Playbill Notes on Jerzy Fitelberg

String Quartet No. 2 (1928)
Born 1903, Warsaw
Died 1951, New York

Jerzy Fitelberg belongs to a generation of Jews who helped turn the Polish avant-garde into a major source of cultural creativity in inter war Europe. He began his studies under his father, Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953), himself a well-known composer and conductor who regularly led the Warsaw Philharmonic and Polish National Radio Orchestra. Fitelberg pere‘s associations with such luminaries as Witold Lutosławski and Karol Szymanowski and his role in launching the “Young Poland” group of Polish composers before World War I earned him an enduring place in the history of Polish music to this day. Young Jerzy graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory, then relocated to Berlin to work under Franz Schreker and Walter Gmenidl in the years 1922 to 1926.

It was in Berlin in the late 1920s that Fitelberg began to make an international name for himself. His chamber music compositions found enthusiastic support from the fellow composers of the International Society for Contemporary Music, an organization founded in 1922 to promote modern music and cultural ties between composers across Europe. The ISCM’s Festival began to feature his works in 1926 and continued to do so up until 1951. Buoyed by this exposure, he achieved an international following in the 1930s, capped by the award of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Award from the Library of Congress in 1936.

Following the Nazi rise to power in1933, Fitelberg migrated to Paris. He remained there until fleeing by ship from Italy in 1940. In 1943 his Serenade for Violin or Viola and Piano premiered in New York with Isaac Stern performing. The New York Philharmonic featured a symphonic work the following year. He became an American citizen in 1947 and lived out the brief remainder of his life on the Upper West Side of New York. Yet he never established a foothold in either the American or European postwar musical scenes. As his friend, the American Jewish composer Frederic Jacobi wrote in the New York Times upon his death in 1951, “A highly gifted composer has just died; Jerzy Fitelberg, who was one of Hitler’s gifts to the United States … His compositions are still insufficiently known in the America…[They] deserve a hearing.”

Some of Fitelberg’s earliest works evoke “a mysterious world somewhere between Alban Berg and Richard Strauss,” according to ARC Artistic Director Simon Wynberg. To this tonal space Fitelberg eventually added a melange of arresting rhythms, elaborate counterpoint, and folkloric gestures. His emotional modernism and “inward propulsive power,” as one New York Times critic described it, remained on display across his oeuvre, which included a ViolinConcerto (1928), choral and orchestral works, including his 1946 Obrazy polskie (Polish Pictures) and 1947 Concertino for Trombone, Piano and String Orchestra, and a 1949 children’s opera, Henny Penny.

Fitelberg’s Second String Quartet was written in 1928 and dedicated to the French conductor Ernst Ansermet. Fitelberg submitted the manuscript to an international competition held in Paris, sponsored by the Polish government. After winning first prize, it was published by Universal Editions in Vienna in 1931. Yet it has been rarely heard since in its original version. Instead, a later version for string orchestra has stood in its place. Now, thanks to a copy recovered from Fitelberg’s papers at the New York Public Library, it can be heard in its pristine original conception. It also features on the ARC Ensemble’s forthcoming CD, Jerzy Fitelberg Chamber Music (Chandos). A three-movement composition, the Quartet mixes a whiff of French neoclassicism with an East European rhythmic intensity. One can hear the spirit of the 1920s East Central Europe, a modernist throb still laced with the sentimental accents and lyrical swells of Late Romanticism. The first movement opens with a fast-paced romp in which the violins trace rising and falling chromatic lines on top of a churning lower register. The pulsing energy continues to ripple through the movement even as the instruments pass the melody pattern back and forth and come to rest at various cadence points. The scrambling, insistent bass and chuff bowing almost evoke a minimalist style. But this effect is tempered by soaring lyrical lines that periodically enter and exit.

The slow second movement strikes an elegiac tone. Fitelberg wrests a certain sweetness out of a series of dissonant scalar patterns. Over the course of the movement, this angular melodicism yields to a breathy lyrical beauty. The final movement returns to a gnarled knot of uptempo aggression. Halfway through, however, it too turns tender. A quiet shimmer, with simple chordal progression oscillating over and over again, closes the piece on a ruminative note. Taken together, the piece neatly captures the restive, searching soul of the interwar Polish Jewish avant-garde.


–Playbill notes by James Loeffler

Before The Night: Jewish Classical Masterpieces oPre-1933 Europe (May 7, 2015)