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October / November 2001

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Music Amid the Madness

Photo by Monty Rand

Music Amid the Madness
The men and women behind the music of the Holocaust

About the Photo: "I found myself fighting to preserve the memories of these artists and their music, to not allow evil to have its final victory." — Phillip Silver

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Phillip Silver was in London when he first heard the Third String Quartet by Viktor Ullmann.

As a musician, he was struck by the quality of the music. As a second-generation Jewish American searching for his Judaic roots, Silver wanted to know about the composer behind the music.

When he learned that Ullmann had composed the work while in a Nazi concentration camp, Silver understood his mission as a music scholar.

"Once I heard the circumstances under which Ullmann composed in his last years, it was as if a door had opened," says Silver, assistant professor of music at The University of Maine. "I had to find out more, not only about the music but the circumstances under which it was composed. I wanted to know how normal people — people like any of us — can be thrown into a nightmarish reality, where all norms of civilization are abrogated, and still find the inner resources to create music such as this."

Ullmann was one of many prominent Jews, including visual and performing artists, who were rounded up and deported to a concentration camp in Terezín, Czechoslovakia. There he and other musicians continued to perform and, most importantly, to compose some of their most brilliant works before being murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

For years after the Holocaust, it appeared that the last music composed by Ullmann and others during their incarceration at Terezín had been lost. Only in the last two decades has research uncovered the music — and the stories of the courageous men and women behind it.

Today, international performers and scholars like Silver are ensuring that the voices of these composers are heard through their music. In addition to performing works by Ullmann and others, Silver has taught and lectured extensively, most recently in London and Germany, on the music and musicians caught up in the Holocaust.

"This is a musical quest, a humanitarian quest," says Silver of his years of research. "This is a generation of composers whose music has suffered from lack of exposure and we are the losers. We need to pay attention to this music both because of its relation to the human experience, as well as its innate artistic quality."

These works become very different compositions once you know the environment of crisis and imminent destruction in which they were created, says Silver. "Despite the circumstances, we rarely find resignation in the music, but rather the philosophy and attitude of survival. It is a clarion call to strength and maintenance of civilization.

"Such music is proof that, without culture, we can not survive," he says. "This music shows me that even in the midst of horror, we can rise above our immediate environment and find a way to believe in something better."

Silver, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., began his career in music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the University of Washington. He and his wife, cellist Noreen Silver, then spent six years in Israel.

"Israel was at times a frustrating place to live, a veritable pressure cooker, but at the same time, it was very nourishing," says Silver, who participated in the peace effort in Israel. "There I became much more involved in the dynamic of music, its underlying meaning. The experience changed me and the way I play. My music became much more whole."

Silver first heard about the music of the Holocaust in Israel. But when he started his research, he found little information. By the time he joined The University of Maine faculty in 1998, German publishing companies had claimed the rights to some of the music and made it available.

"I was struck by certain things, including the volume of music written in the camps," says Silver. "Initially, I imagined what the music would sound like — intense, depressing and harsh. While some works do manifest these elements, there are many that are polar opposites. These works are brighter, almost vivacious, tinged with nostalgia and sarcasm, but ultimately imbued with hope.

"That's when I knew, more than ever, that I had to analyze what was going on with these artists and their music. How could they be in camps and write music like this? Ultimately, I found myself fighting to preserve the memories of these artists and their music, to not allow evil to have its final victory."

Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann was particularly astute at using his music to preserve the memories of better times, Silver says. Ullmann was a highly respected musician whose works had been performed in many European centers. Before the start of the Second World War, he had composed almost 40 works, including orchestral, vocal, chamber and piano compositions.

In 1942, Ullmann and his family were sent to Terezín, a concentration camp designed as a showpiece for the International Red Cross and the rest of the world. As part of the Nazi public relations effort at Terezín, prisoners were allowed to partake in a rich cultural life, including musical performances, theater and lectures.

While thousands of prisoners died at Terezín from malnutrition and disease, the camp was considered more of a way station for Jews ultimately headed to death camps like Auschwitz.

In Terezín, Ullmann continued to compose, creating what are considered to be some of his finest works, such as the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis).

Shortly after the completion of his opera, Ullmann was transferred to Auschwitz. He died in the gas chambers in October 1944.

For Silver, Ullmann's Sonata No. 7 for Piano is one of the most provocative and compelling of his compositions. In it are shadows and ever-present fear, darkness and dissonance, sarcasm and strength. Found mid-work are snippets of music banned by the Nazis, such as a Zionist song of the '30s and the Czech national anthem.

"This is the work in which Ullmann unambiguously declares a return to his Jewish roots and envisions a better future for his people," says Silver, who has extensively studied Ullmann in recent years. "He is composing for the people of the camp, imbuing the music with symbolism, using a type of underground language to urge the prisoners to live, survive and remember."

Ullmann "writes like someone possessed," Silver says. In those two years of internment, he composed 22 works.

Among the other extraordinary musical artists sent to Terezín was Gideon Klein who, like Ullmann, also is a primary focus of Silver's research. Klein's career in the performing arts was just getting started when he was incarcerated in 1941 at the age of 21. But in the concentration camp, Klein succeeded in writing some extraordinary music, Silver says, and would have been a major composer after the war.

"My favorite piece by Klein is a piano sonata," says Silver. "In it I hear an honest response to his situation. It is a violent piece of music. Obsessed. Dark. Expressionism on steroids.

"This is music that helps me understand (the Holocaust) better. Behind it is a young person who is denied the right to live, and he's not going out without letting you know how he feels."

As a result of his research, Silver has brought many Holocaust-related works to the stage. They include compositions by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who wrote operas, symphonies and chamber music. Schulhoff, who also wrote and performed jazz works as a pianist, died in Wülzburg Concentration Camp in 1942.

In addition, Silver has performed a massive piano sonata by German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Living in Germany during the Hitler years, Hartmann opposed the regime, suppressing all public performances of his music while secretly composing anti-fascist works. After World War II, his compositions surfaced, including a sonata subtitled 27 April 1945, written after Hartmann witnessed a death march from Dachau Concentration Camp.

Last year, Silver started researching the life of Alma Rosé, a renowned violinist and member of one of Vienna's most respected musical families. Her father was Arnold Rosé, violinist and concertmaster of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic Orchestras. Her mother, Justine, was the sister of Gustav Mahler.

Alma Rosé's story came to widespread public attention when the movie about her life, Playing for Time, was released in 1980. The film was based on a book of the same title by Fania Fenelon, a member of the women's orchestra in Auschwitz. Fenelon's negative depiction of Alma Rosé is at odds with accounts by other survivors. This discrepancy led Silver to research Rosé's life.

Among the milestones in Rosé's career was the founding of an all-women's orchestra called the Vienna Waltzing Girls. The formation of this orchestra, Silver says, was a foreshadowing of things to come.

In 1942, Rosé was arrested in France as she tried to get to Switzerland to escape the Nazis. She was taken to the medical experimental block at Auschwitz, where she would have been put to death if she hadn't been recognized as a famous musician. Rosé was then transferred and put in charge of the camp's women's orchestra.

The women's orchestra at Auschwitz performed marches as laborers moved to and from their blocks every evening and morning. Rosé used her clout to put Jewish musicians in the orchestra, virtually ensuring that they would be spared the gas chamber. It is estimated that up to 40 women musicians owe their lives to their conductor, who herself died at Auschwitz after an illness.

"Like so many of the musicians in these circumstances, Rosé was an artist obsessed with details such as intonation, and she demanded all in the orchestra operate on this level," Silver says. "She knew the musicians' survival was dependent on the SS liking what the orchestra members did.

"Alma Rosé required strict performance standards from the women in her orchestra even as the smokestacks visible from the window belched human ash," notes Silver. "The music is what protected her and many prisoners like her from succumbing to total depression."

by Margaret Nagle
October-November, 2001

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