Daedalus Quartet to play the music of composers persecuted by Nazi regime

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
January 31, 2014

The Daedalus Quartet are playing in St. Cloud this Saturday. The program is unusual: works by mid-twentieth century composers who were ostracized by, oppressed by, or even killed by the Nazi regime.

Classical MPR's Michael Barone spoke with members of the quartet, who talked about the music and its history. The performances will take place on February 1 at the St. Cloud Public Library (a family concert at 10:30 a.m.) and at Calvary Community Church (7:30 p.m.).

On the program they've chosen

Matilda Kaul, violin: "I think maybe the kernel of the idea was mine, but like all our programs, it came about through lots and lots of discussion and lots of rehashing. And the actual individual pieces are certainly the result of lots of thought on all four of our parts. And lots of research.

"When we started with this concept, we thought we would struggle to find enough music to fill a program, but the absolute reverse became true. There was so much great music. We hope that this program will carry for many many years to come, with rotations of pieces.

"We were fascinated by all kinds of different angles of this: voices that were snuffed out, because they died in camps, or how people's artistic journeys changed. Korngold is a very good example of that, somebody who was an incredible prodigy in Vienna. He wrote operas, symphonies, pretty much everything, even as a teenager. When war came, he became this pioneer in the American film scene. We think of him as somebody who became famous and quite rich. He was very successful in his kind of second life, but it wasn't necessarily what he chose, and he wasn't necessarily happy, even if he was successful at it.

"Part of this is about the idea of starting again in the middle of your life — even if it happens in your mid 20s, if you have to start your career anew, and you have no money and you have no connections, it's very difficult."

On Erich Korngold:

Matilda Kaul: "The Korngold is there because it's a piece that we love, because it's a familiar name, and because he's a composer who we believe actually almost everybody in America is probably familiar with through his film music — they just don't know it."

"Korngold made a pact with himself that during the war years, while Hitler was in power basically, that he would write no stage music. No opera or incidental music. He wrote only film music. He had a very lucrative contract with Warner Bros which allowed him to support himself and a large extended family, as well as give quite a lot of money to refugee agencies. So on the surface, that was great, and he could keep to the pact he made with himself. But he basically entered into a deep depression. He really needed to be writing other music. [His third string quartet] was the first piece he wrote when it became clear that the war was not going Germany's way.

"In his contract with Warner Brothers, he stipulated that he retained the rights to the music, so he could reuse any part of the scores he had written for his own purposes after they were released. This is part of what makes this piece so amazing, and so different from the other pieces on the program. You hear direct quotes from famous films of the time."

On Mieczysław Weinberg:

Jessica Thompson, viola: "One of the great 'discoveries' for us was the music of Weinberg, who wrote 17 string quartets, and his music is virtually unknown in this country. It's played a little more in Europe and is just starting to be sort of rediscovered here. Rather than Korngold, who escaped to the West, he fled East on foot and wound up in the Soviet Union. So he was basically shut off behind the Iron Curtain for most of his life.

"He's sometimes referred to as 'the Jewish Shostakovich' but we all feel that sort of belittles his voice, in a way. He and Shostakovich did have a very close relationship, in fact. They lived in the same apartment building in Moscow, they played for each other almost daily. But I think the influence went equally both ways. You can almost hear sort of a musical conversation in the quartets that they wrote.

"There's certainly a prominent and audible element of Jewish folk music, particularly as the piece goes on. Those of us now listening to this quartet, you are going to think of Shostakovich. But, that's not the result of Weinberg copying Shostakovich, it's the result of two composers influencing each other."

Matilda Kaul: "I think he did definitely suffer for being Jewish, in the way that many Jews suffered under Stalin, but I don't think that's the primary reason we don't know his music. He was also feted and celebrated in Russian musical circles. For a lot of people he was the third name on a sort of pedestal with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, over there. We just missed him. We're really dedicated to changing that, we hope, in the next few years."

On Erwin Schulhoff:

Matilda Kaul: "He came from a sort of nationalistic background, wrote, prior to World War I, very traceable, nationalistic music, definitely following in the footsteps of people like Dvorak and Smetana, that kind of romantic and nationalistic idiom. He emerged from the First World War incredibly embittered and angry, and rejected everything he'd written before, and looked for inspiration in almost anything else. He took a lot of heady influences from post-war Europe and kind of threw the together in his own kind of creative melting pot."

Tom Kraines, cello: "A common philosophical response to the First World War is: what do we do now that we know what humanity is capable of? [In Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet] I'm struck by what I hear as joy and optimism, actually. There's certainly a satirical element, but I see this an optimistic view, we can still all preserve our cultural identities but all live together. But the eventual reality of course for Schulhoff was that he was taken to a concentration camp and died there."

On Viktor Ullmann:

Jessica Thompson: "Viktor Ullmann's third quartet was written while he was interned at Theresienstadt. I think one of only two surviving works of his from that time. The thing that strikes us most about this piece is that it's not a depressing piece of music."

Tom Kraines: "Ullmann was something of a philosopher as well, a follower of Steiner's [teachings] in which [there's] the idea of humans having a spiritual artistic life that transcends the life of the body. This was important to him even before all this happens. He wrote in a very moving essay called 'Goethe and Ghetto' about how his time at Theresienstadt was sort of the ultimate school of art that denied everything. They did not have the supplies they needed. He had to make his own manuscript paper and so on. So denied everything, he found that all he had was his art."

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