Think of the great composers of German and Austrian music in the last century, and certain names spring to mind: Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill. Among those names should be Ernst Toch. That for many musicians and music lovers this is not yet so is due not to the character of Toch’s music but to the curtailment of his meteoric early career by the Nazi regime, which drove the composer into exile in 1933. In the United States, where Toch eventually settled, his major achievements in orchestral, chamber, and operatic music remain less familiar than those of his American and European peers.
Toch has long been best known for The Geographical Fugue, which is such a repertory staple that today it seems hardly a choral singer in the United States passes through high school and college without performing the piece at least once. The work is equally popular among avocational choruses of all kinds, and professional choirs of course also sing it. Given the Fugue’s renown, it is strange that the oddly stoic little note Toch (1950, 12) appended to the published score has apparently excited little curiosity over the years:
“This piece is the last movement of a suite GESPROCHENE MUSIK (Spoken Music), which, from different angles, tries to produce musical effects from speech. The suite was performed and recorded at the Berlin Festival of Contemporary music [sic] in 1930. The record got lost or was destroyed, likewise the music, except the manuscript.” Ernst Toch
You might think conductors would have been tumbling over one another trying to get hold of the other movements of this suite: the existence of the manuscript for more music related to the Fugue has been no secret for decades. The full story is stranger still. Toch’s note would lead the reader to imagine a live public performance and a commercially released live or studio recording. Yet there was no such show, nor any such album. It may come as a shock to its fans that, far from being designed as the reliable choral showpiece it has since become, the Fugue was not originally intended for performance by live singers at all.