Music Composed in Concentration Camps 1933 – 1945
CD1 : songs for baritone and piano, baritone and strings, soprano and piano, treble voice and piano, and piano solos.
Baritone: Angelo De Leonardis; Soprano: Libera Granatiero; Treble: Rosa Sorice; Violin 1: Laura Aprile, Violin 2: Alina Scoticailo, Viola: Luigi Gagliano, Cello: Gianni Cuciniello.
Piano: Francesco Lotoro.
MUSIKSTRASSE MC 2123.
Listening to the first of the KZ Music discs (music written during internment in
concentration camps) one isn’t struck by any composition as being particularly remarkable. There is nothing, in any of the works by any of the seven composers included on this disc, which immediately vaults from the speakers – heralding momentous harmonic or rhythmic originality. Some of it is neatly crafted, some of it is stylistically clichéd, some of it is somewhat naive in gesture, and some of it is truly interesting. Most of it is, probably, what we would call utilitarian.
One could, for example, see no reason why Karel Berman’s ‘Poupata’, for baritone and piano, should not join the standard repertoire. Goodness only knows how much the genre needs fresh additions. Others works however are more akin to student compositions – quasi anthems to youth – and, like most earnest student works, deserve a polite hearing but, thereafter, best left alone. Yet such a critical analysis is hardly the point …is it? Why? Because, unlike students, many of these composers were not allowed to live long enough to go back and re-work their material. And this means we need to apply a new strategy to our understanding of the music.
What lies within a core appreciation of all of the 24 CDs in the series, isn’t as much a ranking of artistic value, according to standard criteria, as it is a reaffirmation of the integrity of the human creative spirit. Internment, no matter the almost surreal horror of such (in some circumstances) – be it within a state gaol, a frail or palsied body, a religious canon, an unyielding social boundary cast around the arts by an insecure political system, or, as we find here, a heinous racial ostracism – cannot imprison the creative mind. And when the creative mind, despite very real physical imprisonment, looks about and surveys the terror of its landscape, it begins a process of therapy. This is as natural to our species as is locking the prison door.
The KZ MUSIC series has determined its period and place of reference to prove the point. But, before launching into an examination of it, one needs to remark, at this point, that all the performers have approached the material with sensitivity and technical assurance. The phrasing, dynamics, tempi and sense of flow, throughout the recording, feel instinctively ‘correct’. Pianist, Francesco Lotoro, certainly has the lion’s share of effort – performing on every track as either soloist or accompanist – but more importantly is the evident ‘simpatico’ evinced by all the musicians.
It is unclear from the two booklets included with the disc, whether Lotoro is also the author/compiler of the information they contain. This information pertains to what details exist about the composers, their works, their surroundings and much more besides. The author, be it Lotoro or not, is to be congratulated on this sedulous quest.
But why wasn’t the same degree of ministration applied to the English translation? It certainly isn’t rare to find a few grammatical and word choice inaccuracies in texts translated into English, however, when there are this many ‘oversights’, one begins to wonder what it is the author is trying to say. With subject matter of this importance, the translator shouldn’t alienate his readers before they become listeners. Also, an English translation of the actual texts might have given the English speaking audience greater insight into the composer’s thinking. And a final word on the business of English translations: the fabrication of the term ‘concentrationary music’ is not justified. To coin an abbreviation such as ‘CCM’ (Concentration Camp Music) is fine, if previously annotated, but to use the non-word ‘concentrationary’ so consistently, doesn’t give it the right to exist. In fact, if it did exist as a word, it could give the opposite impression of much of the music!
It is difficult to know where to begin a discussion because the therapeutic process takes on a very different complexion according to the personality, degree of training and genuine inventiveness of the composer. As mentioned, this critique makes little attempt to set a level or standard of compositional excellence and is more concerned with taking a panoramic view of the process in action.
The composer to whom I was immediately drawn was Viktor Ullmann. One of the leaflets states he studied with Arnold Schoenberg for a year, although it doesn’t mention what he studied specifically. My curiosity was piqued: was the 20 – 21 year old Ullmann influenced by the style of music Schoenberg was writing just before the 1920s? Further research revealed that Ullmann studied composition with Schoenberg and indeed, one can draw a similarity in as much as both composers explore motivic (cells of three or four notes) development rather than traditional melodic expansion. Ullmann however seems to more attracted to establishing larger lines of restricted range, and to harmonies imprinted with Mahler or Strauss.
The choice of accompanying strings (either as quartet or trio) adds an almost claustrophobic dimension. Perhaps this is due to the timbral ‘tightness’ of string ensembles or perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt by the composer to project his physical surroundings. Who can say? But what can be determined is that these representative lieder deserve further study. It appears the Czechoslovakian artistic community maintains a similar position.
After the relative sophistication of Ullmann’s music we are presented, in purely musical terms, with their antithesis: three songs for baritone and piano by Josef Kropinski. (Incidentally, Kropinski, having survived WWII and the camps, as a political prisoner, died of a heart attack in 1970…a mere fifteen years later.) Unlike Ullmann, Kropinski clearly has a penchant for tonal melodies. Some of them are quite haunting, like that which opens ‘Piesn Wspomnienia’ – which I’m sure I’ve encountered before – and the folksy melody of ‘Prozno!’. Yet while his basic building blocks are attractive, he has difficulty mounting them into a satisfying or convincing edifice. Still, in terms of melodic invention alone, he should be better known. Much of this writing has the imprint of ‘movie land’ written on it and this is a quality which shouldn’t be ignored. If ‘Piesn Wspomnienia’ hasn’t been used – if I had only associated it with something else – then it would be a regrettable loss for any reputable Hollywood director.
Berman’s ‘Poupata’, as already mentioned, which opens the disc (with seven songs for baritone and piano, one for soprano and piano, and one for piano solo) show, though not exclusively, a surprising Impressionist influence. All the pieces are conveyed with a satisfying sense of line, and the word shaping is aurally perceived as being highly sensitive to the natural inflections of the language. His harmonic writing is an interesting reconnaissance of non or barely tonal areas. But there is a twist: his harmonic progressions offer the listener greater satisfaction than his harmonic ‘goals’. The former, be they French Impressionistic or late German Romantic in colour, seem to explore new relationships but the latter (the purpose of the progression) always capitulate to tonality. It is as if Berman is stating his willingness to probe a non-tonal harmonic world but not the extent of permanently residing there.
His ‘Slavnostni Pochod’, for piano solo, is an oddity. Clearly pictorial, this anthem or military march is either satirical or naive. Whatever the case, it isn’t worthy of the music already presented by the composer.
There are three other piano solos on the CD’s program. The first two of these are by Z. Stryjecki (only the initial of his first name is known and his dates of birth/death are unknown). Both solos are very basic in structure and general musical material. Before tagging them as ‘juvenile’ – which is what their style would strongly suggest – one searches for a bit more information to confirm the notion. But there is so little information about his life; except he was a POW and these pieces were written in 1942. That’s all there is. One can only conjecture his artistic development was curtailed in his youth and, consequently, left in that state when he composed the pieces.
The other piano solo – ‘Felicita’ op.282 by Charles Abeles – is similar to Berman’s solo in as much as it is either burlesque or dewy-eyed, although the clichéd tremolo, in both hands, at the conclusion, would seem to imply the former. Then again, the gesture would be entirely in keeping with a carnival or circus image the work evokes. The information is so sparse that one must adopt a subjective opinion, so, in my opinion, ‘Felicita’ is a parody.
Fortunately there is more information about the other two composers on the disc: Ludmilla Peskarova and Eva Lippold-Brockdorff. Undoubtedly this is because both women survived WWII and the Holocaust. There is also another similarity between them – a stylistic conformance which favours simple tonal structures (i.e. where it is a relatively easy task to aurally delineate small musical sections). Both women appear to have a fondness for either folk songs or ‘patriotic’ anthems. Their use of rhythm is best described as detectable patterning – iterations of small motives – and their harmonic progressions comes perilously close to textbook design.
These are observations which would strike many listeners, not artistic evaluations. In its own terms, each song (all of which have been scored for ‘female voice’ and piano) might be limited in its musical language but, overall, has a fairly balanced dynamic structure. I was curious to see how Peskarova was going to handle her material in ‘Pisen o Koncentracich’ as its duration of 5mins 11secs is the second longest on the disc. ‘Songs about the Concentrations’, its translation, would, on the surface, suggest something weighty and in-depth. And I assumed its length would indicate a more explorative musical argument. I was disappointed, but not surprised – given the title, to find it only had greater repetition…perhaps too much. In fact it became a spiralling of repetition within repetition. One felt it was at this stage that the line between conscious intent (to make a statement) and the world of creativity were losing sight of each other. For future performances of any of these songs, by either composer, it is suggested to substitute the ‘female singer’ for a boy soprano. I feel this is more the quality of voice both composers had in mind. That quality is one of innocence.
This is a word that so effectively, on many levels, best describes the creative thinking heard in most of the music on the disc. Does the creative mind, when surrounded by such senseless suffering and maleficence, find a point of state of grace? Having listened to this recording, I think it does, or it has no alternative not to do so.
Stuart Hille 2009.