Turning Point Ensemble rediscovers what’s been lost in The Forbidden Music
Fortunately for us all, the Third Reich was a dismal failure. But in one aspect, Adolf Hitler’s nefarious plans worked: the Nazis’ notorious edicts against cultural innovation eliminated a generation of brilliant artists from the history books, and their contributions are only now beginning to get their due.
Resurrecting those artists—some silenced by exile, others killed in Nazi concentration camps—is the driving force between the Turning Point Ensemble’s concert The Forbidden Music, at SFU Woodward’s this weekend.
“As I worked on this program it was kind of shocking to realize how successful, in a terrible way, the Third Reich had been, in terms of so many composers that left, so many that died, and so much music that’s still almost forgotten,” says the local new-music ensemble’s co–artistic director Owen Underhill. “It’s shocking to think about that.”
Rediscovering what’s been lost is a big project: so far, valuable work has been done by the Decca record label, whose Entartete Musik series (named after the Nazi term for “degenerate” music) is recommended, and by the Toronto-based chamber-music group the ARC Ensemble. Turning Point will contribute by examining four composers: two well-known, two less so. Kurt Weill will be represented by his Little Threepenny Music, an instrumental score based on his operatic collaboration with the writer Bertolt Brecht, while another exile, the prolific Paul Hindemith, contributes his radical, dance-band–influenced Kammermusik No. 1. Erwin Schulhoff and Pavel Haas are relatively obscure, having perished during the Holocaust, but Schulhoff’s Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Orchestra bears comparison to the jazz-influenced works of Weill and Hindemith, while Haas’s Wind Quintet incorporates melodic themes drawn from Jewish liturgical music. Had they survived, Underhill believes, both would be celebrated today.
But there’s more to The Forbidden Music than simply honouring the dead. With this program, Turning Point hopes to illuminate the parallels between 1920s Berlin and the contemporary-music scene in Vancouver.
“One thing that’s interesting is the interaction of jazz and folk musics of all kinds with contemporary music, in quite a daring and original way,” Underhill notes. “That was, of course, one of the things which the Nazis hated and squelched and made forbidden, but it was one of the most exciting things about music in the ’20s in Germany, along with the interaction of the different art forms. For example, Schulhoff was very involved with the Dada artists, and he discovered jazz music from the expressionist painter George Grosz, who had a big phonograph collection.
“Some of the most exciting interdisciplinary work you see in Vancouver is where you have dancers and composers working together very freely, and sort of making up new genres,” he adds, noting that a similar scene existed in Berlin during the short-lived Weimar Republic. “But a lot of that was lost. In some cases whole careers were lost, and people even lost their lives.”
For now, death is an unlikely consequence of art-making in Vancouver, but The Forbidden Music is a good reminder that we should not take our freedoms lightly, and a fascinating look at some early pioneers of today’s lively interdisciplinary scene.
The Turning Point Ensemble presents The Forbidden Music at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Sunday (October 27).