Sounds of silence
A concert at UNR honors music that was banned in Nazi Germany
The year was 1933. In Germany, the fiery Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had just assumed nearly dictatorial powers. And the great Bruno Walter, then the conductor of the Gewandhaus Concerts in Leipzig, had just returned to his native country after a hugely successful tour in the United States.
Walter was scheduled to make an appearance at a concert in Leipzig and to conduct a concert at Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. He was informed, however, that “certain difficulties” would occur if he did not cancel his appearances. The Nazis threatened to disrupt both events, even through violent means.
Their reason? Walter was Jewish.
The silencing of Bruno Walter signaled the beginning of the Nazi campaign to wipe Jewish musicians and composers and their music from the face of the Earth.
Between 1933, when the Nazi party came into power, and 1939, more than 1,500 musicians, composers and various music professionals who were of Jewish faith or heritage were systematically eliminated from all forms of cultural and public life in Germany. Jewish musicians and conductors were expunged from orchestras and symphonies. Music that had been written by composers of Jewish faith or with any trace of Jewish background could not be performed. Silenced were such great composers as Felix Mendelssohn, Jacques Offenbach and Gustav Mahler, who were of Jewish heritage.
The Nazis believed they were building a Third Reich that would last 1,000 years and purify German culture by eliminating all “inferior” influences, including music written or performed by Jews. Their perverse dream died in the ashes of World War II, of course, while the music they worked so hard to destroy lives on, stronger than ever.
Tonight, Nov. 15, the University of Nevada, Reno, Music Department and the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies will celebrate some of the music that the Nazis banned in a concert titled Silenced Voices. It is the first concert in what Viktoria Hertling, founder and director of the center, hopes will be a continuing series of programs dealing with the banned music, art and literature of the Nazi regime.
This program will focus on musicians and composers, because they were among the first targets of the Nazis’ campaign to “cleanse the German body,” Hertling says.
“Music moves very, very deep into the soul, into the psyche. It captures you,” Hertling says. “The Nazis really wanted to cleanse the German cultural arena from influence that they considered dangerous, subversive—that they considered non-German.”
Hertling says the date of the concert, Nov. 15, is important, because it marks the 65th anniversary of the Nazis’ destruction of a statue of Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, Germany. This act declared to the world that his music—and all music by composers of Jewish faith or background—would not be welcomed in the Third Reich.
Although musicians and composers such as Walter, Arnold Schönberg and Kurt Weill were able to escape the Holocaust, many others could not get out of Nazi-controlled countries and were put in concentration camps. One of most notable victims of the camps was violinist Alma Maria Rosé, niece of the great composer Mahler. She died in the Auschwitz camp. Another prominent victim was Viktor Ullmann, a student of Schönberg’s. Ullmann wrote an opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, while in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He also died in Auschwitz.
What was Germany’s loss, however, became America’s gain, as prominent musicians and conductors helped enrich our cultural landscape, Hertling says. Walter conducted the New York Philharmonic; Schönberg taught at the University of California at Los Angeles; and Weill wrote music for Broadway.
Hertling says she got the idea for the program about two years ago after talking with a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. She wanted to present the music of Jewish composers, cantoral music, klezmer music and other forms of music that had been banned by the Nazis. But the project was put on hold after the rabbi accepted a job in another city.
Hertling then approached Phillip Ruder, a violinist for the Argenta Quartet and associate professor of music at UNR. She asked him if he and the other members of the quartet would develop a program of music on Jewish themes and music banned by the Nazis.
The quartet decided on compositions by Mendelssohn, Max Bruch and Ernest Bloch, as well as two pieces by a modern-day composer: Max Raimi, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His songs, “Story of the Pennies” and “At My Wedding,” will open the program. Raimi is also scheduled to attend the concert.
Although some people may think that a program focusing on a bleak era in history will feature music that reflects that mood, Ruder says the pieces are not at all depressing.
“The music we’re doing is by no means gloomy stuff. A lot of it is very upbeat and positive,” he says, describing the Mendelssohn and Bloch pieces as particularly uplifting.
Hertling says the concert will be recorded and released on CD, which can be purchased for a donation to the Center for HGPS. Proceeds will fund future programs on art, music and literature that were banned by the Nazis.
She says she hopes audience members will leave the concert with the knowledge of how close we came to losing this music, and also value what we have so that something like this won’t happen again.
“The cultural diversity that we have in the United States is something really precious," Hertling says. "It is my hope that through this musical program, awareness of the richness, the diversity [and the] multicultural aspects of our lives becomes solidified, and that we fully become aware of how beautiful this multicultural tradition is that we sometimes take for granted, and that we almost lost during those 12 years of fascism."