must be expected in oral transmission.

One may wish to ask why Paul Nettl chose this moment – 1948 – to write about his life. I believe that he felt that he had finally established himself in a position appropriate to his qualifications, after a career dominated by uncertainty – his treatment at the German university of Prague, and his long period of virtual unemployment for some nine years in USA. The satisfaction with which he states his appointment to a professorship with tenure at Indiana University suggests that this was the time to give an account.

I must say that I am surprised to see how little this manuscript tells about Paul Nettl’s immediate family, particularly my mother’s work. In explaining his livelihood in the first seven years in the USA, I think he understates the degree to which the family was supported by my mother’s activities as a piano teacher, part-time at Westminster Choir College, and privately in Princeton NJ. I remember her spending some 40 hours per week giving lessons (she taught a large number of my school friends), and I think my father may be overstating slightly the degree to which his earnings were close to sufficient to help provide the needed support.  But already in Prague (1930-1938), my mother spent many hours per week giving private piano lessons. I was raised mainly by my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, and a succession of nannies. I was bit surprised to have been described as “sickly,” but I now feel that in my earliest years I was rather overprotected.

I was interested in my father’s account of his own prowess as a performer on violin and piano; by the time I was aware of things, he had stopped practicing, but he was well able to play some four-hand piano music with my mother and to play illustrations for his music history lectures on the piano.  By the time we came to USA, he had stopped paying violin.

Two more brief items: The relationship to Gustav Becking. My father had a kind if ambivalent relationship with him and with his legacy. The fact was that Becking got the job in Prague that my father should have had, and he was eventually very active as a supporter of Konrad Henlein, but my father thought that he was something of a genius – he was impressed by the “Becking curves” that are described in his book (Der musikalische Rhythmus als Erkenntnisquelle, 1928. NB. He has the title wrong), and also believed, I imagine with good reason, that Becking intervened with the Gestapo, in August-September 1939, to permit my family to exit the country even though Paul Nettl was the subject of Gestapo investigation. I myself remember Becking coming to our house off and on when I was perhaps 6 or 7, and looking, with my father, at manuscripts an scores.

And then there are the remarks about differences in personal relationships in old Austria-Hungary and 1940s USA. I do remember my father speaking frequently about these differences in social relationships, but wonder whether there is any objectivity in his viewpoint. It’s important to realize that he came to USA at age 50, too old to develop close friendships – so he thought. I do remember that our Prague friends (individuals, not couples) and maybe relatives would drop by in the late afternoon and chat for fifteen minutes, the kind of thing not common here now. And that one would stop in a café and find friends there, have a cup and move on. It may be, though, that my father’s nostalgic feelings for the past resulted from the disruption of his social life through emigration. But also, some anthropological research on styles of social relationships in different European and Euro-American cultures, also among social classes, might shed light on this.