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The ARC Ensemble has garnered Grammy nominations for its recordings QL of works by composers suppressed by the Nazis and Stalin.
The ARC Ensemble has garnered Grammy nominations for its recordings QL of works by composers suppressed by the Nazis and Stalin.

Royal Conservatory on a mission to recover suppressed works Add to ...

They were dismissed from their jobs, forced into exile, often imprisoned and killed. They are the composers who suffered and died under Hitler and Stalin, and the Royal Conservatory of Music plans to establish an in-house institute to help retrieve their suppressed works.

“It’s striking to me how much of this music is simply unknown and unexplored,” says Simon Wynberg, artistic director of the RCM’s ARC Ensemble, which over the past decade has championed works by suppressed composers through concert tours and recordings, two of which were nominated for Grammy awards.

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Now, he says, it’s time for the Toronto-based conservatory to take a greater part in recovering lost compositions that RCM president and chief executive officer Peter Simon says represent “a huge gap in the repertoire of the 20th century.”

Ideally, the institute, which Wynberg expects to open “within six to 12 months,” would help uncover works that could be revived and performed by opera companies, orchestras and chamber groups such as the ARC Ensemble. The institute’s initial annual budget would be between $100,000 and $120,000, he says, depending on the type of support it receives from its ultimate lead and name donors.

“There are people who have dedicated their lives to this, and who are eminent musicologists, and who feel that they’re only scratching the surface,” he notes.

Awareness of so-called suppressed music has grown enormously since Decca/London launched its ground-breaking 1990s recording series, Entartete Musik: Music Suppressed by the Third Reich. Taking its title from the “Degenerate Music” exhibition staged by the Nazis in 1938, the series revived interest in composers such as Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff, who died in concentration camps; and also in displaced musicians such as Berthold Goldschmidt, who fled Germany in 1935, and Walter Braunfels, who remained in the country but was banned from public musical life till the end of the Nazi regime.

Some of the more obscure music discovered so far has turned up in uncatalogued boxes in archives, or in the effects of relatives, while other works have to be reconstituted from scraps of whatever paper was available in straitened conditions. Francesco Lotoro, a researcher in Italy who specializes in music created in concentration camps, recently recorded a piece that Czech composer Rudolf Karel secretly wrote on toilet paper in a Prague prison, before his transfer to the Terezin camp where he died in 1945.

Since the Nazis’ concept of “degenerate music” was driven mainly by racial ideology, the works they suppressed cover a wide range of styles, from atonal modernism to idioms influenced by cabaret and jazz. The Soviet notion of “socialist realism” was sufficiently elastic that almost anyone who didn’t pass muster politically could be targeted as an anti-Soviet composer. The repression there lasted into the 1980s, raising the possibility that there may be many works yet to be discovered that were written “for the drawer” – secretly. The concept of “repressed music” has expanded accordingly.

Lotoro, who lives in a small town north of Bari, Italy, has made it his mission to record everything he can find that was created in a concentration camp during the Nazi era, whether in Europe, Asia, North Africa or the Americas (he includes Canadian and U.S. internment camps for so-called enemy aliens). He has personally collected more than 4,000 scores, which he regards as memorials of their creators and their captivity. “They wanted to leave a testament; they leave to us music,” Lotoro told an interviewer for U.S. National Public Radio.

Wynberg says that researchers on the hunt for such pieces are often isolated and underfunded, and indeed Lotoro’s search has driven him into debt. RCM’s institute would identify and finance projects that need financial help, based on recommendations from an expert international panel.

“You really have to play these works for the public for them to realize what happened,” says Wynberg. ARC’s Grammy-nominated 2006 recording of music by Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg was followed by a spate of new recordings by other musicians of the composer’s works, he notes.

In July, the first fully staged production of Weinberg’s 1968 opera The Passenger will be performed by Houston Grand Opera at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, preceded each day by a short concert by ARC. In April, the ARC Ensemble will play piano quintets by Weinberg and Birkenau-Auschwitz survivor Szymon Laks at a major festival in Budapest, where government efforts to do more to recognize the Holocaust are running up against a revival of anti-Semitism.

Weinberg had the sad distinction of being repressed both by the Nazis in his native Poland, and by the Soviets after he fled there in 1939. He was arrested during preparations for Stalin’s “doctors’ plot” purge in 1953, and was apparently saved by a letter written on his behalf by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Wynberg would like the RCM institute to collaborate with other organizations, such as the Orel Foundation started by American conductor James Conlon; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has a music section; and the Jewish Music Institute at the University of London. “We can supply one part, say, research funding, or maybe a conference every year or two.” The ultimate goal, he says, would be to normalize the performance of works that deserve to be heard because of their quality, not simply because of the circumstances in which they were written.

But simply getting an original handwritten score and parts into legible shape for performance can be expensive – $3,000 or more for a 50-page piano quintet score, Wynberg says. He would also like to digitize his finds and put them into an online archive. Because many of the works being collected have already passed out of copyright, it should be relatively easy to share parts and encourage more performances.

“For a potential sponsor, this is as big as their ambitions,” he says.

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