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Degenerate Musik

UMaine music scholar searches history to recover the voices of composers silenced by the Third Reich

(Editor’s note: Full-length version of story.)

Arturo Toscanini knew of Leone Sinigaglia’s brilliance. The legendary conductor featured a work by the late Italian composer in a 1938 performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Nearly seven decades later, when music scholar Phillip Silver was in Tel-Aviv researching the history of the orchestra, which by World War II included many refugees from Germany and Poland, he saw Sinigaglia’s name for the first time. That mention in a concert program was all it took to prompt Silver to search for works by the Jewish composer whose voice had been silenced by the Nazis.

The hunt through history, one of many Silver has done in the past decade, is part of his effort to recover what he calls “thwarted voices.”

“At first, all I could find was his book on mountain climbing, published in 1896, that had been translated into half a dozen languages,” says Silver, talking about Sinigaglia, who proved to be his most challenging Holocaust-era composer to research. “I then found out he had studied with Dvorak and was a friend of Brahms, and Mahler knew him. That’s when I got even more curious about what his music sounded like.”

Silver found that the British Library in London had copies of some of Sinigaglia’s compositions, which had been published by major houses: Breitkopf & Härtel in Germany, Hansen in Denmark and Casa Ricordi in Italy. Silver also found that many of Sinigaglia’s manuscripts, including those unpublished, are in the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Turin, Italy. However, the collection remains uncatalogued.

“It was two years before I saw any of his music. Only one piece by him, an oboe piece, had been recorded to that point and to be honest, it isn’t a very good work.”

That didn’t deter Silver, a pianist and associate professor of music at the University of Maine, who describes his research as a musical and humanitarian quest.

“I go out of my way to try and locate pieces of music I think are of interest,” says Silver, the newly named coordinator of Judaic studies at UMaine. “That often means the works have no performing tradition. What I want to do is basically allow certain voices to be heard and give them an opportunity to be judged by modern audiences.

“Being unable to hear music for political reasons must not be allowed to stand. As time progresses, people forget about the works; they lose any audience they could have had.”

When he came to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler launched an all-out cultural purge. Under his anti-Semitic laws, many Jewish workers were fired, including well-known conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. In addition, the newly established Reich Music Chamber made it impossible for musicians of Jewish heritage to work in Germany.

A 1937 exhibit in Munich of “degenerate” art banned by the Nazis was followed the next year by the Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf. Works by Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schreker, Kurt Weill and Gustav Mahler, as well as jazz, were defamed; recordings of Jewish musicians and composers banned.

Those artists of Jewish heritage not forced into exile in other countries were summarily rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

Silver’s research into the composers of this era began with artists who died in the Holocaust, such as Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler. He found himself drawn to the extraordinary testament to the human spirit that would allow such artists to continue to compose despite the madness all around them. Silver was determined that their voices would continue to be heard through their music.

“I lost many members of my family in the Holocaust,” he says. “In some small way, I’m helping remind people of what happened. I’m not allowing the deniers to have a say. I’m reminding people that, if it happened once, it could happen again.”

Through the years, Silver and other international performers and scholars have helped reintroduce the music of composers who were silenced by the Nazis. The cultural cleansing involved not only those composers who lost their lives, but also those forced into exile.

Those efforts have resulted in modern audiences’ rediscovery not just of composers such as Ullmann, but also others like Franz Schreker, an influential Austrian opera composer whose works today are recognized as some of the finest of the 20th century, Silver says.

The same is true for Alexander von Zemlinsky. Paul Ben-Haim. Ernst Toch. The Nazi attempt at cultural cleansing involved not only those composers who lost their lives, but also those forced into exile.

Silver points to composers like Berthold Goldschmidt, who served as the artistic adviser to the Berlin State Opera from 1931-33 before fleeing the Nazi regime, which banned his music. Goldschmidt took refuge in England and continued to write some music, Silver says, but it was shunned by British society. Goldschmidt stopped composing for more than two decades, only to be rediscovered when he was 80.

Within the last five years, Silver’s research emphasis has evolved to look at the larger body of musical voices silenced by the Third Reich, those artists – a lost musical generation – who produced what Hitler called “degenerate music.”

“It’s what the Nazis called the music of Jews and jazz,” says Silver, who offered a weeklong course on degenerate music last year at Colby College and a day- long seminar for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. “It was the music of composers who died in the camps and those driven into exile who tried to reestablish their base but failed. There also are composers who stayed in Europe and disappeared in history. Many of these composers had their audiences, but then found themselves out of favor for
sociological reasons. What happens when such music is unnaturally stopped and prevented from being heard? I want to allow it to be heard, given its chance.”

The development of 20th-century musical language was derailed by the absence of these composers, argues Silver. Countries like Germany stopped being major musical influences. The question is: What would have happened if the composers had continued to perform? Whom would they have influenced?

“Ignorance is bliss if you don’t know that these pieces exist,” says Silver who has written about his research in the online journal of the Jewish Music Institute’s International Centre for Suppressed Music. “But once people come in contact with these works, they are exposed to the fresh melodic ideas, the levels of enjoyment and sadness, and their lives are touched. That’s what great music does.”

Not all the Holocaust-era composers strike a chord with Silver. One of the most dissident is Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whose music Silver describes as “difficult to listen to.” Hartmann was a German who protested the Nazi regime by not allowing his music to be performed.

His second piano sonata, composed after he witnessed a death march of Nazi prisoners, is “technically difficult and not appealing to audiences,” but it has a place in music history.

“The biggest misconception is, because of the Nazi experience, people think the composers’ works are tragic and ominous, but often they are the exact opposite,” Silver says. “Often when people are undergoing a traumatic experience, they want to escape and look for a means to create a musical sanctuary to temporarily alleviate the pain. There are tragic elements in some of the works, but they are not constant.”

In the past decade, interest in entartete or degenerate music has grown. Today, there are organizations devoted to reviving these composers. Increasingly, recognized labels are recording the once obscure compositions and major houses are staging the works.

“Major performers are now looking into this music, not just a small handful of devotees,” says Silver. “They are entering the mainstream again.”

Those mainstream names will one day include Sinigaglia, Silver hopes. The Turin native stayed in Italy during World War II. In 1944, when he was 75, Sinigaglia and his sister sought sanctuary in a hospital in their hometown during a Nazi roundup of Jews. Both died there of heart attacks.

“Sinigaglia’s music is traditional, romantic and tonal,” Silver says. “He was writing music that was at home in the 19th century.”

The result, Silver says, is the music’s immediate appeal in “its lyricism, the atmosphere being evoked, the hauntingly bittersweet profundity.”

“His violin sonata in 1936, published just before the fascist laws were enacted in Italy, reflects how things were going from bad to worse. In the central slow movement there is intense sadness. This atmosphere also appears in the earlier Sonata for Cello and Piano.

In this work, “there’s a slow movement (in the music) that goes into a region that is so heart-felt and honest, when we were in the studio
the recording engineer sort of stopped, he was that moved by it. That’s the response the music has had. I’ve performed it several times in public and repeatedly been approached afterword by audience members saying how much they enjoyed that piece. It’s a response I’ve rarely experienced with other composers.”

Two years ago, Silver and his wife, cellist Noreen Silver, gave the first modern performance of a Sinigaglia sonata for cello and piano in a live broadcast in Israel. Last month, Silver’s annual concert on campus highlighting music by victims of both Nazi and Soviet anti-Semitism included works by Sinigaglia, as well as Schreker and von Zemlinsky. In February, a sonata for violin and piano will be performed in Minsky Hall with guest artist Ferdinand Liva, a violinist with the DaPonte String Quartet.

This spring, Silver will release a CD of four of Sinigaglia’s works on the Toccata label: Sonata for Violoncello and Piano Op. 41, written in 1925; Romanze for Violoncello and Piano Op. 16 No. 1, performed with Noreen Silver; Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 44, written in 1936; and Cavatina for Violin and Piano Op. 13 No. 1, performed with Ferdinand Liva.

“It’s like someone planting something,” says Silver, about presenting the rediscovered works through his performances. “It seems fragile, but when it’s strong enough to survive, you want people to take cuttings from it. It’s a rather paternal approach, but after finding the pieces, you want them to be performed so they can survive in the world. And you want as many people as possible to share in it.”

Silver says his hope is that audiences take away such a love of this music that they want to hear it again. “If that happens,” he says, “I’ve succeeded in my other desire to revive these composers and undo the Nazi pursuit to wipe them out of history. I’ve succeeded in bringing to people’s attention that because people were Jewish or labeled degenerate and unfit, 6 million people were massacred.”

It’s that potential for justice that keeps Silver ever-searching for other thwarted voices of the Holocaust.

“When will I stop looking? Ask me in 20 years,” he says. “We will probably reach a point down the line when the great works will be uncovered. But I tend to believe that there is value even in those composers of lesser renown who have five-minute compositions worth reviving. As a result, we keep looking.”


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