Composers Featured in Prayer Interrupted: Music in a World Turned Upside Down

Mieczysław (Moisey) Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Warsaw to a well-known violinist and composer of Yiddish theater, and a Yiddish theater actress. In 1939 he was a recent graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Music when Hitler invaded Poland and he fled the country to Belarus on foot. His parents and sister who stayed behind were interned and burned alive by the invading Nazis.  He eventually settled in Moscow at the request of Dmitri Shostakovich, who admired his music and would become a great friend – even protesting his arrest by Stalin in a crackdown on Jews in the Soviet Union.  His life was saved by the timely death of Stalin in 1953, and he became one of the great composers of the 20th Century in the Soviet Union.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was born in Prague into a German Jewish family. He showed great musical promise at an early age with encouragement from Antonín Dvořák, and he went on to study composition with Claude Debussy and Max Reger. Schulhoff was an extremely innovative composer and was one of the first classical composers to incorporate jazz into his music. After the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, his music was labeled degenerate, since he was both a Jew and a Communist. In 1941, he was approved for Soviet citizenship, but was arrested by the Nazis before he could leave. He died in 1942 of tuberculosis in the Wülzburg concentration camp.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) is best known for his compositions for guitar, but this Italian-born composer wrote in many different genres for the greatest musicians of the 20th century. After the Italian Racial Laws of 1938, he decided to flee Italy to the United States, where he was sponsored for immigration by violinist Jascha Heifetz. He moved in 1939, escaping just before the outbreak of the war. He eventually settled in Hollywood, where he continued his work, including scores for around 200 Hollywood films.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is one of only a handful of composers that can truly be considered a child prodigy. He began composing original music at age 7, and by age 11 his ballet The Snowman became a sensation in Vienna. After a continued meteoric rise in Europe as a composer of operas, symphonic music, chamber music, and songs, he was brought to Hollywood for the first time in 1935 to score Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold went on to score 16 Hollywood films, win 2 Oscars for best score and is noted as one of the most influential film composers ever, playing a significant part in inventing the “Hollywood” sound. In fact, he was in Los Angeles with his entire family composing a score for The Adventures of Robin Hood when the Nazis annexed Austria and confiscated his home in Vienna. He remained in the United States until the end of the war, eventually becoming a citizen, and credited that movie with saving his life.

The Terezin/Auschwitz composers

Hans Krása (1899-1944) was a Czech/German composer born in Prague where he grew up and studied composition with Alexander Zemlinsky. Most of his early compositions were during his training with Zemlinsky, and in 1927 he followed his mentor to Berlin where offers of foreign conducting posts flooded in. However, he couldn’t bring himself to stay away from Prague for long, where he enjoyed a rich cultural life surrounded by artists and friends. In 1938 he composed the children’s opera Brundibár, but before it could be performed in public, he was arrested and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. At the camp, Krása became the head of musical activities, and oversaw dozens of performances of Brundibár, which depicts an evil dictator overthrown by two children and their animal friends. However, because the opera was sung in Czech, it was not understood by the SS guards and therefore allowed to continue despite its secret message of resistance. On October 16 of 1944, Hans Krása was transported to Auschwitz and killed shortly after arriving.

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was born and baptized as a Catholic to parents who had converted before his birth, and he grew up in Vienna where he studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg. He later moved to Prague, where he worked as a conductor and chorus master under the mentorship of Alexander Zemlinsky. In the late 1920’s his compositions were increasing in renown, and his music was being performed internationally. However, the rise of the Nazis to power in the 1930’s made it increasingly difficult for his works to be performed. In 1939 after all attempts to flee failed, Ullmann and his wife sent their two oldest children to England on a children’s transport. In 1942, Ullmann was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he found new inspiration, composing a great number of pieces for musicians at the camp. His opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, composed in the camp, depicting a warmongering dictator Kaiser Overall, was rehearsed but later canceled by SS officers who found the title character to bear too much resemblance to Hitler. On October 16, 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz where he was killed two days later.

Ilse Weber (1903-1944) is best known as a writer and poet of works for children, including Mendel Rosenbusch: Tales for Jewish Children. Born in Witkowitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she moved with her husband to Prague where she produced radio and continued to write. In 1939, she sent her eldest son on a children’s transport to Sweden before being confined to Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, and later sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. At the camp, she wrote dozens of poems depicting the horrors of daily life there and set a few of them to music with simple but profound melodies, which she would sing and play herself on the guitar. In early October 1944 when her husband was marked for deportation to Auschwitz, she volunteered to join him with their young son, preferring not to separate the family. Tragically, she and her son were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz, while her husband survived them by 30 years.

Pavel Haas (1899-1944) was born in Brno and showed musical promise at an early age, eventually landing under the tutelage of famed Czech composer, Leoš Janáček. Just as his reputation as a composer was taking off with opera, chamber music, and film scores under his belt, the Nazi presence began to break things down.  Like many other prominent Jews, Haas took measures to save his loved ones, including divorcing his wife to shield her from harm. After being sent to Theresienstadt in 1941, he fell into a depressive state that was only alleviated by a return to composition in the camp. He produced several masterworks there including his Four Songs on Chinese Poetry depicting a loss of homeland and quoting echoes of traditional Czech songs. On October 16, 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers upon arrival.