Instruments of Discord – The Times Hub


23 November 2021

The piano by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), whose collection was looted by the Nazis, in 1940. AB PRODUCTIONS 2021


The spoliations carried out by the Nazis on French Jewish property during the Occupation were both fully informed, locating the works of art left in the apartments “left vacant” (to use the secular expression) by their occupants, and carried out ” blindly “. By raiding anything that could be found there.

This is what coldly showed The looting of Jewish apartments: Operation Furniture (2020) by Cyril Denvers, broadcast in May on France 5, a documentary in which the case of musical instruments was only very marginally mentioned. On the other hand, it is central in this, exceptional, Isabelle Gendre, Looted music: the Nazis’ secret treasure (2020).

This film tells in particular – through the voice of André Manoukian – the history and the journey, in Silesia and Bavaria, of the very rich and beautiful collection of instruments and old scores that the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959 ) kept in it. house and concert hall, in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt (Val-d’Oise), inaugurated in 1927.

She was dispossessed by the Nazis in 1940 (who went so far as to steal soap from her house!), After her departure in the free zone, then the forced exile of Landowska in the United States, in 1941, where she settled. . for the rest of his life with his partner and assistant, Denise Restout (1915-2004). The Nazis knew very well what they were going to find in his house, and in particular they were eyeing the piano on which Frédéric Chopin would have written part of his Preludes, in Mallorca, in 1838.

Pianos in submarines

The story (quite ironic) of this piano is one of the nuggets of this documentary, where we learn a thousand things, reported by historians, musicians, instrument makers and musicologists. For example, how shipments of upright pianos are requisitioned to be shipped to Germany, to schools, but not only: certain instruments will join… German submarines, where music was also made.

Another anecdote – but the anecdotes in this area are still significant: how Léon Blum, on his return from the Buchenwald camp, spent his efforts to recover his Bechstein grand piano, which he could not prove. origin. His request was naturally accepted and fruitful, as was the case with about half of those who claimed their instrument from the Service for the Restitution of Property of Victims of Laws and Measures of Spoliation.

The documentary (the first to provide an in-depth account of Nazi musical spoliations) also focuses on musical life in the Krakow ghetto and in the concentration camps. Subjects as fascinating as they are poignant, but more covered by historians and documentary filmmakers. However, the music of the camps is linked to the history of certain instruments that may have been introduced there by some deportees.

The provenance and history of these found instruments, including the most modest, are essential, as Pascale Bernheim recalls, who founded, with lawyer Corinne Hershkovitch, the Music and Spoliations association. And it’s heartbreaking to see Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein giving them the care he would give to a noble Stradivarius. Because, he said, “Before the gas chamber, the last words were spoken by these violins…”.

Looted Music: the secret treasure of the Nazis, documentary by Isabelle Gendre (Fr., 2020, 50 min).

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