This week the BBC department I work for is broadcasting a programme to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. One of the works being featured is by a composer who died in the Nazi Concentration Camps in World War II, which got me thinking about composers who perished in World War II, about whom very little appears to have been written.
Perhaps the name most often mentioned is Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), a composer of many operas and orchestral music who died at Auschwitz, but Wikipedia has a shockingly long list of composers who were killed by the Nazis; given the millions who died and the proud musical traditions of the countries they were uprooted from, it’s not surprising to find so much talent was lost.
The composer Francesco Lotoro is working to reconstruct and transcribe pieces written by lost composers before or even during the Holocaust and has found hundreds of musical works of all written by people who were persecuted by the Nazis, some written in the direst of circumstances.
The general ban on Jewish or ‘subversive’ music throughout Nazi-occupied territory took a dreadful toll. For example, Leon Jessel (1871-1942), the composer of the well-known piece of light music The Parade of the Tin Soldiers was a victim of Nazi torturers.
There were also composers who fought in WW2 and were killed in action; Jehan Alain (1911-1940) was a French composer and organist best known for his fine organ works (as well as choral and chamber music). He was killed while serving as a motorcycle dispatch rider.
Of British composers serving in WW2, Michael Heming, the son of the baritone Percy Heming, was killed at El Alamein in 1942; compositional sketches found in his papers after his death were arranged by Anthony Collins into a mournful orchestral work Threnody for a Soldier Killed in Action.
Walter Leigh (1905-1942) was a skilled composer of varied works for orchestra, stage, solo instruments and for films. His characterful Concertino for Harpsichord has been recorded several times. He also composed a fun Gilbert & Sullivan-esque operetta called Jolly Roger, or, The Admiral’s Daughter. Both are available on Lyrita re-issues and worth seeking out. He was killed while serving in a tank regiment in Tobruk in 1944.
While not strictly a classical composer, the famous bandleader and composer of countless Big Band standards Glenn Miller volunteered for the military where he put his skills to use in the Army band. The military plane he was travelling on board to entertain troops in France disappeared in December 1944.
Finally, one of the most inspiring stories of music triumphing against the odds is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 in 1942 by starving musicians during the Siege of Leningrad. This was recently the subject of a fine documentary on BBC Two called Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler which features an almost unbelievable tale of how music can transcend adversity.
I would be interested to hear of any other composers of World War II.