The Hungarian Jewish Composers of WWII by Péter Bársony

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Liszt Music Academy had the highest ratio of Jewish students among all Hungarian universities. Between 1915 and 1919, almost half of all music students were Jewish. After the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and the enactment of Europe’s first anti-Jewish law, the so-called numerus clausus in 1920, many young Jews fled to the universities of Vienna, Prague, Paris, and, above all, Berlin and Leipzig. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Hungarian Jewish musicians living, studying, and working in Germany returned to Hungary.

Although the directors of the Music Academy appeared to cooperate with the government, they in fact passively sabotaged the rules and regulations. Both Jenő Hubay and Ernő Dohnányi showed exemplary courage in opposing discrimination and persecution, which were rampant in Hungarian public life from the 1920’s on. It was Dohnányi who, in 1938, prevented the establishment of the Chamber of Musicians, a fascist organization whose goal was to banish Jews from the cultural life of the country. (In Germany the Reichmusikkammer had been formed as early as 1933 with Richard Strauss as president and Wilhelm Furtwängler as vice president.)

The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews started relatively late in the history of the Holocaust. This made it possible for a cultural rescue operation, unique in all of Europe, to continue until the German invasion of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The musical section of OMIKE (Hungarian Jewish Educational Association) provided the best Jewish musicians with opportunities to perform and earn money. OMIKE also set up a special music school for teachers and students who were denied a place elsewhere. They organized chamber and orchestral concerts as well as opera performances; the program books were printed a month before each event. Often the artists who were scheduled to play were drafted to labor service and had to be replaced, but there were so many outstanding musicians that the audience sometimes didn’t even notice the change. Artists such as Dezső Ernster, Janos Starker, Robert Gerle, Viktor Adler, and Annie Fischer performed in these concerts, and many non-Jewish artists participated as well, even though this was prohibited, out of solidarity with their colleagues.

Despite all the rescue efforts, hundreds of Hungarian musicians, including at least 22 composers, fell victim to the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. Their life and work was forgotten not only by the nation at large, but also by their immediate enviromnent, the majority of musicians, and music historians.

Ödön Pártos (Budapest, 1907–77, Tel-Aviv) was able to emigrate before the war. A violist and composer, he had studied with Hubay and Kodály and worked in Germany as a soloist and concertmaster from 1927 to 1933. In 1933 he was forced to move back to Hungary. Five years later, he emigrated to Palestine at the invitation of Bronislaw Huberman. He served as principal violist in the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra and taught at the Rubin Academy, becoming one of the pioneers of Israeli music. Yizkor – In Memoriam for Viola and Strings (1946) was written to commemorate those who had perished in the Holocaust.

László Weiner (Szombathely, 1916 –44, Lukov) also studied composition with Kodály. He was also a concert pianist. From 1940 he was regularly drafted for labor service. In 1942, he married the singer Vera Rózsa (1917– 2010); Kodály was a witness at the wedding. After his wedding, Weiner was called up again, and died in a labor camp on the Ukrainan front in the summer of 1944. The premiere of his Overture (1939) was conducted by Lajos Rajter. The work has not been played since the premiere. After the war, Vera Rózsa moved to London where she became a world-famous voice teacher; her students included Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne-Sofie von Otter.

Mihály Nádor (Temesvár, 1882–1944, unknown) studied in Munich. In 1901 he won the Beethovenhaus competition in Bonn with his string quartet. In 1917 he became a prisoner-of-war in Russia, from where he managed to escape. Although a great part of his rich oeuvre was in a lighter style—operetta, stage incidental music, chanson, film music, cabaret music—he continuously worked on his classical works even in the last years of his life. Early in 1944 he gave 14 packages of his works, including the Violin Concerto, to a friend for safekeeping. A few months later, in June 1944, he was killed at an unknown location. Nádor composed his one-movement Violin Concerto in 1903. In 1941 he added two more movements, and in 1942 he further revised the piece, giving it its final form in May 1942. This is the version which will receive its premiere tonight.

László Gyopár (Budapest, 1918–44, unknown) was a student of Zoltán Kodály and Leó Weiner at the Academy of Music in Budapest. The talented young musician tried to earn his living in war-time Budapest by giving music-theory and solfeggio lessons. Although he converted to Christianity with his parents, due to his Jewish descent he fell under the regulations of the anti-Jewish laws. He was drafted for labor service. In the summer of 1944 on the Russian front his health deteriorated, and he fell behind in the column during a retreat. He was shot to death by a Hungarian guard. He had entrusted his magnum opus, his Mass in D-minor (1942) to his friend and companion in labor service, composer Istvan Anhalt (1919–2012). Anhalt preserved the score and brought it to safety in Canada. In 1994, he arranged for the premiere of parts of the work with the help of composer András Szőllősy (1921–2007). The Credo movement has never been played in concert before.

Péter Bársony is a violist and a professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.

Hungary Torn by Leon Botstein

The consequences of the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Second World War have continued to command our attention, despite the passage of time. The reasons are largely obvious. During the war, millions of civilians were systematically selected by racial criteria, brutalized, and murdered. The destruction of the population and culture of the Jews of Europe was the result of fascism (particularly Nazism) and the war. The German initiative and widespread European complicity stand as reminders of a specifically modern barbarism. It revealed how hollow was the character of what was once understood as progress. The perpetration of violence and hate against innocent men, women, and children was the work of civilized, literate individuals living in an advanced industrial civilization. Terror, death, and dehumanization were justified by highly educated individuals, ranging from jurists to scholars, artists, university professors, and musicians. Dissent and resistance were minimal.

In recent decades attention has been given to what happened to musicians who suffered, died, and were persecuted. There have been many studies of emigration and exile. There has been also a systematic excavation of the music of composers who died in the concentration camps. The names Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff have now become somewhat familiar to concert goers and performers.

The focus of these investigations has not only been on victims, but on patterns of collaboration. It is odd that some cases quickly became quite well known—as in the examples of Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Walter Gieseking, and Wilhelm Furtwängler—while equally egregious cases were left in relative obscurity and led to no consequences in the post-war years—as in the cases of Karl Böhm and Carl Orff.

However, as the above list indicates, the primary focus has been on events in German-speaking Europe. Tonight’s concert goes beyond that frame, to Hungary and its history between the wars and during the Second World War. For most Americans, Hungarian history (with the exception of the Revolution of 1956) is less known. The Hungary that emerged from World War I was not only broken away from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in its post-1867 legal incarnation, but it did not include all Hungarian-speaking peoples. Like Germany, a reduced Hungary felt betrayed by what were regarded as punitive peace settlements, particularly the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

By the late 1930s, in order to appease Nazi Germany, Hungary had passed its own restrictive laws against Jews. In the interwar period, Hungary witnessed its own brand of fascism in the form of the Arrow Cross movement. In 1940, the Hungarian government became allied with the Axis powers. In 1944, German troops occupied Hungary and the Arrow Cross took control. This led to the rapid deportation of Hungary’s Jews and mass killings, as well as the heroic efforts at rescue by the legendary Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

In 1918, Hungary’s capital, Budapest, was legendary for its high percentage of Jewish inhabitants. (It still boasts the largest Jewish population of any city in central Europe outside of Russia.) The percentage of the population in 1918 that was Jewish reached 23%, inspiring German-speaking anti-Semites (German was the city’s second language until 1945) to dub the city “Juda-pest,” the “Jewish plague.” Yet Hungarian Jews, particularly in Budapest, assimilated with relative ease within Hungarian culture and society in a manner comparable to the German Jewish experience before 1914. Their contributions to science, art, and culture were disproportionately high.

For tonight’s concert, the young musician and scholar Péter Bársony has unearthed from the archives music by four Hungarian composers who suffered in this history. Three of them perished in the war. One, Ödön Pártos, emigrated to Palestine where he played a major role in the development of the musical life of Israel. And it should be noted that after 1945, Hungarian Jewry continued to contribute to the nation’s musical culture, as the post-war careers of Leó Weiner, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág, Hungary’s greatest living composer, suggest.

Most concerts of music by victims of the Holocaust become memorials. The ASO wanted to honor the music of these lesser-known victims by placing it in a concert format that went beyond the status of a eulogy for the composers as victims. For that reason, we have chosen to end the concert with a great unknown work by perhaps the least-known figure within the legendary triumvirate of Hungarian composers of the 20th century. That triumvirate consisted of Béla Bartók, Zoltän Kodály, and Ernő Dohnányi. Bartók emigrated to America in 1940. He was a staunch opponent of fascism and resented the attempt during the 1930s to appropriate his path-breaking ethnographic work on folk music and his uses of folk sources in his own music on behalf of a racialist nationalism which he, a true patriot, did not share. Kodály remained in Budapest, sought to protect Jewish colleagues, and was arrested by the Gestapo, but lived to become Communist Hungary’s most celebrated composer and a pioneer in music pedagogy.

Dohnányi, the oldest of the three, suffered from a mix of bad luck and poor judgment. He stayed in Budapest until late 1944, when the city became a war zone. He was photographed shaking hands with the notorious head of the Arrow Cross movement. He concertized during the war in Germany. But he was truly a man of little political sense. He opposed anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s; but he wished to remain as long as he could in his homeland as a practicing artist, despite the politics.

After the war, Dohnányi went through a trying de-Nazification investigation. He was not only a truly gifted composer but a great pianist and conductor. However, his reputation was damaged and he was forced to leave Europe. After a sojourn in Argentina, he relocated in 1949 to the University of Florida in Tallahassee, where he worked as a teacher until his death in 1960. Ironically, he died just as his career as a pianist was enjoying a renascence as the result of his remarkable recordings of the late Beethoven sonatas. But his standing as a composer still awaits its proper recognition. Over the years, the ASO has pioneered in this effort, performing in concert his two symphonies and his Konzertstück for cello and orchestra, and recording his Harp Concertino with ASO’s own principal harpist, Sara Cutler.

The placing of Dohnányi’s magnificent Mass as the final work on tonight’s program is intended to return the music of those who were victims to its proper context—as part of a noble 20th-century tradition of high art music within Hungary, a country with a keen national sensibility, and a Catholic majority, as well as a significant Calvinist minority. The Mass, composed in 1930, also points out the vulnerability of traditional culture, religion, and communal feelings of national solidarity when faced with the aggressive, reductive, and cruel politics of prejudice and xenophobia, and with the rejection of democratic practices that secure freedom and dissent and which protect us from the tyranny of the majority and of a single ideology.

One might have hoped that these dangers would in the 21st century be merely matters of historical memory. But apparently the lessons of history have not yet been learned quite as well as we might wish in contemporary Europe, including in the new democracies that came into being after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.

Szeged Mass by Peter Laki

“Musical life in Budapest today may be summed up in one name—Dohnányi.” These words were written by Béla Bartók in a 1920 article for the New York Musical Courier. A decade later, when the present Mass was composed, Dohnányi was still a defining figure in Hungary. He was at the height of his career as a pianist, composer, conductor, and a star piano professor at the Budapest Academy of Music, of which he would assume the directorship a few years later. To the younger composers whose works we heard in the first half of this concert, he was almost like a god; his peerless musicianship was admired by everyone who ever had a chance to experience him live. Certain ardent followers of Bartók and Kodály, whose innovative musical idioms were rooted in Hungarian folksong, may have faulted Dohnányi for being different. Yet the three composers themselves, friends from a young age, had no hostility for one another. Dohnányi’s biographer, Bálint Vázsonyi, told the story of how Bartók had to ask Aladár Tóth, the leading music critic in the country, to stop attacking Dohnányi in print. Without question, Bartók, Kodály, and Dohnányi were the leading triumvirate of Hungarian music, and Dohnányi was a staunch champion of his colleagues’ music whose styles he understood on a deep level.

As a composer, Dohnányi was best known for his chamber compositions and solo piano works, although he wrote symphonic music and opera as well. Yet he had written no major sacred works until he entered a competition, announced by the Cultural Ministry, for a solemn Mass to celebrate the dedication of the new Votive Cathedral in the city of Szeged in southeastern Hungary. Unsurprisingly, Dohnányi won the competition, and his Mass was premiered in that imposing neo-Romanesque structure, a landmark in 20th-century Hungarian architecture, on October 25, 1930.

The Szeged Mass is one of the very few settings of the complete Roman Catholic Mass by a major 20th-century composer. Its longtime neglect, which is highly regrettable, had political and aesthetic reasons. In Communist Hungary, Dohnányi was considered the “bourgeois” composer par excellence, and his sacred music, a genre that was problematic for the regime anyway, was by no means the only kind to be suppressed. His stylistic conservatism was also held against him; yet today, when many performers and listeners have developed a new appreciation for historical alternatives to the avant-garde, this can hardly count as a liability any more.

Dohnányi brought supreme craftsmanship and a prodigious musical imagination to bear on the task. He was, of course, familiar with the liturgy from childhood. (His father taught at a Catholic high school in Pozsony.) Most polyphonic Masses are made up of the five movements of the Ordinary (Kyrie – Gloria – Credo – Sanctus/Benedictus – Agnus Dei). Dohnányi, however, included settings of four Proper movements (Introit – Gradual – Offertory – Communion) as well, which is rarely done. (The difference between Ordinary and Proper is that the words of the former always stay the same, while in the latter, the words change with the liturgical occasion.)

By composing a Mass for the dedication of a cathedral, Dohnányi followed in the footsteps of Franz Liszt, who had composed his Esztergom Mass for a similar occasion in another Hungarian town in 1856. Dohnányi’s work is scored for eight-part double chorus, a quartet of soloists (treated as a group rather than individually) and full orchestra with organ. It shows evidence of Dohnányi’s study of Renaissance polyphony, especially the works of Palestrina. The opening theme of the Kyrie, for instance, is in perfect Palestrina style, although Dohnányi, here and elsewhere, boldly juxtaposed the stile antico with the late Romantic chord progressions that were part of his musical mother tongue. The composer observed the age-old tradition of ending the Gloria movement with a fugue (“Cum Sancto Spiritu”), but went against the grain in the Credo, where, instead of another fugue that would have been expected (“Et vitam venturi saeculi”), he ended the movement, to great dramatic effect, with a whispered choral recitative.

The movements of the Ordinary make use of the entire orchestra while those of the Proper mainly feature the organ to accompany the voices. Since this is a Mass intended for the dedication of a new church, all the Proper texts mention the house of God, as a place inspiring awe (Introit “Terribilis est locus iste”), as a dwelling of God surrounded by angels (Gradual “Locus iste a Deo factus est”), as a setting for a fervent personal prayer (Offertory “Domine Deus”), or a location where God’s own voice may be heard (the closing movement, Communion “Domus mea”). With his rich compositional palette, Dohnányi found the perfect expression of each of these spiritual moods. The work ends with a solemn instrumental postlude, commensurate with the grandiosity of the occasion.

Mr. Laki is a Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.

Hungary Torn

05/02/2013 at 08:00 PM
Carnegie Hall

The Jewish population of Hungary suffered a deep loss during the latter years of the Second World War.
Many of its youngest composers met a tragic end, with their promising careers and legacies never fulfilled.
This concert gives a few of those artists their due, featuring their work alongside pieces by Hungarian composers who managed to live through the nightmare.
Maestro Leon Botstein shares the stories behind the music in a lively 30-minute



Bringing back the sound of music to abandoned shuls

Budapest Festival Orchestra's mission to remind villagers of a lost community

By Marcus Dysch
Last updated: 11:42am, June 27 2014

The orchestra performing in the lovingly restored shul

Tucked away in a remote corner of Hungary, the village of Mád constitutes little more than two streets of houses, a small hotel and a dusty café decorated with flowers. Vehicles rarely travel along Mád's roads. Two storks squawk from their nest overlooking the picture postcard countryside.
There is little point trying to locate the village on a map. It is closer to the borders with Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania than to its nation's capital, a three-hour journey by bus. And yet in the midst of the relative emptiness stands one of the most elaborate, ornate, visually stunning synagogues you could dream of visiting.
This beautiful shul was the location chosen by the prestigious Budapest Festival Orchestra to launch one of the most ambitious projects in its history.
Over three nights last week, the acclaimed ensemble performed free concerts in disused, abandoned or derelict synagogues for the local communities. A British equivalent of this audacious project would involve taking the London Symphony Orchestra on a tour of barns in the Shetlands.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, these empty shuls remain as a reminder of the lives lost in the Shoah, the devastation of communities and a Jewish way of life forever lost to the Hungarian countryside.
Mád was once home to 800 Jews – around one-fifth of its population. But for younger inhabitants of the villages on the orchestra's tour - Keszthely and Albertirsa were the subsequent stops - the shuls now have no meaning or context.
The tour was initiated by the orchestra's music director, world renowned conductor Iván Fischer, as a response to the growth of far-right political parties and antisemitism across the continent. It was developed in conjunction with Rabbi Slomó Köves of Budapest as part of the orchestra's outreach programme, celebrating Hungary's diverse cultural heritage and attempting to inspire younger citizens.
Over breakfast close to another stunning shul - Budapest's Great Synagogue - BFO executive director Stefan Englert stresses the project's social significance. "It's an important statement from us," he says. "We want to make an impact. This is a musical approach, not a political one. It cannot be criticised.
"We are trying to create understanding. Most prejudices come from not understanding other people. We want to give people in the countryside an understanding of Jewish life."
But for Fischer, it is as much a personal crusade. "I come from a Jewish family," he explains on the bus to Mád. "My grandparents lived in a typical Hungarian village like this one and they were deported to Auschwitz. My mother, their only child, survived because she was hiding.
"Hungary's Holocaust was an especially tragic one, because proportionally it was an incredibly high number killed - about 500,000 Jews [from a population of 800,000]. Jews were almost completely wiped out in villages. That leaves us with many abandoned synagogues in the countryside."
Fischer sees the concerts as a "friendly gesture" to villagers. Certainly his orchestra would not under normal circumstances visit outposts like Mád. The musicians are more accustomed to performing at the Proms in London or travelling to Tokyo, Los Angeles or other major concert venues across the globe. But the reaction to the synagogue project has been unanimously positive, he reports.
As for the audiences, "the people living in the community only have the experience of an empty building. They know very little about what it was for, what its real function was.
"Maybe, if they understand these were ordinary people, not some sort of strange cannibals - that these were their neighbours and their children played together - it could reduce some feelings of antisemitism or antagonism. If only a few of them think twice when they hear the next hate speech, then we will have accomplished a lot."

Ivŕn Fischer

The Mád shul's baroque interior is breathtaking. Its decorated ark, with its golden ornaments and lettering, and the four stone pillars holding a dome over the bimah, are surrounded by wooden pews topped with stars of David. The building was restored to its original beauty 10 years ago with the support of the New York-based World Monuments Fund and American Jewry. It is as impressive now as it must have been when it opened in 1795.µ
Among those attending the concert was Barnabas Fehér, a 78-year-old Catholic villager who remembers playing in the fields with his Jewish neighbours as a boy.
Such was his family's strength of feeling towards the Jewish community that for the past 50 years, he has protected the empty shul, acting as de facto caretaker.
"I feel a little bit like an honorary Jew," Mr Fehér grins. "There are no Jewish people here now. It's a very good feeling to see these nice people from the orchestra come here. It's a very special event for us."
Villagers of all ages filled the pews to the capacity of more than 100, eager to hear the music - all the work of Jewish composers.
The half-hour concert opened with the string section performing Budapest composer Leo Weiner's Divertimento, based on Hungarian folk music. The strings were then augmented by a clarinet player for Golem, a contemporary piece by Israeli musician Betty Olivero. As the sounds of the klezmer-style music filled the shul's decorated domes, a handful of women villagers dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs.
Comparing the synagogue scene with the reality of what happened in Mád during the Shoah was a sobering experience. More uplifting was the performance on 10 wind instruments and a double bass of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's thrilling incidental music.
"Wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Fischer beamed as he handed over to Rabbi Köves. Two hours earlier, the orchestra chief had worried whether anyone would show up.
Standing in front of the ark, the rabbi asked the audience to remember those who had once prayed in the building and gave a run-through of the shul's history, functions and ornaments.
As villagers sampled thick slices of traditional küchen in the cool evening air, Rabbi Köves reflected with satisfaction on how the long-planned event had come to fruition - and how such outreach work could curtail the rise of hatred against minority communities.
But with far-right party Jobbik holding three seats in the European Parliament and securing nearly 15 per cent of the vote in last month's Hungarian elections, is it not naďve to think a musical performance can change the realities of the political environment?µ"Our tradition and religion teaches us that every small deed adds up - especially in places like this," Rabbi Köves insists. "My strongest belief is that the grounds for antisemitism are ignorance. Our biggest enemy is ignorance. As we are taught, you have to fight darkness with light and I think this is light that we have brought here tonight."