What’s the present-day significance of music-related commemorative work? And just how might one familiarise people with “ostracised music” in the absence of contemporary witnesses? On these topics, Priska Seidl spoke with Volker Ahmels and Gerold Gruber at the Festival Verfemte Musik [Festival of Ostracised Music] in Schwerin.
How you define the term “ostracised music”?
Volker Ahmels (VA): When we talk about persecution, murder, and exile, people often think that Jews were the only ones affected—which is simply not correct. After all, persecution can take all manner of shapes. There were non-Jews who went into inner emigration. There were people who ultimately left the country in protest of Hitler, like Thomas Mann. Or like Stravinsky: he lived in Paris but also left Europe when he became aware of the danger that was afoot. So we thought about what term might encompass all of that, and what we came up with was “ostracised music”.
Exactly which ostracised musicians and composers are you researching?
Gerold Gruber (GG): We decided to focus on those who were persecuted, ostracised, and murdered by the National Socialists. Because that really needs to be researched, and because investigating them is terribly important to us. We do, of course, repeatedly get asked: And what about the victims of Stalin? My answer to that is: Yes, I’d be incredibly interested in studying them. And if you’d expand my staff by another five people, I’d be able to start doing so.
VA: There’s a further aspect that’s very important, at least from our German point of view. It’s that when all is said and done, we’re the descendants of the responsible parties. We’ve always said that we can’t make up for it, that what happened, happened. But we do have a responsibility to ourselves and to the generation that follows us.
GG: The same goes for Austria. The support provided by the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism goes first and foremost to the victims. The fact is, however, that there are less and less of them left. We therefore fund all kinds of activities, and these encompass more than just music.
With what impulses can the festival, which has a long tradition by now, provide us in our present era?
GG: We just want this musical repertoire that we represent—repertoire that we first have to search for, find, edit, and distribute—to make it into normal concert venues. Because this music was forgotten, but also because it was deliberately disappeared by the National Socialists. If we let it remain forgotten, the Nazis will have won. And we can’t allow that. So we do everything we can to bring this music back to life, and as musicians, we’re the ones who can do so most easily. We can go onstage at this or that competition or make sure that we get featured on the radio often. We’re looking to just keep this topic on a constant simmer.
VA: Being musicians ourselves, our point has always been that taking a musical approach to this topic is very important. And together with my wife, Friederike Haufe, I’ve codeveloped a project where we pay visits to all kinds of schools—be it to the eighth form of a Bavarian Gymnasium or to a Waldorf school here in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. We present and moderate school concerts with composers who are important to us, telling students about what happened to the composers in a way that’s adapted to where they’re at educationally—which does, however, need to be undertaken with a certain degree of care. We also then rehearse the works we’ve played together with the children. And to conclude things, there’s a big concert where all of the kids perform. That’s a huge amount of fun and works really well; the kids totally love it. This kind of educational approach has now become extremely important, since we’re losing the witnesses to those times. For the most part, we can no longer call on them to participate in discussions for the simple reason that they’ve already passed away. One aspect of our long-running partnership and friendship [between Ahmels and Gruber—Ed.] has been this academic work. And this year, we decided to take a look at the other side with a special theme: the profiteers. We looked at why all kinds of jobs ended up going to … Nazis!
GG: Going to Nazis and not being taken back from them after 1945! Instead, these people just stayed put.
VA: Sometimes making the most perfidious excuses to the effect that they’d simply rolled with the times. That was a truly awful period, right after the war.
GG: Here at the mdw, so many faculty members left over from the Nazi era just kept on accumulating honours and awards well into their old age. It was unbelievable.
VA: I went to school in Hamburg during the 1970s, and some of our teachers were bona fide Nazis who’d go on about the lands we’d lost in the East. And then, at some point, I came into contact with Paul Kling. He was unbelievably noble-minded and cultivated, an outstanding musician and music educator who’d been deported to Theresienstadt as a teenager. Before that he’d been a prodigy, having already performed violin concertos with the Wiener Symphoniker by age eight. He was then deported to Auschwitz, from where they eventually sent him on to still other camps. Kling was consistently lucky inasmuch as he managed to avoid being murdered. Whenever people asked, “What’s your line of work?” he knew that if he said he was a musician, he’d be done for. So he always claimed to have been trained in some trade or other—and thanks to that, he managed to survive. In my capacity as a school headmaster, I asked people if they’d be interested in speaking with someone who’d had such experiences. And what resulted was a tradition where we’d bring witnesses to those events and times into the schools. For the school students, it was a new way of approaching the topic, and they were completely fascinated. But if the people from back then are no longer around, we need to do things differently.
In conclusion: Do you have any personal favourites, like an artist whom one absolutely needs to have heard?
VA: We could list off between 50 and 100 of them!
GG: From our perspective, I’d mention the Theresienstadt composer Hans Winterberg. Colleagues of his—more or less all of them—got deported to Auschwitz in October 1944 and murdered. And I’m sure he then heard that from fellow camp prisoners in January 1945. They were all friends of his, acquaintances, people he’d studied with. Just imagine! And that’s not the end of the story, which is why I’ll tell it to you here—because it’s important for the present day. Winterberg was a German-speaking Jew from Prague who went into exile in Germany later on due to the Beneš decrees and became well known there. As a composer, he was also an active and esteemed member of in the Sudeten German community. Winterberg’s stepson ultimately donated his artistic legacy to the Sudeten German Institute of Music in Regensburg. However, this stepson required that these materials be placed under lock and key for 30 years—and that no mention be made of the fact that Winterberg had been a Jew. Now that’s an instance of anti-Semitism if anything is! It robs him of his human dignity, which had already been taken from him once before in Theresienstadt, all over again. We’ve now joined forces with Hans Winterberg’s grandson, Peter Greifmayer, to allow his oeuvre to finally leave Regensburg so that we can have it and study it properly for four, five years. And then, if Bavaria wants, we’ll send it back to them. I say Bavaria because the Sudeten German Institute of Music is an institution of the Bavarian state.
VA: I won’t comment on that right now. But I do think that this makes clear how complex it all is. Everyone has their own preferences, of course. I will, however, say that what we’re doing is showing that these composers exist and introducing them to the public. What happens then, in terms of whether their works are or aren’t embraced, is out of our hands. But we’ll have given them the chance. Which is really important—that, so to speak, what our forebears attempted…
GG: …to stop…
VA: …is what we seek to make happen. To at least make them accessible and find a way to devote some attention to them. Once that’s happened, it’ll be less important whether anyone 50 years from now will still be interested in how, what, or where a particular composer composed. Because thanks to us, these composers will have at least been given a chance to become known.
The Festival for Ostracised Music encompasses a broad range of content and formats: a performance competition, concerts, an exhibition on Arnold Schönberg, and an academic day. An educational project that accompanies the festival will see music education students spend an entire semester engaging with sensory approaches to Arnold Schönberg’s music as part of course taught by Priska Seidl. The educational concepts formulated during this course will then be put into practice at partner schools in Vienna and Schwerin.