Life & Culture

Splendour created from the depths of horror

A concert of music at Jewish Book Week highlights songs composed under oppressive regimes


Mark Glanville, who will be familiar to JC readers as a contributor, is a remarkable singer, writer, translator, poetry expert and ex-football hooligan (a phenomenon he explored in his autobiographical book The Goldberg Variations). Now the British bass and the Israeli pianist Marc Verter, a long-established duo, are coming to Jewish Book Week with a new recital programme, Barbaric Verses, presenting music by composers who faced oppression in the first half of the 20th century from Hitler on the one hand and Stalin on the other.

The cryptic title, Glanville says, comes from the German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno: his dictum asserting that after the ultimate horrors of Auschwitz, writing poetry would be “barbaric”. “The programme is a refutation of this,” he explains. “The quote shouldn’t be taken so literally, of course, but it’s a starting point for a recital that began with the songs of Mieczyslaw Weinberg and broadened out from there. It’s shaped how we’ve framed the programme.”
The pair have been staunch champions of Weinberg in the scant 10-15 years since his work began to gain recognition in the west. When, at last, celebrated musicians such as Gidon Kremer and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla began to throw their weight behind the composer’s prolific output, the great and good of classical music started waking up to a veritable forgotten genius.
Around Weinberg, Glanville and Verter have programmed music by his Russian friends, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Georgy Sviridov and Nikolai Myaskovsky, the Ukrainian Boris Lyatoshynsky and the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz; a more recent item is from the young French-Jewish composer Olivier Milhaud (grand-nephew of the celebrated Darius Milhaud), his settings of the poet Abraham Sutzkever, whose poetry paid eloquent testimony to the life and beauty that struggled on amid the atrocities of the Vilno ghetto.
The two musicians soon realised there was a great deal more music just waiting to be found. When they contacted expert researchers in the field, the floodgates opened: “Those people were so pleased that we were interested that we were sent almost everything,” Glanville enthuses. “My inbox was deluged with extraordinary songs.”
“We started off with the idea of Jewish responses to the Holocaust. But as we began to take in more Russian music and poetry, we saw that the concept could extend to the whole mid 20th-century experience. Some Jewish composers and writers were not only racially persecuted by the Nazis, but also politically persecuted by the communists. Weinberg was a case in point.”
The Polish-Jewish Weinberg lost his parents and sister when they were deported from the Łódz Ghetto and murdered in Trawniki; he fled first to Minsk and thence to Moscow, where he became a close friend of Shostakovich. Later, however, he fell foul of the Soviet regime. “He did very well,” says Glanville, “then suddenly found himself on the wrong side of Stalin and ended up in a prison cell where he couldn’t even lie down. He was there for several months before Stalin died.” Weinberg was then released, lucky to be alive.
Alongside the songs, Verter is performing solo piano music by Russian and Polish composers who had to struggle for their artistic identity in the Soviet bloc: Sergei Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin; Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006), a pupil of Shostakovich, whose music is fearsomely powerful (“I was blown away – another major, major composer,” says Glanville); and Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), a brilliant musician in Poland, a violinist and pianist as well as composer, whose music is now increasingly recognised for its vivid imagination and exultant virtuosity. “She’s very inventive, playing with textures and different combinations of registers, exploring the whole breadth of the piano,” Verter says.
The programme would always have been emotionally hefty, but there was another twist in its tale: Glanville and Verter were immersed in the research process last year when Putin invaded Ukraine. “At once,” Glanville says, “we found our project had acquired a much wider contemporary focus. It’s no longer a historical document. Suddenly there is a sense that nothing had ever really changed and we had never learned the lessons. Something is going on now which is a direct descendent of that era.”
The inclusion of music by the Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatoshynsky (1894-1968) brings this point straight to the audience’s doorstep. “There’s a song called The Highest Happiness, a setting of a poem by the Ukrainian poet and First World War veteran Volodymir Sosiura that had been written in the middle of the Second World War,” says Glanville. “It’s a patriotic poem about Ukraine, describing the beauty of the bridges, the trams and the cobblestones. Sosiura wrote a letter to his brother quoting it, saying that ‘we will triumph’ over these invaders. We could be singing about what’s happening today.”
Lyatoshinsky was later effectively ‘cancelled’ in the USSR: “This very contemporary word perfectly describes what happened to him,” Glanville points out.“The Soviets wrote off his music in the most brutal way. It was sidelined, repressed and cancelled with horrible descriptions because he was too patriotic towards Ukraine.”
Their concert is timely in other ways too. Adorno’s remark is now being thought partly to blame for the way in which, after the Second World War, composers who shared his sentiments rejected tonality, rhythmic structures, melody, harmony and, with them, comprehensible relatability. The audience largely voted with its feet. The resulting style had its own geniuses, but only a few of its composers are proving durable. Now there’s a distinct sense that the tide is turning.
“I’m not surprised,” says Verter. “I think that throughout history, what most people have sought in music is comfort and consolation in this difficult world. And even when it represents tough experiences and the horrific things we see, I think it’s natural in composers’ instincts to search for beauty or for an escape.”
“Sutzkever says something similar,” Glanville agrees. “It’s about ‘creating splendour out of horror’.”

Barbaric Verses is at Jewish Book Week, on February 28, 8.30pm. For details click here

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive