Music and the Holocaust

As Holocaust Remeberance Day comes around on January 27, one of ACMP’s members, Dr. Leon Hoffman (Vc, Chicago, IL), reminded me how important it is to pay homage to all the musicians and composers who suffered so tragically during this terrible event. Several of the composers whose chamber music works are frequently played and cherished by our chamber music community were among those who were in persecuted groups and whose lives were changed forever. Here is a snapshot of some of those composers and their stories. 

Béla Bartók is one of the most celebrated composers of the twentieth century and regarded as one of Hungary’s greatest composers, along with Franz Liszt. Bartók composed chamber works, string quartets and piano music, as well as orchestral and stage works. He also performed as a pianist and researched Eastern-European folk music, a passion which has led to him being called the ‘father of ethnomusicology.’ Although he had supported Hungarian nationalism in his youth, Bartók disapproved of the Hungarian government’s relationship with Nazi Germany, and protested against Hungary’s antisemitic laws. Bartók left for America after Hungary joined the Axis Powers in November 1940.  
In the US Bartók continued to perform, teach and carry out ethnomusicological research, but did not compose as prolifically as he had done in Hungary. He suffered from ill health, and in April 1944 was diagnosed with leukaemia, but in the final year of his life Bartók produced some of his most popular works. His Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in December 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, quickly became his most popular work, and his Sonata for Solo Violin was premiered in November 1944 by Yehudi Menuhin, to whom it was also dedicated. 
Bartók died a year later September 1945. Full article here.

Alexander Zemlinsky was an Austrian composer, conductor and teacher. His pupils included Erich Korngold, Hans Krása, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Karl Weigl, and he was friendly with Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. 

Zemlinsky had Hungarian Catholic heritage on his father’s side, and Jewish and Muslim heritage through his mother, but the family had converted to Judaism before Alexander was born. Zemlinsky converted to Protestantism in 1899 and, although he was not especially religious, he set religious texts and Psalms to music. 

In 1927 Zemlinsky accepted an offer from Otto Klemperer to conduct at the Kroll Opera, and subsequently stayed in Berlin until 1933, guest conducting in France, Spain, Italy and Russia. On April 7 the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excluded Jews from employment in the civil service. Zemlinsky wasted no time in leaving Berlin for Vienna in April 1933. The name ‘Israel’ was written in his Viennese residency application – whether he volunteered the information about his heritage is unknown.

Zemlinsky’s professional engagements ceased by 1935; whether he resigned by choice is unknown. Despite this, he composed prolifically throughout the 1930s, and received some performance and conducting opportunities in Vienna, Prague and Leningrad during this time. During 1936 he worked on his opera Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules), which had a libretto adapted by the French author André Gide, although he did not finish its orchestration. After the Anschluss in 1938, widespread attacks took place against Austrian Jews, and Zemlinsky and his second wife, Luise, destroyed photographs of Zemlinsky’s Muslim and Jewish grandparents, in case they could be used against him. The family was granted permission to leave Austria for the US thanks to the sponsorship of friends in America. They travelled through Prague, Rotterdam and Paris before arriving in New York in December 1938. They later found out that Luise’s mother and aunt had been deported to Terezín and perished in the camps.

In New York, Zemlinsky struggled to receive recognition for his work. He wrote a few popular songs, and his Sinfonietta was performed by the Philharmonic Society of New York in December 1940 and broadcast by NBC. Efforts to get his work Der König Kandaules premiered in at the Metropolitan Opera received little interest. He began work on a new opera, Circe, in 1939, but it was never finished. Zemlinsky’s health rapidly declined after he suffered a number of strokes, but he did meet Schoenberg for a final time – the composers had not seen each other since 1933, when they had allegedly argued over the application of twelve-tone technique. Zemlinsky died of pneumonia in 1942. Read more here.

Kurt Weill was born on 2 March 1900 in Dessau into a Jewish family with a long ancestry in Germany. As a teenager Weill began studying music with Albert Bing, and soon began composing, displaying the early predilection for vocal music that was to lead him to musical theatre. He later moved to Berlin to continue his studies, working with Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni. 

The aspiring musician quickly became a fixture in the vibrant cultural scene of 1920s Berlin. In 1922 he joined the Novembergruppe, a group of leftist Berlin artists that included Hanns Eisler and Stefan Wolpe. They primarily performed the works of modernist composers like Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky and Krenek. He had some early successes, but it was his partnership with Bertold Brecht that transformed Weill into an international sensation.

Like many other artists in his situation, Weill repeatedly misread political developments, believing that things were bound to get better. Eventually he learned that he and his wife were officially on the Nazi blacklist and were due to be arrested, so in March 1933 he crossed the border to France, still hoping that his stay in Paris would be temporary. Weill’s continued collaboration with Brecht while in Paris was relatively unsuccessful, and soon after his marriage ended in divorce.  He then left for the USA, where he hoped to rebuild his career. There, he was also re-united with his ex-wife Lotte Lenya.  

His first few years in America were fraught with difficulty – his plays were unsuccessful and the young couple struggled to support themselves. It was not until 1938, with his hit musical Knickerbocker Holiday written with playwright Maxwell Anderson, that Weill finally gained access to the musical theatre scene of Broadway. Despite his financial success in the United States, however, he never achieved the sort of fame or influence that he had enjoyed during the Weimar years.  Always something of an outsider, he remained on the fringes of the musical establishment, and until his death was denied membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Weill died at the age of 50 on 3 April 1950. Read more here

Bohuslav Martinů was a Czechoslovakian violinist and composer. Inspired by traditional Bohemian and Moravian folk melodies as well as contemporary music, Martinu wrote  chamber music, operas, ballets, orchestral, and vocal works. 

After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the signing of the Munich Agreement, Martinu tried to join the Czech Resistance in France but was not accepted because of his age. Instead he wrote a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra, Field Mass (Polní mše, 1939) in tribute to the Czech Government-in-Exile led by Edvard Benes and the Czechoslovakians fighting in the French army.

Field Mass was first broadcast in England and heard over the radio in Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis became aware of Martinu’s tribute to the Czech resistance, the composer was blacklisted by the regime. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Martinu and his family were forced to flee because, as an enemy of the Nazis, Martinu risked arrest and imprisonment. The Martinus fled first to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France before crossing the border through Spain to Portugal in January 1941 and eventually fleeing by boat to the US. Composer Paul Sacher assisted with the Martinus’ financial costs.

Though Martinu initially struggled to settle in New York he soon adjusted and joined the teaching staff at Mannes College of Music and Princeton University. He composed prolifically in the US; he had not composed a symphony before arriving in America but wrote one per year from 1942-46. He also enjoyed premieres of compositions by leading American orchestras in New York, Boston and Chicago. In 1943 the New York Philharmonic premiered his eight-minute symphonic poem, Memorial to Lidice (Památnik Lidicím). The piece commemorates the 340 Czechs murdered by the Nazis in June 1942 in the village of Lidice. The piece premiered in an all-Czech concert on 28 October 1943, the anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic in 1918.

Martinu became a US citizen in 1952 and returned to France in 1953 before accepting a teaching position at the American Academy in Rome in 1956. He died in Switzerland in 1959. Though he had been unable to return to Czechoslovakia during his lifetime, he was posthumously transferred to his hometown of Policka in 1979. Read more.

While never a practising Jew, Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) Jewish heritage had a significant impact on both his personal life and musical compositions. Schoenberg’s revolutionary musical technique of dodecaphony (using an ordered series of all twelve chromatic tones as the basis for a musical work) was his signature creation, and he often boasted that its modernist structure would secure ‘the hegemony of German music’ into the next century. Such nationalistic assertions would assume a sadly ironic tone in the inter-war period, during which anti-Semitic reactions to Schoenberg and his music became more prevalent and ultimately forced the composer’s emigration to America in 1933. When the National Socialists enacted the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service) in 1933 which banned Jews from holding university positions,Schoenberg, then a professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste (Berlin), emigrated to America. He later accepted a position at the University of California Los Angeles.  

In the years that followed, Schoenberg actively pursued Jewish issues and topics in both his essays and musical compositions.  In the 1940s, despite his failing health, he continued to address specifically Jewish themes in three works: Die Jakobsleiter (1922; revisions unfinished); Moses und Aron (unfinished); and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). Schoenberg died in Los Angeles, California, in 1951. Read more.

Visit Music and the Holocaust for all sources and many more articles.

To find chamber music by these composers, visit Find Chamber Music on the ACMP website.

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Header photo, from left to right: Béla Bartók, Alexander Zemlinsky, Kurt Weill, Bohuslav Martinů, Arnold Schoenberg

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