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Eine kleine Judische musik
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Eine kleine Judische musik

Classical music's debt to German Jews

Jewish composers, teachers, and conductors followed in the footsteps of Felix Mendelssohn.
Jewish composers, teachers, and conductors followed in the footsteps of Felix Mendelssohn.

The Jewish composers who transformed classical music in Germany — and later felt the wrath of the Nazi regime — will be the subject of a March 29 program at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County. 

Alan Mallach, a classical pianist and devotee of Italian opera and other music genres, will focus on Jewish composers of the late 19th century, as well as 20th-century composers whose fates diverged during and after the Shoa. 

“My approach will merge performance with insights and anecdotes about the music and its makers,” said Mallach, a 30-year resident of Roosevelt.

Among the stories Mallach will tell is that of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who composed his first original work in 1905, when he was just eight. From his start as a brilliant child prodigy, he became an important composer in his native Moravia and later in the concert halls of Europe. 

In 1934, with the Nazis on the rise, Korngold tried his hand at Hollywood, arranging Mendelssohn’s music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He later won Oscars for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and is sometimes credited with creating the symphonic film score.

After immigrating to America following Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria, Korngold continued scoring movies. In the late 1940s, however, following the war, he cut down on film work and made a return to the concert stage, even going back to Europe to live and work for a while.

Mallach will also discuss Viktor Ullmann, a Czech composer born in 1898. Unlike Korngold, he did not leave Europe in time and was imprisoned by the Nazis in Theresienstadt.

“This was the camp used by the Nazi propaganda machine to pretend that these containment areas were places of health, culture, and athletic activity,” said Mallach. Ullmann eventually was transferred to Auschwitz and sent to the gas chamber in October 1944.

While interned at Theresienstadt, Ullmann composed 23 works. In his museum program, Mallach will play the composer’s Piano Sonata No. 7. 

“These pieces were almost lost. Ullmann wanted to take them with him when he was transferred to the death camp,” said Mallach. “But a fellow prisoner prevailed on him to leave them behind, and they were saved.”

Mallach will also focus on Jewish composers of the late 19th century, including romantic composers Salomon Jadassohn and Friedrich Gernsheim.

Mallach, 70, has been immersed in music since he was 13. “I was born in Pittsburgh, but we moved to Israel when I was eight and didn’t return to the States until I was 15,” he said.

“My early teacher was [Israeli composer Paul]Ben-Haim, who worked with me on both piano and composition. In those days — the 1950s — Israel was a poor nation. It says something that a man as accomplished and well-known as Ben-Haim was giving lessons to a rank beginner,” Mallach said.

Mallach’s family moved to White Plains, NY, where he continued his studies with Michael Field, who was part of a classical piano duo known as Appleton and Field. “Field actually gained more fame as a chef and cookbook author than he did as a musician,” Mallach said.

After graduating from Yale he began a career in city planning, housing policy, and urban revitalization. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress.

But music was never far away. He is the author of two books on Italian opera, and over the past three decades in Roosevelt, he has performed numerous concerts and presented programs much like the one he will be giving at the museum.

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