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Behold Music from the Depths of Nazi Horror

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Behold Music from the Depths of Nazi Horror
Motyl Chamber Ensemble members Julie Arzt Becker

Violinist Aleeza Wadler, founder and artistic director of Motyl Chamber Ensemble, grew up knowing about the Holocaust. The ensemble that she founded in 2003 performs on Saturday, November 19, at the Yardley Community Center, presenting four works for string quartet. The program consists of music by composers whose lives were cut short or radically transformed by Nazi genocide. The program is presented as part of the annual music series of the Bucks County Performing Arts Center.

Composers Viktor Ullmann and Egon Ledec, whose works are included in the November 19 program, were interned in Terezin (Theresienstadt), the camp near Prague, which the Nazis portrayed as a site for encouraging creativity. Both men perished in 1944. The Ledec “Serenata,” which concludes the program, has never been published.

Composers Hans Gal and Karl Weigl left central Europe in 1939. Gal escaped to Britain; Weigl fled to the United States.

The performers are Wadler, violin; Julie Artzt Becker, violin; Anoush Simonian, viola; and Ellen Rose Silver, cello. The four live in the New York metropolitan area. Pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit, a member of Motyl’s core personnel, does not participate in this concert. “Four of Motyl’s five members are Jewish,” Wadler says in a phone interview. “The fifth member is Armenian. She understands about Terezin. The Armenians had their own holocaust.”

Motyl takes its name from the Czech word for “butterfly,” and title of a poem written by Pavel Friedman while he was interned in the Terezin concentration camp.

Wadler links the foundation of Motyl to her family history. As a child, she learned about the systematic Nazi annihilations from her mother. Wadler’s maternal grandparents, residents of Paris, escaped to the south of France when the Nazis invaded. Their daughter, Wadler’s mother, was born in Cannes in 1942 and spent the war in hiding, sheltered by an Italian Catholic woman.

Wadler grew up in New York City with parents who loved music, but played no instruments. They encouraged their daughter’s interest in the violin. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s School of Music and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Her doctorate comes from Boston University. “For my thesis I wanted to choose a music-Holocaust topic,” she says. “Motyl was an outgrowth of my dissertation.”

Wadler finished the thesis in May, 2003, and established Motyl before the end of that year. Titled “Strings in the Shadows: A Portrait of Three Violinists in the Terezin Concentration Camp,” the dissertation draws on Wadler’s interviews with two Terezin survivors.

Her account of Terezin and its mock honoring of artistic endeavor make for a stomach-tightening interview. Terezin, she explains, was a transit camp, not a death camp. One hundred and forty thousand people passed through between November, 1941, and the spring of 1945. The camp was primarily a station on the way to death camps further east. However, authorities allowed about 200 inmates to devote themselves to cultural affairs — music, art, and literature.

The chosen 200 were protected and privileged, exempt from arduous chores. They devoted themselves to creating new works, to practicing their instruments, and to performing. The camp was a showcase designed to demonstrate Nazi cultivation of the arts.

“There were concerts in the evening,” Wadler says. “Almost 50 compositions are known to have been composed at Terezin. The music was very variable. Some reflected the grimness at Terezin. Sometimes there were cabaret songs. The pieces had all kinds of moods.”

Today, tourists visiting Terezin see empty buildings on a drab and barren site virtually devoid of vegetation. The atmosphere is spooky. “The death rate was huge,” Wadler says. “There was constant fear of being transferred eastwards, and constant terror.”

One of Wadler’s most chilling accounts concerns Viktor Ullmann, whose String Quartet No. 3, composed at Terezin, is on the November 19 program. Its movements bear standard musical identifications, with no hint of the circumstances under which it was composed.

Ullmann was the dean of Terezin’s musical life. During his internment, he composed three piano sonatas, the string quartet, several dozen Lieder, orchestral works, and an opera. He wrote, “Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities. . . By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. . . Our endeavor with respect [to] arts was commensurate with our will to live.”

“Ullmann was the main composer at Terezin,” Wadler says. “His music was published and performed. He was a music critic and wanted to leave a record of what happened. He wanted people to know that music was performed at Terezin. When he learned he was going on the next transport, he packed copies of his compositions in a suitcase. At the last minute, he gave the suitcase to someone at Terezin, not on the transport list, who managed to save it. Otherwise, the music would have been lost.

“Probably a lot of music was lost,” Wadler adds. “Not everybody thought to pack a suitcase.”

Compelling as the Terezin stories are, Motyl sees its role as going beyond evoking the horrors of the camp; the ensemble has other motives. “Our ultimate goal is to make the world aware of the music composed at Terezin,” Wadler says. “Our goal is to have it recognized as great music and to have it accepted as part of the standard repertoire.

“We wanted to form a group that could perform music composed at Terezin,” Wadler says, “but we thought it might be confining to limit Motyl’s repertoire to what was written there. We also wanted to include music performed at Terezin — Mendelssohn, for example.”

Motyl’s repertoire also includes pieces by composers whose careers changed course because of the Holocaust.

Wadler’s mentor, the late David Bloch, facilitated both her thesis and the establishment of Motyl. Wadler provides an X-ray view of the ways musicology works. Wadler describes Bloch as an Israeli-based musicologist whose interest in Terezin grew from reading violinist Joza Karas’ 1985 book “Music in Terezin.” Bloch then researched Terezin’s music from a musicological point of view.

Somewhat surprisingly, Karas’ book did not appear until 40 years after the end of World War II. The subject is clearly of continuing interest. A second edition of the book was published in 2008. Wadler met Bloch at a conference in Schwerin, Germany, in the early 2000s. Bloch put her in touch with two Terezin violinists, one of whom, Thomas Mandl, she interviewed on the spot in Schwerin. Mandl was about 16 when he was sent to Terezin.

The other Terezin violinist, Paul Kling, was only 15 when he was interned. He became a professor in the United States. Wadler interviewed him in his retirement in Vancouver.

“Mandl and Kling were lucky to have survived,” Wadler says. “They were young. That gave them a better chance to survive.”

Bloch was also crucial in creating a personal contact between Wadler and the third Terezin violinist, Egon Ledec, who had died almost 60 years before she wrote her thesis. With Bloch’s intervention, she was able to play Ledec pieces for violin and piano for Ledec’s nephew in the nephew’s apartment in Prague in 2003.

Bloch supplied the music for the Ledec pieces. He also gained access to Ledec’s letters for Wadler.

Wadler describes Ledec as primarily a performer, rather than a composer. “He was famous,” she says. “As a violinist, he followed the style of [Fritz] Kreisler, and composed pieces on the side. He was co-concert master of the Prague Philharmonic, but was moved to the last chair before being sent to Terezin. In Terezin he had a string quartet.”

Wadler habitually talks to Motyl’s audiences. “I always bring in the historical side and introduce the program. It’s really important to present a historically accurate account.”

Motyl Chamber Ensemble, Bucks County Performing Arts Center, Yardley Community Center, 64 South Main Street, Yardley, PA. Saturday, November 19, 8 p.m. “Beautiful Music Rescued During the Holocaust” with Aleeza Wadler and Julie Artzt Becker on violin, Anoush Simonian on viola, and Ellen Rose Silver on violin and cello. $15. 215-493-3010 or www.bcpac.org.

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