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How music suppressed by the Nazis is being brought back to life

May 19, 2024

The venue was a modest library in the headquarters of Britain’s Quaker movement, but the sound sought to rival that of the Royal Albert Hall. This was the premiere of a unique initiative bringing the suppressed music of the Holocaust to life using cutting-edge technology.

At Friends House in London last month the music of composers persecuted by the Nazis was performed by a professional soprano, accompanied by an essentially invisible orchestra.

An audience of invited guests watched the UK-based conductor Shelley Katz direct the soloist and what sounded like a full orchestra. Yet the only performers on stage were Katz and the singer Helen Bailey.

Katz is the technical and artistic ­director of Symphonova, a company of music professionals who have developed a technology to emulate an ­authentic ­orchestral experience by ­allowing conductors to control the ­nuances of musical expression over virtual instruments in real time. They do this by using gesture controlled wearable technology which communicates with the software of digital “instruments” created from a library of sample sounds.

Symphonova, together with the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, the Dutch music publisher Donemus and the Leo Smit Foundation in Amsterdam, is part of a three-year project called Reawakening Suppressed Music dedicated to recording and sharing some of the silenced works by Jewish and other composers who suffered under the Nazis.

Suppressed music is music banned for non-musical reasons, such as the recent Chechen ban on music slower than 80 beats per minute (bpm) and faster than 116bpm in an ­attempt to stamp out western influence. Under Hitler, the Nazis sought to silence Jewish musicians and composers and all music they regarded as “degenerate”, including jazz.

Among those to be revived by the project is Bob Hanf, the Dutch-born son of German-Jewish immigrants. Before the composer’s murder at Auschwitz in 1944, he wrote string quartets, orchestral works and an opera.

Rosy Wertheim, one of the first Dutch women to complete a professional music and composition education, survived the war in hiding but died of cancer in 1949. She left an oeuvre of about 80 works. Johanna Bordewijk-Roepman was not Jewish but was persecuted for taking a stand against the way her colleagues were persecuted.

“All of these are composers of merit and we are not selecting them because they were suppressed,” said Katz. “We’re choosing the music because it should be heard. Then if it lives or survives or dies, fine.”

The project is funded by Bader Philanthropies, which honours Alfred Bader, a Kindertransport refugee who fled Nazi-occupied Austria for Britain before settling in Canada and then the US. It aims to record at least three hours of orchestral music over three years. These will be freely available, making them accessible for orchestras everywhere.

The music will also be brought to life through more than 20 performances, of which last month’s concert was the first when Katz’s chunky black ring and conspicuous bracelet were the wearable devices used to conduct the “orchestra”.

Conductors use “conventional gestures” conveyed by Symphonova’s wearable devices to direct the virtual instruments. “The technology is tailored so humans don’t need to change anything in the way they work,” said Dr Abigail Dolan, a concert flautist and the chief executive of ­Symphonova.

“It’s about the musical elements that convey the emotional impact of the music. What I’m saying is important, but more important is how I say it. The how, in music, is the changes in timing, timbre articulation and the inter-relationship between all of that. What the conductor is doing in real time is shaping all these musical parameters.”

Eleonore Pameijer is the founder of the Leo Smit Foundation, which aims to tell the stories of composers like Smit — murdered at Sobibor in 1943 — and bring their music back to life through performances and sheet music publication. She said: “We can’t bring the composers back to life but we can bring their ­inheritance to life.”

Dolan said that Symphonova is “uniquely placed to perform and record new and suppressed orchestral music.