He sat on a tattered suitcase as he scribbled notes on a scrap of paper, occasionally gazing off into the distance as if to capture and clarify the sounds only he could hear. He was seemingly oblivious to the sea of humanity swirling around him — and to his impending fate.
James Simon was doing what he loved — composing music, despite being held at Terezín concentration camp.
Then the train arrived to take the acclaimed German-Jewish composer to Auschwitz.
“There’s an old Jewish expression about how each life is equivalent to a world,” says Phillip Silver, a University of Maine professor of music, piano and musicology, whose research for the past 20 years has focused on reclaiming the works of composers, including Simon, who were exiled or killed in the Holocaust.
“There’s this longing right now, this great search going on to try to find them. But we don’t entertain much hope." Phillip Silver
Each composer, each artist, has his or her own perspective on reality, his or her own way of perceiving sounds and organizing material, says Silver. “To discover in detail a new individual in this manner is very, very exciting. It just expands one’s awareness of what is possible.”
Silver says Simon was a romantic who “didn’t live in his own time” and was much more at home in the 19th century in his musical tastes. Born in 1880 in Berlin, he was well-to-do, well educated and a talented pianist, as well as a prolific composer and musicologist.
Despite numerous opportunities to flee persecution, Simon refused to permanently leave his homeland, though he did go to the Netherlands in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression in Germany and continue composing, Silver says. Simon created works that sometimes communicated the inhumanity of the times, including “Aphorism Three,” which was composed in 1941 when the Nazis began to apply restrictions on the Jewish population in the Netherlands.
In spring 1944, Simon was sent to a concentration camp at Terezín in what is now the Czech Republic. Many academics, musicians and artists were held there before being sent elsewhere to their deaths. While at Terezín, Simon continued to compose, perform and give lectures until he was transported to Auschwitz in October.
“There’s a chain that links all human beings. We can experience what other people feel. Simon speaks to us directly,” Silver says. “He’s honest, and the music is honest.”
However, much of Simon’s music has yet to be found. Silver and other researchers have compiled many references to Simon and his works, including citations in newspapers during the years he resided in Amsterdam. Yet many of the compositions mentioned are still lost, seeming to exist in no other form than a passing mention on a faded page.
“There’s this longing right now, this great search going on to try to find them. But we don’t entertain much hope,” says Silver.
Two decades ago, David Bloch, head of the musicology department at Tel Aviv University, introduced Silver to the music written at Terezín. It wasn’t until five years later that Silver heard a piece by one of the composers, Viktor Ullmann, on BBC Radio 3 and knew he had to help prevent such works from being lost to the ages.
“If any works were published, attempts were made to destroy the plates and to destroy any known copies. A desire was basically put into place by the Nazis to write these figures out of history.” Phillip Silver
“It was exquisite. And I said to myself, ‘It has to be French — it sounds as if (composer Achille-Claude) Debussy is the ghost in the back of this music.’ And then the announcer came on and said, ‘This is the third quartet by Viktor Ullmann; this work was written in Terezín concentration camp.’ And suddenly, everything that David had taught me, it all collided.”
Today, Silver is a musician, artist, teacher, historian and self-described “responsible citizen of the world.” His research focuses on “thwarted voices,” those of composers who were exiled or murdered in the Holocaust and whose music was silenced or lost as a result. Silver is dedicated to rediscovering these composers and their music, and bringing them to modern audiences.
Silver’s worldwide quest has taken him to museums and libraries. Unexpected sources include the archives of the great singer Marian Anderson, who had songs written for her by Simon.
“If any works were published, attempts were made to destroy the plates and to destroy any known copies. A desire was basically put into place by the Nazis to write these figures out of history,” says Silver. “My work is to undo that. If you don’t like (the music), don’t listen to it. But it’s there. It is only justice to allow audiences to decide on whether a work is valid. Not politics.”
The rediscovery process is a long one. Silver says finding the music, while exciting, can be the most challenging part of his research. A lead can lie dormant for months or even years before a development points him, and others doing this same work, to another discovery.
Take the Italian-Jewish composer Leone Sinigaglia. Silver saw a mention of his name in the Israel Philharmonic archives. Initially, all Silver could learn was that Sinigaglia had written a book about mountain climbing in the Dolomites, and had been a student of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.
For years, those remained the only threads until Silver obtained a copy of Sonata Op. 41, a major cello-piano work by Sinigaglia, located in the archives of German publisher Breitkopf & Härtel.
“I was shocked by just how accessible and how beautiful it was,” says Silver. “The atmosphere evoked was one of such unbelievable longing and sadness. And I was just lost in that piece. Immediately it became the core of my discovery of this composer and this interest in finding other works by him.”
After several years of research, Silver now knows that Sinigaglia was born in 1868 in Turin and traveled extensively during his nearly 40-year career, living in Vienna for several years. Sinigaglia was sensitive and shy, with a lively sense of humor.
“Once you get past the feeling that we’re doing something right, we’re undoing an injustice." Phillip Silver
“He became an ethnomusicologist, uncovering some of the folk materials of his own country,” says Silver. “Sinigaglia’s musical language was deeply rooted in late 19th-century Romanticism and it made no concession to contemporary musical developments.
“The most memorable characteristics of Sinigaglia’s music are its strong melodic elements and a sophisticated use of harmonic materials,” says Silver. “There is lyricism, passion, playfulness, tragedy and joie de vivre in his music.”
In 1944 when he was in his late 70s, Sinigaglia was nearly sent to Auschwitz. During his arrest, he had a heart attack and died.
In his time, Sinigaglia became known to the wider musical world through his Violin Concerto Op. 20, the only concerto he wrote, Silver says. And his “Sonata for Cello and Piano,” composed in the 1920s, was not a comment on the times so much as an expression of the composer.
“It reflects a type of sadness that comes from the recognition that one’s life is not proceeding in the direction one would like,” says Silver. “He had a tremendous talent, and it just was not really recognized.”
From the recovered works of Sinigaglia and others of this era, Silver selects which to stage “purely on a performance basis.”
“I thought that I was going to be doing this and primarily focusing on music as a historical document,” says Silver. “The biggest surprise (was) the immense talent of these individuals. And what a loss it was that they were all murdered.”
When he performs these recovered works for the public, Silver says audiences often ask why they haven’t heard the music before. His answer? They were not allowed.
“It is possible, though we cannot prove it, that the entire history of the second half of the 20th-century musical development was altered artificially by the suppression of the music of these composers,” Silver says. “We have various elements that make up a musical language and musical direction. And if you remove a huge body of work from that, you’re left with something else.”
Discoveries of composers and their works also can yield other significant contributions to the music world. Historians credit German-Jewish Bernhard Sekles, for instance, with the birth of jazz as an academic subject.
Born in Frankfurt am Main, Sekles was a teacher, administrator, composer and director of the conservatory Hochschule für Musik Mainz in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Sekles’ work draws on traditional musical elements while infusing the compositions with jazz to improve on rhythm and composition, says Silver, who has recorded chamber works of both Sekles and Sinigaglia on the Toccata Classics label in London with his wife, cellist Noreen Silver; and viola and violin player Solomia Soroka.
In 1928, Sekles established both an opera school as part of the Hochschule and the first academic course in jazz studies, which proved controversial.
“He faced an onslaught of attacks from the right wing,” says Silver. “Jazz was a very contentious subject in Germany and Austria.”
Pressure mounted for Sekles to be removed or to abandon his teaching. But he remained steadfast, and infused his compositions with the same spirit, creating interesting, quirky and imaginative music that “does things that are just completely unexpected,” Silver says.
Eventually, Sekles was forced out of his position and driven into poverty, Silver says.
“He lost all of his money, he lost his house and was forced to live in a garrett in an old building. It was not good for his health. He lived for about a year and then succumbed to (tuberculosis). And the Nazis, of course, banned his works and no one ever heard of him.”
Rudolf Karel also firmly stood for his beliefs in music and society. Born in 1880 in Pilsen in what is now the Czech Republic, his musical career encompassed studies with Dvořák and Josef Klička.
“He wrote an astonishing variety of music in different styles. His early works were quite severe,” says Silver. “The later works become very melodic, very romantic in many respects.”
The first non-Jewish composer in Silver’s research purview, Karel was part of the Prague resistance, participating in activism through music and other forms of expression. As a result, the Nazis arrested and interned him at Pankrác Prison. In 1945, Karel was transferred to Terezín, where he died a month later.
Among his works are “Three Hairs of the Wise Old Man,” a five-act fairy tale opera, and a nonet that was incomplete at the time of his death. František Hertl posthumously completed the work, which is now Karel’s most performed piece.
Both works were composed on odd scraps of paper Karel found in the camp, including toilet paper.
“The second movement of the (nonet) is so hauntingly beautiful that I just find that time is suspended whenever I hear it,” says Silver. “It immediately initiated a necessity for me to know more about him and what he’s done.”
In recent years, Silver has worked with other musicians to bring works of these rediscovered composers to the public. Collaboration has allowed for larger undertakings such as “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezín Composer,” a multimedia project produced by the Defiant Requiem Foundation that is dedicated to bringing back the music of composers who were silenced by the Holocaust. Silver and his colleagues have performed “Hours of Freedom” in the United States and abroad, including performances in Prague and Jerusalem and, most recently, in November 2018 at Carnegie Hall.
In addition to Defiant Requiem, Silver is a member of the International Centre for Suppressed Music in London, and of musica reanimata in Berlin. The work is both rewarding and emotionally demanding.
“Once you get past the feeling that we’re doing something right, we’re undoing an injustice, we have to come face to face with the injustice. Once you get to that point, if you have any feelings at all, you’re going to be affected by it,” he says.
Silver says his work as an artist also has been influenced by this research.
“Music is the highest form of human endeavor,” says Silver. “It is capable of expressing things that no other medium is capable of. It does not involve conceptuality, it involves a direct experience. And, therefore, I’ve become maybe more of an ideologue in that respect.”
The Silver Duo, comprising Phillip and Noreen Silver, has performed throughout the United States and in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel and the United Kingdom.
In March 2018 in Amsterdam, Phillip Silver played Simon’s works, including a sextet for wind instruments and piano that had not been performed for almost a century.
“I’m going to do this as long as I can breathe,” says Silver. “The kindest thing would be if somebody still listens to (the music), if someone realizes that the works of a few of these composers that I’ve delved into were worth retaining, that their music has something to say.
“Just as we listen to music written 200 years ago, 300, 400 years ago, why not add one more composer? Or even one work by a composer? We’ll have done something to broaden the cultural tapestry of human endeavor.”