Unfinished musical business

A group of arts students travel to the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic.

ISRAELI COMPOSER and educator Dr. Michael Wolpe (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAELI COMPOSER and educator Dr. Michael Wolpe
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Michael Wolpe is a definitively dedicated professional. Not only is he an internationally celebrated conductor, composer and pianist, he also engages in a wide range of challenging projects that are of paramount importance for the Jewish people.
Kibbutz Sde Boker-based Wolpe’s highly eclectic musical pursuits include working as an educator at various institutions, including the Hebrew University’s Rubin Academy of Music and Dance and the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA), a Jerusalem high school where Wolpe established the music department.
It was partly in the latter capacity that Wolpe took a bunch of IASA students with him last week when he visited the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. Theresienstadt was an unusual camp in that it was designed as a propaganda front which the Nazis used to try to fool the Allies and the Red Cross into believing that the Jewish inmates, most of whom were members of the educated middle class, enjoyed a rich cultural life, and basically had it good.
Concerts and other shows were held there, including a children’s opera called Brundibár, written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása with a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister.
There were chamber ensembles at Theresienstadt, and even jazz groups, and various writers, scientists, musicians and scholars contributed to the camp’s cultural life.
Many of the composers incarcerated at the camp did not survive the Holocaust, and for the past decade and a half Wolpe has devoted much of his time to performing works by the likes of Krása, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullman. Ullman’s parents converted to Roman Catholicism before his birth but that did not save the composer, who was murdered in Auschwitz in October 1944.
Wolpe has also put much effort into completing works left unfinished by composers who perished during the war in various concentration camps. However, despite his naturally strong bond with the original creators, last week’s visit to Theresienstadt was a rare occasion for the Israeli.
“I generally study the [musical] material and I don’t go to the places themselves,” he declares.
“I think it’s a sort of paganism. I don’t like it. Anyway, today Terezin is just a pretty miserable place full of unemployed people.”
Wolpe prefers to focus on the camp inmates, and the fate that befell them, rather than relate to the places in which they were subjected to such inhumanity.
“I don’t think that just because important historical events took place there [at concentration camps]... that does not make them [the sites] significant. What is meaningful is what happened to the people before they went to these places, while they were there, and what happened after that.”
The kibbutznik’s interest in the unfinished works of Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust began around 15 years ago, when Beit Theresienstadt, the Theresienstadt Martyr’s Remembrance Association, asked him to give a summer course called History, Music and Memory.
“I began to research the field, and I also trained a whole generation of researchers, and we have worked to complete unfinished compositions, and to ensure they are performed in public, to give respect to these people.”
Wolpe took a particular interest in the oeuvre of Viktor Ullman, and has completed some of his works.
“I finished his Piano Sonata No.
7 which, in fact, was supposed to be a symphony. I orchestrated the piece together with my students,” he explains. “I also worked on compositions by Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása.”
Last week Wolpe performed the sonata at Theresienstadt for the Jerusalem students and a group of their Czech high school counterparts.
Rather than traveling to major Holocaust sites, Wolpe says he prefers to get on with his invaluable work from his home base.
“Thankfully, today we have our own country, and we travel freely abroad and return home, and we can complete these works and study our own heritage. I feel it is important to carry on with this work in our own country.”