Forgotten musical masterpieces of the Holocaust era

What kind of music might a composer interned by the Nazi produce in 1944? Karel Berman, a composer and opera singer interned at Theresienstadt (and later Auschwitz and Dachau), wrote “Buds” – four songs for bass voice and piano. The songs, though somber at times, also feature a whimsy consistent with titles like “When a baby awakens” and “Children at play.” Berman’s masterful evocation of the everyday joys of life amidst the Holocaust opened last night’s Pro Musica Hebraica program at the Kennedy Center.
Next up on the program was the music of Paul Ben-Haim, who left Germany in 1933 and spent the Holocaust years in Palestine. There, he began forging an Israeli classical music that, in the words of the program notes, “would balance Israel’s ancient Middle Eastern roots and modern Western sensibilities” in a “novel musical style to express the multiple layers of identity overlapping one another in the new Zion.”
In this spirit, Ben-Haim’s Melodies from the East (1941-45) combined melodies from Yemen and Turkey with a mixture of mystical liturgical texts and modern Hebrew poems. And his delightful Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1941) – a highlight of the evening for me — combined (quoting again from the program notes) “the insistent syncopated rhythms and languid modal melodies of the Middle East” with “the modernist harmonies and formalistic language of Central European classical music.”
The program concluded with the first American performance of Walter Braunfels’ String Quartet In F# Minor, composed in 1945. A Protestant by birth and a convert to Catholicism, Braunfels nonetheless was stripped of his status as head of the Hochschule fur Musik in Cologne because his father (a Protestant) had been born a Jew. Braunfels spent the Holocaust years in internal exile near the German-Swiss border.
In contrast to Ben-Haim’s focus on forging a new music, Braunfels’ work hearkens back to German Romanticism. But the stunning finale of the String Quintet, performed brilliantly by the ARC Ensemble of Canada’s Royal Conservatory in Toronto, transcended that genre.
The mission of Pro Musica Hebraica is to present lost and neglected masterpieces of Jewish classical music in a concert hall setting. With the performance of the Quintet of Ben-Haim and Braunfels, last night was clearly a case of mission accomplished.

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