Works by Viktor Ullmann, Robert Lannoy, Marius Flothuis and Jozef Kropinski
Francesco Lotoro (piano) and friends
KZMUSIK CD8 232525
reviewed by Neville Cohn
It goes almost without saying that any musical composition worthy of the name must be judged on its intrinsic worth irrespective of the circumstances attending its genesis. This can be an almost impossible exercise when considering, say, Gideon Klein’s Sonata for piano. It was written in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1919, Klein was only 25 years old when, as slave labourer in a coalmine, he died in January 1945.
Francesco Lotoro gives a magnificently authoritative account of Klein’s Sonata. There is a defiant assertiveness in the outer movements – and Lotoro does wonders in evoking this powerful mood in a performance that seizes the attention in a vice-like grip.
Murdered in his prime, Klein’s tragically early death calls that of Schubert to mind. Certainly, the epitaph on Schubert’s tombstone could apply to Klein: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession but far fairer hopes”.
Lotoro is no less impressive in three sonatas by Viktor Ullmann. Sonata No 5, intended as a draft for his Symphony No 1, makes for absorbing listening. Lotoro does wonders with the first movement, seeming to positively relish coming to grips with its trills and strong rhythmic underpinning. The brief Toccatina with its spiky, staccato theme is no less impressively essayed, the finale calling to mind some of Prokofiev’s more engaging essays in pianistic grotesquerie.
Lotoro is wondrously persuasive in the Sonata No 7 with insistent repeated notes in the opening Allegro and a second movement that calls Mussorgsky to mind.
Cadenzas that Ullmann wrote for Beethoven’s 1st and 3rd piano concertos are fascinating inclusions. They are strikingly original, powerfully dense- textured utterances that Lotoro plays as if to the manner born.
Ullmann and his wife died in an Auschwitz gas chamber a day after being deported in October 1944.
The visionary intensity that Lotoro brings to his work cannot be too highly prasied. Certainly, the care lavished on the minutiae of performance is on a par with Lotoro’s ability to convey the grand sweep of whatever work he happens to be playing.
This is a recording that ought to be heard by as many people as possible, not least to marvel at how the creative impulse flourished even in an environment of appallingly murderous cruelty.
Listening to the first of the KZ Music discs (music written during internment in
concentration camps) one isn’t struck by any composition as being particularly remarkable. There is nothing, in any of the works by any of the seven composers included on this disc, which immediately vaults from the speakers – heralding momentous harmonic or rhythmic originality. Some of it is neatly crafted, some of it is stylistically clichéd, some of it is somewhat naive in gesture, and some of it is truly interesting. Most of it is, probably, what we would call utilitarian.
One could, for example, see no reason why Karel Berman’s ‘Poupata’, for baritone and piano, should not join the standard repertoire. Goodness only knows how much the genre needs fresh additions. Others works however are more akin to student compositions – quasi anthems to youth – and, like most earnest student works, deserve a polite hearing but, thereafter, best left alone. Yet such a critical analysis is hardly the point …is it? Why? Because, unlike students, many of these composers were not allowed to live long enough to go back and re-work their material. And this means we need to apply a new strategy to our understanding of the music.
What lies within a core appreciation of all of the 24 CDs in the series, isn’t as much a ranking of artistic value, according to standard criteria, as it is a reaffirmation of the integrity of the human creative spirit. Internment, no matter the almost surreal horror of such (in some circumstances) – be it within a state gaol, a frail or palsied body, a religious canon, an unyielding social boundary cast around the arts by an insecure political system, or, as we find here, a heinous racial ostracism – cannot imprison the creative mind. And when the creative mind, despite very real physical imprisonment, looks about and surveys the terror of its landscape, it begins a process of therapy. This is as natural to our species as is locking the prison door.
The KZ MUSIC series has determined its period and place of reference to prove the point. But, before launching into an examination of it, one needs to remark, at this point, that all the performers have approached the material with sensitivity and technical assurance. The phrasing, dynamics, tempi and sense of flow, throughout the recording, feel instinctively ‘correct’. Pianist, Francesco Lotoro, certainly has the lion’s share of effort – performing on every track as either soloist or accompanist – but more importantly is the evident ‘simpatico’ evinced by all the musicians.
It is unclear from the two booklets included with the disc, whether Lotoro is also the author/compiler of the information they contain. This information pertains to what details exist about the composers, their works, their surroundings and much more besides. The author, be it Lotoro or not, is to be congratulated on this sedulous quest.
But why wasn’t the same degree of ministration applied to the English translation? It certainly isn’t rare to find a few grammatical and word choice inaccuracies in texts translated into English, however, when there are this many ‘oversights’, one begins to wonder what it is the author is trying to say. With subject matter of this importance, the translator shouldn’t alienate his readers before they become listeners. Also, an English translation of the actual texts might have given the English speaking audience greater insight into the composer’s thinking. And a final word on the business of English translations: the fabrication of the term ‘concentrationary music’ is not justified. To coin an abbreviation such as ‘CCM’ (Concentration Camp Music) is fine, if previously annotated, but to use the non-word ‘concentrationary’ so consistently, doesn’t give it the right to exist. In fact, if it did exist as a word, it could give the opposite impression of much of the music!
It is difficult to know where to begin a discussion because the therapeutic process takes on a very different complexion according to the personality, degree of training and genuine inventiveness of the composer. As mentioned, this critique makes little attempt to set a level or standard of compositional excellence and is more concerned with taking a panoramic view of the process in action.
The composer to whom I was immediately drawn was Viktor Ullmann. One of the leaflets states he studied with Arnold Schoenberg for a year, although it doesn’t mention what he studied specifically. My curiosity was piqued: was the 20 – 21 year old Ullmann influenced by the style of music Schoenberg was writing just before the 1920s? Further research revealed that Ullmann studied composition with Schoenberg and indeed, one can draw a similarity in as much as both composers explore motivic (cells of three or four notes) development rather than traditional melodic expansion. Ullmann however seems to more attracted to establishing larger lines of restricted range, and to harmonies imprinted with Mahler or Strauss.
The choice of accompanying strings (either as quartet or trio) adds an almost claustrophobic dimension. Perhaps this is due to the timbral ‘tightness’ of string ensembles or perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt by the composer to project his physical surroundings. Who can say? But what can be determined is that these representative lieder deserve further study. It appears the Czechoslovakian artistic community maintains a similar position.
After the relative sophistication of Ullmann’s music we are presented, in purely musical terms, with their antithesis: three songs for baritone and piano by Josef Kropinski. (Incidentally, Kropinski, having survived WWII and the camps, as a political prisoner, died of a heart attack in 1970…a mere fifteen years later.) Unlike Ullmann, Kropinski clearly has a penchant for tonal melodies. Some of them are quite haunting, like that which opens ‘Piesn Wspomnienia’ – which I’m sure I’ve encountered before – and the folksy melody of ‘Prozno!’. Yet while his basic building blocks are attractive, he has difficulty mounting them into a satisfying or convincing edifice. Still, in terms of melodic invention alone, he should be better known. Much of this writing has the imprint of ‘movie land’ written on it and this is a quality which shouldn’t be ignored. If ‘Piesn Wspomnienia’ hasn’t been used – if I had only associated it with something else – then it would be a regrettable loss for any reputable Hollywood director.
Berman’s ‘Poupata’, as already mentioned, which opens the disc (with seven songs for baritone and piano, one for soprano and piano, and one for piano solo) show, though not exclusively, a surprising Impressionist influence. All the pieces are conveyed with a satisfying sense of line, and the word shaping is aurally perceived as being highly sensitive to the natural inflections of the language. His harmonic writing is an interesting reconnaissance of non or barely tonal areas. But there is a twist: his harmonic progressions offer the listener greater satisfaction than his harmonic ‘goals’. The former, be they French Impressionistic or late German Romantic in colour, seem to explore new relationships but the latter (the purpose of the progression) always capitulate to tonality. It is as if Berman is stating his willingness to probe a non-tonal harmonic world but not the extent of permanently residing there.
His ‘Slavnostni Pochod’, for piano solo, is an oddity. Clearly pictorial, this anthem or military march is either satirical or naive. Whatever the case, it isn’t worthy of the music already presented by the composer.
There are three other piano solos on the CD’s program. The first two of these are by Z. Stryjecki (only the initial of his first name is known and his dates of birth/death are unknown). Both solos are very basic in structure and general musical material. Before tagging them as ‘juvenile’ – which is what their style would strongly suggest – one searches for a bit more information to confirm the notion. But there is so little information about his life; except he was a POW and these pieces were written in 1942. That’s all there is. One can only conjecture his artistic development was curtailed in his youth and, consequently, left in that state when he composed the pieces.
The other piano solo – ‘Felicita’ op.282 by Charles Abeles – is similar to Berman’s solo in as much as it is either burlesque or dewy-eyed, although the clichéd tremolo, in both hands, at the conclusion, would seem to imply the former. Then again, the gesture would be entirely in keeping with a carnival or circus image the work evokes. The information is so sparse that one must adopt a subjective opinion, so, in my opinion, ‘Felicita’ is a parody.
Fortunately there is more information about the other two composers on the disc: Ludmilla Peskarova and Eva Lippold-Brockdorff. Undoubtedly this is because both women survived WWII and the Holocaust. There is also another similarity between them – a stylistic conformance which favours simple tonal structures (i.e. where it is a relatively easy task to aurally delineate small musical sections). Both women appear to have a fondness for either folk songs or ‘patriotic’ anthems. Their use of rhythm is best described as detectable patterning – iterations of small motives – and their harmonic progressions comes perilously close to textbook design.
These are observations which would strike many listeners, not artistic evaluations. In its own terms, each song (all of which have been scored for ‘female voice’ and piano) might be limited in its musical language but, overall, has a fairly balanced dynamic structure. I was curious to see how Peskarova was going to handle her material in ‘Pisen o Koncentracich’ as its duration of 5mins 11secs is the second longest on the disc. ‘Songs about the Concentrations’, its translation, would, on the surface, suggest something weighty and in-depth. And I assumed its length would indicate a more explorative musical argument. I was disappointed, but not surprised – given the title, to find it only had greater repetition…perhaps too much. In fact it became a spiralling of repetition within repetition. One felt it was at this stage that the line between conscious intent (to make a statement) and the world of creativity were losing sight of each other. For future performances of any of these songs, by either composer, it is suggested to substitute the ‘female singer’ for a boy soprano. I feel this is more the quality of voice both composers had in mind. That quality is one of innocence.
This is a word that so effectively, on many levels, best describes the creative thinking heard in most of the music on the disc. Does the creative mind, when surrounded by such senseless suffering and maleficence, find a point of state of grace? Having listened to this recording, I think it does, or it has no alternative not to do so.
Stuart Hille 2009.
In the closing months of Word War II, a platoon of soldiers led by a young South African – then-23-year-old Major Gideon Francois ‘Jake’ Jacobs – parachuted on to the island of Sumatra to liberate the civilian inmates of a Japanese internment camp for whom Jacobs would ever after be known as ‘the man who came from heaven’. Jacobs subsequently became military governor of Sumatra, going on to a distinguished career in South Africa as academic and politician.
Shortly before Jacobs’ arrival, the inmates of that camp had given a performance of choral miniatures. That long-ago performance, and the rehearsal preparation that came before it, was an attempt by two remarkable women to counter the effect of despair, boredom and illness that were all-pervasive in the camp. Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, a missionary, had set the ball rolling by painstakingly notating versions of popular classics on scraps of hoarded paper – the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude and Dvorak’s Largo movement from the New World Symphony. (In an astonishing instance of synchronicity, a woman in the Ravensbruck concentration camp also arranged the Dvorak piece for women’s choir.)
At that unique concert in the Sumatra camp, the audience consisted of Japanese guards and internees. The ‘vocal orchestra’ singers, most frail from starvation and illness, were not strong enough to stand. Instead, they sang while sitting down. And as fellow-internee nursing sister Vivian Bullwinkel recalled, “we experienced a wonderful surge of optimism and hope – and that was a real comfort.”
There were also internment camps in Australia and the UK. After the promulgation of Germany’s anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws in the years leading up to World War II, numbers of German and Austrian Jewish musicians were granted political asylum in the UK. But when war broke out, their formal status changed from refugee to that of enemy alien. Some remained in internment camps in the UK but others were sent by boat to detention camps in Australia. The most famous of these ships was the Dunera and among the detainees, who came to be known as the Dunera boys, were Rabbi Boaz Bishopswerder of the Berlin Reform Synagogue who used his time on board ship to compose his Fantasia Judaica for violin and piano. And, while detained in Tatura, the rabbi’s son Felix Werder wrote his Symphony No 1, eventually becoming one of Australia’s most respected musicians.
On the other side of the world in a German Stalag in Silesia, a French POW, trying to stave off boredom, embarked on a composition to be played by three fellow POWs and himself as pianist. It’s written for an instrumental ensemble not often encountered in mainstream classical music – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. And the composer, ever practical, carefully avoided the use of any notes which did not function properly on the ramshackle instruments that were all the players had at their disposal at that most unusual premiere. The composer was Olivier Messiaen and the work, now known to millions, was A Quartet for the End of Time. Of all music created in prisons of one sort or another, this work is almost certainly the best known. And in Japanese POW camps in Taiwan and Manchuria, Colonel Edmund J. Lilley countered the soul-destroying boredom of captivity by writing a set of American songs.
But during World War II, far and away the greatest amount of music of many kinds and of varying quality was composed in nazi concentration camps. But works were also composed in a variety of other detention facilities such as military prisons and conventional POW camps across Europe as well as in the UK. One can only marvel at the power of the creative impulse that enabled musicians to write music in an environment devoid of compassion, camps which, at their worst, were like horrifying anterooms to Hell.
It is very largely due to the tireless efforts of Francesco Lotoro that so much of this music has been retrieved from near-oblivion, much of it now available on compact disc. Lotoro points out that “the level of creativity in a camp such as Theresienstadt was so great that, in order for the only piano there – a battered upright instrument – to be available to composers and pianists in an equitable way, a roster had to be drawn up allowing each musician to have use of the piano for thirty minutes at a time.”
Twelve CDs have now been released and Lotoro envisages at least another 12 compact discs to record all the music deriving from concentration camps.
Lotoro is an Italian-born pianist, conductor and music historian. Rescuing and recording music written in prisons has become his life’s work. But Lotoro points out that he is not the first musician to have taken on this work. Before he came on the scene, others were trying to conserve and catalogue music from the camps. He cites, for instance, Aleksander Kulisiewicz.
“He was a trained singer in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and a victim of cruel medical experiments by the nazis, operations that resulted in the loss of his fine voice.” After the war, Kulisiewicz compiled lists not only of compositions but also poetry written in the camps but these have yet to be published. He effectively got the ball rolling. Lotoro estimates there are almost 4,000 concentration camp compositions which he likens, in extent, to the spoken testimonies from Holocaust survivors, an enormous project initiated by famed movie director Steven Spielberg.
For Lotoro, the task of gathering music scores continues – “there are libraries to be explored, antiquarian shops of various kinds around Europe to visit. It will be necessary (in the long term) to set up a central archive of such music, catalogued and kept under one roof rather than have these scores being kept in a variety of museums and libraries around the world.”
Lotoro also makes the important point that with time running out, survivors still able to recall music that does not as yet exist on paper ought to be encouraged to put notes on paper. “For instance, there is an opera – Karel Svenk’s Long Life to Life – that some survivors of Theresienstadt, now living in Israel, still sing by heart. But there is no written score – and we need to notate it soon otherwise it will vanish with the passing of those who can still remember it.”
Theresienstadt, near Prague in Czechoslovakia, had originally been built as a garrison town. It had facilities for a population of 7,000. But when the two arch-nazis and chief planners of genocide – Reinard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann – chose Theresienstadt primarily as a transit camp for Jews en route to the death camps such as Auschwitz, the population grew to 60,000. Among those imprisoned here by the Germans, were Jewish war veterans, some decorated for valour, who had fought in the Prussian Army during World War 1. Their loyalty to Germany in WWI counted for nothing in the camps
In this overcrowded place, in terribly oppressive conditions, there was an amazing creative flowering as one work after another poured from the pens of imprisoned musicians: Gideon Klein wrote a fine piano sonata and arranged a set of Czech and Russian folk songs (his death has never been confirmed but he is thought to have perished as a slave labour in a salt mine); Pavel Haas wrote his Piano Sonatas Nos 5, 6 & 7 – and Viktor Ullmann wrote the opera The King of Atlantis.(Johann Marcus, one of Ullmann’s sons, survived and lives permanently in a psychiatric hospital in England).And Hans Krasa wrote a childrens’ opera Brundibar. These works have since become internationally known.
One of the blackest days at Theresienstadt was 17 October 1944. Lotoro says that “within the space of a few hours, an entire generation of composers, virtuoso pianists, philosophers and artists died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz to which they had been deported from Theresienstadt.”
Many of these often-transcendentally gifted people were cut down in their prime. Among those slaughtered was the 15-year-old Jiri Kummermann who left a String Quartet and a text book of harmony and counterpoint exercises. Another teenager – Petr Ginz – not a musician, has left a deeply moving diary of his experiences; while in Theresienstadt, he founded and edited a camp newspaper before being transported to Auschwitz where he was killed.
Lotoro has made it his life’s work to not only rescue, edit and record as much concentration camp music as possible but to interview as many survivors of the period as possible (now very few in number) as well as descendants of murdered musicians.
“Karl Berman was a survivor of Auschwitz: he was liberated by American troops. He lost his entire family in the camps”, said Lotoro. “After the war, he continued his vocal studies in Prague and became a celebrated opera singer. I met him in Prague in 1992. He was very old and was to die three years later. It was a very moving experience. The old man gave me a recording he’d made of four songs, settings of Chinese poems that Pavel Haas had composed for him shortly before dying in an Auschwitz gas chamber.”
Lotoro added that in Prague, he’d also met Stepan Lucky who had been training as a virtuoso pianist when the war began. “When I met him in 1993, I asked him for his autograph which he gave me after writing it with a shaking hand; it was illegible. The German soldiers deliberately crippled his right hand. So, unable to play the piano, he became a composer instead.”
Some musicians who had survived the camps tried to block out their experiences. Lotoro says that when he visited Frantisek Domazlicki and played a piano piece the old man had written in the camps, he became angry as if he wanted no reminders of that terrible time. “Instead, he gave me a copy of a Sonata for trombone drums and piano.
“I had a similar reaction when I wrote to Felix Werder in Melbourne asking if he could send me some psalm settings he’d made in the Tatura camp in Australia . ‘I will send them to you but please don’t ask me anything concerning that period. I am very old and tired’”. Werder, who wrote a good deal of avant-garde music in Australia, was music critic for The Age newspaper for many years.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, in terrible conditions. Wladyslaw Szpillman (whose life was made into the Roman Polansky movie The Pianist) composed his Concertino for piano and orchestra.
Although it was the Jews of Europe who, more than any other group, were singled out for murder by the Nazis, there were others, fewer in number, who perished in the camps: gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses such as Eric Frost who composed a hymn in Sachsenhausen which is still sung by Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations. Polish Catholics imprisoned in Dachau wrote a puppet opera on a Christmas theme. And in a detention camp in Rumania, Zdenko Karol Rund wrote a setting of the Mass called Salve Mater Polonia .
Lotoro and his colleagues have been working tirelessly to retrieve, edit, study and perform an immense amount of music. Not all of it is at the highest level of creativity and in style and format ranges from standard classical forms such as sonatas to cabaret and music theatre, music primarily for children, jazz and sacred music. The KZ MUSIK CDs are available on the Musikstrasse label.
Copyright 2008 Neville Cohn