PITTSBURGH — Korngold. Ullmann. Schulhoff.
If you don’t yet recognize the names of these gifted composers whose works were suppressed during the Holocaust, you’re not alone. But a group of four Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians, dubbed the Clarion Quartet, is on a mission to change that.
The Clarion Quartet — Marta Krechkovsky (violin), Jennifer Orchard (violin), Tatjana Mead Chamis (viola) and Bronwyn Banerdt (cello) — last month released a CD with the music of the three Jewish composers whose music was labeled as “degenerate,” or entartete, by the Third Reich.
The inspiration for the CD, called Breaking the Silence, emerged following a concert the quartet played in the summer of 2016 at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic, which included music that had been composed and premiered at that camp by inmate Viktor Ullmann.
The quartet is planning an upcoming concert in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute of Music, where three of the quartet’s musicians studied.
While touring with the PSO in Europe, the Clarion Quartet, colleagues, board members and PSO music director Manfred Honek traveled to Theresienstadt. After a tour of the camp, the quartet ascended the small stage, called “the Attic.”
“We took a piece that was written in the midst of the Holocaust [by Ullmann] in Theresienstadt, which is the concentration camp where the Nazis allowed music-making so they could prove they were allowing people to go on with their lives,” Chamis said. “That was the only camp the Red Cross visited, and they made it look like everything was humane, and they put on concerts and they had the children sing.
“But it was still a horrific concentration camp, and we went to visit it in the midst of one of our tours, to see where this piece that we were playing had been composed, and to see how something so beautiful could have come from such horror.”
While there, the Clarion Quartet also played compositions by Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech composer and pianist who was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis prior to the start of the war and had to go underground to make music.
“It was an unbelievable music-making feeling,” Chamis said of the concert at Theresienstadt. “It’s one of the most memorable concerts in my whole career, and I’ve played so many concerts.”
A German videography team, Nick and Clemens Prokop with the label Klanglogo/TYE in Germany, was filming the concert that day and expressed interest in creating a recording of the Clarion Quartet. Last summer, the team traveled to Pittsburgh to make that happen.
The result is the newly released CD, which includes the music of Ullmann, Schulhoff and Erich Korngold, an Austrian-born composer exiled during the war, who moved to Hollywood and created film scores. He put classical composition on hold until the war was over.
The CD also includes “Eli, Eli,” composed by Israeli David Zehavi in 1945.
The members of the Clarion Quartet, which initially was formed to play a concert of suppressed Holocaust composers for Young Israel in Pittsburgh, are not the only musicians seeking to revive these lost works. The OREL Foundation is working on a national level to encourage the performance of this music and raise awareness in the academic community about the importance of these suppressed musicians.
“I believe that the spirit of this ‘lost generation’ now needs to be heard,” wrote OREL founder James Conlon on the organization’s website. “The creativity of the first half of the 20th century is far richer than we may have thought. Alongside Stravinsky, Strauss and other major and more fortunate figures, the varied voices of composers from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest, whether Jewish, dissident or immigrant, reveal much about the musical ferment of their time. Their music, I believe, is accessible and relevant.”
Michael Nieland has been an advocate for the music of these suppressed musicians for years and is a strong supporter of the Clarion Quartet.
“They’re an amazingly fine group of players, and the music they are performing is of incredible quality and deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible,” said Nieland, a violinist who has played some of these works himself.
While the Clarion Quartet’s CD is not the only recording of these pieces, Chamis is thrilled that she and her colleagues are adding to the canon.
“Hopefully, this will stir other people to look into the works of these three composers, especially, and to play them themselves if they are musicians,” she said.
Chamis said she feels a kinship to the suppressed musicians.
“It’s so powerful for us to feel these were musicians, just like us, in the height of their careers, just playing, touring, being applauded and then suddenly suppressed by government by something that had nothing to do with art,” she explained. “And they were forgotten and lost. And not only were they forgotten and lost, they’re still undercover. Without knowing, we as musicians are continuing that cycle of suppression.
“It gives us incredible meaning in our music-making to be part of giving these composers voice, and making sure it gets into the main repertoire, which is really where it deserves to be, because they are just as amazing works as those that we just keep playing again and again.”
“We play a lot of music, and we get very focused on the details of what we know, and here and there we play some new works, but we very rarely go digging in the past,” Chamis said. “Somehow, it always felt like what survived was the best stuff, the stuff we play. And I never would have thought, ‘Well, maybe some of the best stuff just isn’t known yet,’ which is so exciting. It’s like finding this treasure trove of music that’s so accessible. It’s such a shame that they aren’t heard and that more people don’t know. I just want music students, and more schools, to know this exists. We don’t want to be the only ones doing it.”
Toby Tabachnick writes for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.