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Musical Memorial to Prewar Book Burning

May 17, 2013 By:
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Pianist Hal Freedman

May 10 marked the 80th anniversary of one of the most chilling events of prewar Nazi Germany. It was on that date that the German Student Association, a Nazi-backed and affiliated group of college and graduate students, organized a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” The “action,” which took place across the country on college campuses and in town squares, involved burning tens of thousands of books deemed by the students to be “un-German” — liberal, Communist, pacifist and, of course, Jewish. The event was the latest and clearest indicator at the time of how the Nazis planned to control every aspect of German society.

With a very few exceptions — the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., held events in observance of the anniversary — the date has faded, its import lessened by the overwhelming scope of horrific events in need of commemoration.

One of those who marked the anniversary was Hal Freedman, a Philadelphia-based classical pianist. Freedman, who has studied with instructors who have been on the faculty at the Curtis Institute, Juilliard and the Moscow Conservatory, released his recording of the piece, “Burning Books” ( "Brennende Bücher"), on YouTube on May 10. The work was written for him by Stephan Beneking, a German composer who Freedman has been collaborating with for some time.

According to Freedman, Beneking, who lives in Berlin, was inspired to write “Burning Books” in no small part because he walks by the Berlin memorial to the book burning, designed by Israeli artist Mischa Ulmann, every day on his way to work.

"I was aware of the book burning, but Stephan really educated me about it," Freedman says. "I was absolutely terrified by the piece, although there is that feeling of hope at the end; the books did survive."

Freedman, who also created the video for the work, says that he and Beneking will continue to collaborate on works that reflect the unique nature of their relationship, one inflected by different cultures, countries and histories, but linked together through their desire to communicate and commemorate through classical music. "We have done two more parts of the cycle of works for piano so far," he says. "The second part is called ‘The White Rose,’ and is about the resistance groups in Germany during World War II. The third part is called ‘The Kiss,’ and is dedicated to the homosexuals murdered in concentration camps." Both compositions will be released on Freedman's YouTube channel within the next month.

To learn more about the 1933 book burnings in Germany, and to see more of the creative process behind the piece, go to soundcloud.com/stephan-beneking/brennende-b-cher-burning-books

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