One could argue that music — or, quite literally, an instrument — saved composer Samuel Adler’s life when he and his father were trapped in a synagogue a few days after Kristallnacht in 1938 in Mannheim, Germany.
Adler, then 10 years old, accompanied his father to their synagogue, which had been badly damaged during the nearly two-day pogrom in which Nazis throughout the country destroyed houses of worship along with Jewish homes and businesses.
Hugo Chaim Adler, who had served as the synagogue’s cantor, wanted to rescue the traditional German-Jewish music stored there. While on the third floor collecting the documents — father and son had snuck in through an underground tunnel — the young boy sneezed because of all the dust.
There were Nazis on the premises and when one of them heard the noise, he ordered others to investigate and to “shoot on sight,” Samuel Adler recalled in a recent interview.
But as the soldiers climbed the stairs, a large organ from the choir loft fell on them, allowing the Adlers to escape by way of the tunnel — with piles of sheet music. The Adler family eventually got out of Germany, making sure the music came with them to America.
“That the organ fell at that moment, when they were going to go upstairs and shoot us, is what is so miraculous,” said Adler, now 85, who has composed more than 400 works of music.
On the 75th anniversary of that traumatic event, Adler, a member of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, will once again honor his father by showing that the music for which he risked his life remains alive.
Adler’s Stars in the Dust cantata — which mixes melodies from traditional German-Jewish music, ancient Jewish songs, American pop tunes and music associated with the Nazi regime — will be performed on Nov. 10 at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. Jonathan Coopersmith, the chair of musical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, will conduct the performance, which will feature members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia Singers.
In the piece, Adler places the demise of the once-vibrant German-Jewish life, which he portrays through the melodies of “Ki Mitziyon” and other prayers in larger context. He makes lyrical and melodic references to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (the sound of a shofar); the West’s apathy to what was happening in 1930s Europe (with the political jingle “Wintergreen for President”); and the Nazis’ efforts to eradicate Jewish life (the melody of “Ein Keloheinu” intertwined with the German national anthem, “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles”).
The cantata, which Adler composed with the late Samuel Rosenbaum, a cantor in Rochester, N.Y., for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, concludes with the narrator asking “What are we to learn from Kristallnacht?” Adler’s continuing faith in God and his optimistic view of building a future despite the Nazis are revealed in the finals words of Stars in the Dust: “Let there be born again by your word a new dawn, a new hope, a new song, a new day without night!”
“I’m always a person that likes to have reconciliation,” said Adler, who will be in attendance at Har Zion. In the composition, he said, he shows “that since we’re still alive, we have to praise God.”
After leaving Germany, Adler’s family settled in Worcester, Mass., where his father spent 17 years as a cantor. The son then followed his father into music, attending Boston and Harvard universities and learning from luminaires such as composer Aaron Copland. He has spent his career creating both secular and liturgical music.
When a dozen synagogues from the United States approached Adler about writing a piece to commemorate Kristallnacht 25 years ago, the musician said he was wary of accepting the offer.
“I’ve always felt that music and the Holocaust don’t do well together, but since I actually was there and had a great deal of anxiety and fright from the Kristallnacht,” he said, he decided to do it.
Eliot Vogel, Har Zion’s cantor, was part of the group that originally commissioned Adler to write the piece and led efforts to organize the upcoming concert.
“I think that observing Kristallnacht should bring one to an attitude of wanting to work to preserve our freedom,” Vogel said. “Because freedom, like glass, is fragile and it can’t be left unguarded.”
Vogel, who will sing the baritone solo during the performance, described Adler’s piece as “a memorial to the precious legacy he received from his father.” Of the composer, he said “he’s a very optimistic person. He’s very humanitarian. There’s no bitterness; there’s no melancholy in this work.”