Concert features music created in internment
VANCOUVER — At Vancouver’s Chutzpah! Festival later this month, Suzanne Snizek and a team of musicians she has assembled will perform music composed and performed in internment by musicians Hans Gál and Franz Reizenstein.
This is music that has never previously been performed in Canada and it represents not just the musical ability of its composers, but the way their internment during the Holocaust moved them and informed their work.
Snizek, a faculty member at the University of Victoria’s School of Music, became interested in suppressed music in 2006, when she was a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia.
“I’d always been interested in the issue of detaining people without charge and internment in general. When I googled ‘internment and music’ up popped Hans Gál and his experience in British internment camps,” she recalled. “It was completely shocking to me because, though I was aware of the Holocaust and its historical context, I didn’t know about the British internment camps.”
The 46-year-old teacher read about Gál and his personal history, listened to his music and loved it. “Suppressed music,” by composers who were persecuted or driven into exile, became the subject of her doctoral thesis and is a course she teaches today.
Hans Gál was an Austrian refugee of Jewish origin who had fled to the United Kingdom, only to find himself among thousands classified as “enemy aliens” in 1939. In the spring of 1940 there was mass internment of these individuals, 50-year-old Gál included. At the time he was an established composer who had experienced major success in Germany in the 1920s. He was director of the Mainz Conservatory of Music in Germany until Nazi anti-Jewish legislation forced him to step down.
During his internment, Gál wrote a technically challenging trio for flute and two violins.
“The strange instrumentation reflects the limited instruments and competent players he had in the camp,” Snizek said of Gál’s Huyton Suite, named after the internment camp where it was written. “Even in a non-internment concert situation, the piece is musically difficult.”
The trio was performed several times in Central Promenade Camp, an internment camp on the Isle of Man.
Gál also wrote and co-performed a musical revue titled “What a Life!” to reflect the overall internment experience. “It’s a fascinating first-hand portrayal of internment from the internees’ viewpoint,” she said.
Snizek and seven other musicians will perform “What a Life,” the Huyton Suite and a partita (an instrumental suite) for flute and piano by Franz Reizenstein. Before his internment in U.K. camps, Reizenstein had studied in London with a leading English composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams. Williams later helped secure the release from internment of many of the musician internees, including Reizenstein, his former pupil.
As part of her doctoral research, Snizek travelled to London and met with Reizenstein’s son, who had just come into possession of 15 large boxes of music manuscripts and concert programs.
“It was his father’s entire paper legacy,” she said, adding that the first box they opened contained concert programs from the internment camp. “It was quite amazing.”
Listeners will find “What a Life!” to be particularly interesting, Snizek said, because it demonstrates the actual conditions of internment. “Each movement represents an aspect of their day-to-day life in internment. One is the ballad of the German refugee, another is the barbed wire song, the women’s song, the cleaning up song and the keep fit song,” she said. “The ballad is very contemplative, but the whole revue, though it has its serious moments, was intended to entertain, so the tone is pretty light.”
The three pieces by Gál represent the work of this should-have-been-famous composer, Snizek said. “It was only because of the Nazis dismissing him that we don’t know of him today.”
The performance will take place at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.
After she catches the ferry back to Victoria, though, Snizek plans to continue learning about suppressed music.
“I’m hoping I can get funding and time to go back to the Isle of Man and continue to do research, hopefully for a book on the subject,” she said.