When Arno Nadel, in his last letter before being deported to the concentration camp of Buchenwald, invoked God’s protection over ‘Holy Germany, the wise nation of poets and thinkers,’ he did not and probably could not, foresee his death in Auschwitz in 1943. Nadel was convinced that after its ‘bloody detours and mistakes’ Germany would eventually find its way back to ‘freedom of the spirit and the noble arts’. Despite his tragic belief in Germany, Nadel could not escape his fate.
Nadel’s talents were highly versatile: he was an accomplished arranger, composer, conductor, painter, poet, and playwright. He also became a collector of Jewish music, and in the 1920s and 1930s compiled an anthology of synagogue and Eastern European Jewish folk music. Indeed, Nadel was deemed an authority on Jewish music during his lifetime. The art historian Max Osborn praised Nadel as a ‘gifted human being of blessed creativity’.
Born in Vilna, Russian Lithuania, on 3 October 1878 into a Chassidic family, Nadel began his musical education in Königsberg under the renowned cantor Eduard Birnbaum, and continued under Robert Schwalm. In 1895 he enrolled in the Jüdische Lehrerbildungsanstalt (Jewish Teacher Training Institute) in Berlin, and upon graduation in 1900 settled there and began further studies in composition with Max Julius Loewengard and Ludwig Mendelsohn. Among his earliest compositions is the Trauermarsch auf den Tod der Kaiserin Friedrich (Funeral march on the death of Emperor Friedrich, 1901) and Der Parom (The Ferry, 1910). He also wrote chamber music, including two string quartets, a quintet, a suite for two pianos and lieder.
From 1903 onwards, Nadel was responsible for the music supplement of the Jewish Zionist journal Ost und West, and had the same role from 1916 to 1918 for Martin Buber’s journal Der Jude. He also worked as music critic for Vossische Zeitung, Vorwärts, Freiheit and Die Musik, and contributed to other journals and several reference works. In addition, Nadel gave private lessons in music, art history, and literature.
In 1916 he became choir director at the Kottbuser Ufer synagogue, an appointment that later also involved the supervision of musical events at all synagogues in Berlin. During this time he increasingly devoted himself to composing and arranging works centred on traditional synagogue song, biblical cantillation, and Jewish folk music. Most of these pieces were published (Jüdische Liebeslieder, Berlin: Benjamin Harz, 1923; Jontefflieder, Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1919) or served as musical supplements to his articles in the Gemeindeblatt der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin. With the exception of Zemirot shabat: Die häuslichen Sabbatgesänge (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1937), many of his great compositions written after 1933 only survive in manuscript. A typical case is the Orgelvorspiel über hebräische Motive, which premiered in March 1936 at the Friedenstempel in Berlin with Herman Schwarz at the organ, and the 1940 blessing setting Der Herr segne und behüte dich for male chorus and soloists. The Prelude to the film Hebräische Melodie of 1935 is one of his few works to be recorded.
Nadel’s compositions fulfilled several functions: they were performed during concerts and in synagogue services; in lecture-recitals they also took on an educational dimension, introducing a Jewish audience to different types of music, both on a theoretical and practical level.
In 1923, the Berlin Jewish community commissioned Nadel to compile and arrange new music for their liturgy. This resulted in a seven-volume manuscript compendium of synagogue music for cantor, choir, and organ, completed on 8 November 1938. The anthology reflects Nadel’s passion for collecting from the vast repertoire of Jewish music, and features Eastern European folk and synagogue song, as well as cantorial music, which he believed should be arranged in an artful manner. Nadel collected old manuscripts of Jewish liturgical music (for instance, he owned the Hannoversches Kompendium of 1744) and had also saved the repertoire he encountered when studying under Eduard Birnbaum in Königsberg. Thus, Birnbaum’s handwritten scores and inscribed manuscripts became part of Nadel’s extensive music library.
Nadel’s greatest and best transmitted output is as a writer. He wrote several librettos, seven dramas, and over 2,000 poems and cycles inspired by Polish and Russian Jewish theatre. Among his milestones is the poetry collection Der Ton: Die Lehre von Gott und Leben (The tone: A study on God and life) of 1920. As an Expressionist, Nadel gained the greatest popularity in the early 1920s with poetry influenced by the spiritual philosophy of Taoism. In 1923, some of these poems were published as a chapbook. His poetry collection Der weissagende Dionysos of 1925 is the result of 25 years of writing. By 1935, a dozen books containing Nadel’s poems had been published and distributed throughout Germany. Since 1910, Nadel’s poetry had been compared favourably to the works of the great German lyrical poets – Alfred Mombert, Theodor Daubler and Oscar Loerke – but with the advent of Nazism, any further publication of his poetic work was prohibited.
Not until 1918, comparatively late, did Nadel devote himself to painting. Rooted both in Judaism and Expressionism, Nadel created the cycle Vierzig Gestalten der Bibel (Forty Biblical Characters) and many self-portraits.
Although Nadel was able to obtain an exit visa to England, he was too weak and dispirited to make the journey. On 12 March 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp where he was murdered the same year.
Before his deportation, Nadel left his entire library with a neighbour who managed to save a good part of the material. After the war, the neighbour returned it to Nadel’s estate. An avid collector and personal friend of Nadel, Eric Mandell, acquired the collection from the Nadel family and brought it with his own collection to the United States. It lies uncatalogued in the Gratz College Archive in Philadelphia. Nadel’s diaries were saved by the painter Käthe Kollwitz.
By Tina Frühauf
Arno Nadel Collection. Gratz College Archives, Philadelphia.
Eric Werner Collection. Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
Berl, H. (1926). Das Judentum in der Musik, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.
Kasack, H. (1956). ‘Arno Nadel.’ Mosaiksteine: Beitrage zu Literatur und Kunst. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 243–48.
Keller, M., (Ed.). (2006). Erich Mendel/Eric Mandell: Zwei Leben für die Synagoge. Essen, Klartext.