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How Jewish Musicians Looked to Russia to Escape the Nazis

With Edward Snowden finding refuge in Russia, it is time to remember the story of three Jewish musicians who chose to go to Russia to escape the Nazis.

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

One aspect of twentieth century Russian history that is little known in the West is that Russia in the 1930s and 1940s, like the U.S., came to be seen by some left-wing European Jewish intellectuals as a place of refuge from Nazi persecution.

Three important Jewish musicians of the 1930s and 1940s who took this view were the conductor Kurt Sanderling and the composers Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Erwin Schulhoff.

<figcaption>Dmitry Shostakovich with his friend the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg</figcaption>
Dmitry Shostakovich with his friend the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Kurt Sanderling had the easiest time of the three.

After working at the Deutsche Oper Berlin for the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Erich Kleiber he fled Germany for the USSR in 1936. There he worked initially for the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra before being put in joint charge (alongside the famously difficult Yevgeny Mravinsky) of Russia’s greatest orchestra, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (today the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra).

Sanderling stayed in Leningrad until 1960, during which period he became friends with many important Russian composers and musicians, including especially Dmitry Shostakovich of whose symphonies he became a notable interpreter. During this period he recorded for Deutsche Gramophone Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony -- a recording of this work which despite cuts many feel remains unsurpassed.

In 1960 he went to East Germany where he was given the task of building up East Berlin’s Berlin Symphony Orchestra into a credible rival to West Berlin’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra -- at that time in its pomp under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.  

Though a seemingly impossible task, Sanderling succeeded to a surprising degree, with highly regarded recordings including of Mahler (see for example his recording of Das Lied von der Erde) and of Sibelius. The solid foundation Sanderling gave it allowed the Berlin Symphony Orchestra to survive unification and it remains an important element of Berlin’s musical landscape to this day.

By the time of unification Sanderling’s reputation as a conductor was internationally so high that his musical career and reputation were unaffected. He died in 2011. All three of his sons, Thomas, Stefan and Michael, are successful conductors and musicians.

Weinberg had a more difficult time. Of Polish birth and musical training, he fled to the USSR following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Though he continued to live in Russia up to his death in 1996 (reportedly converting to Orthodoxy just two months before his death) he never completely severed his ties to Poland, with Polish themes continuing to appear in his music throughout his career.

Weinberg also never lost sight of his Jewish origins. Weinberg’s parents and younger sister were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust and memory of the Holocaust continued to haunt his music until the end.

In the USSR Weinberg was initially befriended by Solomon Mikhoels, one of the USSR’s most prominent Jewish intellectuals (the American musical Fiddler on the Roof is an adaptation of one of his works) and chairman during the Second World War of the USSR’s Jewish anti-Fascist Committee. Weinberg married Mikhoels’s daughter and his connection to Mikhoels briefly put him in serious danger.

Mikhoels fell into disfavour in 1947 and seems to have been murdered on Stalin’s orders in January 1948. Mikhoels’s cousin Miron Vovsi was one of the Jewish doctors arrested in 1953 during the so-called Doctors’ Plot. Mikhoels was posthumously denounced at the same time and Weinberg, as Mikhoels’s son-in-law and Vovsi’s relation by marriage, was arrested. In the event Stalin died on 5th March 1953 and Weinberg was released and rehabilitated almost immediately (Mikhoels was rehabilitated as well).

Weinberg had in the meantime forged a close friendship with the great Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich, whose closest musical friend he remained until Shostakovich’s death in 1975. According to the Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin, Shostakovich inundated Stalin and his secret police chief Beria with pleas for mercy for Weinberg during the period of Weinberg’s arrest.  

This complex history explains much of the confusion there is over how to spell Weinberg’s name. Though in the West and Poland he is generally known as “Mieczyslaw Weinberg”, Russians are more likely to know him as “Moisei Vainberg”, and this is how his name was often spelled in the 1970s and 1980s in the West, including on record labels.  In its latest releases of recordings of his music the Russian state record company Melodiya has taken to spelling his name in English “Moisey Weinberg”.

Weinberg was a prolific composer whose work covers all genres including ballet and opera. Highly regarded in Russia since the 1950s (he wrote the score for the famous Soviet film The Cranes are Flying) he has only recently come to proper Western notice.

In the West Weinberg is best known as a symphonist. He is said to have written 22 symphonies in total (some put the total as high as 26) not all of which have been performed or recorded. Recently the British record label Chandos, in association with a Polish orchestra, has launched a project to record them all. Famous Soviet recordings of some of Weinberg’s symphonies include those of symphonies 4 to 6 by Kirill Kondrashin (here is symphony 6) and of symphony 17 by Vladimir Fedoseyev.

Erwin Schulhoff’s story is the most tragic of all.

Possibly the most brilliant of the three musicians discussed here, Schulhoff was the most daring and experimental. Born in Prague in a musical family he received an extraordinary musical education counting Antonin Dvorak, Claude Debussy and Max Reger amongst his teachers.

Unlike Sanderling and Weinberg, Schulhoff was very much part of the central European musical avant-garde (Alban Berg was a close friend). His music passed through many stylistic changes and is as a result difficult to sum up.  

At the outset of his career in the 1920s he was heavily influenced by Dadaism and In futurum, part of his Fünf Pittoresken for piano, is an absurdist Dada-influenced silent piece for piano, composed entirely of rests, that anticipates John Cage's 4′33″ by over thirty years.  

Subsequently Schulhoff became heavily influenced by jazz sounds, as for example in his Hot-Sonate.

Possibly Schulhoff’s single most ambitious work is his opera Flammen, a surrealist retelling of the Don Juan story suggested to him by Max Brod (the friend of Kafka and Janacek and occasional ally and adversary of Karl Klaus) who translated the libretto for him from Czech into German. A complete recording is available from Decca.

In the 1930s Schulhoff became a committed Communist and his music took a Socialist Realist turn. In 1932 he even composed a cantata version of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

Like Sanderling and Weinberg, Schulhoff attempted to escape Nazi persecution by fleeing to the USSR. Unlike them he left it too late. The Nazis occupied Prague where he was living in 1939.  In June 1941 the USSR approved Schulhoff’s application for Soviet citizenship and he was due to fly to Moscow the same month. Instead Nazi Germany attacked the USSR and Schulhoff was arrested. He was sent to Wulzburg concentration camp in Bavaria where he died of tuberculosis on 18th August 1942.  He was then for a long time forgotten, but in the last twenty years a significant revival of his music has been underway.

Today we do not tend to think of Russia as a place of refuge from political persecution --- and certainly not of Jewish refuge from political persecution in the West --- but as the story of these three musicians shows, past attitudes have not always been the same.

Today, with Edward Snowden finding refuge in Russia, perhaps attitudes will change again.






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