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Uncovering music

March 22, 2011

The Nazis were responsible for the persecution or murder of numerous composers, resulting in the loss of many of their musical works. Now, a project in Texas is unearthing some of those compositions.

Paul Kletzki at the piano in 1943
Paul Kletzki stopped composing after being traumatized by Nazi atrocitiesImage: Timothy Jackson

Musicologist Timothy Jackson, who teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, is a man with a mission. Currently, he's devoting himself to the works of Paul Kletzki, one of the 10 "lost composers" his project is aiming to unveil.

Kletzki was born in Lodz in 1900 and soon became one of the stars of the German music scene, reaping particular success in Weimar with his symphonies and piano concertos. He was respected by composers and conductors alike. But there was just one problem: He was a Jew, and when the Nazis gained power in the early 1930s, Jewish composers were outlawed.

"Just as Paul Kletzki was making his breakthrough, Hitler rose to power [in 1933] and the composer realized he didn't have a future," Jackson said.

Nazi atrocities

Score of Paul Kletzki's piano concerto
Joseph Banowetz' recording of Kletzki's piano concerto was nominated for a 2011 GrammyImage: Timothy Jackson

Kletzki first fled to Italy, then Russia, and finally to Switzerland. Traumatized by Nazi atrocities, including the loss of his parents and sister, Kletzki stopped composing in 1942. Turning instead to conducting, he buried his sheet music in a box.

When the box was unearthed in 1964, Kletzki could not bring himself to open it. It wasn't until after his death in 1973 that the composer's wife, Yvonne, discovered that all the compositions remained intact inside. She then passed the compositions on to Timothy Jackson. Several of Kletzki's works have meanwhile been recorded on CD, with the last recording of his piano concerto nominated for a Grammy this year.

Buried in a garden shed

Timothy Jackson is not the only researcher with such a mission, said Bret Werb, music curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. A number of composers persecuted by the Nazi regime have been rediscovered and their works rescued over the years, but, as Werb points out, the Internet has eased and invigorated the exchange of information, and more and more is being discovered about this lost period.

"A large part of the music would otherwise be lost," Werb said. "It's our job to give those who were previously unjustly treated a second chance."

When Jackson began his project at the beginning of the 1990s, he was researching information about contemporaries of the famous Viennese music theorist Heinrich Schenker and came across one of his colleagues, Reinhard Oppel, who had taught at the University of Kiel.

Reinhard Oppel at the piano in 1924
Reinhard Oppel, pictured here in 1924, was later persecuted by the NazisImage: Kurt Oppel

Kurt Oppel, Reinhard Oppel's son, currently lives near Heidelberg. The 80-year-old pastor recalls that his father was "an imposing, interesting man who could be both charming and hot-tempered." He was a musician through and through; he learned to play the organ before he even attended school and taught himself to play the trombone at age 60.

Oppel Senior was made no secret of his distaste for the Nazis. It wasn't long before they forced him - at age 62, with a severe heart condition - to join the military. He died in 1941.

Following the war, his son Kurt settled in West Germany, leaving his father's work "stacked up in margarine boxes and partially buried" in the garden shed of family friends, he noted.

Personal stories

Musicologist Timothy Jackson (foreground) with Kurt Oppel
Musicologist Timothy Jackson (foreground) with Kurt OppelImage: Timothy Jackson

Musicologist Jackson is also interested in his own family's history, his own mother having been an artist who grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust. Through his music research, he hopes to discover more "lost composers" and said a lot of what he learns is coincidence. It's also dependent on how much families want to reveal about their relatives.

"And we hope that when their music is discovered, it's not considered 'forbidden art' or connected with exiled composers or deemed 'Holocaust music', but is just looked at as 'music,'" curator Werb said.

Author: Christina Bergmann / als
Editor: Kate Bowen