Jewish Chronicle (1961)

Jewish Chronicle (1961)

By Misha Donat

Written for the concert Music of Conscience, performed on Feb 25, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The history of anti-fascist protest in art has seen some distinguished contributions from leading figures of the twentieth century. One thinks of Picasso’s Guernica, of Camus’s La Peste, of Schoenberg’s setting of Byron’s ironic Ode to Napoleon, and of Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia and the one-act opera Il Prigioniero. Almost all of these works evoke the evils of fascism in allegorical terms. A more direct forerunner of the work being performed this evening is Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw for narrator, chorus and orchestrated a hymn to the survival of the Jewish spirit in the face of the most appalling adversity, and one which, like Jewish Chronicle, does not flinch from describing the horrors of life in the Warsaw ghetto.

While all these protest works of the 1930s and 1940s were written under the direct shadow of fascist tyranny, Jewish Chronicle arose as a spontaneous gesture of warning against the re-emergence of Nazism in Germany and elsewhere two decades after the outbreak of the Second World War. On Christmas Eve 1959 members of the neo-Nazi Deutsche Reichspartei daubed the newly opened synagogue in Cologne with anti-Semitic slogans an incident whose seriousness was deliberately played down by the Adenauer government of the time. As a gesture of solidarity, five composers from both sides of what was then a divided country joined forces to create a work of protest. The texts, by the East German lyricist Jens Gerlach, begin with a direct reference to the despoiling of Jewish monuments, and end with a repeated call for vigilance. The middle movements evoke the Warsaw Ghetto: the bleakness of starvation (the setting by Karl Amadeus Hartmann), and the uprising of April and May 1943 (in a movement written jointly by Hans Werner Henze and Paul Dessau). The work calls for a large orchestra, though in order to avoid any hint of sentimentality, stringed instruments, with the exception of double-basses, are excluded.

Boris Blacher’s “Prologue,” for the alto and baritone is written in a style of chilling neutrality. Alto and baritone soloists dispassionately recount the evidence of a resurgence of neo-fascism, while a speaker ironically interjects two Nazislogans. The second movement, by Rudolf Wagner-Régenyi, is largely written in simple chordal style, with distant brass chorales in the composer’s own brand of 12-note writing punctuating the setting. During its closing moments, the two speakers join forces to issue a warning that silence is tantamount to guilt–an idea that is to be expanded upon in the work’s final movement.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Ghetto” was one of his final compositions, written as he was embarking on his eighth, and last, symphony. This is characteristically compassionate music (Hartmann’s First Symphony, subtitled “Essay for a Requiem” and based on texts by Walt Whitman, had been an outpouring of anger and grief at the devastation wreaked by the war) in which expressive solo instrumental lines–clarinet, trombone, oboe–weave their way through the baritone’s narration. Each of the three heartbreaking quotations from inmates of the ghetto is preceded by a violent outburst, featuring marimba or piano.

The fourth movement, as already mentioned, is a collaboration between Hans Werner Henze and Paul Dessau. Within the framework of a calm chorale, it narrates the violent events of the uprising in the ghetto. Henze’s contribution occupies roughly the first two-thirds of the piece, with Dessau taking over to describe the massacre of the ghetto’s inhabitants. In so doing, Dessau incorporates some of Henze’s material–in particular, the menacing interjections for timpani and piano–while setting the text largely in speech style for the chorus.

The final movement, again by Dessau, returns to the text of the work’s opening. This time, the speaker narrates in a precisely notated rhythm whose progressive acceleration mirrors the increasing tension of the text; while a lone piccolo, hovering high above the remaining instruments of the orchestra, unfolds a palely expressive melody. The notion of acceleration is one that is additionally contained within the repeated-note rhythmic figure that begins the movement, and thereafter acts as a punctuating reference-point throughout. The further progress of the narration is accompanied by the humming chorus: only in the closing pages do the singers open their mouths to utter their warnings against complicity.