Group to play music written by Jews in Nazi death camps

Mary Lou Saetta, violinist and artistic director of Capitol Chamber Artists, marvels at the pieces s

Mary Lou Saetta, violinist and artistic director of Capitol Chamber Artists, marvels at the pieces she has discovered, and that the group will play on Saturday.

“These are masterworks,” she said. “It’s an incredible responsibility to play them at the highest level.”

What makes the works she found from the pens of Ilse Weber, Hans Krása, Zigmund Schul and Erwin Schulhoff even more compelling is that these composers, all of whom were Jewish, died in the concentration camps of World War II.

“When you think of what we lost in future creativity, what could not they have accomplished?” Saetta said.

A concert to celebrate the works of Jewish composers has been one that Saetta has long wanted to do. Brought up in Charlotte, N.C., she had mostly Jewish teachers, as were her violin professors when she went to the Eastman School of Music.

“I’m the only non-Jew in the bunch,” she said with a laugh. “The world of music wouldn’t be the same without these Jewish musicians.”

Capital Chamber Artists

WHERE: First Congregational Church, 405 Quail St., Albany

WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $16, $8

MORE INFO: 458-9231,

Concentration camp

Over the years, she had heard and read books about the so-called model camp at Theresienstadt or Terezin, where so many of the musicians had been incarcerated. This was the place the Nazis brought the Red Cross to show them how well people there were treated. But, of course, this was a sham, as the camp was more often a way station to other death camps, most notably Auschwitz.

Saetta decided to research each of the composers that were mentioned in one of the books. The only woman composer she found was Ilse Weber (1903-1944). She had been a writer of children’s fiction before she, her husband and one of her two children were rounded up and sent to Terezin. Initially, she worked as a night nurse in the children’s infirmary and wrote about 60 poems about her imprisonment. She set these to music and played them on a guitar.

Saetta was amazed when she discovered that eight of these had been grouped into a piece “Ich Wandre Durch Theresienstadt” (“I Wander Through Terezin”) and had been arranged for voice and piano and were available through a music publisher in England.

“I think I got the last two copies,” Saetta said.

They are lovely little tunes in a folk style that takes the listener through Weber’s arrival at the camp to her other experiences. Mezzo-soprano Nina Fine, who lost family in the Holocaust, will sing and Andre O’Neil will accompany.

“They’re heavy-duty but very beautiful,” Saetta said.

Weber’s creations obviously survived the war, but she did not. When her husband and son were deported to Auschwitz, Weber volunteered to join them and was said to have kept them and other children singing as they were herded into the gas chambers.

Hans Krása (1899-1944) had been a composer much influenced by Mahler, Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky, with several works to his credit, including the famed children’s opera “Brundibar” that was performed so much at Terezin, before Krása himself was sent to the camp. While there, he helped organize the camp’s cultural life and composed his “Passacaglia and Fuga” for violin, viola and cello. It was his last piece before he, too, was sent to Auschwitz.

The work, which will be done with Irvin Gilman on flute, Saetta on viola and O’Neil on cello, is in two movements and is “excruciatingly difficult rhythmically,” Saetta said.

“We spent hours with the metronome,” she said. “We wondered how the musicians then had rehearsed the piece without a metronome. Markings in the music showed it had been played there. They must have been an extraordinary group of musicians at the camp.”

There was little information about Zigmund Schul (1916-1944). Although born in Germany, he had been living in Prague where he had been studying composition and collecting synagogue music songs when he was deported to Terezin. Schul wrote a few published works but only his “Two Chassidic Dances for Violin and Cello” were found.

“They’re very fiery, and very Jewish sounding,” Saetta said.

Schul contracted tuberculosis and died at Terezin.

The most famous of the group was Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a composer known to Saetta and whose music has increasingly been programmed in the last decade. One of the most successful of the European composers of his generation, he produced a body of work that included several symphonies, chamber music, a ballet, solo concerti and piano works, many of which embraced the then new idiom of jazz.

He was also a bit of a firebrand, Saetta said, and composed a musical version of “The Communist Manifesto” (Op. 82). In 1941, the Soviet Union granted him citizenship, but the Nazis had already labeled him a degenerate. This led to his arrest in Czechoslovakia and deportation to the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis.

His solo for violin and his duo for violin and cello, both of which will be performed, are very good and very difficult, Saetta said. The solo for violin is in a grand style and much like one of Bach’s masterworks.

“I’ve been practicing five hours a day,” she said. “The musicians who played it were terrific. They must have had great technique. You always feel you have to keep rising to the occasion.”

Additional works

There are several other works on the program. These include Joseph Achron (1886–1943) “Hebrew Melody” for violin and piano; Leon Stein (1910-2002) Adagio for solo flute and “Chassidic Dance” for flute and tambourine (which Saetta will play); and Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) “Pictures of Chassidic Life” for violin and piano.

There is also Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” for voice and piano, which is a Jewish prayer for mourning; and the world premiere of Andre O’Neil’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” for the ensemble, which is based on a poem written by 14-year-old Pavel Friedman, who was killed at Terezin. The poem was one of many found in the cracks in the walls at the camp after the war.

As is tradition for CCA, the group will perform a 7 p.m. pre-concert recital. However, instead of an entirely different repertoire in the 8 p.m. concert, Saetta said they will mix the repertoire between the two concerts.

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