The music that couldn't be silenced
Anyone who browses through the posters, tickets and invitations to events and exhibitions held in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto in 1941 and 1942 could imagine the tremendous cultural richness concentrated there.
Anyone who browses through the posters, tickets and invitations to events and exhibitions held in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto in 1941 and 1942 could imagine the tremendous cultural richness concentrated there. The papers announce the performance of Puccini's "Tosca" by the ghetto opera house; a soccer game featuring a Czech All-Stars goalie; the musical "Carousel," performed by the Ghetto Swingers and accompanied by Martin Roman, who played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet before being sent to the ghetto; a play directed by Kurt Gerron, who acted with Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel"; and numerous chamber concerts. One of these was the premiere performance of Fantasie and Fugue by the young composer Gideon Klein, the moving classical music spirit in the ghetto, which closed with Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 18, No. 6.
This last poster inspired pianist and musicologist David Bloch, the head of Group for New Music. He chose these two works to end the concert his group gave Tuesday to commemorate 20 years of playing and remembering the Terezin composers.
From Oregon to Terezin
At the end of the 1960s, David Bloch, then a young musician, established a contemporary music ensemble in his home state of Oregon.
"We played music for the residents that they wouldn't have heard had we not been there," he says. "We founded a concert series with works from the beginning of the 20th century, and we hosted composers from Europe and throughout the United States. In 1973, when I came to Israel with my wife, the singer Emilie Berendsen, we knew we would continue this here, too."
Six years later, the ensemble Group for New Music was established, with Bloch as pianist and Berendsen as vocalist. They were joined by violinist Yair Kless, clarinetist Shmuel Ahiezer and others. They continued performing music unfamiliar to the audience, but this time in Israel. "We performed in the large cities, but also in Ashkelon and Safed," says Bloch.
Several years later, Bloch's life and career took a dramatic turn. "We played at a festival in London, and there we met Geraldine Auerbach, a great authority on Jewish music. She revealed to me the music composed at Terezin, a discovery that changed me tremendously," he recalls. "Musicians, after all, have a very accepted education that is set in advance: You study at a conservatory and an academy, you specialize in a repertoire, you perform - and now all of a sudden this new material landed on me and changed my life."
Auerbach, who today is the director of the Jewish Music Institute at the University of London, invited the ensemble to play music by Terezin composers at a large 1986 Holocaust memorial conference in Canterbury. The instrumentalists were joined by two survivors, pianist Edith Krauss and bass singer Karel Berman, "who played together after not having met for 60 years since performing at the camp," says Bloch. Thus the Group for New Music began a new period: perpetuating the music composed and performed in Terezin through research, recordings and live concerts.
Passion for life
The story of Terezin, a small town in northern Bohemia not far from Prague, has been told often. The Nazis occupied it, germanized its name to Theresienstadt, and in 1941 established there a large ghetto to house Jews on their way to the death camps. Tens of thousands of ghetto inhabitants died of hunger and disease or were murdered, and nearly all of the 90,000 who survived were sent to Auschwitz. However, a wealth of artistic activity began to flourish in the ghetto, thanks to the many Czechoslovakian artists concentrated there. The activity was encouraged by the Nazis, who decided to transform the place into a model ghetto in order to conceal the true situation of the Jews.
"Theresienstadt in fact led to the strengthening, and not the thwarting, of my musical activity. In no way did we sit and weep by the rivers of Babylon. Our artistic efforts matched our passion for life, and I am convinced that anyone who has ever struggled, in life and in art, to force recalcitrant material into shape, will agree with me," wrote Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), an intellectual who authored the brilliant opera "The Emperor of Atlantis" a few months before his death at Auschwitz.
He composed his most important works in Terezin, as did Jewish composers sent there before him. Among them were Pavel Haas, a student of the great Leos Janacek, an avant-gardist who mingled jazz and Moravian folk songs in his works; Hans Krasa, a student of Albert Roussel in Paris whose symphony succeeded before the war and was conducted by Eugene Ormandy at the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra; 25-year-old Zikmund Schul; and Gideon Klein, a composer considered the great hope of Czech music before the war, who died at age 26 in 1945, from forced labor in the coal mines of Silesia.
"It is amazing to read the manuscripts by these composers, and to see how they suddenly stop," says Bloch. He began researching the music of Terezin composers and found their manuscripts in libraries and archives throughout Europe, especially in Switzerland and Prague.
"Keeping this music alive is a mission for me. There are works that have never been brought to light, like children's songs and drawings, and we are now grappling with copyright law restrictions to rescue them from being forgotten. Nowadays there is already an entire industry centered on this music," adds Bloch. "Take, for example, a series of discs of Entarte Musik (Degenerate Music) from Decca. But there are still many fantastic, unknown composers, some of whom immigrated to the United States or England, some of whom immigrated to Israel and some of whom left music. As far as I am concerned, this is a life's work to discover and revive them."
Twenty years ago, the Group for New Music played music by Viktor Ullmann at its first concert at Tzavta, in Tel Aviv. Since then it has recorded and performed in Israel, the United States, England, Canada, Uzbekistan and many other countries. Tuesday's concert featured both works written by the Terezin composers when they were starting their careers before the war, and works they composed in the camp.
The program included: Theme and Variations for String Quartet by Krasa, based on a popular song he wrote; early songs by Haas for soprano and piano, from his period with Janacek, and based on Slovak folk songs; Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Ervin Schulhoff from 1926 (Schulhoff was not sent to Terezin but to another camp, yet his style is similar to that of the ghetto composers); Piano Sonata No. 4 by Ullmann; and for the finale, inspired by the forgotten ghetto concert, Klein's Fantasie and Fugue from his years in the camp (1941-1942) and a movement from Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 18, No. 6.
"In 1923, after Koussevitzky conducted Hans Krasa's symphony and other contemporary works in Boston," says Bloch, "He turned to the audience and said: 'After all this modern music we will end with Beethoven: Please, the Fifth Symphony!' After Krasa and his contemporaries, we too decided to end with Beethoven."
Performing artists: Allan Sternfield, piano; Svetlana Kundish, soprano; Brigitte Sulem, Saida Bar-Lev, Carmela Leiman, violin; Robert Mozes, viola; Felix Nemirovsky, cello.