Daniel Abraham, Co-Chair of the Department of Performing Arts
Music at Terezin and Convery's Songs of Children
Terezin (or Theresienstadt in German), was designed to persuade an unknowing world that the Jews had nothing to fear from Nazi Germany. Cultural activities took place at the camp which included a schedule of musical performances, some of which were filmed for inclusion in the Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (Hitler Presents the Jews with a City). The propaganda film shows prisoners in scenes that suggest that the camp was an artists' colony. Terezin was used as a showcase—while the suffering was great and most prisoners were eventually deported to Auschwitz or its sub-camps, the Nazis kept portions of Terezin for public display. When dignitaries visited, the musicians played. A Children's Choir/Children's Theatre company formed at the camp and gave over fifty performances of Brundibar, an opera ironically about children trying to usurp an ogre. When the Danish Red Cross visited Terezin in the summer of 1944 to determine conditions, the musicians were called to perform: it was touted as the only location in Europe where Jewish Music was still freely heard. It was an elaborate hoax for which great measures were taken to disguise conditions and to portray a situation of normalcy. In the end, music gave no true refuge: many of the musicians of Terezin and their families were killed at Auschwitz when deportations intensified in May 1944.
Among the chilling scenes of Der Fuhrer schenkt is a performance of the Pavel Haas (1899-1945) work Study for String Orchestra, complete with added applause. The work was composed for a string orchestra organized by Karel Ancerl (1908-1973), who survived the war and became the leader of the Czech Philharmonic. Haas had built a substantial career in Czechoslovakia before he was sent to Terezin in 1941. A student of Janacek, Haas' style combines a sense of sweet lyricism with the restless rhythmic motion characteristic of Czech folk music. The many musicians of Terezin were mainly exiled from prominent positions in Berlin, Munich and other cultural centers of Germany. In addition to Haas, were Viktor Ullmann (1898-1945), Hans Krása (1899-1945), and Gideon Klein (1919-1945), all of whom were well recognized musicians and composers before the war.
Ullmann was the musical leader at Terezin. He was a student of Schoenberg from 1918 to 1919 and had created a highly mobile, yet accessible modernistic language. Krása was born in Prague and studied at the German Academy of Music with Alexander Zemlinsky. He was the composer of Brundibar as well as a set of orchestral songs, works for string trio, and a symphony. Klein, a Moravian Jew who had studied piano and composition from a very early age, gave at least 15 recitals as a solo pianist at Terezin and several of his most important compositions date from his time at the camp, including a Fugue for a String Quartet finished only nine days before his deportation to Auschwitz in October 1944. He was soon after moved to Fürstengrube where he was forced to work in the coal mines and was killed the same day as Haas and Ullmann during the liquidation of the camp in January 1945.
The commemorative cantata Songs of Children by Robert Convery (b. 1954) is scored for voices, piano, cello, violin, and viola and written "In memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust." Judith Clurman, director of The New York Concert Singers, commissioned the work in 1989. A setting of poems written by children at Terezin, the work consists of nine movements divided into eleven sections, including an instrumental interlude and an opening passage from Deuteronomy sung by the choir. The lyrics of the other nine sections are drawn from I Have Not seen a Butterfly around Here, a collection of drawings and poems created by the children of Terezin between 1942-1944. The materials were hidden at Terezin inside mattresses and within the cracks between the walls of houses. Having survived in a suitcase, the poems and drawings were rediscovered in 1955. Convery's general musical style is exceedingly appropriate for the task as his expressive outlook holds a distinctly personal lyricism and rhythmic vitality. His harmonic sense is modern and highly individualized, but his works maintain a clear sense of form and transparent textures.
Songs of Children received its premiere in New York City on April 21, 1991. Its Washington, D.C., premiere came on April 16, 1993, as part of the celebration of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the composer, the ordering of the poems in the cantata demonstrates a spiritual transformation, beginning with a naive entrance into the concentration camp, the quick and brutal reality of the confinement, a sense of having one's soul stripped from one's body, a cool vision of the reality of the camp, and finally, a transcendence of reality with an affirmation of life even in the confrontation of certain death. The cantata is unified by use of a cantus firmus: the Jewish melody Ani Maamin is divided throughout each of the eleven sections of the work. The folk melody is well known as a song of faith and was sung in unison by concentration camp prisoners as they were taken to the gas chambers.
American University would like to acknowledge Ron Jeffers and earthsongs of Corvallis, Oregon for their management of the performance rights and performance materials.