“By labeling certain works of art as ‘Holocaust music,’ ” wrote James Loeffler, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, in the online magazine Tablet earlier this month, “we risk creating a genre that turns the details of history and the complex meanings of music into one saccharine lesson in universalist tolerance. . . . The true heresy is to turn Jewish composers into shadow images defined only by their status as Hitler’s victims.”
For several decades, a number of musicians and musicologists have increasingly devoted themselves to the forgotten music of the Third Reich. The conductor James Conlon has started a foundation and led a number of operas from the early 20th century by composers who were later banned: Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker. The Italian pianist and musicologist Francesco Lotoro has made it his life’s work to track down every piece of music he can find that was written in a camp. The heirs of Franz Gál, who fled to the British Isles but never achieved the level of prominence there that he had enjoyed in Germany and Austria, simply want his music to be heard. Bret Werb, the music curator of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, focuses on popular songs: work songs, bitingly satirical cabaret numbers. “These songs from the ghettos and camps,” he says, “that is Holocaust music.”
And many performers, including the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, have at least dipped a toe into the repertoire from the bizarre “show camp” Terezin (or Theresienstadt), where some leading musicians were incarcerated and encouraged to create, in part to demonstrate to the world that the camps really weren’t so bad after all. (Many of them were later gassed at Auschwitz.)
So the music has been making its way in the world. But branding it is difficult. As a result, many audiencesfeel that what they are seeing represents a unique foray into a wholly forgotten realm.
Last month spotlighted two very different approaches to this repertory. One was the publication of Haas’s abovementioned book. Haas has been one of the leading voices in this field since he helped produce, in the 1980s and ’90s, the recording series “Entartete Musik” (“degenerate music”) on Decca, focusing on music that the Nazis proscribed. His book is dense and sometimes heavily written, with an occasional error (Liszt is said to be Wagner’s son-in-law, rather than his father-in-law) but it is also invaluable. Rather than focusing solely on the Third Reich, Haas contextualizes it. His subject is actually attitudes about Jews and Jewish composers in the German-speaking world from the early 19th century into the postwar years of the 1960s. For the confusion after the war was no less: composers whom the Nazis had called “degenerate” were often dismissed as “reactionary” by their own successors.