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A Voice for the Silenced
Shir Ami and Entartete Musik

By Matt Barker

It can be argued that the greatness of a society is proportional to its dedication to the arts. Despite the funding and attention placed by the Third Reich on “approved” art and music, the performing arts — and Western music, for that matter — suffered an incalculable loss as a result of the systematic removal of an entire generation of composers and performers from their rightful place in history by means of censorship or extermination. Were it not for a small group of survivors, descendants of survivors, and tireless advocates, the work of these banned performers would truly have been wiped clean from historical record and future generations would forever be deprived of a vital chapter in twentieth century music.

During the late nineteenth century, psychologists introduced the term entartete (degenerate) to describe any deviance or clinical mental illness. However, by the early 1930s, the Nazis embraced a much broader definition to include not just the mentally ill, but communists, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews, all considered subspecies of the human race. They further applied the entartete label to defame atonal music, jazz arrangements, and works by Jewish composers. After the race laws of 1933, the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) required a registry of all German musicians, essentially blacklisting all those who did not fall under the state’s specific guidelines. Countless works were suppressed; careers ended.

By 1937 an exhibition entitled “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) was held in Munich, with its companion, “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music), staged in Düsseldorf the following year. Along with the myriad contemporary works by living German composers already removed from the public, significant portions of the standard repertoire by composers such as Mendelssohn and Mahler were also dubbed unacceptable. Even artists known to be Nazi collaborators or sympathizers risked being banned for associating with Jewish colleagues. Such was the fate of Anton Webern, who had been a moderate supporter of Adolf Hitler but had maintained a friendship with the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg during his exile from Germany.

Musicians affected by this absurd censorship — performers, composers, musicologists, and teachers — were forced to emigrate or risked being sent to concentration camps, where inevitable extermination awaited. This sudden dearth of musical talent was a serious drain on European musical life, the consequences of which have scarcely been recognized or appreciated.

Only in recent years have musicians truly begun to delve into the rich past that was nearly erased from history. Even with such efforts, the vast majority of those affected have received little more than fringe recognition, but as awareness grows, more names are joining the cause to restore the legacy of those whose voices were silenced. Noted conductor James Conlon has long been a fervent advocate for the performance of Entartete Musik, both in the concert hall and the recording studio. Even the famed Decca Records released a highly acclaimed series of recordings devoted exclusively to music banned by the Nazis, featuring works by Braunfels, Goldschmidt, Haas, Korngold, Krása, Krenek, Ullmann, and Waxman.

While these efforts have been invaluable in educating and inspiring new generations of audiences and performers, here in Philadelphia cellist Jason Calloway is revealing that we are only scratching the surface. Calloway is the cellist of the Naumburg
Award-winning Biava Quartet and Artistic Director of Shir Ami (Song of Our People), which presents programs devoted entirely to the so-called “degenerate” composers. As a fervent proponent of twentieth century and contemporary music, Calloway relishes
the opportunity to delve into this virtually untapped catalogue. “To play only the standard repertoire is self-indulgent…Our programming is driven by my desire to explore as much of this unknown repertory as I can fit in a single concert. The wealth of literature is enormous. I once encountered online a list — obviously incomplete — of Jewish musicians and composers who died in the Holocaust, and it included thousands of names. And these are, of course, in addition to the thousands more who managed, in one way or another, to survive the war but whose careers and lives were derailed sufficiently that they never achieved what they might have otherwise.”

With so much music to be explored, Shir Ami generally shies away from composers who were considered degenerate but whose music is firmly a part of the standard repertoire, such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Then there were other composers who managed marginal fame in their exile. Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman were able to salvage their careers in America as staples in the golden age of cinema, but despite these popular achievements their “serious” works still remain in obscurity from the concert-going public. Through growing awareness, composers such as Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, and Alexander von Zemlinsky have somewhat come into fashion in the past several years, although they have hardly entered into the upper echelon of the lexicon of musical programming. Regrettably the vast majority from this phantom period have been relegated to purely academic status, residing in the appendices of musical archives; their musical contributions lying dormant. Calloway remarks, “In trying to create balanced and diverse programs, I feel that my enormous responsibility is to bring to life as many of these forgotten artists as I can, both because of what their presence means for the preservation of the Jewish cultural legacy (and this legacy in general, since there were many non-Jewish composers who were declared by the Nazis to be ‘entartete,’ or degenerate) and because of the fact that this important period in musical history — the bridge, so to speak, between turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian music and the postwar era — was all but destroyed.”

Calloway’s initial inspiration for his exploration came many years ago, long before it coalesced into Shir Ami, through his association with David Arben, former associate concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra, whose violin virtuosity saved his own life in a Nazi concentration camp.

Calloway recounts the poignant story, “Arben was kept alive by a Jewish commandant in the camp in order to entertain at Nazi officers’ functions. One night he was awakened, along with his entire barracks, and sent into the woods to dig a ditch and prepare to be executed. As the man to his side fell dead into that ditch, the commandant realized at the last minute that Arben, the little Jewish fiddler, was next in line and saved his life. Then, when the war ended and the camps were liberated, the young Arben, now without any family, found his way to Munich and finally to Salzburg where, after playing for Efrem Zimbalist in a master class, he was invited to study at Curtis. The rest, as they say, is history. I might have been twelve or thirteen at the time, but his story, as dramatic as that of Wladyslaw Szpilman — ‘the Pianist’ — has remained with me ever since. Several years later, Mr. Arben became a mentor to me. We gave a performance of the Schubert Quintet together in Puerto Rico, and have remained close ever since. His example is what led me finally to embark upon this project.”

Shir Ami gave their first performance in April 2007 on Yom Hashoah, the Day of Remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. Every program brings new opportunities to introduce repertoire that has conceivably gone unheard for decades, and with each subsequent performance Calloway has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from Holocaust survivors, their descendants, audiences, and others who learn of the project. He believes that these concerts are an affirmative way to educate people and embrace an issue that is lamentably avoided. “Despite the superficially grim subject matter, the work we are doing is perhaps the most living way to preserve this important part of our shared history — through music, which communicates far beyond the grave feelings which cannot be articulated in any other way.”

The generation that survived the Holocaust is coming to an end, leaving this generation to carry on the crucial task of keeping its music and memories alive. The further we explore the seemingly unfathomable void that was left by these tragic and detestable events, the more we can appreciate the cultural and musical significance of what can be gained in their restoration.


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