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Degenerate Music at the Manchester Jewish Museum

February 5, 2016 Bands & Gigs, Heritage, Museums, Music Comments Off on Degenerate Music at the Manchester Jewish Museum
A cartoon from the museum's exhibition

Like many people I have, as they say, a bit of Jewish blood in me. As such, I’ve grown increasingly curious about this part of my heritage. The horrors of Nazi rule and the desire to build a new life meant that the Jewish part of my immediate family barely mentioned their roots, perhaps even suppressed it.

Thankfully, as a stirring concert at the Manchester Jewish Museum demonstrates, at least one part of the culture is very much alive and accessible to a new generation.

Baritone Peter Brathwaite is the man behind Degenerate Music: Music Banned by the NazisAfter being raised in the local area by parents from Nigeria and Barbados, the young star moved away and has since worked around the world as a multi award-winning, rising star of opera. It wasn’t until he saw a pamphlet for the Nazi’s bizarre Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibition that he fully appreciated the richness of the Jewish culture in his home turf, and had the idea for a solo show. The performance of Degenerate Music I saw was a one-off for the Jewish Museum but it will be on in London in May.

And what a venue. Located on an unremarkable stretch of Cheetham Hill Road at the heart of what was Manchester’s old Jewish community, it is a glorious former synagogue – a Moorish-inspired, stained-glass, cast-iron triumph of a building and a marvellous place for a concert. It is the only Jewish Museum outside of London and is about to get bigger and better: a much needed, multi-million pound National Lottery-funded extension is planned and should be completed by 2019. The synagogue core will remain intact, while the interesting albeit somewhat tired museum collection will get a new home.

Show poster for Nazi's 1938 exhibition of ‘Degenerate Music’If you’ve never been in a synagogue, it’s a bit like a chapel, with pews and an upper deck. But this one is marvellously dark and cosy with mysterious iron screens here and there. With a glass of kosher red wine (I did ask – something about the type of barrel apparently), it’s a perfect place to listen to music and reflect, or just visit. You’ll certainly feel like you’ve discovered something special.

Back to the concert. Brathwaite has sifted through the Nazi programme of ‘inferior and ultimately dangerous’ music, particularly jazz and Jewish songs, and selected pieces from composers including Brecht, Weill and Hollaender. Between songs he reads twisted snatches of the Entartete Musik pamphlet. Isn’t is odd, by the way, that the Nazis put on an exhibition of something they loathed?

Much of the music they so detested is pretty obscure these days, not to mention occasionally atonal and sometimes downright weird. More than a little alcohol was consumed in its composition, I suspect, and I doubt it would have pleased the grand old men of the synagogues at the time either. Indeed, in the wrong hands this revival could have been a disaster. Thankfully this is another age, and I can report that Brathwaite’s recital gained lift-off.

Peter Brathwaite introduces his musicThe key is the sheer quality of the performance and staging. With classy accompaniment by Nigel Foster, Brathwaite brings the pieces alive by acting his way through every note and phrase, his handsome face doing as much work as his versatile larynx. And credit should go to James Symonds who has created a digital backdrop merging lyrics, haunting flame-licked photos and blood-drenched cobbled streets, all with an unexpected filmic twist at the end which left me virtually in tears.

The concert’s setting magnified the performance’s power because it made us feel so rooted in the past. The very existence of the Jewish Museum is testament to the extent to which Jews helped to shape modern Manchester. Prosperous merchants defined shopping areas like Deansgate and St Ann’s Square in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Later, waves of poorer orthodox Eastern European Jews, fleeing persecution, added a new diversity to areas like Cheetham Hill.

As the population prospered it moved away from central Manchester. But areas like Prestwich still have thriving Jewish communities and their physical legacy lives on in beautiful old synagogues in boroughs like Didsbury and Fallowfield, and many more in Cheetham Hill. Many are now closed or re-purposed but some are still stunning and worth exploring.

The museum reflects the changing faces of Cheetham Hill and Manchester. It is now staging concerts of Asian music, evolving for a new era. Brathwaite’s concert, the venue, the performer and the area are all powerful reminders of the positive potential of migrants to transform and create.

By Harry Kretchmer

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For more information about the Manchester Jewish Museum, click here

Future performances of Degenerate Music: Music Banned by the Nazis: May 5, 2016, JW3, London; May 26, 2016, Schubert Society of Great Britain, London

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