One of the grim ironies of the twentieth century is that a transit point concentration camp built by the Nazis should play such a major role in music history that it has even been documented at length in Grove Music Online. The camp was built after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in the town of Terezín (known as Theresienstadt in German). The Terezín camp was one of the ugliest acts of Nazi propaganda, taking the racist agenda of the concentration camp principle and trying to pass off its implementation as the construction of a “paradise ghetto.” This was a deliberately hypocritical attempt to conceal Terezín’s role as a transit camp, where residence was never more than temporary. Prisoners were held there until the Nazis decided which train would take them to which death camp.
A variety of musicians have, over the last several years, made it a point to perform and record the music of Terezín “alumni.” One of the ensembles is even named for an “alumnus,” the Pavel Haas Quartet, through whom I came to know the second string quartet of that composer in a recital performance. Indeed, San Francisco has been a good place to learn about Terezín composers, who have been performed by not only visiting artists but also local ensembles. Two of the composers who have received particular attention have been Robert Dauber and Viktor Ullmann.
Last week Hyperion released a new recording of The Nash Ensemble, the resident Chamber Ensemble at London’s Wigmore Hall, entitled Brundibár: Music by Composers in Theresienstadt (1941–1945). Both Ullmann and Haas are represented on this recording by string quartets, Ullmann by his Opus 46 (his third) and Haas by Opus 7 (the second, which plays a major role in the Pavel Haas Quartet repertoire). The title, on the other hand, underscores the irony of the whole Terezín setting. It is the title of a children’s opera composed by “model” prisoner Hans Krása and given 55 performances in the camp. The opening selection on the recording is an instrumental suite of music from this opera. That suite, which covers most of the melodic material, was conceived by Petr Pokorný (who is apparently best known in the Czech Republic as a soccer player) about twenty years ago and was then scored by David Matthews on commission from The Nash Ensemble. One other “alumnus” is included in the program for this recording through the string trio of Gideon Klein.
The major work on the recording is the Haas quartet. The composer gave this quartet the title “From the Monkey Mountains.” The work is slightly more than half an hour in duration, and it is basically a tone poem in four movements. It was inspired by a trip the composer made to the region named in the title, which is the nickname for the Moravian Highlands (known in Czech as the Vysočina Region). Each of the movements has its own descriptive title:
- Coach, Coachman and Horse
- The Moon and Me
- Wild Night
There is a strong sense of image in each of the movements, colored by both the comic (the relationship between coachman and horse) and an over-the-top literal approach to that adjective “wild” in a bizarre mix of folk and jazz elements with an obbligato percussion part.
Ullmann’s quartet is quite another matter. Before his imprisonment, Ullmann had spent two years studying composition under Alois Hába, a composer best known for his pioneering use of quarter-tones in an effort to capture folk sonorities more faithfully. (Ullmann also studied with both Alexander Zemlinsky and Zemlinsky’s best-known pupil, Arnold Schoenberg.) Ullmann was kind enough to his fellow musicians at Terezín to back off on the quarter tones; but, as a result, Opus 46 emerged rich with semitones. When I heard it in performance, I was stuck by how each of the movements (performed without interruption) explored the potential of the semitone in different ways.
The Brundibár suite is probably the most accessible of the four selections. It is, after all, a children’s opera. The title is Czech for “bumblebee;” and the music has no shortage of wit, most of which is delivered with saucy rhetoric. It also provides the only opportunity to hear to hear members of The Nash Ensemble who are not string players, since Matthews scored his suite for string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, and percussion. In many respects the music shares the good humor of the Haas quartet, but Haas’ sense of humor has sharper edges.
Klein was the youngest of the Terezín “alumni” represented on this recording. Like Ullmann he was influenced by Schoenberg’s imaginative approaches to chromaticism, but he was equally influenced by Leoš Janáček’s interest in the study of Moravian folk music. The second movement of his three-movement trio is an extended set of variations on a relatively simple Moravian folk tune. It is both preceded and followed by rapid-paced movements of the short-and-sweet variety.
There is thus considerable stylistic diversity in the compositions Nash selected for this recording. What is important is that, as performers, the group has homed in on the appropriate approach for each of those works. No one of these compositions can be called representative of any “Terezín style.” Each of the composer’s imprisoned there was free (so to speak) to work on his own ideas and techniques; and this recording is a relatively modest sample of the full scope of that diversity. However, the choices are good in terms of luring the attention of the listener, even if the Brundibár suite amounts to an eat-dessert-first approach to programming. As I observed, the Haas quartet is the major work; and, in many respects, the other three selections prepare the listener for the more extensive listening experience required for that quartet.