Wilhelm Rettich


The revival of music banned by the III Reich has inevitably raised many questions of what can be considered good and worthy. Which are the works that can be viewed as statements of a time and place? The more we search, the more unclear the answers become. A correspondent has put me onto the works of Heinz Schubert, a young German composer who joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and fell as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1945. Furtwängler recorded his ‘Hymnisches Konzert’ along with Ernst Peppings Second Symphony. Both works are examples of the sort of ‘heroic monumentalism’ that the Nazis loved. It was music that was meant to send shivers down the spines of listeners – today, the shivers remain but for very different reasons. Was it all ‘bad’? Only time will let us know for sure.

But perhaps most representative of pre-Hitler European music was the ‘devil-may-care’ attitude to different styles of composition. Of course there was the sort of militant factionalism that was represented throughout politics and society, but such factionalism couldn’t exist without genuine musical diversity. A composer, about whom I know far too little, is Wilhelm Rettich (1892-1988). Years ago, a colleague at Dutch Radio gave me a recording of his violin concerto and his piano concerto, or symphonic variations for piano and orchestra. The music is of the highest quality, but seemingly oblivious of all developments that had taken place throughout the 20th century. It is ‘conventional’ music of the highest order. Yet presumably, it remains obscure to us today because of its conventionalism rather than its intrinsic quality. Any violinist looking for new repertoire could do worse than take on the concerto which I recall as being even more impressive than the Symphonic Variations.

The Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra were written while hiding from the Nazis in 1943 in Holland. Yet this work gives us little of the sense of foreboding that must have plagued him in his tiny cubby-hole without so much as a keyboard. If the initial Hebrew theme, selected from a collection compiled by his uncle, Abraham Zwi Idelsohn sounds dark, the work offers a brilliant panoply of different moods and technical demands. Like Hans Gál composing in British internment camp, composition took him and those around him out of their immediate reality.

Jewish Ghetto in Holland during the Nazi Occupation

Jewish Ghetto in Holland during the Nazi Occupation

Rettich, Wilhelm: Piano Concerto op. 54, SWF Symphony – Vaclav Neumann, Takahiro Sonoda

Rettich was born in 1892 in Leipzig – a city that produced a seemingly endless supply of first-rate composers. He studied composition with Max Reger before being conscripted to fight in the First World War. He was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1914 and remained until 1920 in various Siberian camps, where he organised an orchestra and composed his one-act opera ‘König Tod’ based on a text by fellow prisoner of war, Franz Lestan.  It received its premiere in 1928 in Stettin and given the lack of coverage found in such new-music journals as ‘Anbruch’, I suspect it was viewed as a local, perhaps even provincial effort. Having returned to Leipzig, he conducted the choir of the liberal Jewish synagogue and began taking up other conducting opportunities throughout much of Northern Germany. He eventually landed at Leipzig’s broadcaster MIRAG before moving to Berlin Broadcasting in 1930 from where he was fired in February 1933, only days after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. He took the decision to emigrate immediately. Upon receiving his severance pay he moved to Amsterdam with every intention of leaving Europe if possible. Amsterdam, however, agreed with him and he decided that he liked both Holland and the Dutch people. Eventually he began taking on commissions in Den Haag, Hilversum and Haarlem. With the Nazi occupation in 1940, Rettich moved to Blaricum, a tiny village near Hilversum where he remained safe from denouncement until 1942. From then, and with the help of various friends, he remained hidden until the end of the war – and it was during this period that he composed his Symphonic Variations, dedicated to his mother. His other major work to come from his time as a ‘U-Boat’ (as Jews and the politically persecuted came to be known when passed from secret location to secret location), was the ‘Sinfonia Giudiaca’ carrying the subheading ‘in memoriam fratum’. The hiding places in Haarlem of his mother and younger brother had been denounced and both were deported and murdered. Following the end of the war and until 1964 Rettich remained in the Netherlands before returning to Germany where we was fêted and heaped with medals and various honours, but very few performances of substance. He died near Baden-Baden in 1988. For a composer who was so welcomed upon his return to Germany, there are few photos to be found on the internet – a faded snapshot here and there shows a handsome intelligent face, but sadly, I could find nothing that might elicit interest. Yet this is not meant as a reflection on his music: attractive, but uninteresting. The piano variations, written as a ‘U-boat’ can easily be compared with the best works written in any number of camps. They deserve far wider recognition and I believe the Violin Concerto could even offer Korngold a ‘run for the money’. (Violin Concerto: Hilversum Symphony Dir. F. Huybrechts; Violinist, Vera Beths)

A Reader of this blog has sent me a link to her grandmother, (her comment is below and worth reading) a member of the ensemble in Cologne: Erna Weiss Falk. She was in Bergen-Belsen dying just days after liberation from Typhus. Rettich accompanies her on the piano. It’s a moving tibute to a very fine singer and allows us to hear Rettich as pianist.