Nearly seven decades on from the fall of the Third Reich, with plenty of subsequent examples of man’s inhumanity to man across the globe available for our inspection, it’s still difficult to get one’s brain around the enormity of Nazism. That so many people bought its racist ideology and brutal methods, in a country that prided itself on its high level of cultural attainment, becomes even remotely comprehensible only by close examination of how cleverly, doggedly and meticulously they were sold. And when we look at the resources that Hitler’s regime – particularly Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry – poured into the effort to “purify” German culture from the “taint” of Jewishness, the bitter ironies quickly begin to pile up.
It’s in the field of classical music that the weirdness of this campaign is most readily illustrated. Working from a template provided by Wagner’s 1850 essay “Judaism in Music,” the Reich used the reputations of Germany’s superstar composers as part of the basis for its arguments of Aryan genetic superiority and undertook to obliterate Jewishness from the fabric of Europe’s rich musical heritage. The trouble was, there were too many Jewish threads in that tapestry to pull out without the whole thing starting to unravel. In retrospect, we scratch our heads wondering how the Nazis could not have seen that.
This particular avenue of colossal folly started with toppling a statue in Leipzig of Wagner’s favorite Jewish whipping boy, Mendelssohn, and continued with condemnation of the works of Mahler. Yes, Mahler! Modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, the “decadent” Kurt Weill and two of the world’s most prominent conductors of the time, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, all had to flee the country. But that deliberate brain drain wasn’t enough for the Reich: New librettos for operas by “approved” composers like Mozart and Richard Strauss were ordered just because the originals had employed librettists with Jewish blood. Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus was even rewritten with no Maccabees. Welcome to Bizarro World.
And yes, it really happened – in the land of Bach and Beethoven. How Hitler rationalized his love for Beethoven despite the composer’s anti-authoritarian political leanings – he famously tore up the title page of his Eroica Symphony, written in admiration of Napoleon, when the general declared himself emperor – can only be imagined. Rumors that Beethoven had some black ancestry are said to have circulated during the ascendancy of the Reich.
In spite of everything, Jewish musicians and music-lovers kept the spark alive, even in the ghettos and death camps, and scraps of documentation of those gallant efforts have been emerging over the past several decades. One much-lauded product of this field of inquiry is Josh Aronson’s documentary Orchestra of Exiles, which tells the story of how violinist Bronislaw Huberman helped many of Europe’s newly unemployed Jewish musicians escape to Palestine and form what would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The acclaimed film will be screened on Wednesday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. in the Weis Cinema of the Bertelsmann Campus Center at Bard College, and admission is free, thanks to the sponsorship of the Bard Jewish Student Organization, the Bard College Music Program, the Bard Conservatory of Music and the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. A panel discussion will follow the screening.
This showing of Orchestra of Exiles is being timed to coincide with a special series of three lecture/concerts in Olin Hall on the Bard campus, beginning next Saturday, on the theme of “Music in the Holocaust, Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the scope of the series is broad. The first concert in the series, “Coercion, Collusion and Creativity: Music of the Terezin Ghetto and the Central European Experience,” will take place on Saturday, February 23. Its focus will be on music composed and performed in Theresienstadt, a ghetto/concentration transit camp in which leading European Jewish composers and performers were interned. The Nazis used it as a showplace of a “model settlement” to hoodwink international investigative bodies like the Red Cross. Selections from works by Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Ilse Weber and Erwin Schulhoff will be performed.
The second concert, “Nationalism, Continuity and Creativity: Music of Warsaw, Lodz and other Eastern Ghettoes,” will be performed on Saturday, April 20. It will include Robert Cuckson’s 2003 Warsaw Ghetto song cycle Der Gayst funem Shturem (The Spirit of the Storm), with text from the poems of ghetto survivor Binem Heller. It will be performed in Yiddish by mezzo-soprano Malena Dayen, with piano accompaniment by David Rosenmeyer, the couple for whom Cuckson composed the work.
On Saturday, April 27, “Kurt Weill and the Modernist Migration: Music of Weill and Other Émigrés” will focus on the work of Weill and his contribution to the American Songbook, as well as the reverberations of the Weimar cultural legacy in the US. The evening will feature songs from several of Weill’s American musicals, including Knickerbocker Holiday (set in the Colonial Dutch Hudson Valley) and the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark, as well as several of Weill’s collaborations with Brecht.
All three concerts begin at 7 p.m. The lecture/concert series is co-sponsored by the Bard Jewish Student Organization, Bard College Music Program, Bard College Historical Studies Program and the Hannah Arendt Center, and made possible by a grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Admission is free, but get there early to ensure that you’ll get a seat. For more information, visit www.hannaharendtcenter.org or call (845) 758-7878.
“Coercion, Collusion and Creativity: Music of the Terezin Ghetto and the Central European Experience,” Saturday, February 23, 7 p.m., Olin Hall. Orchestra of Exiles screening, Wednesday, March 20, 7:30 p.m., Weis Cinema. “Nationalism, Continuity and Creativity: Music of Warsaw, Lodz and other Eastern Ghettoes,” Saturday, April 20, 7 p.m., Olin Hall. “Kurt Weill and the Modernist Migration: Music of Weill and Other Émigrés,” Saturday, April 27, 7 p.m., Olin Hall. All free, Bard College, 30 Campus Road, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7878, www.hannaharendtcenter.org.