The Kennedy Center

Studies for String Orchestra

About the Work

NSO Pops: Marvin's Monster Mash, Marvin Hamlisch, conductor Composer: Pavel Haas
© Richard Freed

This brief work was composed in 1943, in Terezín (Theresienstadt), where the first performance, preserved in a notorious propaganda film, was given on October 13, 1944, under the direction of Karel Ancerl.

As indicated in the title, the score calls for a full orchestral string section. Duration, 8 minutes.
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This work and the one that follows it in the present concerts are products of the unreal environment at Theresienstadt. The garrison town known to the Czechs as Terezín, about midway between Prague and Dresden, was created in the 1780s by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who named it for his mother, the Empress Maria Theresia. It became known by its original German name after the Nazis occupied the country, just as the Polish town of Oswiecim became known by the infamous name Auschwitz. The two sites were linked together in a particularly fiendish instance of genocidal efficiency, the one serving as both a false front and also a ?feeder? for the other until its involuntary residents were entirely cleared out.

Theresienstadt, which had until then housed some 5,000 inhabitants, became the site of a Gestapo prison in June 1940, and the town served as a concentration camp through which nearly 74,000 Czech Jews passed between November 1941 and October 1944. While most of them found that the place was to be merely a way station on the journey to Auschwitz, several were resident there for the entire term of the camp's operation; conditions were far less harsh than in most of the other camps, and the musicians sent there were able to continue their creative work and even organize an orchestra. The SS officials in charge of the camp took advantage of the musical activity by inviting the International Red Cross to inspect the camp on a pre-arranged date and by filming a concert (the very one in which the present work was given its first performance) to show the world the ?happy and productive? conditions that prevailed there. Only three days later, however, their usefulness having run its course, all the camp's remaining inmates, by then about 2,500, were sent to Auschwitz and most of them were murdered upon arrival. Hans Krása, the composer of the children's opera Brundibar (?The Bumblebee?, which he revised at Theresienstadt), was among those who died on the same day as Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann. Among the few to survive was Karel Ancerl, who became the greatly respected conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. After Soviet tanks quashed the Czechs' hopes for a freer life in 1968, Ancerl left for a similar position in Toronto, where he died in 1973; in his memoirs he left this description of the making of the propaganda film, which was circulated by the Nazis, after most of its ?cast? had been killed, under the title Der Führer schenkt den Jüden eine Stadt (?The Führer [Hitler] Gives the Jews a Town?):

After we had gone through all the rehearsals for that program, we received an order to give the concert in the so-called Kaffeehaus . Surprised and suspicious, we were then admitted into the hall which was decked with flowers. All the players had been lent black suits for the occasion. My podium was framed with potted flowers in order to conceal my clogs. Soon a high-ranking official visitor in an SS uniform came in to check that everything was going according to schedule. A group of Czech Nazi collaborators appeared with movie cameras. I was called upon to introduce Pavel Haas, after the premiere of his work, to an invisible applauding audience. The whole farce was filmed to demonstrate to the outside world the ideal conditions of our life in the ghetto. The following day a regular concert took place featuring our second program, and two days later, in October 1944, all of us, together with another 2,500 inhabitants of the ghetto, were transported to Auschwitz. So ended the brief history of the Theresienstadt orchestra.

Pavel Haas, son of a prosperous merchant, received his musical training in his native Brno and had the good fortune to be stationed there when he was drafted into the Austrian Army in 1917; after World War I ended he studied with Leo? Janácek and became recognized as one of that illustrious composer's most gifted pupils. When his country was taken over by the Nazis his younger brother Hugo, who had established himself as a movie actor, fled to Hollywood and continued his career there. Pavel Haas himself, however, though well known in his own right by then, did not leave his homeland. He took on the care of his brother's child, in fact, when Hugo left for America. Having earlier composed music incorporating Jewish liturgical material, he now began using traditional Czech patriotic motifs in his works (changing vocal parts in some of them to instrumental ones in order to avoid their being spotted by the occupation authorities), and in October 1941 he became one of the first to be deported to Theresienstadt, where he remained until the camp was closed down and all its inmates were sent to Auschwitz. Although he was not able to escape as his brother had done, he did manage to save his wife, their daughter, and Hugo's child by divorcing his wife before his deportation.

While it is tempting to read into music composed in such circumstances gestures of defiance or ?inner resistance,? the Study for String Orchestra is perhaps the more remarkable for not overtly betraying its frightful background. Whatever thoughts may have been in Haas's mind when he wrote the piece, the score carries no descriptive subtitle, and the music itself, far from being a lamentation or protest, comes to us now as a celebration of the creative spirit, a celebration in particular of the rich and expressive resources of massed strings. In this sense its vitality and well-ordered contrasts may suggest it as a distinguished ?cousin? of such near-contemporaneous works as Béla Bartók's Divertimento, Ernest Bloch's two concerti grossi, and David Diamond's Rounds, and there is a brief flicker of kinship with Barber's Adagio for Strings.