Why I hope to meet the twenty-something members of a reading club at the Dutch premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s soundtrack to ‘Die Stadt ohne Juden’

Die Stadt ohne Juden, British premiere 15 November 2018 (c) Mark Allan

‘If it happens once, it can happen again.’ These admonishing words from the Italian-Jewish concentration camp survivor Primo Levi are more topical than ever. Neo-Nazis in Germany shout Hitler’s slogans with impunity, in the Netherlands the largest political party (Forum voor Democratie) is openly racist and anti-immigration.

Fortunately there are still strongly dissenting voices, as illustrated by the soundtrack Olga Neuwirth composed to the film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), that will be performed by Ensemble Klang on 13 February in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam.

It’s frightening that (neo)fascism is becoming more and more socially acceptable. Especially among young people, as I recently discovered during a concert of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A reading club of twenty-somethings said they had enjoyed Percussion Concerto Nr.2 by James MacMillan.

They agreed with me on the disastrous effects of the continuous cuts in funding of the arts. But then they declared, totally unabashed: ‘We all vote for Thierry’ (leader of the above mentioned party). When I exclaimed in dismay that he hates anything that smacks even remotely of being non-Western or modern, they quickly made themselves scarce.

Plea for ‘useless art’

Five years ago someone stumbled on the the supposedly lost film Die Stadt ohne Juden by H.K. Breslauer from 1924 on a flea market in Paris. The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth (Graz, 1968) composed a new soundtrack to it, that was premiered in 2018 in Vienna. Christian Karlsen will conduct Ensemble Klang in its first run in Holland.

Olga Neuwirth has battled fascist tendencies in her homeland from the start. In 2000 she climbed the barricades to demonstrate against goverment participation of the right-wing extremist Jörg Haider. ‘Can I protest with art?’ she asked rhetorically. – Under the motto ‘Ich lass’ micht wegjodeln’ (I won’t be yodelled away) she made a fierce plea for the power of ‘useless’ art.

Those who are willing to acknowledge that the artist is ‘a seeker, who wants to understand the Ordinary, curb the Dominant and investigate the Unknown, will be more open and tolerant towards their surroundings’. Her music is never coquettish, for Neuwirth does not compose ‘to lull the masses to sleep’, but wishes to exhort the listener to self-reflection. Instead of pleasant melodies and harmonies, we hear an abrasive soundworld, permeated with distorted fragments of classical masterpieces, pop and jazz. Often she also employs electronics.

Concrete shafts as a symbol for deported Jews

Nor does she deny her Jewish roots. In 2004 she composed Torsion for bassoon and ensemble. This was inspired by Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new annex of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The angular shape, reminiscent of a Star of David, emphasizes how inseparable Berlin is from the history of the Jews. Libeskind cleaved through his building with five voids. These empty concrete shafts symbolise the gaps caused by the Nazis’ Endlösungspolitik. Neuwirth makes those disappeared voices almost tangible by weaving sound recordings made in these abandoned shafts through her composition.

In 2014 she wrote a soundtrack to Alfred Machin’s silent anti-war film Maudite soit la guerre. Four years later she composed music for the rediscovered film Die Stadt ohne Juden by H.K. Breslauer. In it, the newly elected Austrian chancellor notices that anti-Semitism is well received by ‘the people’. – And decides to deport all Jews from Vienna. The film was based on the book of the same name by Hugo Bettauer from 1922. This was intended as a satire on the prevailing anti-Semitism but turned out to be a horrifyingly accurate vision of the near future.

Latent aggression in the glorification of national character

The restored film with Neuwirth’s soundtrack premiered in Vienna in 2018, receiving rave reviews. ‘It’s not just a silent film with music. From the very first moment, sound and image merge into a breathing organism,’ wrote the Hamburger Abendblatt. ‘During a service in the Synagogue, screaming sounds like distant complaining voices point forward to the gruesome future.’ The Tiroler Tagesblatt describes how Neuwirth makes ‘the fragility of the family bourgeois idyll’ musically palpable. Just like the ‘latent aggression of a glorified national character that can turn into violence at any moment’.

The British premiere was a success as well. Neuwirth was briefly interviewed beforehand. ‘One of the most powerful scenes is when the Jews walk out of the city at dusk’, she said.  While composing, ‘I had to suppress my anger. Otherwise the music would merely have been an expression of my repugnance’. Neuwirth points to the unmistakable parallels with our own time: ‘Toxic language unleashes hatred.’ Approvingly she quotes Holocaust survivor Primo Levi: ‘If it happens once, it can happen again’.

– I really hope to meet the young people from the reading club at the concert in Muziekgebouw…

The concert will be repeated at Korzo Theatre The Hague on 20 February.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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