The spirit and the music of Terezín

It is important that the spirit of Terezín be remembered with concerts and events. And this afternoon, there was another superb performance of works by Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa and Gideon Klein by the Southbank Sinfonia as part of London’s Southbank ‘Rest is Noise’ Festival. It was hard to fault the performances or the passion of the young musicians. Speaking to them afterwards, it was clear that it was a new world and they eagerly asked me about other works. And yet. . . and yet. . . . I keep waiting for these many Terezín concerts to introduce musicians to the music of Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein rather than introduce us (again) to Terezín. The truth is, in presenting us with music from concentration camps, somehow the composers get left behind. What happened to the masterpieces by Krasa, Haas and Ullmann BEFORE their detention? Even after attending dozens of such events, musicians seem surprised when I mention the significance of the composers outside of the camps – indeed it is a significance that would have guaranteed greatness had they never been murdered by the Nazis. Paradoxically, it’s precisely the music from the camps that allows them to be heard by today’s public. Ullmann’s essay ‘Goethe and Ghetto’, quoted elsewhere on this site gives us a sense of the heroically creative spirit of the artist. Yet a fascination with ghettos and concentration camps keeps the greatest works of these composers, the works that were the product of an age before they began to smell their own death, from being heard. Does Krasa deserve to be remembered for the ‘occasional’ pieces he wrote in the camp at the expense of his Opera ‘Verlobung im Traum’ premiered by Georg Szell in Prague in 1933 or his beautiful Symphonie für kleines Orchester from 1923 or his gorgeous string quartet from 1921? Why doesn’t this fascination with concentration camps lead musicians to explore the composers as individuals? Why do we remain fascinated by the music of the camps, some of which is brilliant, but some (let’s face it) is merely mediocre? That they could write music at all is a miracle – but let’s finally try and liberate Ullmann, Haas and Krasa from Theresienstadt or Terezín. Ultimately, they deserve it.

In Forbidden Music I quote from Terezin prisoner Viktor Ullmann, shedding light on how creativity could thrive under the most desperate circumstances:

“Theresienstadt was and continues to be for me the school of form. In earlier days, when the magic of civilisation suppressed the weight and fury of material life, it was a simple matter to create beauty in form. Our true masterclass in form, however, is to be found within our present situation, where we require form to dominate everything that makes up the material of our daily life, and any inspiration the muses may offer stands in the starkest contrast to our surroundings.”