Friday, April 24, 2015

The Amernet Quartet and "Jewish Voices"

Amernet Quartet
Saturday's performance, concluding the official season of Market Square Concerts, brings the Amernet String Quartet to the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg for a program entitled “Jewish Voices” in observance of the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II.

The concert is at 8:00 but there is a pre-concert talk with this program, given by Dr. Truman Bullard at 7:15.

Though Felix Mendelssohn may seem the odd-man-out for music relating to the Second World War, his music – whether or not it showed any influences of Jewish themes – was banned in Nazi Germany. Even though his father had Felix and his older sister Fanny baptized in the officially sanctioned Lutheran Church in Prussia when they were still children, his Jewish origins dogged him throughout his career, winning him the enmity of the anti-Semitic Wagner and producing vociferous demonstrations against his appearances on several occasions throughout Germany. While he had composed the oratorio Elijah, he had also composed one on St. Paul, converted on the Road to Damascus. At the end of his life, he was working on a third oratorio, Christus, left incomplete. His symphonies may have evoked landscapes of Scotland and Italy, but in the 5th (actually one of his earlier symphonies) he quoted Luther's “Ein feste Burg” as part of the symphony known as “The Reformation.”

Mendelssohn in 1847
His last quartet – his last completed major work – was a dramatic outpouring of his personal loss following the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, who'd died suddenly in 1847 of a stroke before Felix had returned home from the English premiere of Elijah. He was unable to cope with the loss, canceling plans for further performances of his latest masterpiece. During a trip to Switzerland, hopefully to revitalize his nerves, he composed his F Minor Quartet which he dubbed “a requiem for Fanny.”

(Follow this link to hear the Amernet Quartet perform the work's first movement.)

Highly Romantic in sound and passion, this is far removed from the elfin delights we often associate with his name – masterpieces like the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture or the scherzo from the Octet for Strings, both written when he was still in his mid-teens – but nothing if not genuine in its intensity and various stages of grief.

A month after it was given a private performance in Mendelssohn's Leipzig home, the composer died following a series of strokes at the age of 38.

Despite Mendelssohn's enduring fame as one of the leading composers of the 19th Century, his statue in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus was removed by the Nazis in 1936 and only replaced in 2008. The Mendelssohn Scholarship for students at the Leipzig Conservatory which he founded was discontinued in 1934, then re-instated in 1963.

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Erwin Schulhoff
In 1913 and 1918, the winner of this Mendelssohn Scholarship was a young Czech named Erwin Schulhoff, a Jew born in Prague in 1894, first for piano and the second time for composition. He had received early encouragement from no less than Antonin Dvořák and studied in Vienna and Leipzig where his studies were interrupted by World War I. He served at the Russian Front in the Austro-Hungarian Army and after having been wounded, found himself in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the war.

Afterwards, he became interested in the popular music of the day, a man in his 20s inspired by jazz. American critic Olin Downes wrote of Schulhoff's “Five Pieces for String Quartet” at the Salzburg Festival in 1924:

“These pieces attempted only to charm or entertain. They had spontaneous humor, sentiment, a fluent and admirable technic [sic]. The idiom has enough modern pepper in it to constantly stimulate the ear; but the music is not forced, any more than it is portentous. A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.”

Here's the 3rd piece, a Czech folk dance, performed by the Kontras Quartet:

...and the sultry Tango, (No. 4), performed by the Cypress Quartet:

Between his style and his Jewish heritage, not to mention his leftist politics, Schulhoff and his music were quickly labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. Returning to Prague, his Communist sympathies began getting him in trouble there, as well. By the time the Nazis invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, he had composed his highly discordant Symphony No. 5 (performed by the Harrisburg Symphony several seasons ago) to convince the Soviet Union to accept his application for a visa which was finally approved in 1941. Unfortunately, Schulhoff was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis before he could leave Prague.

On April 29th, 1945 – 70 years ago next Wednesday – American troops liberated the concentration camp at Dachau though others had been already liberated – among them, Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11th, Auschwitz by the Soviets on January 27th, 1945. The first had been found by the Soviet troops advancing through Poland at Majdanek on July 23rd, 1944, but all of this was too late for Erwin Schulhoff who died of tuberculosis in the camp at Weissenburg in Bavaria on August 18th, 1942.

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Dmitri Shostakovich (l) & Mieczyslaw Weinberg (r)
Of the four works on the Amernet Quartet's performance, the quartets by Shostakovich (written in 1949) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (in 1945) are closely connected, biographically. And to understand either of them, we need to be aware of two aspects of life in the Soviet Union – the role of the artist in society and what is usually labeled “The Jewish Question.”

Let's begin with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 4 in D Major – a title that sounds abstract and uncomplicated enough. It's in four movements, the first built on folk-like tunes over almost bagpipe-like drones and the last using Jewish folksongs absorbed into the fabric (rather than being stated as one might in, say, a “suite of Jewish folk tunes”).

Here is the recording by the Fitzwilliam Quartet accompanied by the musical score:

Having run afoul of Stalin's government (or more specifically, Stalin himself) with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which provoked a terrifying backlash in the press (the famous “Muddle instead of Music” review), Dmitri Shostakovich, then a rising star in the Soviet musical firmament not yet 30 years old, chose to pull his 4th Symphony before its premiere would make things worse and, instead, compose a new symphony - his 5th - which someone else described as “A Soviet Artist's Artistic Reply to Just Criticism.” This managed to rehabilitate the composer in a country where official recognition was a matter of success or failure.

But it happened again.

Andrei Zhdanov, bureaucrat
Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the “Supreme Soviet” (a primary governing body within the Soviet Union), had been Stalin's cultural minister in the mid-1940s, devising various artistic policies regarding what he considered “proper” for Soviet Art and trying to eradicate foreign influences. Folksong was considered a good source of material as it appealed to The People – and keep in mind Soviet Culture was an ideological one, not an ethnic one. With this policy, Zhdanov was then able to censor any artist – composer, writer, painter, poet – who disagreed with him.

In January, 1948, Zhdanov issued something of a “Decree against Formalism” which condemned various composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian among others, for being too entrenched in the principals of Western Music, writing things like symphonies that were apolitical and all about abstract form rather than symphonic poems extolling the virtues of Soviet Men and Women.

As a result, these composers' works were banned in performance and it was unlikely anyone would commission new works from them; without performance fees coming in from their publishers, eventually their sources of income would dry up. They were forced to publicly recant their “artistic crimes” before the Soviet Composers' Union. But instead of writing “an artistic reply to just criticism” this time, Shostakovich continued to compose what he wanted, putting it aside for eventual publication, assuming this too would pass. Otherwise, he made a precarious living writing music for films and official music for the Communist Party (of which he was not yet officially a member, by the way).

Shostakovich & Copland, NYC 1949
Curiously, Stalin himself called Shostakovich to inform him he was being sent to an international arts and peace conference in New York City representing the Soviet Union, but the composer wondered how someone shunned by the government could represent that government on the international stage. While he was able to get a little flexibility in certain works of his being performed again, he still was forced to read a prepared speech which he was unable to finish reading (replaced by someone with a rich radio baritone voice).

The perception in the West was, as a result, that Shostakovich was a “tool of the government” and nothing more than a party hack. Later that year, he was “commissioned” to write The Song of the Forest in praise of Stalin (“the great gardener”) and his reforestation project. While we in the West call this "propaganda," perhaps Soviet citizens considered this "patriotic music."

In that sense, it's interesting to see this informal photograph of Shostakovich, the representative of Soviet Communist Art, apparently arguing with Aaron Copland, the creator of "The Great American Sound," taken in New York during that international conference. Once a member of the American Communist Party in the '30s, Copland would be brought before the House Committee for Un-American Activities by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. However, appalled at Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich, Copland had already begun divesting himself of his political affiliations by then.

At the same time he was working on The Song of the Forests, Shostakovich was composing his String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, a work he knew would never be performed under his current situation.

But his 1st Violin Concerto (he was in the midst of the cadenza movement when Zhdanov's decree was delivered) and several other works including much if not all of his 10th Symphony, went into that same desk drawer for later.

Another thing we need to understand is the Soviet attitude toward the Jews. While, compared to the Nazi policy, Stalin's Soviet Union attracted many leftist, Jewish intellectuals who needed to leave Germany before the war – as Erwin Schulhoff had tried to do. While a few sentences would hardly do the complexity of the situation justice, Stalin's policy in 1931 was to condemn anti-semitism, but by 1936 and the start of the Great Purge, many of those targeted by Stalin for “anti-Soviet crimes” were also Jewish though several historians are careful to point out they were not targeted because of their ethnicity.

In the following years, Jews were frequently persecuted along with many other factions in Soviet society. And proximity could often prove its own dilemma. Because Shostakovich was a friend of a general and had dinner with him, discussing artistic issues, the composer was brought in for interrogation after the general was implicated in a plot to overthrow Stalin. In fact, Shostakovich was prepared to be arrested at any moment and imprisoned, only to be reprieved when he arrived for his next interrogation to discover the agent interrogating him had himself been arrested! (All this while he was writing his 5th Symphony!)

After the war, however, despite seeming government support for Jewish cultural organizations, leading Jewish intellectuals and artists were being labeled “rootless cosmopolitans” and were accused in the press of “bourgeois Jewish nationalism.” The director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered (it turned out later by order of Stalin) – he was a friend of Shostakovich's and also Mieczyslaw Weinberg's father-in-law. Shortly after Mikhoels' murder, Soviet agents began following Weinberg himself.

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – pronounced "myeh-CHEE-swoff", his first name also appears in Hebraic form, Moisie; his last name is often transliterated from the Russian spelling, Vainberg – was a Jew born in Poland who lost his entire family in the Łodz Ghetto. After the 2nd World War began, he went to Moscow where he met Shostakovich. Even though the 20-year-old conservatory graduate never officially studied with Shostakovich, the recenbtly rehabilitated composer was certainly his major mentor. “It was as if I had been born anew,” Weinberg later wrote.

In 1944, Weinberg composed a piano quintet (which you can hear at “Stuart & Friends” with Stuart Malina and Peter Sirotin among the performers on May 5th at HACC's Rose Lehrman Center) – Shostakovich had written his own quintet in 1940. While Shostakovich's Quintet is of course one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, here is Weinberg, rarely heard in this country at all and it seems we have a mini-festival here in Harrisburg with your chance to hear two of his works, composed within a year of each other, in the span of ten days.

1945 was a busy year for Weinberg: he composed both his 4th & 5th Quartets as well as a few sonatas, several songs and piano pieces that year.

Given everything that's available on YouTube, I was unable to find any performance of the 5th Quartet which the Amernet will be performing here. But to give you an idea of what you'll be hearing, here is an audio recording with “Quartet Danel” in an Italian production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's String Quartet No. 4, written earlier that same year.

If you only have time for one movement, I recommend the 3rd, 18:04 – 27:45, a slow march, or at least the last few minutes before it ends.

When Shostakovich's music was banned following the 1948 decree by Zhdanov and he was “removed” from the Conservatory in Moscow, Weinberg's works were not banned though he was almost completely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment. At this time, he could only earn money by writing for the theater and the circus.

After Shostakovich and Weinberg initially met, “they had declared a law that each would play for the other his latest music” and Weinberg's wife recalled how, once receiving a telephone call from Shostakovich, Weinberg went over to hear Shostakovich's latest Quartet – No. 8, which he told him was his musical autobiography. Weinberg “returned home shaken by the power of this music.”

Shostakovich dedicated his own 10th Quartet to his friend Moisei Weinberg in 1964 – he always “loved and valued his music” yet barely had the strength to attend the premiere of Weinberg's opera “The Madonna & the Soldier” in Leningrad during the last months of his life in 1975. Weinberg (often referred to by the nickname “Metak”) had been one of Shostakovich's close friends during the dark, lonely years following the Zhdanov decree in January, 1948.

At the time Weinberg's father-in-law had been murdered, without knowing the circumstances of Stalin's involvement, Shostakovich, despite his own political problems, went to the Weinberg's flat to offer his condolences; shortly afterward, he quietly loaned some cash to him to help his family get through these difficult times even though he would have very little income of his own, now.

In September, 1948, on his 42nd birthday, Shostakovich invited several friends (including Weinberg) to hear his latest work, a series of “simple Jewish songs.” Given the current “anti-Cosmopolitan” policy of the Stalin Regime (another buzzword for “Jew”), Weinberg's wife realized this was not just a new work but “voiced what we dared not ever express in conversation. It was an open protest by Shostakovich against the hounding of the Jews in this last five-year plan of Stalin's.”

It had not been the first (nor the last) time Shostakovich had used Jewish themes – his 2nd Piano Trio was written in 1944 as news of the Holocaust was reaching Moscow, with the diabolic scherzo's Jewish theme inspired by the image of Jews being forced to dance on their own freshly dug graves before being executed by Nazi soldiers.

Also in 1948, a writer of a book about “Yiddish Folksongs” fell into disfavor with the government and was being threatened with arrest. Shostakovich hid him in his Moscow flat until he was able to help get the arrest warrant rescinded.

At one point, later in life, he supposedly told Semyon Volkov, the author of the much disputed Testimony purporting to be proof of Shostakovich's inner thoughts,

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“Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be… Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.”
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And by extension, then, a bad time for him...

Shostakovich composed his 4th String Quartet the following year, employing (among other influences) Jewish folk-song or its “ethos,” especially in the lengthy last movement. Given the Zhdanov Decree and its aftermath, it was unlikely this work would ever be performed. When the Borodin Quartet “auditioned” the work for the Cultural Ministry, they did not explain any of the music's details.

“There is a story,” the cellist recalls in Elizabeth Wilson's biography of Shostakovich, “that we had to play the quartet twice on this occasion: once in our genuine interpretation and a second time 'optimistically,' to convince the authorities of its socialist content. It's a pretty invention, but [the story] is not true: you cannot lie in music.”

While the minister, trying to help Shostakovich out with a little money, agreed to pay for the quartet (an after-the-fact commission), it still was not publicly performed until after Stalin's death in 1953.

In February, 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" as a part of the so-called “Doctor's Plot” when several prominent Moscow doctors (mostly Jewish) were accused of plotting to kill Soviet officials. Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria, chief of police, on Weinberg's behalf (and told his friend he would look after Weinberg's daughter if his wife wеre also arrested). As it turned out, Weinberg was saved only by Stalin's death the following month.

After that, Weinberg continued living in Moscow where he was busy as both a composer and a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near one another, sharing ideas on a regular basis. Perhaps because of the admiration which Shostakovich frequently expressed for them, many of Weinberg's works were taken up by some of Russia's foremost performers and conductors. But they are still largely unknown abroad.
Weinberg, suffering from Crohn's Disease, died in 1996, having completed his last symphony, No. 21 “Kaddish,” five years earlier and his 17th String Quartet four years before that. His opera, The Passenger, written in the mid-50s, wasn't premiered until ten years after his death.

The fact that much of his music “sounds a lot like Shostakovich” has not helped Weinberg's music. Of course, if we listen to more than just Mozart and Haydn from the 1780s and '90s, we'd know there was a common language among composers who seem to be imitating Haydn, and certainly there are fingerprints of both in Beethoven's early music. There is a whole school of composers in Vienna in the late-19th Century who sound like recycled Brahms, and one could say the same of a number of other German composers and the English and even American students who'd studied with them.

Shostakovich was undoubtedly a major personal as well as musical influence on Weinberg, but to quote Alexander Ivashkin's comment, how composers such as Weinberg damaged not only their own reputations, but that of Shostakovich as well – "these works only served to kill off Shostakovich's music, to cover it over with a scab of numerous and bad copies" – seems a tad harsh.

One more indignity in a world full of challenges.

- Dick Strawser