Between worlds

The Fates of Three Jewish Composers

The theme of the “Lost Generation” in the 2021/22 season has featured 20th century composers who were unjustly forgotten, persecuted or even murdered during the “Third Reich”. In one of the last concerts of the season, the Berliner Philharmoniker and chief conductor Kirill Petrenko focus on three Jewish composers who were victims of this period in different ways.

The three composers in this programme – Leone Sinigaglia, Erwin Schulhoff and Alexander Zemlinsky – were initially different in their background and development. However, they were similar in their subsequent artistic evolution, driven by curiosity and openness, by the search for the potential offered by the past, and by the desire to use their art to awaken something in people. They saw imperfections more keenly than others and recognised aesthetic questions as a mirror of social problems. All three were subjected to threats and persecution because they were of Jewish descent and died before their time.

Sinigaglia made a strong case for
instrumental music in Italy, the land of opera

Leone Sinigaglia
(Photo: Alamy)

To all appearances the most conventional of the three, Leone Sinigaglia’s music nevertheless has an innovative intent.

He was known by and friends with his country’s leading opera composers, and was particularly interested in instrumental music – a genre hopelessly overshadowed in Italy by music theatre.

By taking his cue from the most progressive representatives of German-Austrian symphonic music at the time, such as Gustav Mahler, Karl Goldmark, Josef Suk and Johannes Brahms, seeking to appropriate their tonal and formal language, and in introducing it to his homeland, he awakened a new interest in chamber and orchestral music in Italy.

With his research in the field of Piedmontese folk song, he also set standards for a responsible approach to musical tradition. In 1936, when Sinigaglia was 68 years old, Germany and Italy established the so-called Axis Powers in a secret treaty of friendship.

Anti-Jewish movements gained momentum in Italy and soon found their way into legislation. From 1938 onwards, works by Jewish composers could no longer be published, and sheet music that had already been printed was gradually withdrawn.

Although financially secure and living in relative seclusion, Sinigaglia observed this development with increasing concern. Shortly before he and his sister were to be deported to Ausschwitz in 1944, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The First World War made Schulhoff a politically thinking and writing composer

Born to a Jewish family in Prague, the German-Bohemian Erwin Schulhoff was multi-talented. With equal conviction, he played the “enfant terrible” and the composer of popular music, the “stylish musician” (as he was called in the Musikblätter des Anbruch) and the pioneer of the latest avant-garde.

He felt that music needed not only a head but also a body, but that this should not prevent an artist from taking a stance. His experiences of the First World War and the ideological tensions, even divisions, that began again soon afterwards made him a politically-minded composer.

Had he not been granted Soviet citizenship, he would probably have been deported to Theresienstadt and killed in a concentration camp during the Second World War, like the Czech composers Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann.

But he ended up in Wülzburg, where mainly Soviet citizens were imprisoned. He died there of tuberculosis at the age of 48.

Erwin Schulhoff
(Photo: Bridgeman Images)

For Igor Stravinsky, Zemlinsky was the most outstanding
of "all the conductors I have ever heard"

Throughout his life, Alexander von Zemlinsky tried to combine opposing positions. He was able to appreciate the new paths forged by his pupil and sometime brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg without having to follow them himself.

When he took over as director of the Deutsches Theater in Prague in 1911, he had to rebuild an opera ensemble, resolve the simmering German-Czech tensions and generate new interest among the audience. He immediately improved the quality of the orchestra, and with cyclical performances of the Beethoven symphonies in the 1914/15 season, he honed the orchestra's playing.

There was never a trace of just going through the motions or even fatigue; he rehearsed with unflagging intensity, even on the morning of the performance. He always tried to live up to Schoenberg’s dictum that Zemlinsky was “certainly the first living conductor”.

His reputation was universal and stronger than any national vanity: in the difficult years after the First World War, Zemlinsky was one of the few Austrians who were also regularly invited by Czech orchestras.

Even Igor Stravinsky praised Zemlinsky’s conducting skills: “Of all the conductors I have ever heard, I think I would choose Alexander von Zemlinsky as the supreme conductor who achieved the highest standards.”

Alexander Zemlinsky
(Photo: akg-images)

In his compositional work, Zemlinsky spanned the spectrum from sophisticated musical poetry to pantomimic drama for the Berlin cabaret theatre Überbrettl.

The Lyric Symphony with texts by the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore was followed in the same decade by the Symphonische Gesänge set to poems by African-American authors.

In 1929, shortly after their first publication in English, they appeared in German in the collection Afrika singt. While his Maeterlinck Songs for voice and orchestra shimmered and glittered and his Lyric Symphony was still akin to Mahler, Zemlinsky heard a new music in these texts, and felt the need to develop a new tonal language for them.

Exotic rapture and symbolist cloaking were not enough in the time of a looming new crisis; instead of myths, the present now came into play, instead of an elegiac femme fragile like Mélisande, an underdog like Wozzeck came rushing across the stage.

Financial helplessness, the ruthless oppression of the weak: these were the themes of the hour, also for Zemlinsky. At that time, a direct musical interpretation of music from African authors would have been obvious – spirituals were just as well known in Europe as ragtime.

But Zemlinsky decided against it and created his very own, edgy tonal language. Fascinated by the little-known world of African-Americans, he set seven of the poems to music as a completely unsentimental lament and indictment, rejecting all mawkishness.

Frequent changes of meter follow the rhythm of the language, and the orchestra – sometimes bleakly meagre, sometimes blasting – conveys the mood of the hot and oppressive air “down in Dixieland”. At the end of 1938, Zemlinsky had to emigrate to the USA and felt like a stranger there until his death. His last opera project, Circe, based on the Odyssey and begun in New York, remained unfinished. After suffering three strokes, he died on 15 March 1942.

Three fates to remind to remain vigilant

Sinigaglia, Schulhoff, Zemlinsky: all three composers fell victim to the anti-Semitic persecution waged by Nazi Germany.

Even if none of them was deported to concentration or extermination camps and killed there, the responsibility for their end is borne by the man-made inhuman machinery that considered people inferior and unworthy of life because of their origin, religion or political convictions.

The three fates – through their lives and beyond them through their music – remind us today to remain vigilant.

Malte Krasting

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