Weeping and Atonement
BRUCH’S KOL NIDREI
From time to time Max Bruch has been identified as Jewish – including by the Third Reich in the early 1930s – although he was in fact a Protestant. The confusion is easy to understand: it is assumed that any composer who could compose such a powerful and moving interpretation of the Kol Nidrei prayer must himself be Jewish.
On one level the assumption is absolutely correct. For Kol Nidrei, Bruch drew on two impeccably Jewish sources: an old Hebrew song of atonement traditionally sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, and a magnificent song 'O weep for those who wept on Babel's stream' from Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, for which the composer had been Isaac Nathan.
Bruch got to know both melodies in Berlin, where from 1878 to 1880 he was the music director of the Stern Choral Society and had 'much to do with the children of Israel' in the choir. His other motivation was the nagging of cellist Robert Hausmann, who envied violinists the rich creations Bruch had composed for them and wanted something for his own instrument.
Kol nidrei begins with the imploring liturgical melody, treated quite freely by Bruch. Perhaps mirroring the three stages of repentance (remorse, resolve and triumph), Bruch breaks up the original melodic line into groups of three notes, each separated by a musical breath or 'sigh'. The music is grave, fervent, meditative, sorrowful and even at times a touch sentimental. Bruch knew that its success was assured, because, as he wrote to a friend, 'all the Jews in the world are for it on its own account.'
Our Friends Make Us Strong
The children’s opera Brundibár (Bumblebee) began life in 1938 as an entry for a competition and was the second collaboration between composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister. But the competition never took place and by the time the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia the original score had been lost. With occupation, Jews (and their music) were banned from public life in Prague. One of the places they could meet was the Hagibor Jewish orphanage, run by an avid music lover and amateur musician, and it was here in December 1942 that the premiere of Brundibár took place. The accompaniment was provided by a pianist, violinist and drummer, all playing from the same piano score of the music. Only 150 or so people were invited to this illegal performance and they had to arrive discreetly, but it was considered a great success.
Hans Krása wasn’t at the premiere; he had already been sent to the Terezin ghetto. Within seven months, the children of the original cast, the orphanage director and his son, and many others had followed him. Rudolf Freudenfeld, the son, managed to smuggle the piano score of Brundibár into Terezin.
As a ‘model’ ghetto – on display to representatives of the Red Cross and other international guests – Terezin allowed certain cultural freedoms: confiscated instruments were made available for orchestras, children could learn piano and sing in choirs, and concerts and theatrical productions by the inmates were permitted. Thus came about the second production of Brundibár, in September 1943. Krása enthusiastically arranged the music for the available ensemble: flute, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, accordion, piano, percussion, four violins, a cello and a bass. His orchestra may have been small, but it was filled with virtuosos.
The opera’s music is buoyant and tuneful and the libretto, although naïve, resonated with the Terezin community, its spirit summed up in the closing lines: ‘He who loves justice…and who is not afraid, is our friend and can play with us.’ When the original chorus sang of defeating the evil Brundibár (in Kushner’s version: ‘bullies disappear!’) everyone present would have had another evil bully in mind. And so Brundibár was a tremendous success. The tickets might have been free but they were in hot demand. The opera received 55 performances in the year following its Terezin premiere. In 1945 the Germans included it in a film made in Terezin, and the final scene survives – no longer propaganda but a testament to courage, resilience and the power of music.
Fate Knocks at the Door
The most famous four notes in all music launch Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on a compelling emotional and musical journey. That journey is a familiar one now – this must be the best-known symphony of all – but at its premiere Beethoven’s contemporaries must have been astonished by the symphony’s new and noisy sounds and its unexpected destination.
It won’t surprise modern listeners because other composers have done the same thing since, but in the Fifth Symphony Beethoven did something truly innovative: he began the symphony in one key (the dramatic and threatening key of C minor) and ended in another (the brilliant and triumphant key of C major). In the same way that a painter might place a luminous subject against a gloomy background, it’s as if Beethoven is saying that the joy and triumph of the finale can only be expressed in the context of the fear and awe he sets up in the first movement.
The broad idea of struggle and triumph is also conveyed through the internal development of the symphony: that famous opening motif transforms in character during the course of the whole work. Through this Beethoven achieves an unprecedented sense of musical unity, emphasised still further by the seamless transition between the nervously brooding third movement and the finale.
That transition is itself unusual – providing a moment of hushed suspense with menacing and insistent drum beats before the blazing entry of the trombones, an instrument taken from the theatre and church to appear in a symphony for the first time in musical history. Together with the contrabassoon and shrill piccolo, Beethoven counted on those trombones to ‘make more noise than six timpani, and better noise at that’. This noise, of which Beethoven would have heard nothing, contributes to a radiant and festive march, all the more triumphant for the struggle that has gone before.
Later Beethoven supposedly described the opening notes as Fate knocking at the door. The story may be dubious, but it’s completely in character with the Romantic mindset and the way listeners hear this symphony. ‘Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of horror, of suffering,’ wrote E.T.A. Hoffmann in his famous 1810 review of the symphony, ‘and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of Romanticism. Beethoven is accordingly a completely Romantic composer...’
Yvonne Frindle © 2012
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2012
Max Bruch was born in the same city as Beethoven – Bonn – but unlike Beethoven his musical career tended towards opera, perhaps because his gift was for elegant and graceful melodic writing. An uncontroversial figure, he enjoyed recognition and success in his lifetime, but today he is best known for just a few pieces, including his charming first violin concerto and Kol Nidrei, which was premiered when Bruch was at the height of his fame, in 1880.
Hans Krása was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague; he died in October 1944, one of many artists transported to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival. For two years previously he had been an inmate of Terezin (Theriesenstadt), where he composed and supervised musical activities. In happier times he had lived briefly in Paris, and in 1926 his Symphony for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra reached American shores, when Koussevitsky conducted it in Boston and New York. Of his style, he said 'I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music.'
Assisted by a dog, a cat, a sparrow and their friends, two poor children (brother and sister) outwit the evil, bullying organ grinder Brundibár, thus bringing home milk for their sick mother and learning the power of music, friendship and courage.
Ludwig van Beethoven
When he was just 32 years old and at the beginning of a brilliant musical career, Beethoven had to come to terms with a dreadful truth: he, a composer and piano virtuoso, faced a future without hearing. It’s a testament to his courage that he dismissed thoughts of suicide, and in pulling through this crisis he entered new creative phase, his middle or ‘heroic’ period, during which he wrote the famous Fifth Symphony and many other masterpieces.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....