Thursday, 21 June 2018

Violinist and Auschwitz survivor Helena Dunicz-Niwińska has died, aged 102

Image result for helena dunicz niwińska
Helena Dunicz-Niwińska in 1964 (Photo: PWM)
I'm saddened to hear of the passing of Helena Dunicz-Niwińska, at the age of 102, in Krakow. She was born in Vienna in 1915, and grew up in the then-Polish city of Lwow, where she studied as a violinist. Helena was arrested in 1943 by German occupying forces and deported, with her mother, to Auschwitz. There, her musical abilities saved her from brutal slave labour; instead, she was recruited for one of the camp orchestras, led by Gustav Mahler's niece, Alma Rosé.  Rosé was a demanding conductor, but Helena came to understand that her high standards helped keep her and others useful to the Nazi authorities and, crucially, alive. Helena survived the march to Ravensbruck camp in Germany and, after liberation in 1945, settled in Krakow, where she went on to work for the Polish Music Publishers (PWM). She only came to write about her experiences in 2013, and they are related in a book published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Image result for helena dunicz niwińska
Helena meeting Pope Francis at Auschwitz in 2016
I first discovered her story during a visit to Auschwitz in 2016, and I wrote a blog about it soon after. I reproduce a portion of that blog here:

I have a chance this time to visit the bookshop, which reveals the admirable continuing efforts of the State Museum to shine the light of scholarship onto areas still offering fresh perspectives. For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to a recent publication by Helena Dunicz Niwińska called One of the Girls in the Band: The Memoirs of a Violinist from Birkenau. Helena only published these memoirs in 2014, at age 99, and given that she saw the camp through adult eyes (she was 28 when sent to Brikenau in 1943), her account of Auschwitz’s strictures and realities is a particularly direct and prosaic. There’s also the sense of a story being set straight: Helena refers to a few previous published accounts of musical life at Birkenau that fell short of real veracity.

Helena’s account also reveals an undimmed admiration for Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler and director of the women’s orchestra (one of a number of ensembles at Birkenau). Rosé did not survive Auschwitz, succumbing to a sudden illness in April 1944, but Helena paints a portrait of a hugely accomplished musician for whom the highest musical standards in the most degrading conditions were a matter of dignity and survival. Rosé worked tirelessly on arrangements of music for the orchestra’s motley assortment of instruments (including lots of violins, mandolins and guitars, but few bass instruments), though much of that work is lost to time, living only in the memories of the few remaining witnesses to this ray of light in a hell on Earth.

I’m an inveterate botherer of tour guides, and as we wend our way through Birkenau, our expert guide Renata tells me about her friend Helena’s book. I admit to having bought it earlier in the day, given my interest in all things violin. “Well”, she says, “I have something for you”. At the end of the tour, Renata retrieves from her car one of a few remaining discs made recently featuring a reconstruction of music arranged by Alma and pieced together again from Helena’s memory. It’s Chopin’s Etude Op10/3. As a Pole, Chopin’s music was forbidden, but this piece was played only in rehearsal for the enjoyment of the musicians. Rosé’s instrumental ingenuity is here, in the careful use of violins and mandolins and the voice soaring above the bass-light texture. It must have seemed like a warm bath of memory and humanity to those who heard it, a momentary relief from fetid reality. And on this crisp sunny February afternoon, it’s another fleeting connection to the individuals who came to this place and, in most cases, did not leave.

Helena Dunicz Niwińska (1915-2018) died on June 12th. Any images used here fall under "fair use" and are reproduced for the purposes of review and study. They will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, great Russian conductor, is gone.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1960
Today feels like the end of an era. It was announced that, after a long illness, the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvesnky died this morning. He was born in 1931 and was one of the last remaining and active musicians to have had a substantial career in the Soviet period. He was particularly associated with the music of Shostakovich, whose early opera The Nose he revived in 1974. His association with Shostakovich actually began in the 1950s, and he became a champion of the 4th Symphony when it was finally premiered in 1961 - although Kirill Kondrashin conducted the first performance, Rozhdestvensky brought the piece to the west, in 1962.

He was also a great promoter of contemporary music in the later Soviet period, and worked hard to secure a performance of his friend Alfred Schnittke's radical First Symphony in the 1970s. He had a particular passion for English music and even recorded a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams's symphonies.

With his passing, we lose one of the last links to a remarkable, difficult and fascinating part of music history. He worked until his last months, and everyone who loves Russian music must hold him dear.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

My Teacher, Tony

My teacher, Tony Ward, has died. I think it’s fair to say he changed my life. I was always a curious child (yes), but Tony’s A Level Politics lessons opened my eyes to worlds of thought that were totally unknown to me. He taught me about human nature, and the idea that you could argue about what exactly it was. He taught me that it was possible to imagine the world operating in a completely different way to the way it does. In all of this, he expounded these world views (all of them) with the conviction of a believer. What would it be like to have an anarchist in the room? Or a socialist? Or even a fascist? Tony made these things living ideas, and opened us to the exciting and troubling possibilities that followed from this.

Tony was one of those teachers who didn’t condescend to his pupils. He spoke to us as though we were on his level. He had left school at 16 with no qualifications, but had pursued education thereafter with a special appetite. He took my interest in music seriously and would listen to my latest enthusiasms with interest. He understood that the spark of curiosity and interest in young people is where all the really valuable thinking comes from, and for that I will forever be grateful.

I am a teacher now, but he didn’t know that. Like many of us, I thought of him fondly but never quite got around to dropping him a line and telling him that. His partner, Chris, was my History teacher, and an obituary has been posted on the Guardian website by Tim, my English teacher. It reminds me that we should get on and thank our teachers for what they probably don’t know they did.

The header picture is from the Guardian obit, and he's looking as much like Lenin as I remember. I do not own the copyright for this picture and it will be removed at the request of the copyright holder/s.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Music in the age of YouTube

I have a certain wariness of just recycling classical PR. The decision to make this blog contactable by email means I receive a lot of press releases, and I'm often left wondering what exactly the senders of these things imagine I'm going to do with them. But the stuff that some organisations put out as "PR" does transcend the bland norm, and some London orchestras are getting pretty good at using YouTube to spread the message and offer something genuinely interesting.

The Philharmonia is one such group whose marketing department have come up with things that are actually worth watching, including the lovely video from Pekka Kuusisto, talking about the indefatigable Vladimiar Ashkenazy. I must own up to a special fondness for both these men, who came to my local concert hall when I was sixteen and gave one of those concerts that propels you towards a life-long infatuation with this wonderful thing called music. I can also concur with Kuusisto's assessment of him, that he's "a really cool dude". It's been my pleasure to have met Ashkenazy a few times, and I can only say that, in his case, "never meet your heroes" is a piece of advice I was happy to have ignored.

There's a lot more to watch on the Philharmonia YouTube page. They're showing the way on this. 

In addition, if you can, do watch the London Symphony Orchestra's live stream on Sunday April 22nd (7.30 BST) - Simon Rattle conducting Tippett and Mahler. Free. And live. What an age we live in.

Header picture screencapped from the Philharmonia's linked video. Images used are done so in line with "fair use" and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Prokofiev for Two

I’ve been enjoying a new release from pianists Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan entitled Prokofiev for Two, made up of arrangements for two pianos by Babayan. There’s familiar numbers from Romeo and Juliet, but also some real rarities, including incidental music to Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades and Hamlet. I must admit that, to my shame, I hadn’t realised that Prokofiev had written music for these plays; before hearing them, I had to check that these weren’t some Tchaikovsky arrangements thrown in for good measure. Best of all is a waltz from Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace which, rather excitingly, is to be staged by Welsh National Opera in the autumn.

The internets led me then to the next in Doremi’s series of Argerich recital releases, pairing her with violinist Ruggiero Ricci, in a concert given in Leningrad in 1961. I’ve been listening to the second recital (Doremi released a previous one already), the highlight of which a blistering account of the Franck Violin Sonata, much better than some rather relentless solo Bach from Ricci at the recital’s start. There is, for a Soviet music fan, an added thrill in imagining who might have been in the audience that night.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sign Of The Times

They never did correct his name. I'm starting to wonder if the problem really is that no one cares.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

"My Teacher Played Me Commie Music!"

I wrote a little guest post for Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog about how I introduced my students to Prokofiev, via Joe Stalin. Here's a taste:

I try to smuggle a little music into my lessons. Students studying Napoleon heard snatches of Beethoven’s Eroica and the story that went with it. Recently, with a GCSE class investigating culture and politics in Stalin’s USSR, I used interview footage featuring the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, recounting the way in which, during the Soviet period, books themselves were altered as officials and artists feel in and out of favour. But I had an ulterior motive: the interview, from Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary The Red Baton, plays with clips of Sergei Prokofiev’s choral ode to Stalin, Zdravitsa (“A Toast” or “Hail to Stalin”). It’s beautiful, sweeping stuff.

Read the whole lot here.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, 17 December 2017

One turn of the dial: Grigori Kozintsev on filming good and evil

It so happens that, by itself, the activity of a people – its selfless devotion to duty, its bravery – can be evaluated only when the goal to that activity is known. Sometimes the artist need not be explicit about the goals; the audience will perceive the action of the screen as though it were tuned in on a definite wave length of spiritual activity by an associative force, tuned in on a conditional reflex of attitudes toward good and evil.

During the Second World War, William Wyler directed his Memphis Belle. The film contains shots of a bomb run by flying fortresses, the life of the pilots, their military work, the return to base under fire.

The chronicle is filmed as entertainment: it shows the characters of the pilots, their mutual relations, tastes, customs. Their tastes are not demanding. A picture is painted on the side of an airplane: a bathing beauty sticks out her rear end. Returning from a run (mortal danger and the bravery of the crew is indicated; there are quite a few seriously wounded), the pilots slap the Memphis Belle on her behind; it’s a custom.

In this case, neither the drawing itself nor the conduct of the men is in any way attractive of itself. Wyler does not show the enemy: bombings are filmed from the plane (little squares for objectives, the smoke of explosions, shell craters). But the audience sees the movie as though tuned in on a certain wave length: hatred for fascism is already a conditioned reflex.

The American fly-boys, their bravery, and even their joke about the girl in the bathing suit, all seem attractive, profoundly human.

Now let us imagine this film in its entirety as taking place in Korea. Just as any turn, however insignificant, of the radio dial will tune in another station, so here everything becomes different and the interpretation makes an about-face. The men are murderers; their life is coarse. And the bawd in the bathing suit becomes a symbol: here are the ideals and the culture in the name of which these thugs have flown across an ocean in order to annihilate a people fighting for their freedom and human dignity.

From the notes of Grigori Kozintsev, made during the filming of his 1964 adaptation of Hamlet (with music by Dmitri Shostakovich), published in his book Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, which was translated by Joyce Vining in 1966.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, 15 December 2017

Galina Ivanovna's Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya, seen in the Dutch TV documentary Scream Into Space
For many years I worked in a music library. I know how many years passed there, but I couldn’t now divide the time and say what belonged to which of the years. Libraries are places where time collects and where ideas go to rest, but time and thought stand strangely still between the shelves. Libraries have cycles and habits, and they go on until one day, they stop.

An elderly, sprightly lady used to breeze through the gate and give a brief but sincere “hello”, and a “hope you’ve a lovely holiday” or the like as she left. These all passed between us as though we’d done the introductions long before, but in truth, I barely knew who she was, only that she was a rare exception, a library regular from outside our institution. At Christmas, she’d bring a box of biscuits and card, left with her usual economy. A smile, a few words, and gone again.

“Sister Andre sort of came with the library”, the Librarian told me. “She’s been coming for years. She’s a nun. She’s researching something.”

I think more years passed before I asked what it was.


“Dullaghan”, she said, in a way that sounded right and compact in her Irish brogue. “D-U-L-L-A…”

“Got it”, I said, finding her record and issuing her books. Sr Andre Dullaghan.

What did she do up in the reading room, I asked? She was working on her book, she replied, on the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya. I knew the name, a little of the reputation, though I didn’t know the sound of the music. Strange and intense, I’d heard. A recluse, who’d not long ago died.

And then, from the little nun to whom I’d nodded and smiled for years, came the story of the time she’d made it into the world of Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya, a tiny world sealed shut to all but a select few.

Galina Ivanovna lived in a nondescript apartment in St Petersburg. If one knew anything of her, it was that she’d been a pupil of Shostakovich. He’d even, it was said, proposed marriage. She declined, and later in life, she vehemently denied his musical influence and his personal friendship. Shostakovich “killed my best feelings”, she wrote.

In her later years, she cultivated the myth of her own singularity. Scholarly study of her music was forbidden. Early works were struck from her catalogue. Just a handful of musicians could perform her music to her exacting standards. She admitted no influences, no antecedents. She belonged to no tradition. And she’d withdrawn from the world, to that tiny flat that she shared with her husband. No one saw her. One did not visit Ustvolskaya.

Some time, in the 1980s, perhaps, Sr Andre had fallen under the spell of the music. In the pounding of Ustvolskaya’s brutally expressive, rhythmically single-minded symphonies and sonatas, Sr Andre had seen God, a raw and blinding image of Him that spoke intensely to her faith. A visit to St Petersburg, in 1993, gave her the chance to discover more than was then possible from the trickle of information reaching the West. She found scholars and musicians eager to share their knowledge of Ustvolskaya’s work, but speaking with the composer was out of the question.

Further visits followed, and the quest to learn more became a doctoral thesis. Finally, in 1997, at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, Sr Andre took a risk and phoned Galina Ivanovna’s home number, a few days shy of the composer’s 78th birthday. She answered. Galina Ivanovna didn’t throw down the phone, but rather, spoke with Sr Andre warmly. News of Sr Andre’s passion for her music, and of her research visits to St Petersburg, must by then have reached her, even within her little fortress. Was this a way in? Sr Andre sensed that it might be, if she proceeded with care. A few days later, she phoned again.  

“I do not wish to see you”, said Sr Andre, “but at 5:30 I will ring your doorbell and leave you a present.”

Immediately: “There’s no need to.”

Sr Andre, though, had prepared. “I have already bought your present.” Chocolate-covered prunes – Galina Ivanovna’s favourite.

There was a pause – a long pause.

“What time did you say you’d call?”

That evening, Sr Andre arrived at the apartment, at the appointed time. She rang the bell, not expecting any response. But the door opened, and there stood Galina Ivanovna, dressed beautifully. She offered Sr Andre a warm embrace, and invited her into the apartment. They spoke for a while, and the composer asked this question: “Why do you love my music so much?”

“I love your music”, replied Sr Andre, “because every note touches my soul.”


She told me this story as I sat behind our library’s broad wooden issue desk. I read later that Galina Ivanovna referred to Sr Andre as “the nun”. And here she was - Galina Ivanovna’s nun - telling me of this precious meeting. I was at one remove from the most mysterious of the Soviet Union’s visionary musicians.

I stored it away in my mind. Years passed, I changed career, and eventually I set to writing something about Ustvolskaya. I knew who to contact first.

I had expected the routine to continue, even without me, and for Sr Andre to be regularly climbing the stairs to the reading room, to be reviewing her notes and shaping her manuscript at the big sloping table on the first floor. But she wasn’t; she isn’t. News came back from a colleague that she had passed away in 2015, eight years after and ten years the junior of her beloved Galina Ivanovna.

I don’t know what became of her work. The book she was shaping will never be finished. Perhaps the notes and the thoughts they hold rest somewhere, in a box or on a shelf of some little library, waiting for someone to pick up the threads and continue the work.

Sr Andre Dullaghan
The details of Sr Andre's meeting with Galina Ustvolskaya are related in the introduction to her doctoral thesis, Galina Ustvolskaya: Her Heritage and Her Voice (City Universtiy London, 2000) and are much the same as they were told to me by Sr Andre herself. Images used on this page fall under fair use and are intended to aid study and review. They will be removed upon request by the copyright holders. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Rare Russian Treat, Tomorrow on BBC Radio 3

Rozhdestvensky (right) at a rehearsal with Shostakovich and Rostropovich, in 1960.

Few great musicians of the era of Shostakovich survive now, but the legendary conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is still out there, offering a very real link to the greatest of Soviet composers. Rozhdestvensky worked with Shostakovich between the early 1960s and his death in 1975, most notably on the late revival of the opera The Nose. Rozhdestvensky's appearances in the West are relatively rare these days, but he did appear, in Dresden, earlier this year, conducting the first and last Shostakovich symphonies. The concert is broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 13th November, at 2pm, and will be available for 30 days afterwards for UK users.

Rozhdestvensky leads the Dresden Staatskapelle in tomorrow's broadcast. The orchestra has a fine history with Shostakovich, and recordings are available of them in symphonies conducted by another great Shostakovich maestro, Kirill Kondrashin. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).