Pavel Haas: Study for Strings

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Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings is filled with lively textures with folksy overlays, all while carrying alternating airs of exuberance and introspection. It is hard to know what to expect music written directly in the midst of the Holocaust to sound like, but here it is—Haas was a Czech Jew interned at Theresienstadt where he composed and premiered it. The score was lost after he was sent to his death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the conductor Karel Ančerl survived and helped reconstruct it from orchestral parts found when Theresienstadt was liberated.

The main theme is given by the first violins after Haas lays an introductory foundation, setting up a cross-rhythm of different stresses in threes and twos. A second, slower section has the violas modify the main theme into a fugue subject, developed by the rest of the strings (this pattern of alteration and contrapuntal exploration explains the title “Study”). An eerie Adagio makes for a middle section, before the fugue resumes and picks up into an excited finale. The themes are all Haas’s own, but are at times reminiscent of traditional Moravian and synagogue music.

Between the two world wars, Haas had been a student of Leoš Janáček (the most famous Czech composer since Antonín Dvořák), and he had composed a successful opera, The Charlatan, which premiered in Brno in 1938. (He borrowed the main theme for Study for Strings from the opera). Other works include three string quartets, an oboe suite, an unfinished symphony, and several film scores. As the political situation in Central Europe became dangerous, Haas divorced his non-Jewish wife to protect her and their daughter, and unsuc- cessfully sought to immigrate to the United States.

Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech) is a fortress town in what was called the Sudetenland, the border region
annexed by Germany from Czechoslovakia in 1938. In 1941 the town was selected by Nazi officials, including Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, as a transit camp for Czech Jews, part of their implementation of a systematic genocide. It was a unique site, outwardly appearing to be a self-administered Jewish settlement where normal life con- tinued, even as most of its inhabitants suffered from overcrowd- ing and malnutrition. But the Nazis could maintain a measure of deniability, claiming that the majority of Jews had simply been sent east to work, while the elderly and a select group of artists and intellectuals had been moved to a “spa” at Theresienstadt.

Haas was made part of this charade. But in important ways, life at Theresienstadt was genuinely better than the alternatives: it was overseen by a Jewish Council of Elders, rather than directly by the SS, and prisoners were able to wear their own clothes, keep some property, and organize a vibrant array of artistic, religious, and educational activities. There is no denying this served Nazi propaganda—but the demands of Nazi propaganda also provided a means to prolong and enrich life under unfathomable circumstances. In particular, thousands of children attended school, heard concerts, and painted pictures, even as the vast majority of them were ultimately murdered.

In June 1944 the Nazis staged a visit for the Red Cross to see Theresienstadt, soothing their concerns about the fate of deported Jews. A propaganda film produced at that time includes an orchestra of prisoners performing Study for Strings, conducted by Karel Ančerl. In this haunting footage, men and women in
suits and dresses, pinned with yellow stars, sit listening at small tables adorned with cut flowers in vases. When the music ends, they applaud, and Haas rises to shake hands with Ančerl, enacting the usual concert customs. Soon after, the composer was trans- ported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with thousands of others who were deemed no longer useful. Between 1941–45, more than 30,000 people died of starvation and sick- ness in Theresienstadt’s squalid underbelly, and approximately 90,000 more, like Haas, were sent on from there to extermination camps. Among the perpetrators, Heydrich was assassinated by Czechoslovakian resistance fighters in 1942, two Theresienstadt commandants were tried and executed by Allied authorities in 1947, and Eichmann was caught in Argentina in 1960 and hanged in Israel two years later.

Since the 1990s, organizations including the Terezín Music Foundation have sought to revive and amplify the music of Haas and other composers who were suppressed and silenced by the Third Reich.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.