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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHOENFIELD, P.: Camp Songs / Ghetto Songs / SCHWARZ, G.: Rudolf and Jeanette (Niederloh, Parce, Music of Remembrance)
American composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield is at the keyboard for two searing, heart-piercing works commissioned by Music of Remembrance. Schoenfield gives voice to the words of two brilliant poets—one a Holocaust survivor, one murdered—and the range of their emotions through rage, bitter humor, tenderness and fragile hope. This first English-language recording of his Camp Songs (a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist) joins his newest song cycle Ghetto Songs—transporting listeners from the horrors of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin to life in the Kraków Ghetto. Gerard Schwarz’s Rudolf and Jeanette is a haunting, romantic chamber orchestra work evoking the life and love of the composer’s Viennese grandparents, who were killed by the Nazis. Produced by Music of Remembrance, a Seattle-based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the precious cultural legacy of works created by musicians during the Holocaust, and to commissioning new works in memory of their spiritual resistance.
Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947)
Camp Songs • Ghetto Songs
World première of English version: 8 November 2004, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Kristallnacht Commemoration Concert. Texts written in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by Aleksander Kulisiewicz (b. Kraków, 1918–1982); translated from the Polish by Katarzyna Jerzak. Camp Songs was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and is dedicated to the organization’s founder and artistic director, Mina Miller.
In the camp, I tried to create verses that would serve as direct poetical reportage. I used my memory as a living archive. Friends came to me and dictated their songs. —Aleksander Kulisiewicz
A journalist by profession, Aleksander Kulisiewicz was denounced for antifascist writings and arrested soon after the German takeover of Poland. Sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, Kulisiewicz wrote 54 songs over the course of nearly six years at the camp. He was liberated in May 1945 and devoted most of the rest of his life to collecting and documenting the songs and music created in concentration camps.
Kulisiewicz’s own songs and poems were written in response to personal and communal experiences within Sachsenhausen, or were motivated by news from the outside world that had filtered into the camp. He organized and performed at secret gatherings of illegal poetry readings and songs. When Kulisiewicz was denounced to the authorities as a “nightingale,” Nazi doctors tried to silence him through “scientific” means—injections of diphtheria bacilli to destroy his voice. Fortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful, and the Nazis “let the dog sing.” His songs were an act of spiritual resistance, a documentation of the war’s atrocities, and a means to survive.
Kulisiewicz, a non-Jew, survived the Holocaust. After liberation, he dictated hundreds of pages of his and his fellow inmates’ songs to his attending nurse at a Polish infirmary. In the 1950s, he began amassing a private collection of music, poetry and artwork created by camp prisoners. Much of this was gathered via correspondence and hundreds of hours of recorded interviews. After his death in 1982, the Kulisiewicz Collection was acquired by the Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I discovered this extraordinary collection in the Museum’s archives during one of my research visits, and knew immediately that I wanted Paul Schoenfield to do something with it. After Schoenfield accepted MOR’s commission, we met in July 2000 in Washington, D.C., and with the guidance of USHMM musicologist, Bret Werb, delved through the collection.
Composed between July and December 2001, Camp Songs is a setting of five texts written by Kulisiewicz during his internment in Sachsenhausen. Black Boehm, the
first in the cycle, mocks the short, hunchbacked Kapo Boehm, who had a distinctly charred appearance due to the wild enthusiasm he brought to his job tending the camp’s crematorium. In 1941–42 alone, Boehm helped cremate 18,000 Soviet prisoners of war at Sachsenhausen.
Schoenfield made extensive use of Kulisiewicz’s original melodies set to the author’s texts, especially in the first and last songs. In this English translation from the
original Polish, Katarzyna Jerzak had to confront the challenges of working within a preexisting musical structure. She notes: “Having sung the English to the music in an effort to match the syllables and the accents to the melody, I found myself haunted by the songs which played over and over again in my mind long after I had finished the translation. As a Pole and a Jew, whose family survived the Holocaust through a series of minor miracles, I could not help but identify deeply with the implicit or explicit speakers.” Her decision to keep most of the original German in the English version was motivated by the effort to retain the dramatic contrast between the German and the original Polish.
Schoenfield’s work challenges the expectations of even the most hardened student of Holocaust art. Kulisiewicz’s texts of raw survival, with their grim humor and sardonic wit, lay bare the fury seething beneath the terrors of the camps. The composer remarked: “The poems that I am setting are caricatures which (in Joseph Conrad’s words) ‘put the face of a joke upon the body of truth.’ They are an affirmation of dignity; a declaration of man’s superiority to all that befalls him.”
Camp Songs was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
World première: 12 May 2008, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance Concert. Poems written in the Kraków
Ghetto by Mordecai Gebirtig (b. Kraków 1877–d. Kraków ghetto, 1942). Ghetto Songs was commissioned by Music of Remembrance and is dedicated to the memory of David Green.
Ghetto Songs draws on the lyrical legacy of Mordecai Gebirtig, a self-taught folk-singer and actor who earned his living as a carpenter, making furniture. Born in Kraków, he was drawn to performance, joining the Jewish Amateur Troupe there, and writing theater reviews for a Yiddish newsletter put out by the Jewish Social-Democratic Party. Five years of service in the Austro-Hungarian army exposed him to a wide range of songs, and in 1920 he gathered for publication a song collection titled Folkstimlekh (“of the folk”). Soon these were being sung around Poland, becoming the hits of their day, and Gebirtig had gained his name as Poland’s “Yiddish troubadour.” At sixty, outraged by the violent Nazi outbursts of the late 1930s, in particular a 1936 pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk, Gebirtig wrote the song Undzer shtetl brent (Our Town Is On Fire): “Don’t stand there, brothers, douse the fire!” went one line. (Later the song became the anthem of Kraków’s underground resistance movement.) Another song, S’tut vey (“It Hurts”), depicted the lack of compassion Polish Jews felt from other Poles after the German invasion. Deported to the Kraków ghetto in April 1942, he was shot and killed two months later by German soldiers for refusing to be deported to the Belzec death camp. It was “Bloody Thursday”, 4 June 1942. He was 65 years old.
Paul Schoenfield offers the following remarks:
I am extremely indebted to my colleague Bret Werb, resident musicologist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for introducing me to the music and poetry of Mordecai Gebirtig. Bret also steered me to Polish-American Yiddishist Joseph Mlotek, who places Gebirtig in a select group of poets and bards: “What emerged from his pen, as well as his heart, was a pure hymn of love for his people, a hymn touched with sorrow, sad news and—on occasion—happiness. With tenderness and gentle humor Gebirtig offered an insight,
not only into the everyday life and milieu of the people he immortalized in song, but into their feelings and emotions, their hopes and dreams.”
Ghetto Songs is a setting of six Gebirtig poems fortuitously preserved in the notebook the poet kept with him in the ghetto. It is very different from Kulisiewicz’s unrelenting sarcasm and black humor in the texts I used for Camp Songs. Mina Miller and I settled on these poems by Gebirtig because they are written across this whole range between hope and gladness and despair. Paralleling other folk settings that I have done, Gebirtig’s poems were used as a broth to nourish a relatively large-scale work. Of course everyone has socially learned musical tastes so when composing you have to take that into account. To ears accustomed to European music, for instance, an Arab love song might sound funereal, and so with Yiddish tunes. I used a very simple melodic and harmonic vocabulary. Anything else would distract from the poet’s intent. Six songs were appropriate for the length of the piece, and I ordered them to create the song cycle’s portrait of Gebirtig. They are not presented in the order they were written.
Shifreles portret (Shifrele’s Portrait)
Kraków, December 1939
Cut off from his oldest daughter by the Soviet annexation of Lemberg, where she lived, Gebirtig talks to his photograph of her, hoping that their separation will soon be over.
Minutn fun yiesh (Moments of Despair)
Kraków, September 1940
Hope is in short supply a year after the German invasion, and Gebirtig wrestles with the anguish of not knowing what is to come.
Glokn klang! (Tolling Bells)
Łagiewniki, October 1941
To this day it is the custom not to directly mention the name of negative entities, realizing that naming them can only add to their strength. So with Gebirtig, who speaks only of the oppressiveness of evil.
Undzer friling! (Our Springtime)
Kraków Ghetto, April 1942
Gebirtig’s third spring under Nazi rule brings forced confinement in the Kraków ghetto. It is a bitter spring, with nothing new to celebrate.
A zuniker shtral (A Ray of Sunshine)
Łagiewniki, May 1941
Gebirtig meditates on a ray of sunshine that pierces the bitter gloom, and dreams of home, of spring, of peace.
Minutn fun bitokhn! (Moments of Confidence)
Kraków, October 1940
Gebirtig turns to the Book of Esther for a story of resistance and endurance: Haman, a counsel to the Persian King Achashverosh, tries to eliminate the Jews, but is himself killed instead.
For the basis of the poems’ description, I owe thanks to Bret Werb.
Gerard Schwarz (b. 1947)
Rudolf and Jeanette
World première: 4 November 2007, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, at Music of Remembrance’s Tenth Season Gala Concert. Commissioned by Music of Remembrance, this work is dedicated to the memory of Rudolf and Jeanette Weiss.
Gerard Schwarz offers the following remarks:
My experience in writing In Memoriam (2005) for Music of Remembrance was a pivotal one—it brought me back to the joy of composition after a long absence, and so I was happily honored to be asked by Mina Miller to compose a new work for MOR’s Tenth Anniversary. In keeping with MOR’s mission, I decided to compose a work in memory of my mother’s parents, Rudolf and Jeanette Weiss, who, in 1942, were shot at the edge of an open grave at the concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. Rudolf was exactly my age now when he was murdered in 1942. Although my parents emigrated to our country in 1939, my grandparents’ exit was denied, their sad fate sealed in that decision.
I have composed this work as a tone poem, so that through music I can honor the grandparents I never knew. The work is in five sections played without pause. The introduction is intended to be somewhat unsettling. A haunting melody, representing the uncertainty of the times, is played by the flute and accompanied by harp and celesta. The strings enter in an accompanying role until the second section begins, which is the love music, depicting the loving and passionate relationship between Rudolf and Jeanette. This leads directly to the Nazi march theme, which is based on the opening material of the flute, played here by the horn. The anger and hostility of the march ends abruptly and a group of Viennese waltzes, nostalgic memories, are played off stage by two violins, double bass, and piano. These reminiscences are interrupted by disturbing material played by the horn, bassoon, and flute. The final waltz, transformed from C major to C minor, is played on stage by the strings, with cello obbligato. This leads directly into the funeral march or death march, as my grandparents were denied the dignity of a funeral. I end my work with the return of the same haunting chords that conclude the opening section.
I wrote Rudolf and Jeanette in August 2007 and orchestrated it during September.
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