The Rediscovery of a Great Jewish Composer

Jerzy Fitelberg was a favorite of Aaron Copland and Arthur Rubinstein. Then he was lost to history. Now, sixty years after his death, his music is being played again.

December 3, 2015 | Simon Wynberg
About the author: Simon Wynberg is a chamber musician and artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, a musical group known for its recovery and revival of music lost to political suppression.

Jerzy Fitelberg.

Music that survives only in its written form requires an intermediary, sometimes hundreds of intermediaries, in order to bring it to life. This is one way in which music differs from other arts: no performer, interpreter, or outside actor is needed to experience a novel or a poem, a sculpture or a painting. But the fact that we experience musical pieces through hearing them in time is the source not only of their mysterious power over us but—when they have the misfortune to exist only in the complicated and inexact notation used to write them down—of their potential to be overlooked and lost. A major art gallery will have a keen sense of the extent and quality of its holdings whether or not they are on exhibit at any given moment; by contrast, a national music library or archive can possess the entire corpus of a forgotten composer and have absolutely no idea of its artistic worth.

My work with the ARC Ensemble, a group of chamber musicians based at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, involves finding and assessing music that fell off the map in the wake of World War II and/or was out of sync with the atonalist avant-garde that followed. Seventy years after war’s end, thousands of works remain unexplored, many hiding in plain sight in libraries around the world.

Such is the fate of the Polish-American composer Jerzy (George) Fitelberg, whom I first encountered through his surviving cousin Gary. An unlikely spokesman, Gary, who lives in Los Angeles, was unfamiliar with most of his cousin’s work and had also lost a substantial collection of his manuscripts in a house fire. But he was intent on interesting the ARC Ensemble in Jerzy’s legacy. Spurred by his enthusiasm, I set out to find out what I could.

From the start, so deep was my initial ignorance, I couldn’t help wondering about the burden of so obviously Jewish a name during the first half of the 20th century. Had no one ever suggested that he change it? Giacomo Meyerbeer had begun life as Jacob Liebmann Beer; the conductor Bruno Schlesinger reluctantly agreed to change his name to Bruno Walter; Gershovitz became Gershvin and then the “v” became a “w,” and the Jewish-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky would urge the young Leonard (born Louis) Bernstein that his future depended on a more Gentile family name. We begin journeys with all manner of assumptions, and before I started to research Fitelberg’s music, the name was really all I had. But bite-size online biographies soon enlightened me: despite the dislocations of war, Jerzy had in fact enjoyed public success on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Fitelberg whom today’s Poles tend to know about is Jerzy’s father, Grzegorz (Gregory). Jewish by birth, Catholic by conviction, the elder Fitelberg was both a conductor and a composer. In his long association with the Warsaw Philharmonic and the Polish National Radio Orchestra, he introduced a modern repertoire that included hundreds of premieres of works by Polish composers. As a composer, he is remembered as one of the founding members of the Młoda Polska (“Young Poland”) movement; a terrific orchestral work by him, The Song of the Falcon, inspired by Gorky’s poem of the same name, has had a place in Polish music since its composition in 1905.

As for the son’s musical output, I was able when I began my search in 2011 to uncover a single recording of a seven-minute, neo-Baroque piano sonata in one movement, composed at the age of twenty-three, and, online, a version of his second string quartet expanded for orchestra. I had better luck finding the music in written form. In 1978, the conductor Emil Kahn, a friend of Jerzy, had donated a large collection of Fitelberg manuscripts to the New York Public Library. (They had most likely been bequeathed to him by the composer’s widow, Tamara.) On a weekend at the library’s Lincoln Center branch, I delved into most of the 22 boxes of compositions and personal papers and set about ordering scans.


Jerzy Fitelberg was born in Warsaw on May 20, 1903. Precociously gifted, he was trained at first by his father; his apprenticeship included a brief stint as an orchestral percussionist under the elder Fitelberg’s baton. Tracing a route common to many of his Polish contemporaries, Jerzy then studied at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he focused on piano and composition, and spent time abroad. At Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik, arguably Europe’s finest academy, he worked with Walter Gmeindl and the highly-regarded Franz Schreker. Among the latter’s cohort of extraordinarily variegated students were Alois Hába, who would develop the use of quarter-tones; Max Brand, later a pioneer of electronic music; Ernst Křenek, who moved through jazz to serialism and beyond; and the popular song composer Władysław Szpilman, the subject of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist.

Fitelberg was among the first wave of emigrants to flee Germany after Hitler assumed power in January 1933, and one of thousands who relocated to Paris. There the composer Karol Szymanowski, who had been director of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1926 to 1930, helped establish an organization to sponsor and support Polish émigré musicians. The Association des jeunes musiciens polonaises commissioned works, arranged concerts, and in 1928 convinced a heavyweight jury consisting of Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Albert Roussel, and Arthur Honegger to judge a competition in which Fitelberg won first prize for his second string quartet. Dedicated to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, it was premiered by the distinguished Pro Arte Quartet (itself later relocated to Wisconsin).

Had circumstances been different, the prestigious award might well have marked the beginning of an august European career for the twenty-five-year-old composer. But by the end of September 1939 Poland was under German occupation, and by May of the following year a huge force was preparing to invade Western Europe and expunge the humiliation of Versailles. Fleeing France, Fitelberg made his way to Genoa and thence by ship to New York, where he arrived on May 15, 1940, five days after Hitler began his march on Paris. Tamara joined him in September of the following year, followed shortly thereafter by Grzegorz and his new young wife.

Jerzy became an American citizen in 1947, by which time he had become known on both sides of the Atlantic. The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) included his works in many of its festivals, and a number of pieces were published in Paris and New York. His Nocturne for orchestra premiered in 1946 with the Philharmonic Symphony, now the New York Philharmonic. The conductor was Artur Rodziński, who also lauded the work in a letter to Dmitri Mitropoulos, then the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony:

When I tell you that I really do not remember ever before being so impressed with a contemporary composition, perhaps it will express my tremendous admiration and love I have for a piece of music like [Fitelberg’s] Nocturne. I am sure that, should you decide to perform it next season you will share my enthusiasm for this composition.

Rodziński was not alone. In an application for a Guggenheim grant, Fitelberg also listed the pianist Arthur Rubinstein and the composers Frederick Jacobi and Aaron Copland as references. Copland, who had spent time with him in Berlin, considered Fitelberg “very talented indeed.” Although the Guggenheim application was never submitted, Fitelberg was awarded support by both the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and the Koussevitzky foundations, and in 1945 received a $1,000 grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters “in recognition of his vivid and masterly compositions for orchestra and string quartet which have won him a leading position in the field of contemporary music.”

Jerzy Fitelberg died unexpectedly on April 25, 1951, just weeks short of his forty-eighth birthday. (His father Grzegorz, who after the war had elected to return to Poland, by then effectively annexed by the Soviet Union, outlived him by two years.) His legacy of about 80 works includes, for orchestral forces, three sinfoniettas, Suite for Orchestra, The Golden Harp: Variations on a Polish Folk Song, Etude for Orchestra, Les Adventures de Mickey, and Henny Penny, an opera for children. He left two violin concertos and two piano concertos, one cello concerto, and a concertino for trombone, piano, and strings. He composed the music for two films, Poland Fights On and Polish Pictures, and other works specifically for radio.

Among Fitelberg’s chamber works, in addition to six string quartets, there are various vocal, wind, and other pieces, a-cappella arrangements of Polish folksongs, an octet for winds and strings, a Rhapsody for four pianos, and a sonata for two pianos and two violins. Other chamber pieces include a Serenade for violin and piano, which had its premiere in 1943 with the young Isaac Stern accompanied by Fitelberg’s cousin Alexander Zakin, and a Serenade and solo sonata for cello dedicated to the maestro Gregor Piatigorsky. Finally there are additional solo works for violin, piano, organ, and harp. Fitelberg completed his Concertino da Camera for violin and piano just days before he died. Three lighter pieces, “Lost Fantasies,” “Silverblue,” and “A Timely Tale,” were composed under the pseudonym Steve Terry.

The six string quartets present a fascinating overview of Fitelberg’s musical development. The first is a beautifully crafted and energetic neo-Baroque piece in which, drawing on the form of the classical serenade, the first and last movements are identical, providing the piece with musical bookends. The second quartet combines sections characterized by a jazzy, Stravinsky-like energy and bright, singable melodies with sections displaying a curiously prescient minimalism (though thankfully nothing like the late-20th-century’s signature contribution of death by endless rippling chords); its middle movement is unsentimental and austerely beautiful. The remaining four quartets, composed over a twenty-year period and tugging at the edges of tonality, are progressively more complex in both their musical and technical demands. The fifth premiered at the ICSM Festival hosted in London in 1946. The sixth still awaits performance.


Today, six decades after his death, Jerzy Fitelberg is being reintroduced to the musical public. The ARC Ensemble, which has performed a number of his chamber works in concert halls, has recently released the first CD dedicated to his music (Chandos 10877). His concertino for piano and trombone is included on a recording of works by Polish exiles, Poland Abroad (Vol. 6, EDA).

Why have these initiatives had to wait so many years? Part of the explanation resides in the repercussions of World War II. Like so many exiled musicians who found refuge in America, Fitelberg lost not just family and friends but much of his musical network and cultural constituency. Nor, for him as for others, was return an attractive option. While extended separation enabled Polish émigrés like Fitelberg to develop a more cosmopolitan sensibility, in the end neither Poland nor the United States assumed ownership of their music. More personally, Fitelberg’s early death may also have been a factor in the relative negligence of his work in particular.

Further damage was inflicted by the anti-traditional animus of the postwar musical avant-garde, with its intolerance of anything that smacked of the familiar, or of the open-minded pluralism epitomized by Franz Schreker in his years as mentor to young musicians in Berlin. As a consequence, many Jewish (and non-Jewish) composers who fled the Nazis found themselves marginalized once again, this time by a rigorously enforced artistic parochialism. Europe lay in ruins, the atomic age had been ushered in at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new world had been born. Greeting it was a movement hell-bent on reinventing music. “New music” was not simply music newly composed; newness now required an active dismissal of the tonal heritage of the past.

Artistically, as it happens, many of the composers whose work had been denounced as entartet (degenerate) by the Nazis were relatively conservative, and some of their compositions might even have found favor with the regime had their authors not been Jewish. But to the new-music fraternity, these traditionally-minded composers were reactionaries; some went so far as to claim that their music had contributed to a cultural climate in which fascism could flourish. Even Arnold Schoenberg, loathed by the Reich for his dissonant music as much as for his ethnicity, was now deemed obsolete. The more radical avant-gardistes proposed discarding the musical canon altogether. Fortunately, audiences and the marketplace guaranteed that this would remain a fantasy.

Of course, like any new arrival from out of the past, Fitelberg’s music must face questions on the order of “Well, how good is it really?,” “How substantial was its loss?,” and “Don’t we have enough 20th-century music to keep us occupied without dredging up more?” While noting parenthetically that no one seems impelled to ask similar questions about newly uncovered or rediscovered literary works, I would answer first of all by citing the fact that Fitelberg’s music comes with credentials, having garnered the plaudits of distinguished contemporaries as well as prizes, awards, performances by musical eminences, and dedications of works to him by others. Second, and more recently, audiences and critics have greeted performances of his work with enthusiasm.

Perhaps questions about musical quality should be framed another way. Now that works by Fitelberg and others have been performed and recorded, yielding much pleasure and admiration in the process, how happy would we be to “undo” our acquaintance with them and consign them again to anonymity?

Another question is this: “Is the music durable, and will it survive?” Mieczysław Weinberg, whose opera The Passenger has also enjoyed a remarkable revival, was little-known outside Russia until about a dozen years ago. The ARC Ensemble’s debut recording included the first modern performance of his memorable piano quintet, a previously unknown work of which there are now five more commercial recordings. Musicians familiar with the quintet agree that it is one of the 20th century’s great chamber works. Yet it is still only occasionally performed.

Contemporary concert life, certainly in North America, appears committed to recycling a shrinking number of great works; unfamiliar pieces by obscure composers are seldom given a chance. The system is inherently resistant to expansion—and, truth to tell, there is nothing new in that. Liszt’s B-minor sonata, composed in 1853 and now regarded as the apogee of Romantic piano music, waited 50 years before being included in recitals, and much longer before becoming widely accepted. But these days its inclusion is almost compulsory. Mahler’s symphonies returned to the concert platform in the 1950s after an absence of some 40 years. They, too, are now ubiquitous.

So a number of factors go into determining the kind and variety of music we do or don’t hear. But sheer artistic merit should be one of them, and ideally the weightiest of all. In the case of Jewish composers banned during the Hitler years, exclusion generally had nothing to do with the nature or quality of their music. It was the Reich’s unhinged racial ideology that defined them as artistically worthless and—in daring to participate in a tradition to which they allegedly had no right to belong—fraudulent as well. In this respect, those of us involved in reviving these suppressed works see their ongoing neglect as a pyrrhic victory for Hitler and their recovery as a moral obligation.

Intrinsic excellence is critical, and promoting second-rate works cannot be justified on grounds of ostracism or victimization. But the work of first-rate composers like Jerzy Fitelberg, whose journey into oblivion was the direct result of nothing but ideological politics, speaks for itself, and deserves its rightful place in the firmament of musical art.

My thanks to Bob Elias of the Orel Foundation, Los Angeles, for his advice and observations. And special thanks to Charles and Robyn Krauthammer, whose Pro Musica Hebraica series presented the first U.S. performance of Fitelberg’s second quartet at Washington’s Kennedy Center on May 7, 2015.