Passover in Exile

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Passover in Exile, performed on April 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

It is not unusual for us to view the making of art as somehow discretionary and perhaps even decorative, distant from what is truly important in life. Our construction of what is of value in life, what is truly important, has for complex historical and cultural reasons been influenced by definitions of what is useful, profitable, necessary, efficient, popular, and practical. And the arts are really none of these things, it seems, except as a venue of ambition for a few and an arena of entertainment for the many.

But this utilitarian definition of value trivializes the human imagination. The making of art, the aesthetic impulse, particularly in the case of music—an art form that exists within time and transforms our experience of time—reveals itself to be at the very core of the value of life and the sanctity of life. That revelation too often occurs, however, in times of suffering and hopelessness. Of all the arts, music, because of its essential character as non-representational, is rightly privileged in our Abrahamic traditions as a form of life that brings us closer to the divine. After the high priests in the Old Testament comes, in order of status, the tribe of musicians whose noise transcends the limits of human language. Music reaches beyond words and reflects a presence beyond the human sphere.

Whether feared as subversive (in some theologies and philosophies) or celebrated as the spark of the divine, music is necessary. It is not a discretionary form of life. And in no time in history was that felt more acutely than in the 1930s by the Jews of Europe. For German-speaking Jews, the triumph of political anti-Semitism in the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 deprived them of their language and their sense of belonging. For generations German had been the language not only of their professional and public lives, but also of their intimate experiences. It framed their relationships with friends, family, and strangers, and their dialogue with themselves. After 1933, German language and culture was not only in the hands of enemies but entirely redefined to exclude all Jews, no matter how many generations of Jews had lived as part of a German speaking world. German Jewish writers lost their public and their purpose.

The passage of time—especially since 1945—has led us increasingly to focus on the Holocaust when we think of the fate of European Jewry. Too often, faced with the images of concentration camps, torture, and death, we understandably underestimate and overlook the pain and suffering of exclusion, segregation, disenfranchisement, and exile that took place between 1933 and 1941. But that experience was the norm for all German Jews between 1933 and 1939. The librettist of the work on today’s program, Max Brod (1884–1968) was in fact a Czech Jew, but a central figure in the German Jewish culture of Prague. Even though his direct encounter with Nazi rule came only in 1939 (he left Prague on the last train before the Nazis occupied the city), from 1933 on, he too essentially lost his language and vocation—his public voice and space. Brod, although an early convert to Zionism, was a German writer, writing for a German reading public. His world was the same as that of his friend Franz Kafka. It was shaped within a bilingual city that prided its literary German as being of a higher standard than that practiced in Germany. Prague’s German literary tradition had in large measure been sustained and cultivated by its Jews. Its luminaries included Brod; Fritz Mauthner, the philosopher of language; Franz Werfel; and Egon Erwin Kisch, the great journalist.

Brod was a polymath who wrote music, poetry, and fiction as well as music criticism. After emigrating to Palestine in 1939 he became a major figure in the history of Israel’s cultural life and a force in the great Hebrew theatre Habimah. Before his emigration, Brod famously put Leoš Janáček on the map, as it were, late in the composer’s life, following the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. He translated Janáček’s operas into German, thereby permitting them wide distribution throughout Europe. Brod also helped propel the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (The Good Soldier Schweik) to fame. Music was central to Brod throughout his entire life. In 1951, he wrote the first book on music in Israel, and wrote on many musical subjects, including Mahler. But if there ever had been a moment in his life when music mattered most as a medium of communication, it was after 1933. The Nazis and their evident popularity could effectively appropriate the German language, but hard as the Nazis tried, music seemed more resistant. If anything, the significance and power of the musical culture of Europe, with which post-emancipation Jewry had forged an intimate connection, only grew in importance among German Jews, both those trapped at home and those in exile.

The trajectory of Max Brod’s life followed a path that began with a high level of acculturation and assimilation into cosmopolitan life in Prague. As a young man, Brod was forced to confront the challenge of Czech nationalism, an encounter that led ultimately to Zionism and Brod’s emigration, not to America but to Palestine, before the outbreak of World War II. The life of Paul Dessau (1894–1979), Brod’s younger collaborator on the Haggadah setting, offers an example of a familiar alternative pattern quite common to Dessau and Brod’s generation. Dessau’s grandfather was a cantor. Through music, the talented young Dessau moved from the more insular world of Jewish life into the center of cosmopolitan culture. He rose to prominence as a conductor and composer for films in the 1920s. In 1933 he was forced into exile and moved to Paris where he continued to write music for the film medium and experimented with modernism in the direction of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone strategy.

Faced with the reality of fascism, Dessau turned not to Zionism but to Communism. The Spanish Civil War inspired him to write political music consistent with his radical sympathies, emulating the example of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. Dessau ended up, along with a host of German émigrés, in Hollywood, where he began a famous and long-standing collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, writing music for Brecht’s plays, including a large oratorio-scale work, Deutsches Miserere. (The ASO performed Dessau’s 1957 In memoriam Bertolt Brecht two seasons ago). Hollywood seemed the right place to go. Dessau had written the music for a 1928 film directed by Walt Disney, Alice and the Fleas.

But Jewish themes did not vanish entirely from his output during Dessau’s American years. Dessau did not remain in America or end up in Israel. He followed Brecht to East Germany, where he remained until his death. There he continued to find a way to reconcile his radical egalitarian politics with musical modernism, teaching and composing two operas in his later years, one based on Büchner, Leonce und Lena (1978) and Einstein (1973). He was consistently the object of suspicion on the part of party officials and ideologues.

The collaboration between Brod and Dessau was exactly contemporaneous with another remarkable collaboration between a German Jewish composer and descendant of a cantor, Kurt Weill, and a Prague German Jewish writer, Franz Werfel, that resulted in The Eternal Road. This massive work (also performed by the ASO in its English-language version), similar in scale and intent to the Haggadah, was also originally conceived in German in the 1930s. It was translated into English and found its way to New York in a production directed by Max Reinhardt. In contrast, the Haggadah found no outlet for performance and was finally premiered in Jerusalem in 1962 in a Hebrew translation by Georg Mordechai Langer. Like The Eternal Road, also a work originally developed in German, the Haggadah was ultimately given its voice in Hebrew, in Israel. Both The Eternal Road and the Haggadah placed in the foreground the history of the Jewish nation as an oppressed people seeking freedom. One found its public voice in America, a hospitable and stable diaspora, and the other in the Jewish state, both nations where the pariah status of the Jews, their exclusion from citizenship in politics, was no longer the defining aspect of modern Jewish identity.

The Eternal Road has had some currency and been revived on occasion, largely as a result of the fame and popularity of Weill. But Dessau and Brod’s Haggadah has not been so fortunate, in part because Dessau’s reputation has diminished. The composer’s politics did him no favors during the Cold War. He had advocates neither in America, where he was derided as a Communist, or in Israel, where his distance from Zionism (rather than his left-wing politics) did not help his cause. And Europe before 1989, west and east of the Iron Curtain, was no place for this setting of the Passover text and story. The 1962 Jerusalem premiere was followed in 1994 by a concert performance in Hamburg, not in Hebrew but in German. The work has not been performed since then.

But the moment for this massive and eloquent oratorio may have finally arrived. The Cold War has become a dim memory and religion is in the midst of a world-wide renascence. Yet the power of this work resides not in its link to religion but in the intersection between tradition and modernity, in its faith in the power of music, and the undiminished universal resonance of the story of Passover, the liberation of slaves and their journey to freedom. Dessau and Brod’s Haggadah is at once heartbreaking and arresting. We need to imagine Brod and Dessau, two displaced artists, either threatened or stripped of their vocations, their homes, their communities, and their language, each struggling to make sense of a world that had come to an abrupt end. Exiled and isolated, both turned to their indelible identities as Jews—an identity that may once have been residual or secondary but had become dominant involuntarily through the events of history.

The authors’ personal identification with their mythic ancestors, the slaves in Egypt, their plight, their pride, and their hope, has an intensity that is hard for those of us privileged to live in freedom and comfort, in homes of our choosing, to imagine. The inspiration they put into this work does not stem from ambition for success and fame, for they had no prospect of performance, particularly at the historical apex of anti-Semitism, during the 1930s, an anti-Semitism spearheaded by the Nazis but openly and tacitly endorsed by the whole world. They gave voice to their own people, a nation abandoned and alone, and to its tradition of suffering and its hope of liberation, all at an historical moment of utter darkness. Working with a language they barely commanded (Hebrew) but that represented the continuity of Jewish identity, they celebrated the shared culture that was inspired by Hebrew. As in Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s 1925 translation into German of the Old Testament, German was subordinated through the synthesis of music and language.

Brod and Dessau transposed the most intimate, constant, universal, and memorable marker of Jewish identity—the Passover Seder— and its rituals that take place each year in every Jewish home, into the public sphere, onto the stage in a unique European cultural form, the sacred oratorio. The Haggadah is a touching epitaph to the cultural contribution of European Jewry. It offers a synthesis between distinctly Jewish elements, the legacy of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Handel’s Messiah, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the now-forgotten oratorios on biblical themes by Bruch, Anton Rubinstein, and Elgar. Written in a moment of hopelessness, fear, and oppression, Dessau and Brod’s Haggadah is a moving tribute to the resilience of human spirit and imagination and the power of art to sustain the will to live and the courage to fight against oppression on behalf of freedom and justice.