The Music of Terezín

Simon BroughtonThu 19th April 2018

BBC documentary viewable online after 25 years

There are occasions in history where extraordinary circumstances conspire to demonstrate the incredible power of music in adversity. A prime example is what happened in Terezín (Theresienstadt), the Jewish ghetto in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War where despite terrible conditions, an extraordinary creative and cultural life existed. So much so, it was shown off to the Red Cross, who were concerned about the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

There’s a common misconception that musicians and composers were selected to go there. Not true. You were simply sent if you were Jewish. Terezín was a garrison town built for 5000 which had to accommodate 60,000 at its peak in what was in reality a staging post for Auschwitz. But as Alice Herz Sommer, a pianist who gave many recitals said, the concerts 'were a remedy for us (the performers) and for them (the audience).'

I made a BBC documentary about the composers and musical life in Terezín 25 years ago. It won awards and was shown around the world, but the story of what happened there is still little-known so it’s great that it is now finally available online.

It’s not only remarkable that music was created in such conditions at all, but that the quality was so good. It’s one of those rare occasions that show that when almost everything else is stripped away, music and creativity are not a luxury but a necessity.

One of the most remarkable witnesses is Zdenka Fantlova, who was 18 years old when she arrived in Terezín in 1942 and is, thankfully, still with us today, aged 96.

(Extract from the interview with Zdenka Fantlova, from The Music of Terezin)

We filmed the music performances in Terezín in a hidden synagogue and attics where performances actually took place. When the film was made in 1993 there was no museum there about the ghetto, but now there is an extremely good one. The museum and cultural life are comprehensively covered. Zdenka Fantlova was in a production called Esther, an 18th-century play on a Jewish theme which couldn’t have been performed anywhere else in Nazi-occupied Europe. You can see the costume she wore as Vasta vividly depicted by Frantisek Zelenka, a designer who worked at the National Theatre in Prague.

The four main composers who were active in Terezín were Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas (a pupil of Janáček) and Viktor Ullmann (a pupil of Schoenberg). The latter wrote a brave and allegorical opera called Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis), one of the few pieces to be censored in Terezín because it satirised Hitler as a power-crazed tyrant. Back in 1993 we were able to film the Czech baritone Karel Bermann who played the role of Death. His account of this and a performance of the Verdi Requiem are hugely valuable. He died not long after the film was completed in 1995.

(Extract from the interview with Karel Bermann, from The Music of Terezin)

In 1993, The Music of Terezin was probably the first co-production between the BBC and Czech television after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and it was part of the process of rediscovering a forgotten or neglected part of Czech and European history. While the BBC provided the cash, Czech TV provided invaluable resourced for amazing shots on the railways - trains are tragically an important part of the story - and a crane for dramatic ariel shots of Terezín.

It’s thanks to ORT and their extraordinary Holocaust Music website that this film has ben rescued from the archives after 25 years and can now be seen by anybody. Hopefully these major composers who have been sidelined from music history, because they were killed in Auschwitz and elsewhere, can take their rightful place in music history. The Terezín story is an extraordinary testament to human resilience and creativity.

The full film is viewable here: holocaustmusic.ort.org

Simon Broughton

Simon Broughton is Editor-in-chief of Songlines – the definitive magazine for world music. Visit: www.songlines.co.uk

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