At a glance, it may seem like the gravity of the Holocaust has been diluted by the ubiquity of a handful of works in the mainstream media. Curricula everywhere now include Elie Wiesel’s “Night” as required reading; box-office smash “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars in 1993, and “Valkyrie,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Defiance” were all recently released; and the band Neutral Milk Hotel even fixated on the story of Anne Frank for its album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. All the attention given to these few accounts of the atrocity can soften its impact.

“Voices of the Holocaust”

Saturday at 8 p.m.
UMMA — the Apse Room

Caroline Helton, clinical assistant professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, wants to look past the mainstream explorations and explore the more personal, intimate music that came out of the Holocaust era. Her program, “Voices of the Holocaust,” will take place this Saturday, free of charge, in the Apse Room at the University of Michigan Museum of Art at 8 p.m. She will be accompanied on the piano by Kathryn Goodson, a collaborative pianist and teacher.

All of the music on Helton’s program was composed by Jews whose lives were affected by the Holocaust. None of the music has been digitally recorded before and scores were difficult to find, Helton said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Helton said that when the Nazis came to power in Germany, “there was an active effort to destroy books and music and art that were created by Jews.”

“So that’s where so many of the pieces (by Jewish composers) got lost — they were simply destroyed. And the archives are still in a mess in Germany,” she added. “We don’t know what was created there oftentimes.”

After sifting through historical and musical records, Helton has crafted a program that features the rare works of three European Jewish composers: Robert Kahn, Erich Korngold and Darius Milhaud.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, Kahn was a famous and prolific composer, conductor and pianist before the rise of Adolf Hitler. His lyrical, conservative style was heavily influenced by the Romantic great Johannes Brahms, a friend of Kahn’s.

But in 1933, his reputation was compromised when laws were enacted prohibiting Jews from performing in public or publishing their works. Kahn escaped Germany in the late ’30s and fled to England, where he “lived in obscurity (and) relative poverty,” according to Helton.

Korngold is “the pioneer of what we think of as movie music,” Helton continued. A musical prodigy whose first opera was published when he was 11, Korngold left his native country of Austria to compose the score for the Warner Bros. movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

That was in 1938, six weeks before the Anschluss — the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. The rest of his family left on the last train to Switzerland. The Korngold works that Helton will be performing premiered at the last public concert he held in Austria.

Ending the first half of “Voices” is a song cycle focused on Jewish identity. Called “Poèmes Juifs,” the music was written by celebrated avant-garde French composer Milhaud. The lyrics, however, can be traced back to a set of anonymous Hebrew texts describing the Jewish experience in Europe.

The poems present “a story of how to deal with life as a Jew in persecuted times,” Helton said.

The poems express yearning for a world where Jews would “be able to work the land and breathe fresh air and live where (they) want to live … so those themes pervade the ‘Poèmes Juifs,’ the five songs by Milhaud,” she added.

Milhaud’s song cycle was written in the early 1900s, documenting a pre-Holocaust era of Jewish persecution.

In the first half of the concert, only the Milhaud songs deal directly with Jewish identity. The more identity-focused second half is comprised of a series of pieces by Professor of Composition Paul Schoenfield, from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, called “Ghetto Songs.”

Schoenfield, who speaks fluent Hebrew and has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel, infuses his work with an eastern European Jewish folk music style called “klezmer.”

“(‘Ghetto Songs’ is) taking klezmer, which is normally for joyous occasions, and expressing horror with this sound and (these) rhythms,” Helton explained. “The voice is like the door you go through to get to the experience.”

“Ghetto Songs” sets to music six poems by the Polish writer Mordechai Gebirtig. When the Holocaust began, Gebirtig was interred in the Krakow ghetto with the rest of the city’s Jews. He was murdered by the Nazis two years later. The six poems were written between 1939 and 1942, and they deal with themes of family, God and oppression.

Alternately mournful and frenetic, Schoenfield’s collection captures the feelings of panic, misery and uncertainty that pervaded eastern Europe at this time. He said that as the composer in such a work, he feels “like a reporter who has to do a story” on the chaos and anguish of the Holocaust.

On “Ghetto Songs,” Helton’s soprano will be joined by bass-baritone Stephen West, professor of voice in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and accompanied by University-affiliated musicians on the clarinet, violin, double-bass and cello.

Linking all the pieces on the “Voices” program is an attempt to draw out individual personalities rather than the collective voice of European Jewry in time of persecution.

“The reason I call it ‘Voices of the Holocaust’ is that there were so many (Jewish) voices present musically in Europe before the Holocaust,” Helton explained.

“They were assimilated into society, but what happened with the Nazi regime and with the Holocaust is that all Jews were lumped into one … all these individual voices were lumped into one mass identity, she added. “This is in essence an effort to get to know some of the individual voices musically that were pretty much silenced by the Nazis.”

The “Voices” program has a deep connection to its source material, bringing to light the lost works of composers who were each uniquely affected by the Holocaust. By highlighting individual artists whose lives were affected by the Holocaust, “Voices” draws us away from racial or ethnic groupings.

“We are so lucky here in the University to be able to get to know artists, composers, poets, to hear their words as individuals,” said Helton. “So I guess (‘Voices of the Holocaust’ is) just another way to remind us not to lump people into faceless groups, not to dehumanize.”

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