The Maccabean

As is well known, during the Hitler years, the music of Jewish composers was banned. The works of Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Meyerbeer, and Alkan, for instance, could not be performed. And for Jewish composers living under the Third Reich, there were very real physical dangers. Musicians such as Erich Korngold in Hollywood were out of the reach of the Nazis although their music could not be played in Germany. But a number of leading composers who were living in Germany and Czechoslovakia at the time were literally in peril of their lives, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish and who would not have been considered Jewish in a halachic sense.

Franz Schreker is a case in point. He was born in Monaco in 1878 to a Hungarian father who was a photographer to the Austro Hungarian Royal Court. His ancestry is unclear. Franz thought his father might have been Jewish but it is not certain whether this was the case; he was never able to prove this one way or another. His mother was Catholic and Franz was brought up as such.

A brilliant musician, Schreker was appointed director of the prestigious Berlin Musikhochschule in 1920. His pupils included conductors Horenstein, Rodzinski and Schmidt-Isserstedt. He was dismissed in 1933 due to be the race laws. He died of a heart attack in 1934, almost certainly as a result of stress. He was 56 years old.

Victor Ullman’s parents, both born Jewish, had converted to Catholicism and felt themselves completely assimilated. This cut no ice with the Nazis and Ullman was transported to Theresienstadt where he produced a remarkable amount of fine music before being sent to Auschwitz where he died in 1944. Czech-born Pavel Haas also died in Auschwitz. Earlier, in Theresienstadt, Haas wrote prolifically but only three of the works survive, one-Study for Strings-featuring in a Nazi propaganda movie intended to pull the wool over the eyes of the cup Red Cross.

Berthold Goldschmidt had a remarkable survival. After a brutal Gestapo Inquisition, he fled Berlin, where he had a significant reputation as an opera composer, and came to London where he died in 1996 at the ripe age of 93 years. For years, Goldschmidt lived in obscurity, his music considered old-fashioned until rediscovered, as it were, by Sir Simon Rattle and Trinity College of Music, London.

Erwin Schulhoff, as a mere 7-year-old, so impressed Dvorak that he urged the child’s family to provide him with the best music education possible. They certainly did that; his teachers included Max Reger and Debussy. Schulhoff, incidentally, became a passionate socialist, so much so that he set the Communist manifesto to music in the form of a cantata! He died of malnutrition and typhus in Wulzbourg camp in 1942.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The musicians referred to here were all high-profile figures, but that prominence did nothing to save those in the clutches of the Nazis including Jewish instrumentalists in prestigious orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic (at least two of its members died in concentration camps). How much more vulnerable, then, were those hundreds of musicians in far humbler jobs: music teachers in schools throughout the Reich, for instance, all members of the many orchestras throughout the country playing in provincial opera houses. In Viktor Klemperer’s heart-rending diary about the years he spent in Dresden as a Jew married to an Aryan in the Hitler years, he writes of the frightful consequences to both his wife and himself should it have become known that she was teaching an aryan child to play the piano.

Of course, it is not only Jewish musicians whose lives were wrecked by these laws; she was working in post offices, say, or museums and libraries, also found themselves on the street.

In Forbidden Voices, Judith Sheridan has done wonders in bringing together and recording 33 songs by composers whose music was banned by the Nazis. Listening to these recordings – and the seriousness of purpose brought to the performances is undeniable – one is left with the impression that it is Sheridan’s work as a music historian that will be recognized as her major contribution to what is still one of the least known aspects of the Holocaust. Sheridan’s detailed notes on the subject make fascinating and disturbing reading.

—Neville Cohn