Saturday, October 06, 2007

Music Review: Brundibár by Hans Krása, Music of Remembrance, Gerard Schwarz

The story of Brundibár’s composition and performance is one of grief, sadness, and outrage, as well as, devotion, faith, and generosity. The word brundibár is colloquial Czech for bumblebee and as character represents a malevolent organ grinder and title of a children's opera composed by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása with libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister.

The children’s tale was performed by the children incarcerated in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The vast majority of Terezin’s population, including Krása and many of the children who took part in the 56 performances of Brundibár were subsequently shipped to Auschwitz to be murdered.

Krása and Hoffmeister originally composed the opera in 1938 for a Czech arts competition that was subsequently cancelled due to Fascist political developments during the period. The opera was rehearsed started in the Prague Jewish orphanage in beginning in 1941. At the time, the orphanage served as a temporary educational facility for children who were separated from their parents by the war.

The opera was first performed in the winter of 1942 at the orphanage contemporary with composer Krása and set designer Frantisek Zelenka being transported to Terezin. By summer 1943, nearly all of the children and orphanage staff had found their way to Terezin courtesy of Germany’s National Socialists. Only Hoffmeister was escaped.

Reunited in Terezin with his original cast, the composer reconstructed the full score adapting it to the musical instruments and musicians available in the camp: flute, clarinet, guitar, accordion, piano, percussion, four violins, a cello and a double bass. Zelenka once again designed a set and the opera was readied for performance. On September 23rd, 1943 Brundibár premiered in Terezin and was performed 55 times in the following year.

Subjugated for German propaganda purposes, Brundibár was staged as a special performance in 1944 for representatives of the Red Cross, who inspected the living conditions in the camp. Prior to this special performance, many of Terezin’s inmates were sent to Auschwitz to reduce crowding during the Red Cross visit.

Briefly, the plot of Brundibár The plot of the opera shares common elements with older, established fairytales. Aninka (anglo – Annette)and Pepíček (Little Joe) are orphaned siblings. Their mother is terribly sick, her doctor prescribing milk to recover. Being destitute, the children do not have money to purchase their mother’s much needed milk. The pair elects to sing in the marketplace, begging to raise money. But an evil organ grinder Brundibár rules the marketplace as his own and scares the siblings away. However, a sparrow, cat, and dog, and the area children of the town run Brundibár off and sing in the market square.

It would be difficult to have found a more sympathetic conductor for this special piece of music than Seattle Symphony’s own Gerard Schwarz nor a more empathetic ensemble than Seattle’s Music of Remembrance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust musicians and their art through performance, education, and recordings like this one. The orchestra performs the opera plaintively evoking the necessary admixture of sadness, joy, memory, and hope that such a composition should evoke.

Tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Maureen McKay perform the roles of Aninka and Pepíček with innocence and wonder. Baritone Morgan Smith sings with elegantly foreboding as Brundibár, carefully avoiding caricature. The less roles also shine. Contralto David Korn sings with a nuzzle as the Cat. The small orchestra goes far in capturing what must have been the cloistered confines of the camp as the end approached. This is affecting and effecting music in any estimation.


Hans Krasa - Brundibár: Act One; Serenade; Act Two; Overture for Small Orchestra; Lori Laitman – I Never Saw Another Butterfly: The Butterfly, Yes, That’s the Way Things Are, Bird Song, The Garden, Man Proposes, God Disposes; The Old House.


Music of Remembrance, Gerard Schwarz, Conductor; Northwest Boychoir, Craig Sheppard: piano; Maureen McKay: Soprano; Laura DeLuca: Clarinet.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007