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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

For some prisoners, life at Terezín might have been less terrible than at other camps, thanks to the focus on cultural activities. Still, it was a concentration camp, and the Nazis’ gift for perversion turned it into a propaganda site. In 1944 they ushered a delegation of Red Cross authorities on a tour, leaving them with the impression that it was a pleasant, nicely functioning village. Some of the camp was newly constructed for the event, and overcrowding had been addressed by a stepped-up train schedule to Auschwitz. The Red Cross representatives’ fears were temporarily assuaged, and after they left, the Nazis, happy to derive double duty from their exertion, shot a film in the “Potemkin village” they had created. Blandly titled Terezín: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement, it was never released in its entirety, but portions survive and occasionally have been screened under the name The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews. To help preserve the secret fiction of this “documentary,” nearly everyone involved in its making was deported for immediate execution at Auschwitz once the production was completed.

One of the experiences that helped charm the delegation was a performance of the children’s opera Brundibár (a colloquial Czech word meaning “Bumblebee”), composed by prisoner Hans Krása (1899–1944). It was given at least fifty-five times at Terezín and has been frequently revived in the past few decades. The son of a Czech lawyer and a German-speaking mother of Jewish heritage, Krása studied piano and violin as a child and at the age of eleven composed his first orchestral piece. He studied composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky and, during a brief residence in Paris, with Albert Roussel.

By the time he was sent to Terezín in 1942, his oeuvre was small but select. Miraculously, he continued to add to his output during his imprisonment. Compositions from these final years included his Passacaglia and Fugue (1944) and his Tánec (Dance), probably from 1943, both for string trio. The Passacaglia and Fugue is based on an eight-bar ostinato (repeating) figure, heard both in its principal form and in something that resembles its mirror image. The slow ostinato theme is played quietly by the cello for its first several go-rounds, but as the piece evolves it is often transferred to the other instruments. This work covers considerable territory in its nine minutes, including ghostly references to a Bach chorale in the violin’s opening phrases, undisguised technical severity à la Schoenberg, and nostalgic whiffs of fin-de-siècle decadent lyricism. The ostinato figure finally becomes the subject for a bustling fugue, which is a virtuosic, if short, tour-de-force that includes much rhythmic complexity. Tánec is certainly a “concert composition” rather than a folk dance per se. The opening and closing sections may suggest Bartók in their rhythmic vigor and Shostakovich in their parodistic tone, while the gentler central section descends from the classic Czech spirit of Dvoˇrák.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER