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Mark Swed / COMMENTARY

The Right Reasons to Praise

Holocaust-era composers must be judged on their works' merits, not out of a desire to honor them.

November 27, 1998

More than half a century has passed since D-day and Hiroshima, and our thoughts by now should have turned to a new millennium. Yet "Saving Private Ryan" has been playing at the same cineplex in Santa Monica for four months straight; the popular historian Stephen Ambrose is once more back in the European Theater, following the Allies in a new book; we have a vivid memoir of life under the Nazis in 1930s Berlin from another popular historian, Peter Gay, as well as the newly translated haunting diaries of the same time and place by Victor Klemperer. Italian comedian Roberto Benigni's latest film, "Life Is Beautiful," is a touching fable about life in a concentration camp.

We clearly cannot escape World War II. In fact, as we look back as well as forward, the war, and particularly the Holocaust, appears to be a, if not the, defining event of the century. We struggle to understand the Nazis and their atrocities, but we have no answers. In an unsparing new study, "Preempting the Holocaust," for instance, Lawrence L. Langer argues that the Holocaust is without meaning, and any attempt to find meaning in it is to dilute its atrocity.

Even so, it is human nature to try. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust sponsored a production of an opera written by a composer and a librettist in the camps, followed by a symposium on music and the Holocaust. Then last week, the Polish MusicReference Center at USC presented an engrossing two-day academic conference on Polish Jewish music, along with two concerts that paid particular attention to three all-but-forgotten composers who were victims, in one way or another, of the Holocaust.

We want desperately to admire these composers. We want the revival of their music, and the memory of their suffering, to supply just that elusive meaning to the Holocaust that the unflinching Langer tries to deny us. We want, by reclaiming their music, to repair some of Hitler's destruction. We don't want them to have died, or been broken in spirit, in vain.

Marcia Reines Josephy, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, introduced her symposium by saying that Vicktor Ullmann's "The Emperor of Atlantis," the opera composed in the Terezin concentration camp, represents "art not bound by political correctness, or time and space."

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But doesn't the unavoidable identification of Ullmann with the Holocaust do just that? We know that the composer and his librettist Petr Kien were deported to Auschwitz directly after the dress rehearsal of the opera, and there they perished. For another speaker at the symposium, each page of Ullmann's manuscript "cried out in anguish."

The Holocaust was responsible for Ullmann's ultimate fate, and our interest in the Holocaust is now responsible for the revival of his opera. The Holocaust also did an effective job of terminating the category of Polish Jewish music. And we can again credit our search for its meaning for reminding us of the likes of Jozef Koffler, Karol Rathaus and Alexandre Tansman, Polish Jewish composers who thrived before the war.

We must, however, proceed with great caution. The past two weeks offered just enough evidence to show that these are interesting composers who wrote at least some music worthy of attention now, and rediscovering them helps fill in the picture of an artistically tumultuous time between the wars. But they were not composers of the first rank. They had little in common, except that each, while showing great promise, struggled to find a voice. Otherwise their music, and their fates, were all different.

The case of Ullmann is the most ironic. He was a floundering composer before Terezin, trying to be both avant-garde and accessible at the same time. A devotee of Schoenberg's Modernism, he was also enamored with old-fashioned Romanticism, folk music and jazz, and he couldn't strike a satisfying balance between these opposing styles. Only at Terezin, faced with what he surely knew would be his last chance, did he find his voice in an absurdist opera. A meditation on death and the world situation, "The Emperor of Atlantis" takes its cues from Berg and Weill as it melds cabaret style with modern opera techniques into a strikingly sardonic black comedy.

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Ullmann's three Polish contemporaries also responded awkwardly to the artistically confusing period between the wars. Koffler, who studied with Schoenberg in Vienna in the early '20s, became his country's first 12-tone composer. Like Ullmann, he too tried to reconcile Schoenberg's music with its tonal opposite, in this case, Polish folk music. It proved a clumsy, though interesting, combination. Koffler was killed during a street roundup of Jews in 1943 near Krakow.

Rathaus and Tansman both left Poland early in their careers and survived the war. Rathaus, a controversial progressive with a common touch, became a sensation in Berlin in the late '20s. One work, a flashy jazz-age ballet score, "The Last Pierrot," was, for a short while, all the rage.

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