Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Music in Exile" - Jewish emigre composers of the 1930's, conference, exhibition and concert

“Exiled Musicians” was the subject of a two-day international conference which took place at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem March 7th and 8th, 2011. The mission of “Music in Exile- Émigré Composers of the 1930’s” includes the research and rediscovery of hitherto unknown works and performance of some of them. The conference discussed the experiences of exiled composers, with special reference to the experiences of those in Mandate-era Palestine and the State of Israel. Short musical examples accompanied papers.

This writer attended two of the talks on March 8th. Simon Wynberg, artistic director and initiator of the project and artistic director of the ARC Ensemble of the Royal Conservatory, Canada, introduced the speakers. Professor Jehoash Hirshberg (Emeritus, Hebrew University, Jerusalem) presented a fascinating and enlightening paper on “The Trauma of Relocation: First Years in Palestine”. Paul Ben-Haim’s biographer, Hirshberg talked about the German-born composer. Born Paul Frankenburger (1897-1984) he, still a relatively unknown composer here, made his first visit to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 during the wave of enourmous immigration, at a time when immigrant musicians were establishing the Israeli (then, Palestinian) “school” of music. There were many German Jews among the newcomers; their cultural needs included concerts and music education for their children. We heard a recording of the poignant “Nocturno” from Ben-Haim’s 2nd Suite for piano (1936). The first work composed after his immigration, it enabled Ben-Haim to present himself as both composer and pianist. In his book on Ben-Haim, Hirshberg refers to the work as “part of a contemporary effort to synthesize eastern and western traditions.” Hirshberg spoke of immigrant musicians of that time as hovering between two poles – western music (concrete ideology) and eastern music (a “hazy dream”.) Hirshberg proceeded to talk about Ben-Haim’s long working relationship with Bracha Zefira, the noted Yemenite folklorist. We heard two songs showing the composer’s use of middle-eastern melodies. Ben-Haim arranged “My Lord is Righteous”, a traditional Persian melody learned from Zefira, also quoted in his Clarinet Quintet.

The orientalist dream saw results in Marc Lavry’s (b.Riga, 1903-1967) music. We heard “Kinneret” from Lavry’s oratorio “Song of Songs”. Hirshberg also made mention of the German-born avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe; Wolpe did much to encourage music among the settlers of kibbutzim, writing arrangements of folksongs, but his own concert music rested largely on the 12-tone model. Wolpe left Palestine in 1938.

An important milestone of the 1930’s was the establishing of the Palestine Orchestra (to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1936, starting with a number of experienced refugee musicians. German-born composer Erich Walter Steinberg (1891-1974) composed the first large-scale orchestral work in Palestine “The Twelve Tribes of Israel”(1938), a tonal post-Romantic piece.

Within a single decade, immigrant composers had established a vibrant music scene in Palestine, both in performance and composition.

German music critic and musicologist Dr. Albrecht Dumling’s research focuses on music banned by the Nazis, labeled by them “degenerate music”. The exhibition Dumling has put together, “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music), has toured over 40 cities and is now showing at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Dumling’s current research focuses on musicians and composers who fled Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945 and who settled in Australia. At the conference, Dumling talked about Felix Werder and George Dreyfus, German refugees and leading Australian composers, both of whom eventually settled in Melbourne, Australia.

Felix Werder (b.Felix Bischofswerder, 1922, Berlin) left Germany with his family in 1933, settling in London. There he studied fine arts and architecture before being rounded up and deported to Australia on the “Dunera” in 1940. His father, Boaz Bischofswerder, a cantor, took a Bible, a tuning fork and a copy of Goethe’s “Faust” with him on the boat and conducted a small choir for the passengers. On their arrival in Australia, father and son were interned in the Hay and Tatura camps. Felix, having an excellent memory, wrote out scores of works. After leaving the Australian army, Felix moved to Melbourne, where he worked as a carpenter and music teacher. He continued to compose music, his style influenced by such composers as Schoenberg and Bartok. His was the highly expressive music of a man in exile (twice over) and he regarded Australia as a country “without music”. Scores he sent to the Australian Broadcasting Authority were returned, not to be broadcast. However, Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1947 to 1956, accepted one of Werder’s works for performance, thus encouraging him to continue composing. The Musica Viva Society also played a role in breaking the cultural isolation into which composers like Werder were thrust. In 1963, Werder was appointed music critic of the “Age”, a prominent daily newspaper. His criticism was sharp and his tongue uncurbed, but he shared much of his broad education with his readers, making reference to other arts and culture in general in his articles. In 1975, Werder was dismissed from his work at the “Age” newspaper, now feeling more in exile than ever. Never feeling totally assimilated in Australia, Werder continued to use German texts in his works. Ironically, he was, indeed, an Australian “ambassador” with his “Australia Felix” ensemble that toured Europe. (The term “Australia Felix”, a play on words in this case, was originally used by Thomas Mitchell for the lush pastures in western Victoria he explored in 1836.)

George Dreyfus (b. Germany, 1928) migrated to Australia in 1939. George bought a clarinet from money he earned from selling newspapers and was active in musical activities at Melbourne High School. He then studied the bassoon and joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Never having studied composition, he began writing music for a television series. His serious compositions were influenced by such composers as Stockhausen, but writing film music gave him financial security. He left the MSO to devote his time to composition. He and Werder established an organization for Australian contemporary music. Aiming to make his music accessible to- and entertain the public, Dreyfus used a motif from a commercial in a work (shocking Werder) and his music for the film “Rush” made the pop charts. His opera “The Gilt-edged Kid” was not accepted by the Australian Opera. Dreyfus’ works became progressively more autobiographical: his opera “Rathenau” (1993) was performed in Germany.

Albrecht Dumling concluded his informative and eye-opening talk by claiming that both Felix Werder and George Dreyfus had remained somewhat isolated as composers in Australia. In contrast to Werder, Dreyfus did regard himself as a “real Australian” however, eventually returning to his father’s German background for inspiration.

Drawing together the threads of the conference, members of the prestigious ARC Ensemble (Artists-in residence of the Royal Conservatory (Toronto, Canada), were joined by Israeli artists in a concert of “Internal and External Exile” at the Jerusalem Music Centre on March 8th.

The evening opened with a performance of Paul Ben-Haim’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, opus 31a (1941). A work blending the composer’s western musical background and his newfound interest in oriental middle-eastern music with his use of musical forms and melodic integration, the quintet opened with a clarinet melody of a Jewish mystical character. The ARC brought out the work’s intensity, its Jewish content, its moods, textures and rhythmic interest, its dancelike moments and its nostalgic, cantabile character. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas’ playing was moving. Altogether, it was a compelling and profound performance.

Ben-Haim’s “Melodies from the East” (1941-1945) was one of the first works resulting from the composer’s collaboration with Bracha Zefira. Four of the five melodies are Yemenite folk melodies, one other being a Turkish Jewish melody. Ben-Haim added to them both liturgical texts and Hebrew poems by Chaim Nachman Bialik. The combination of elements used resulted in a work certainly Israeli in character, flavored with Middle Eastern temperament and exotic timbres. Mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik took on board the folk origins of the songs, her rendering of them powerful. Her earthy use of chest voice was a little harsh at times. Pianist Revital Hachamoff’s reading of the rich piano texts (I hesitate to call them accompaniments) was exemplary in its delicacy and sensitive attention to detail and gestures.

Prochnik and Hachamoff followed the Ben-Haim songs with three Kurt Weill songs, Kurt Weill and his art having been the epitome of what all the National Socialists abhorred in the “entartete” (degenerate) composers. In “Nanna’s Lied” (1939), to a text of Brecht, a streetwalker makes sense of the hardships of her life; Prochnik combines both the tragic and the delicate in a convincing performance. “Wie lange noch” (How much Longer?) a song most pertinent to the subject at hand (its text written by fellow German émigré Walter Mehring) speaks of lost trust and betrayal. The song’s underlying meaning was surely picked up by Germans hearing it at the time. Prochnik’s German is articulate, Hachamoff’s playing indeed “orchestrated”. Together they create the theatre of life, with Weill’s bitterness and sense of fate always punctuated with a glimmer of optimism. Weill composed “Youkali” (a Havana-style tango) in 1934 as incidental music to the play “Marie Galante”. The French lyrics were added in 1946 by Roger Fernay. Youkali is a non-existent land of dreams, a place of sanctuary from Europe in turmoil. Prochnik’s nostalgic and vehement performance of it stirred the audience. Prochnik and Hachamoff work well together, delving deep into the musical- and emotional content of the songs.

Members of the ARC ended the musical evening with an impressive performance of Walter Braunfels’ (1882-1954) Quintet for Strings in F sharp minor, opus 63 (1945), this probably being its first performance in Israel. Pianist, composer and educator, Braunfels was half Jewish, converted to Catholicism and served in the First World War, remaining in Germany. However, despite these facts and his prolific composition, he suffered discrimination and artistic isolation. Late Romantic in style, the ARC’s reading of this challenging quintet set before the audience its human sincerity, its soul-searching moments, contrasted moods and its release in the form of dance music, the germ of Braunfels’ ideas growing out of the work’s opening statement.

Those attending the conference and/or concert enjoyed the advantage of reading the detailed and highly interesting booklet issued to accompany the event.

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