Music and War

For many years, the Audubon String Quartet and other musicians have been performing music composed in Terezin, the concentration camp near Prague that the Nazis used as their showcase for their treatment of the Jews during World War II. As part of the twisted show, the Nazis interned many musicians, painters, writers, and other artists there. Orchestras, chamber ensembles, and jazz groups performed. Composers like Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas wrote music there. Most of these artists were sent to Auschwitz or other death camps.

About 144,000 Jews lived in Terezin over the course of the war. About of quarter of those died there of hunger, disease, and other cuases. Nearly 90,000 were sent to death camps such as Auschwitz. Only about 17,000 survived. Of the 15,000 children that lived in the Terezin children’s home, fewer than 100 survived.

The Audubon Quartet began performing music from Terezin after the violist discovered that her father had been actively involved in Terezin’s musical life. Today, a colleague found a typed letter from 1996 sent after the Audubon Quartet performed here. The letter read:

Dear Sir or Madam,

My friends and I are very disappointed that the Audubon Quartet should have chosen to present a concert in which all the music has been chosen for political rather than musical reasons. Even if the chamber music they plan to play is of very good quality, we should not be asked to hear it because the composers died tragic deaths in the Holocaust. A concert of Czech music including, say, Janacek and Dvorak, and one of the Terezin composers [sic] would sure have been more musically justified.

Another patron hand-wrote an angry (and barely legible) card about

…the poor illustrated lecture about the Holocaust given heavy-handedly by the Audubon Quartet. Even if only a few of the crowd who were angry… wrote letters of protest you must have got the point.

We couldn’t believe what we were reading. Even if the music is of very good quality? If the music is very good quality, how could a listener object?

And political? War may start for political reasons, but playing music of Terezin can hardly be called a political activity. Did he think it was some Jewish propaganda stunt? This concert was a beautiful example of unified thematic programming. It was music of a singular time and place.

Later, the concert manager wrote to a member of the quartet directly:

Please accept this letter as an endorsement of the work you and the Audubon String Quartet are doing on the music from Terezin. After your performance…, it was clear that a large body of our audience was profoundly moved. Others were exposed to a cultural phenomenon which has largely escaped attention on our stages. This is important work to pursue for both historical and political reasons, yet it is also important musicologically. Many of the pieces written by the composers condemned to Terezin should be an integral part of the repertoire, and only through work like yours will they get there.

Yes. (Even with the awkward phrase “cultural phenomenon.”

I found a reference to the program in the New York Times:

Wartime Tragedy Recalled

NEXT Saturday night the Audubon String Quartet, currently ensemble-in-residence at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, is offering a recital of pieces by composers interned during World War II in the Czech concentration camp called Terezin….


And I found the list of works on the program. They played music by Victor Kohn, David Grunfeld/Zikmund Schul, Egon Ledec, Frantisek Domazlicky, Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, and Oedoen Partos.

How many people have heard of these composers? I recognize two or three names, but no more – proving the point that this music “has largely escaped attention on our stages.” Would these composers have become part of the repertoire had they not been killed? If they had been allowed to grow as people and as artists? On the other hand, the grumpy men (I want to call them much worse) who wrote the above notes think that these artists are only being played because of their circumstances. Yet even the first note-writer seemed to admit that the works were “of very good quality.” So we come back around. Music worth hearing for its own qualities; music worth hearing for its place in history; music worth hearing for its representation of composers who didn’t live long enough to keep writing.


Filed under music, politics

4 responses to “Music and War

  1. Regardless of their personal situations, Haas and Ullmann are both fascinating composers worth programming today.

  2. Krasa is also getting heard a fair amount, mostly because of Brundibar.

  3. Pingback: Music and war, continued « dana astmann

  4. Pingback: Influence | dana astmann

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