In 1941, Pavel Haas was emerging as one of his generation's finest and most recognizable composers. In 1944 -- only months before the cessation of war in Europe -- Haas was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The three intervening years were spent at a horrible, peculiar way-station known as Terezín.
Founded as a fortress city in 1780, Terezín was intended to reinforce the Austro-Hungarian border with Germany. Never tested as a fortress, it was used as a military prison, and in the years 1941-1944 it served the Nazi régime as a concentration camp for deported Jews. Not primarily a hard labor camp, and not used for mass executions, Terezín nevertheless claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners.
Terezín's most distinguishing characteristic was its secondary use: propaganda. The Nazis made a great number of films in order to allay international concern over the treatment of Jews, and, and in an attempt to conceal to truth, they encouraged an unusually diverse cultural life among the prisoners. As a result, a large number of artists, writers and musicians found themselves allowed, even encouraged, to create and perform. Art work and music among Jewish prisoners of World War II is, of course, not unique to Terezín, but the sheer volume of surviving material and documentation make it a special case for study.
Haas, who originally avoided composition at Terezín due to poor health and depression, wrote his Four Songs on Chinese Poetry in early 1944 at the request of Karel Berman, a young Bass who was preparing a recital of Lieder. The premiere -- by Berman and pianist Rafael Schächter on 22 May 1944 -- received such an enthusiastic reception that the entire program was repeated on several occasions before the singer's shipment to Auschwitz the following October (Fortunately, he survived Auschwitz and went on to a prominent career as a singer, conductor, and stage director. His later recording of Haas' Four Songs is still available on CD).
The texts of Four Songs come from writers of the Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth century), considered the golden age of classical Chinese poetry. They were translated into Czech in the early 1900s by Bohumil Matthesius, a poet and literary critic, as part of a collection that is still well-known among the Czech people. They are rich with sentiments of longing -- for home and for loved ones -- which must have seemed all too poignant to Haas, who left his wife and child behind when he was deported.
The musical element which unifies these songs is a fragment from the Chorale to St. Wenceslaus, the patron saint of the Czech lands and people. Haas has extracted the four notes that make up Wenceslaus' name in the chorale and used them as a recurring motive, most notably in the first and third songs. The reference to the chorale -- representing home and freedom -- would have been plainly apparent to other Czech prisoners and, in fact, can be heard in Haas' other compositions from Terezín.