Artistic creation during flight and displacement: Out of the Shadows

By Dr Joseph Toltz

In August 2017, I curated a week-long festival at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, entitled “Out of the Shadows: rediscovering Jewish music and theatre”. This was the fourth of five festivals staged around the world, part of a large research project called Performing the Jewish Archive, funded by the British Arts & Humanities Research Council.  Together with ten colleagues from three other continents, the research focus was the aesthetic creations of Jewish artists in the 20th century, artists who were affected by persecution, flight and internment. Most of the material was being heard for the first time in decades; some works were world premieres, including new compositions and arrangements based on the discovered material, commissioned from contemporary Australian composers.

 SSO Fellows and members of the Sydney Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, directed by Roger Benedict, preparing to perform Werner Baer’s  The Test of Strength . © 2017 The University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

SSO Fellows and members of the Sydney Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra, directed by Roger Benedict, preparing to perform Werner Baer’s The Test of Strength. © 2017 The University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

As researchers of this material, it was imperative to hear the works in performance. Framing the material in a historical and social context was ethically important.  Although some of the works explicitly referred to traumatic circumstances experienced by the artists (for example Georg Tintner’s Trauermusik and the first movement of his Fugal Moods string trio, entitled Grief), most other works eschwed explicit meanings, or encoded them in subtle messages.  The responsibility of framing such material in a particular manner through programming, concert notes and publicity becomes all the more fraught in such cases.  In my approach to shaping the festival, I took three imperatives as my guide: (a) to explore this neglected material and interrogate it through performance, (b) to see how such material resonated across different borders and times, and (c) to tell the stories of how the creators and supporters of this material contributed to the societies in which they eventually settled, post-flight. This approach is explicitly political: my aim was to highlight the creativity of the refugee artists and their responses to the trauma of displacement, flight and unjust imprisonment.

. . . works eschwed explicit meanings, or encoded them in subtle messages. The responsibility of framing such material in a particular manner through programming, concert notes and publicity becomes all the more fraught in such cases. In my approach to shaping the festival, I took three imperatives as my guide. . . This approach is explicitly political: my aim was to highlight the creativity of the refugee artists and their responses to the trauma of displacement, flight and unjust imprisonment.

The Gala opening night presented dance and orchestral works from Jewish refugees in exile. Roger Benedict (conductor) directed the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows, supplemented by top performers from the Sydney Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra. Five works appeared in the first half of the program, all written by Jewish artists who had fled the threat of Nazi Germany. Two of these works were arranged by Conservatorium composers: Marcel Lorber’s Schuld-Kain (arr Aidan Rosa) and Simon Parmet’s Dybbuk (arr Ian Whitney).

H.A. Peter’s Fantasie für Orchester opened the program. Discovered by Dr Simo Muir in a Swedish archive, the work was composed in 1942 in Finland. The composer’s real name was Adolf Fleischner, former chorus master of the Vienna State Opera, and protégé of Hans Gál. Fleeing Austria after the Anschluss, he moved first to Finland and then to neutral Sweden in 1944. The work eschews any explicit references to the composer’s circumstances, but is a fresh, unique sound, reminiscent of Kodaly and Debussy. Neglected and forgotten, the very act of performing this work impels us to discuss what could have been.

 Jessica Aszodi (Anna I) and Marlo Benjamin (Anna II) performing Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s  Seven Deadly Sins. © 2017 The University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

Jessica Aszodi (Anna I) and Marlo Benjamin (Anna II) performing Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins.© 2017 The University of Sydney. Photograph by David Goldman.

Marcel Lorber’s Schuld-Kain was written while the pianist was on tour in Colombia with half of the Bodenwieser Ballet (the other half being on tour in New Zealand). Most likely a piano prototype sketch for the 1940 Cain and Abel ballet, I discovered the score at the National Library of Australia. The concept of exile resonates through the program of this work, again not explicitly reflected in the music. Bringing this work out of the archive causes us to question the place of music in collections, and our ability to let it speak to us once more.

Werner Baer’s The Test of Strength was written many years post-exile, in the comfort of a new country, the composer a successful administrator and musician. The programmatic setting of a circus meant that the work lost focus without a visual dance prompt, asking us about the function of historical dance scores disconnected to their original choreography.

Simon Parmet’s Dybbuk was paired with the outstanding talents of the dancer Benjamin Hancock, who took his creative prompt from the 1937 film of the iconic Jewish play about mystical possession and broken oaths. The score evoked specific folk themes of the day, providing the audience with an explicitly Yiddish aesthetic, in contrast to the other works.

Most likely a piano prototype sketch for the 1940 Cain and Abel ballet, I discovered the score at the National Library of Australia. The concept of exile resonates through the program of this work, again not explicitly reflected in the music. Bringing this work out of the archive causes us to question the place of music in collections, and our ability to let it speak to us once more.

Georg Tintner’s Trauermusik was a direct reflection of the trauma faced by the composer-conductor, as he fled his beloved Vienna for the safety of New Zealand. In the second half, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins was rendered explicitly political by the director Chryssy Tintner, daughter of Georg. Going beyond Brecht and Weill’s anxious depiction of the corrupt new world, the director shaped the production with notions of exile, refugee families and their anxieties, woven together with the powerful and disturbing imagery of trains. The message we conveyed about the fragility of human existence and the paucity of compassion for the refugee was undisguised throughout all performances.


Joseph Toltz is a Research Fellow at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and co-Investigator for “Performing the Jewish Archive”, a project funded by the British Arts & Humanities Research Council. In August 2017, he curated the Sydney festival “Out of the Shadows: rediscovering Jewish music and theatre” for the project. He is working with material of the Austrian refugee composer Wilhelm Grosz and co-authoring a book on the first collection of Holocaust songs (Indiana). Recent publications appear in Southerly (2016), Music’s Immanent Future (Routledge, 2016) and Perspectives in Artistic Research in Music (Lexington, 2017).