The rediscovering of Leopold van der Pals

The rediscovering of Leopold van der Pals

All families have secrets. But musician Tobias van der Pals’ family secrets are special and contain long forgotten stories about great music, composers and hidden family treasures. Stories of musical life in pre-war Europe and the consequences of two world wars, of changing musical tastes, of countries in despair and a family scattered across the continent - silently buried in Swiss archive vaults for almost 60 years until Tobias began a search for his musical roots.

The Swedish/Danish cellist Tobias van der Pals grew up in a musical family and as a young child he heard vague stories about his great-grandfather’s brother, Leopold van der Pals, who was a composer before World War II. As in all family stories, the tales were sketchy in detail and since the late great-uncle had not been a part of their lives, Tobias thought it neat to have a great-uncle as a composer but nothing more. He devoted his time to studying the cello and through hard work finally entered the music academy in Copenhagen. Here, at the library, browsing through the old Riemann’s Musiklexikon, he unexpectedly came upon his ancestor, Leopold, who even shared his last name. A forgotten composer with a large oeuvre of operas, cantatas, symphonies, chamber music and songs written from before World War I and right up to his death in the 1960s.

Orchestral works by Leopold van der Pals

Tobias’ interest in Leopold increased as his own career as a musician grew. What kind of music had Leopold composed, what kind of life had he lived? Unfortunately, most of Leopold van der Pals’ music was not readily available. On the contrary, it seemed as though it had vanished completely. Leopold van der Pals was born to Danish and Dutch parents in St. Petersburg in 1884 during the times of the tsars, but spend his final years in Switzerland. Accordingly, Tobias arranged a research trip to Switzerland with his grandparents in the spring of 2000. The last link to the past of the van der Pals family. Here they met the late Leopold’s daughter Lea, who granted them access to her father’s archives, which had been collecting dust since Leopold’s death in 1965.

Tobias van der Pals explains:

‘When we entered the archive and the cabinets were opened, Leopold's entire life lay before us, collected in thousands of handwritten papers. It was a huge experience, an eye-opener. I saw over 250 works, composed throughout his life, plus performances with the world's most distinguished musicians, orchestras and conductors, as well as 32 diaries and many reviews from Europe and America. The first score I got my hands on was an opera on many hundreds of handwritten pages.’

By slowly going through the archives, Tobias began to realise the immense quality of craftsmanship and the expressionism in the music and a thought emerged. How could all those works have ended up here, in silence? The works had been played and reviewed by the leading orchestras, conductors and musicians in the world: The Vienna Philharmonics, the Berlin Philharmonics, the New York Philharmonics and more. Tobias could follow the story of Leopold’s works through the explicit diary entries of the composer. Now they lay dormant. None of the works were recorded. Only the original sheet music remained.

Suddenly, Tobias van der Pals had a new mission:

The music had to be played and given life again. I became devoted to studying his music and his life. The more I read and played the more interesting it all became. It was an enormous task before me. Music and text created through an 81-year-long life.

Questions began to take shape. Who was he? Where did his music come from? Can I come to understand his life, creative processes, development and above all, his music? To understand it, I had to go through it all. My task was clear: I couldn't leave this alone any longer.

Tobias became enthralled with the music of his ancestor and through hard work, he managed to let his colleagues and fellow contemporary musicians give Leopold’s music a chance in a world where standard repertoire by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius filled the concert halls.

Works for chamber music by Leopold van der Pals

Luckily, the works of Leopold were met with enthusiasm. His works were even called ‘an untapped goldmine’ by an American reviewer and considered a new voice from a time absolutely decisive for today’s repertoire artistically. Leopold developed his art during a time in Europe where art, music, poetry and architecture were in enormous development, from circa 1880-1910, also known as La Belle Époque. It was the period of romanticism, impressionism and expressionism. Leopold accumulated his experiences in his own music: Musical traditions from Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, Russia, Germany and France became his own. However, his life and career was characterized by very turbulent times in Europe with revolutions, world wars and international tensions making life difficult for an artist with ties to some of the most war-torn countries.

For Tobias van der Pals, the meeting with Leopold’s music has been life changing:

"Leopold has broadened my musical horizons. Both in terms of the discovery of new music, the ability to develop the artistic and musical aspects of music that do not immediately have a fixed performance practice. It has triggered my curiosity for music we don't know yet. But it has also made me look at the standard repertoire with greater artistic freedom, to break free from standardized interpretations. It is a huge gift to be allowed to curate an entire artistic life, and a production from one of the most interesting periods in music history."

Tobias is now working with Edition Wilhelm Hansen to publish the sheet music and working with orchestras and soloists to perform Leopold’s music in concerts and recordings. Right now we are collectively rediscovering Leopold's music and his artistic vision. However, there is still a long way to go. So far, around 30-40 works have been produced and still his operas, songs, cantatas, violin and piano sonatas, his requiem and several large orchestral works have not been performed. The ultimate goal is to realize the potential that Leopold van der Pals has left behind in his works. As Tobias van der Pals says: ‘We can only do that by performing the works, one by one, and putting them in perspective with where they were composed, what inspired him, and performing the works at a level that makes us understand the music.’

Famed Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, a contemporary of Leopold, wrote in his great novel ‘The World of Yesterday’ from 1943: ‘Only the person who has experienced light and darkness, war and peace, rise and fall, only that person has truly experienced life’. This is the life and work of Leopold van der Pals. Come join the rediscovery of a forgotten composer.

(September 2022)