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Literature of the Holocaust
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Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Music Composed at Terezin

"Against All Odds"

This season the Philadelphia Orchestra has programmed music written by Holocaust victims.

by Alex Ross

(Source: THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA STAGEBILL, Fall 1994, pp. 24-33)

"Entertainment," a drawing of a cabaret performance at Terezin, by Bedrich Fritta, who was incarcerated at the camp.

One of the most forceful tributes an orchestra could make to the multitudes who died or were killed in the Second World War would be to announce a season's programming with blank slots scattered through it at random: nine minutes of silence here, an empty half-hour there, one or two concerts in which nothing happens after intermission. These gaps would represent the music that was not written: the brilliant overtures, the beloved concertos, the major symphonic statements of those who died as middle-aged men or as young women, the undiscovered forms of those who were never born.

Such an extreme action would, of course, be impractical. This season, the Philadelphia Orchestra has found another effective way to commemorate those lost in the Holocaust: by programming the music of Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann, two composers who completed a handful of memorable works in their mid-40s while being held at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The two were sent together to Auschwitz 50 years ago, on October 16, 1944.

The Orchestra is only one of many organizations that have paid attention in recent years to the music of Holocaust victims. Recordings have poured in on such labels as Channel Classics, Koch International, Northeastern, Bayer, and London, and commemorative concerts have been held by groups like Downtown Music Productions and the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation. Not all of the music is of the first rank, the point of this crusade is not to rescue unknown masterpieces. Rather, it is to retrieve some sense of the whole musical culture that was tom apart by the Holocaust and by the general catastrophe of the Second World War. Music has never been the same, and it has never been so vital.

Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was designed to persuade an unknowing world that the Jews had nothing to fear in Germany. Nazi authorities permitted a wide range of cultural activities at the camp, including an active schedule of musical performances, and then concocted a fictionalized documentary entitled Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (Hitler Presents the Jews with a City), in which inmates appear in tableaux suggestive of an artists' colony. Once the camp had served its purpose, it was closed down, and most prisoners were shipped to the death camps in the east.

One of the most chilling scenes of Der Fuhrer schenkt is a performance of Pavel Haas' Study for string orchestra, with fake applause added. Brief, fierce, and contrapuntally dense, the Study was composed for a string orchestra organized by Karel Ancerl, who survived the war and became the brilliant lead of the Czech Philharmonic. Haas had been building a substantial career in Czechoslovakia before he was sent to Terezin in 1941. A student of Janacek, he wrote music that combined a sweetly haunting lyric sense with restless rhythmic motion characteristic of his Czech heritage. He wrote two wonderful string quartets that are in the same league as Janacek's. (They have been recorded by the Hawthorns Quartet for the London label as part of its "Degenerate Music" series, documenting music banned by the Nazis.)

The musical leader of Terezin was Viktor Ullmann, who had studied with Schoenberg in 1918-19 and evolved a highly mobile, accessible modernistic language. There is something heartening and also harrowing about the heedless persistence with which Ullmann tried to create a normal-seeming musical culture in Terezin. He organized concerts for the SS-controlled 'Leisure Activities Administration,' then wrote reviews in makeshift newspapers. He composed an opera with the faintly subversive title The Emperor of Atlantes and produced a sequence of piano sonatas with indications for orchestration attached. (The Seventh Sonata was first heard in its reconstructed orchestral form in 1989 as the Symphony No. 2; the Philadelphia's world premiere performance of the Fifth Sonata/First Symphony, on January 26, 27, and 3l, will come 5O years after the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.)

Although he kept up a good front, Ullmann had no illusions about his circumstances. In an essay entitled “Goethe and Ghetto,” he wrote about his musical community in a pointedly past tense: "It must be emphasized that Terezin has served to intensify, not obstruct, our musical activities; that we did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep; and that our artistic endeavors were commensurate with our will to live." And a crossed-out title for the slow movement of the Fifth Sonata/First Symphony alludes to a poem by Karl Kraus, prophet of world destruction:

	What will happen
	I do not know.
	It will not last much longer,
	I begin to be afraid,
	And see in the wallpaper
	A wailing face.

Haas and Ullmann, alongside other victims of the Holocaust such as Erwin Schulhoff, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, were members of a generation that effortlessly blended the innovations of Schoenberg and Stravinsky's modernism with established forms of nineteenth-century Romanticism. More was lost, perhaps, than their individual talents; music after the Second World War abandoned these attempts at synthesis and pursued specialized projects of experimentation. Many comfortably fashionable composers of the postwar era invoked the horror of the Holocaust as a justification for their gray, grim, featureless works; it is a powerful irony that the music of the real Holocaust composers is lyrically charged, formally lucid, and often faintly hopeful in its closing cadences.

The commemoration of the Terezin composers is of particular importance for Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Philadelphia music director. Sawallisch is not Jewish; he was a teenager when the Second World War began, and he was drafted into the German Army in 1942. When Sawallisch came to Philadelphia, he spoke to The Jewish Exponent of his army service: “Nobody could escape this. If you refused to be a soldier, you could be taken to prison." He speaks candidly of his singleminded devotion to music in his early years, both during and after the war, and he says that by performing Haas and Ullmann he has finally found a way of "speaking to this issue in musical terms which I know best.

"This has to be one of the greatest atrocities in the human experience.... When I was released after the war [from a British prisoner of war camp], I was truly horrified to learn of the depth of human suffering which occurred in the concentration camps.... As I have reflected on this over the years, I wish that I had spoken out as a young man and certainly after the war. Instead, I chose to use my music to heal the pain of those who suffered or lost their loved ones by the hands of the Nazis.... It is my sincere hope that, through this music, we can all be reminded of the horrors that occurred during this most terrible war to Jews and others, so that such atrocities can never happen again."

Sawallisch believes that music's social role is preeminently one of reconciliation, and it is perhaps no coincidence that a number of Germans who survived the war in various ways also appear on this season's programs. Paul Hindemith, banned as a degenerate modernist despite his strong identification with German heritage, is celebrated in his centennial year with a number of performances. Also, there are works of Richard Strauss, whose ambivalent conduct during the Nazi period still causes controversy.

Bringing these disparate voices together sends a difficult but valuable message. Music is born from a social fabric and is affected by it, but only up to a point. If Strauss' gentle Oboe Concerto and Haas' propulsive Study for Strings were played side by side anonymously, we might not easily tell which of them was composed at Terezin. Perhaps the most radical gesture against Hitler's musical policy, "with its calamitous racial annotations, would be this: let the music play on, and print no names in the program.


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