Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

The String Quartet in a Time of War: Pavel Haas, String Quartet No. 3

Pavel HaasIn March of 1936, Nazi Germany reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland and by doing so abrogated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact.  The remilitarization of the Rhineland was driven by domestic politics, not unlike our own invasion of Iraq: Hitler needed to shore up his relationship with the army leadership and his right-wing power base.  Painfully, we now know that if France and Britain had acted in defense of the treaties, Germany’s generals were prepared to toss Hitler and his thugs out on their ears.  But France and Britain did not act; their populations were still traumatized by the First World War – the “war-to-end-all-wars” – a war they presumably “won” in 1918.

Emboldened by international acquiescence, Hitler marched his army into Austria on March 12, 1938, the day after a well-planned coup d’état removed the legally elected Austrian government.  Germany immediately annexed Austria, calling the whole shebang “Anschluss”, meaning the “link-up”.  A plebiscite was held the following month, in which the Austrian people were asked to ratify the Anschluss.  The Nazis claimed 99.7% of the electorate voted in favor of the Anschluss.

Sure they did.

If England and France were going to stop Hitler, now was their best chance.  But they did nothing.  Further emboldened, Hitler contrived to occupy portions of Czechoslovakia in order to “protect” the ethnic German population that lived there.  Negotiations over the fate of Czechoslovakia fell to the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

History has been very kind to Neville Chamberlain, who is still perceived as a dignified, old-world man of peace, whose actions were motivated by fair play and personal honor, a well-intentioned but naïve innocent who had about as much chance of negotiating successfully with Hitler as a gerbil does with a wolf.  Don’t you believe it.  Chamberlain was no dupe.  He and his foreign secretary Lord Halifax had decided that Hitler should be re-armed and even encouraged to expand his Reich, for two reasons.  One, they wanted Hitler’s hands off of the Empire, and two, Germany’s eastward expansion was seen as a bulwark against Soviet communism.

So it was that in November of 1938, thanks to the collusion and miscalculation of the western powers, that huge chunks of Czechoslovakia were ceded to and occupied by Germany. Four months later – in March of 1939 – Germany occupied most of the remainder of the country.

Without firing a single shot, Hitler had managed to occupy and annex two sovereign nations: Austria and Czechoslovakia. In doing so, he managed to convince some of his generals and most of his people that he was indeed the heaven-sent genius/leader that he claimed to be.  At the same time he put the rest of Europe on notice that if they hadn’t already figured it out, he and his people were truly bad news.

On September 1, 1939 – just 5½ months after the final dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – the “hot war” in Europe began when Germany invaded Poland.

All of the just-described events were witnessed by an increasingly alarmed Czechoslovakian composer named Pavel (or “Paul”) Haas.

Pavel Haas (1899-1944)

Haas was born into a family of Czech-Jewish merchants on June 21, 1899 in the Moravian capitol city of Brno, about 120 miles south-east of Prague.  He began his formal musical training in 1913, at the age of 14.  He studied music composition at the Brno Conservatory from 1919 to 1921 and then moved on for two more years of study with the great Czech composer, Leoš Janáček.

Janáček was Haas’ single greatest compositional influence, and Haas was Janáček’s single greatest student.  Janáček passed his fascination with Moravian folk music on to Haas, for whom that folk music – along with elements of Jewish liturgical music – became a major source of inspiration.

Haas’ mature musical style combined these folk and Jewish influences with the neo-Classicism of post-World War One Stravinsky and a very personal adaptation of elements of Jazz.

String Quartet No. 3 (1938)

No single work by Haas better demonstrates his mature musical style and the impact of current events on his musical voice better than his String Quartet No. 3.

The quartet is cast in three movements.

Haas composed the first movement in October of 1937.  It is terrific: jazzy, intense, and energized. Having completed the first movement, Haas put the quartet aside and didn’t return to it until the following year, 1938.

What a difference a year makes.

It was in 1938 that German territorial ambitions began to threaten all of Europe.  Hitler’s annexation of Austria followed by the demands made on Czechoslovakia convinced Haas that a terrible tragedy was in the making, and that as a Czech and a Jew he had Germany’s cross-hairs sighted directly across his forhead.  According to the Czech musicologist Lubomír Peduzzi, “the second and third movements of the quartet offer a premonition of this tragedy, in which both aspects of his personality – Czech and Jewish – are reflected in the thematic material.”

No Escape

Haas was arrested and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941, which was located in what today is the northwestern corner of the Czech Republic.  Even though roughly 33,000 Jews died in Theresienstadt – mostly of starvation and disease – it was not an extermination center.  Rather, it was used as a holding camp for prominent Czech Jews and as a transit camp for Jews on their way to killing centers or slave-labor camps.

Among the “prominent” Czech Jews in Theresienstadt were the composers Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullman, Gideon Klein, and Hans Krása; the conductors Rafael Schächter and Karel Ančerl; the violinist and former principal at the Boston Symphony Orchestra Julius Stwertka; the actor and director Kurt Gerron; the artists Frederika Dicker-Brandeis and Malva Schalek; the poet Pavel Friedman and the architect Norbert Troller.  The only of these people to survive the war was Karel Ančerl.

It was as a “holding camp” for prominent Czech Jews that Theresienstadt earned its greatest infamy.  On June 23, 1944, the Nazis allowed representatives from the Danish Red Cross and the International Red Cross to visit the camp in order to dispel “rumors” about “abusive camp environments”.

In order to minimize the appearance of overcrowding, the Nazis deported a significant portion of the camp’s population to Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit.  They then erected shops, cafés, and playgrounds to make it appear that the “inmates” lived in relative comfort.  The Red Cross representatives were given a carefully led tour of the facility and then treated to a performance of a children’s opera by the inmate Hans Krása entitled Brundibar, meaning “bumblebee”.  The idiots from the Red Cross were entirely fooled.

The Nazis also took the opportunity to make a propaganda film.  Entitled “Terezin: The Führer Gives the Jews a City”, the film was intended to show how well the Jews lived under the “benevolent protection” of the Third Reich.  During the course of the film, children are seen singing a portion of Hans Krása’s opera Brundibar and Pavel Haas is seen taking a bow after a performance of his Study for Strings.

Once the film was finished and the Red Cross charade had ended, the camp was cleared.  18,000 prisoners – including the children who had sung in Brundibár – were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were gassed on arrival.  On October 16, 1944, Karl Haas was shipped off to Auschwitz along with Karel Ančerl; they arrived the following day, on October 17.  According to Ančerl’s post-war testimony, he and Haas were together on arrival.  Dr. Josef Mengele – the “angel of death” himself – was conducting the selection.  Mengele was about to send Ančerl to the gas chamber when Haas began to cough.  Mengele immediately sent Haas to the right – to his death – whereas with a moment’s further consideration the younger Ančerl was sent to the left to join a work detail.

If Haas’ experience was typical, he was stripped, gassed and reduced to ashes within 3-4 four hours of his selection.

He was 45 years old.