4 Jewish composers suppressed by Nazism and the Third Reich

The Nazis destroyed the lives and reputations of many Jewish composers, but decades on, their music is still awaiting rediscovery, says Jessica Duchen

Military demonstration for Hitler's 50th birthday celebration in Berlin.  (Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

After lying forgotten for decades, a revelatory tranche of musical history is reaching our ears at last: the work of composers whose lives and careers were devastated by the Nazis. War, displacement, prejudice and ideology all played roles in their suppression, but the long-term result was the skewing of how we view 20th-century music. Some of these figures have been gloriously rehabilitated: Erich Korngold, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and the Czech composers incarcerated in the Terezín concentration camp – Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa and Viktor Ullmann. But they are the tip of the iceberg.

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There is much more to find, and among those who have made their discovery a personal mission is Simon Wynberg, artistic director of the Artists of the Royal Conservatory (ARC) Ensemble in Canada. Wynberg, an Edinburgh-born ‘recovering musicologist’ as he describes himself, first became interested in obscure repertoire as a guitarist. When the Royal Conservatory asked him to create an ensemble comprised of members of its faculty, he decided it was essential for them to have a unique identity: they would find and promote superb composers suppressed by the Third Reich. Each album in their series of recordings, currently on the Chandos label, is devoted to one, including Szymon Laks, Paul Ben-Haim, Jerzy Fitelberg and, this autumn, Walter Kaufmann.

The first of many ironies, Wynberg points out, is that this music was often not at all what the Nazis would have termed ‘entartete’ (‘degenerate’) had it not been written by Jewish composers. Indeed, their styles were often rather traditional – which is why the backlash against tonal music in the post-war decades proved especially painful. Often these musicians were damned by prevailing ideologies not once, but twice.

The next irony is that the music is not difficult to find: the problem is that too few people have been looking. ‘Much of it is hidden in plain sight,’ Wynberg says. ‘It’s not as if you’re hunting through the relations’ attics.’ For the Kaufmann recording, he went to the library of the Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, where Kaufmann was a professor: there, boxes of manuscripts were simply waiting for someone to explore them. ‘If you google him, you’ll find a huge amount of biographical information,’ says Wynberg, ‘yet nobody has done much with the music. It’s the same with Jerzy Fitelberg: there’s plenty of information, but nobody has gone through the scores – and they’re sitting in the New York Public Library.’

The ARC Ensemble chooses the music it champions by unanimous agreement, says Wynberg – but the next test is which composers will gain a foothold with the public. Intriguingly, it seems that those whose music tallies closely with the narrative of their life experience have so far enjoyed the most rapid take-up. Korngold and Weinberg are cases in point. The same could soon be true of Kaufmann and Ben-Haim.

Walter Kaufmann

Kaufmann was born in Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary) in 1907. He studied with Schreker in Berlin before becoming assistant to Bruno Walter at the Charlottenburg Opera. His reputation rose fast, his works were played in and beyond Berlin, and his father considered the Nazis a passing fad. Kaufmann, however, ‘saw the writing on the wall,’ as Wynberg says, and emigrated in 1934 to India. The visas were easier to obtain than American ones and Bollywood needed music as much as Hollywood. From Mumbai, Kaufmann married his fiancée Gerta, Franz Kafka’s niece, in a proxy ceremony; she joined him thereafter.

Kaufmann stayed in India longer than he wanted to; moving on was not simple. He appealed to the father of an old Berlin friend to help him reach the US. You’d think the word of Albert Einstein would count, but despite the scientist’s generous words in Kaufmann’s support, no visa resulted.

India left its mark on Kaufmann and he on it. His music became a synthesis of eastern and western techniques as he absorbed influences from Indian music. The outer movements of the String Quartet No. 11, says Wynberg, are based on an Indian rag, while other notable works included an ‘Indian’ Piano Concerto and a radio opera, Anasuya. He formed a Bombay Chamber Music Society, working often with the violinist Mehli Mehta, to whose gifted son, Zubin, Kaufmann gave piano lessons. He also wrote a signature tune for the All India Radio that’s still played today. Ultimately Kaufmann left India for London, then a post at the Halifax Conservatory of Music, Nova Scotia, and next, eight years as conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He finally settled in Bloomington, Indiana as professor of classical musicology. ‘He never stopped writing,’ Wynberg says, ‘and he was enormously prolific.’ He died in 1984.

Paul Ben-Haim

If Kaufmann’s experiences left an audible impact on his music, the same was true of Paul Ben-Haim – born Paul Frankenburger in Munich in 1897. Because of his fame in Israel (where he changed his name) and the impact that Jewish and middle-eastern music made upon his style there, it’s often forgotten that his roots, like his European contemporaries, were steeped in German late-Romanticism. Unlike Kaufmann, Ben-Haim stayed in his first destination, settling in Tel Aviv in 1933. He devoted much of his career to teaching, counting among his pupils some of Israel’s most prominent composers and conductors, such as Noam Sheriff and Eliahu Inbal. In 1960s US, his music won high profile thanks to American Jewish musicians including Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern.

Yet even he became marginalised. ‘Some thought he was backward-looking and reactionary and should compose aleatoric music,’ Wynberg says. ‘So he became a victim of that regime. Now that music with a tonal centre seems acceptable again, he deserves rehabilitation.’

Unlike Ben-Haim, Jerzy Fitelberg (born in 1903) could not escape his own name: his father, Grzegorz Fitelberg, was a celebrated Polish conductor and, besides providing musical support, cast a long shadow. The younger Fitelberg studied first in Moscow, then with Schreker in Berlin and made an impression in Paris, where his String Quartet No. 2 won a competition for Polish composers in 1928. He moved to Paris himself in 1933; the success of another string quartet, his Fourth, in a US competition then aided his emigration to New York. He died there, too young, in 1951. Yet he left a substantial output: two symphonies, orchestral pieces, chamber works, seven concertos and an opera. Describing his own music, Fitelberg suggested it had ‘the energy and high voltage…of Stravinsky, a focus on linear and harmonic complexity as in Hindemith, and colors [sic] of contemporary French music (such as Milhaud), as well as styles of satire’.

Hans Gál

All these elements reflected his background, training and experiences. But not every composer operates in that way. Again, one is left wondering how far the narrative behind a composer’s life affects public acceptance of the music. Take Hans Gál or Szymon Laks, whose works were extraordinarily detached from their lives. Gál was forced out of his post as head of the Mainz Conservatoire when the Nazis took power. In Britain, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in the Isle of Man, where one of his sons, interned too, took his own life. Gál’s music – full of spirit and humour – tells us almost nothing about his challenging existence. Although he has been significantly championed by musicians including the pianist Leon McCawley and the conductor Kenneth Woods, it is arguably proving more difficult for his works to enter mainstream repertoire than has ultimately been the case for Korngold, who had quite enough trouble (when I wrote a Korngold biography in the mid 1990s, everyone said, ‘Who’s that?’).

Szymon Laks

As for Laks, his chamber music is splendidly written, influenced by French idioms and those of his native country: a Piano Quintet on Polish Folk Themes, says Wynberg, won the ensemble a standing ovation when they performed it in Poland. Yet it holds no trace of the horrors this composer suffered during the war – or after it. Born in Warsaw in 1901, Laks moved to Paris in the 1920s. After Hitler’s invasion he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he became head of the orchestra in the camp, an experience he later chronicled in a book. Having been transferred to Dachau in 1944, Laks was forced into a mass ‘death march’ while the camp was being liberated by the Americans: realising that the guards had fled, he made his escape. He slowly rebuilt his life in Paris, continuing to compose throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

But for Laks the coup de grâce was a disgraceful episode in 1968 that today is under acknowledged, given its impact. Following the Six-Day War in Israel, an anti-Semitic uprising took place in Poland and was exploited, even encouraged, by elements of the country’s government for its own ends. The upshot was that 23 years after the Holocaust, 20,000 Polish Jews were viciously manipulated into leaving the country. The psychological blow this development dealt Laks appears to have silenced his desire to compose. In the decade before his death in 1983 he wrote many words, but no music.

‘Laks’s attitude to music and his experience during the war is very pragmatic,’ says Wynberg. ‘He doesn’t talk about music as a solace that redeemed people and made things better. He has no time for that idea. Today people sometimes impose a certain agenda with hindsight that has nothing to do with the reality. Regarding music and the Holocaust, that’s a tricky area: some awful pieces have been written, or used, to pass off the experience as something it wasn’t. There’s a narrative in which you’re supposed to feel miserable, yet come out of it positive, as if something about the human spirit prevailed. Nothing could be further from the truth.’

Read our reviews of the latest Laks recordings

Only the music is left, and Wynberg believes we have scarcely scratched its surface. ‘There’s a huge irony in looking at the century you were brought up in, only to find it’s the one whose music we know least about. All sorts of obscure 18th- and 19th-century composers are known and recorded. Yet for the 20th century we still have no idea who some of the real players were.’

It’s possible that 20th-century music, as an entire body of work, may turn out to be not what we had thought. Murdered, exiled or damned by artistic ideology, the lost composers of the Holocaust generation are a crucial part of our history. With the perspective of distance, it is finally becoming possible to recognise that we will not build a full picture of that turbulent era’s musical landscape until they, too, are part of it. 

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