musica reanimata is the name of an ambitious association of musicians and musicologists in Berlin that revives the music of composers persecuted by the Nazis. The association organizes concerts, conferences, and publishes books. For their efforts they have recently been awarded the prestigious Kritikerpreis für Musik 2006.
Yesterday, at the Konzerthaus Berlin, musica reanimata hosted a moderated concert with the music of Karel Reiner (1910 – 1979), a Czech composer and pianist who was first persecuted by the Nazis and later on stigmatized as “formalist” by the communists. Reiner was sent to Theresienstadt, a German concentration camp in the Czech Republic, and miraculously survived the Nazi terror. He then returned to Prague where he became a prominent figure of Czech musical life, torn between affirmation and denigration by the communist authorities.
The concert, which took place in the Musikclub of the Konzerthaus, alternated performances of Reiner’s music with short discussions of his biography and works. The informative discussion round was moderated by Peter Sarkar and included Anke Zimmermann (musicologist focusing on Reiner) and Thomas Müller (composer and friend). The pieces on the program were committedly performed by Tara Bouman (clarinet and bass clarinet), Sebastian Foron (cello), and Hui-Ping Lan (piano). The evening also featured a screening of I Never Saw a Butterfly, a shocking and moving film (for which Reiner wrote the music) presenting the paintings and poems by children of Theresienstadt that were collected and smuggled out of the camp by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
What kind of music did a man compose who had been through the Nazi terror of the concentration camps, who escaped certain death in a Todesmarsch? Is there a direct connection between a composer’s life and personal experiences and the music that this person composed? There was only one work on the program that was composed before Reiner was sent to Theresienstadt (the Five Jazz Etudes for Piano (1930)). All the other works date from after 1945, the year of his liberation from the concentration camp. It may only be due to my imagination, but listening to these later works I detected a sense of urgency, an effort to compose positive, playful, happy music; music to make more bearable the terrors of the past. Reiner’s music, especially the wonderful Marginalié für Bassklarinette (1979) exhibits an almost simplistic style, employing natural gestures and fine melodic lines, balancing out colors and timbres. And yet, underneath the surface, loom the memories of the past, the hidden terrors of the holocaust, the dark alleys of a past life. These raptures and abysses were most detectable in the film score to I Never Saw a Butterfly. Here, Reiner impressively portrays the diffuse Angst, oppressed fear, and yet unshakeable vitality of the Theresienstadt children.
In this sense, yes, there is a connection between a composer’s life and the music, but it may only exist in the listener’s mind. Making audible the lost voices, feelings, and memories of those who died in the camps is the great merit of musica reanimata.