Wilhelm Rettich was a German Jewish composer, conductor and teacher. He fled Germany for the Netherlands in 1933 and survived the Nazi occupation by hiding alone in a cellar and composing music. Although he is not particularly well known today, Rettich’s music is highly regarded. His repertoire consists of chamber music, symphonic music, choral works and Lieder.
Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1892, Rettich studied piano and composition with Max Reger at the Leipzig Conservatory, despite having had relatively little formal theory training. He worked as a répétiteur at the Leipzig Opera from 1912 before being drafted into the German army during the First World War. Rettich was held in Siberia by the Russians as a prisoner of war. Whilst imprisoned he composed an opera, König Tod (King Death) to a text by fellow inmate Franz Lestan, the music for which was inspired by Russian and Chinese folk songs. In Siberia he also formed an orchestra using instruments that the prisoners had made themselves.
Rettich taught piano lessons in Russia after the October Revolution, before making his way back to Germany in 1920 via China and Austria. During 1923-28 he arranged works by the German Jewish poet Else Lasker-Shüler into a song cycle, Zyklus, Op. 26A. König Tod was premiered in Stettin (then in Germany, now Szczecin in Poland) in 1928. After the First World War Rettich worked for Leipzig Radio as a conductor and composer, before moving to Berlin in 1930 to work for Berlin Radio and the Schiller Theatre. He composed a choral work, Fluch des Krieges (The Curse of War) for solo singers, choir and orchestra, based on poetry by Li Tai Po that he had become familiar with in China.
When Hitler came to power in 1933 Rettich was unable to work because he was Jewish; he was also a pacifist and a socialist which made his situation more dangerous. The composer fled to the Netherlands at the earliest opportunity, living in Haarlem from 1934 and changing the spelling of his first name to Willem, to sound more Dutch. Rettich worked for the Dutch broadcasting association VARA, and taught piano and theory until the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, when he lost his job. Rettich moved to Blaricum, a small town east of Amsterdam, where he taught music and gave small concerts. In 1942 he went into hiding in a cellar; neighbours helped to provide him with food. Rettich’s mother and younger brother, who had stayed in hiding in Haarlem, were betrayed in 1943 and were deported and murdered by the Nazis.
Rettich had no access to a piano while in hiding, but he continued to compose nonetheless, and much of the music he composed during this time was based on Jewish themes. Sinfonia Giudaica, Op. 53, was composed whilst in hiding but was not premiered for another 35 years. Its subtitle, ‘In memoriam fratum,’ commemorates the death of his brother. The opening theme of his piano concerto, Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 54, is from an anthology of Hebrew melodies by Rettich’s maternal uncle, ethnomusicologist and composer Abraham Zvi Idelson. Rettich dedicated the piano concerto to his mother.
Rettich returned to Haarlem after the war and became a naturalised Dutch citizen, working as a conductor and teacher. He married the singer Elsa Barther in the Netherlands, and they moved back to Germany in 1964, settling in Baden-Baden. Rettich died in 1988.
By Abaigh McKee
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