Concert. A heart-rendingly beautiful concert, with Vier letzte Lieder, Das lied von der Erde, the children's opera Brundibár, and more.
26 February 2015
The program for Living, Dying and Surviving brings together the works of five composers, who represent different experiences of the rise of anti-Semitism and the Third Reich. One of the composers was executed, two managed to flee the regime, and two made compromises in order to survive and keep creating. It promises to be a moving and thought-provoking concert which will cause us to reflect on the often cruel exigencies of life.
Hans Krása's Brundibár, an opera for children, was first rehearsed and performed in secret at a Jewish boys' orphanage the Prague ghetto during the Nazi rise to power in 1938. After Krása's arrest and detention, Brundibár premiered in September 1943 at the Nazi concentration and transit camp in Terezín (Theresienstadt), in what was then occupied Czechoslovakia. It was subsequently performed fifty-five times, during which the cast of participating children needed to be replaced by others as they were sent on to other concentration camps. In the end, Krása too was murdered along with the director, musicians and most of the remaining children.
Unlike the other composers in the concert's programme, Richard Strauss was not Jewish, but he tried to remain apolitical during the regime and stood up for his Jewish friends. Yet he accepted the role as head of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer, partly to be able to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law, but also to be able to pursue his career. In the exquisitely beautiful Vier letzte Lieder we hear his end-of-life reflections.
You will also hear Korngold’s cello concerto and Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. Both composers managed to escape to the USA just before the war, but they suffered, dwelling on the fate of those left behind. Schönberg wrote the text for his dramatic A Survivor from Warsaw for a storyteller, male chorus and orchestra, based on reports he received from those who lived through the horrors of the war.
The Nazi regime banned all of Mahler’s works and labelled them as "degenerate music" (Entartete Musik) as part of their wider campaign against art they considered as harmful or decadent. A predecessor to the others and active before the war, Mahler was forced to convert to Catholicism to become director for the Vienna Hofoper in 1897, but in 1907 he was expelled from Vienna through an anti-Semitic campaign against him. Not only that, but in the same year he lost his daughter Maria to illness, and was diagnosed with a heart problem. Yet still, in the following year he wrote Das Lied von der Erde, a piece that poignantly extols the glories of existence.
So we end what promises to be a moving concert on this note of hope.
The concert is in three parts, with intermissions between them.
Music from the Dark Times
“In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Bertolt Brecht
January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. We remember the millions of Jews murdered, and also the disabled people, the Roma, the homosexuals, the political dissenters. At this time, we look around at the world and ask ourselves what lessons have been learned; we look at our own societies and ask ourselves if we see the warning signs of troubles to come; we look at ourselves and ask how we would have acted at the time, and crucially, how we should act now in the light of our reflections.
At The Göteborg Opera we ask ourselves particularly about the role of the arts, especially music and theatre in such difficult times.
It is easy to say, as some have recently, that music is the universal language of peace. Is it true? What about military marches? How about the use of music by Nazi officers in the camps, playing Wagner, and Beethoven through loud speakers to deprive the prisoners of sleep? When we listen to Richard Strauss’ beautiful music should we forget that he was for a time president of the Third Reich music institute which stood against music by Jews and all non-aryans? Can great music rise above grubby political expediency? What do we make of stories like the one told by the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch about Dr Mengele asking her to play Schumann’s Traumerei for him in the midst of the horrors of an extermination camp?
Our concert, Living, Dying and Surviving will reflect on these questions by bringing together five composers with different experiences of the rise of anti-Semitism and the Third Reich. Although not programmed on the Memorial Day itself, we hope that this programme will provide a space for reflection as we listen to the musical voices of those who perished, and survived the Shoa.
Hans Krása wrote a children’s opera, Brundibár, which was performed in Terezin concentration camp. He was murdered in Auschwitz – as were most of the cast. Korngold and Schönberg escaped, and we hear their musical reflections from the late 1940s. Forty years earlier, Mahler, who had converted to Catholicism to side step the rife anti-Semitism in Vienna, found himself reviled as a Jew and forced to resign as director of the Vienna State Opera only a few years later. It was, then, at a time of deepest despair that Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde. All four composers knew to their cost that assimilation is no guarantee of acceptance in an intolerant society. It is in this context that we perform Richard Strauss’ almost painfully beautiful end-of-life reflections, the Vier letzte Lieder from 1948.
I will finish by quoting Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist and holocaust survivor. She lived a long life in which she met Mahler, Kafka and, in Terezin, Hans Krása. She died aged 110 in 2014. An extraordinary, positive woman, seemingly without bitterness, she spoke about the concerts in Terezin:
”Through making music, we were kept alive.”
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food.
“People ask, 'How could you make music?' We were so weak. But music was special, like a spell, I would say. Through making music, we were kept alive.”
“I am by nature an optimist,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer told The Observer, the British newspaper, in 2010. “But I am pessimistic about future generations’ willingness to remember and care about what happened to the Jews of Europe, and to us in Terezin.”
At The Göteborg Opera on 26th February we will be remembering through music. A small action, but perhaps an important one.
Artistic Director, Opera/drama The Göteborg Opera