Hélène Berr and César Franck’s Violin Sonata

  • December 28, 2014
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You will probably remember what I told you about César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano recently: that I considered it one of the most beautiful violin sonatas I knew, that I had found a partner who will accompany me on the piano (even if not in all movements; it is very difficult even for professional pianists) and that I had decided to take up violin lessons again to improve my own playing. And that this had all come about by chance during the music week we had in France in the summer, where two participants performed the last movement. (I had once played the Franck sonata or rather tried to play it myself years ago.) Yesterday I came across this sonata again per chance and in a very different context.

In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma has published a fasci­nating, moving, and disturbing review of six books about occupied Paris, under the subtitle “The Sweet and the Cruel”. You get the impression of a schizophrenic city: near to normal on the one hand (the Nazis wanted it to look normal; the situation in capitals and major cities in Eastern Europe was much, much different), gruesome and cruel on the other; a division also supported by opportunism, indifference, or simply the urge to live on as well as possible under the circumstances. Most Parisians had this choice, resistance was not necessary in a city where compromise was encouraged. And for genuine collaborators, life was really “sweet”. There was also a large grey area in between. The really bad guys usually weren’t the compro­misers, but the French fascists, who went against their kin on their own. (That I know from Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe”, about which I will tell you more some other time.)

For the Jews, however, no grey area existed. Hélène Berr, born in 1920, was one of them. She didn’t consider herself Jewish, by the way, but when the Nazis enforced the separation upon her she decided to accept it and to resist early on and as proudly as she could. She joined a network to save Jewish children from deportation, and she also refused to emigrate, although many urged her family to flee. She stayed, because she wanted to preserve her dignity and out of solidarity with other resisters. In April 1942, she began a diary. She felt she had a duty to tell the story, against a predominant tendency among the people around her to look the other way. In March 1944, she and her parents were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where her parents were murdered. She survived Auschwitz and was brought to Bergen-Belsen. There she was beaten to death by a guard, because she was too weak from typhus to get up. This was on April 10, 1945; five days before the liberation of the camp, and 80 days before I was born.

In a postscript to the diary, which was first published in French last year (it is also available in German and in English), her niece Mariette Job tells us that Hélène Berr, while in the camps, often sung melodies from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and from César Francks Sonata for Violin and Piano, to keep up morale: “Dans ce ‘cloaque d’iniquité’, elle n’avait pas renoncé à l’avenir. (…) Elle préservait son âme et aidait ses compagnes à preserver la leur, en chantant ces airs préférés pour tromper sa détresse et celle des autres: les Concertos brandenbourgois et la Sonate pour violon et piano de César Franck.” (Hélène Berr, Journal 1942-1944, 2008, p. 304).

So when I get back to listening, practicing, or playing this beautiful sonata, I will remember Hélène Berr. Under November 30, 1943, she writes: “La seule experience de l’immortalité de l’âme que nous puissions avoir avec sûreté, c’est cette immortalité qui consiste en la persis­tance du souvenir des morts parmi les vivants (ibid., p. 255).”

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