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To Remember September 11, 2001


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

There are many ways to remember September 11, 2001. For the tenth anniversary recognition in Boston we know of three music based events throughout the day. At 2:00 pm at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory and the City of Boston are presenting their (sold out) “Day of Remembrance,” a gala concert with orchestra and soloists that includes the world premiere of an “Interfaith Oratorio” Illuminessence: prayers for peace by Silvio Amato. At 3:00 pm, Tufts University Granoff Center will be offering “Ten Years Later: Musical Responses to 9/11,” consisting of works by faculty members Diana Stefan Anderson, William Kenlon, Kevin Laba, John McDonald, Kevin Warren, and guest composer Stephen Hartke’s with Kenneth Radnofsky, saxophone, and faculty artist Donald Berman, piano among the featured soloists.

New England Conservatory and the City of Boston are presenting their (sold out) “Day of Remembrance” at 2:00 pm on September 11 at Jordan Hall in the form of a gala concert with orchestra and soloists including the world premiere of an “Interfaith Oratorio” Illuminessence: prayers for peace by Silvio Amato.

At 11:00 am, the Goethe-Institut Boston and the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation will present a most unusual way to reflect upon the political and religious intolerance that led to the terrorist bombings. To be shown at the Coolidge Corner Theater, the Institut’s offering is the 1922 silent film Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise) by the German director Manfred Noa, based on the 1779 play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The play, whose title character was modeled on Moses Mendelssohn, the composer’s grandfather, is a plea for peace and reconciliation. It was banned at the time of its creation, as the film was 140 years later.

A beautifully atmospheric, tinted print of the recently rediscovered and restored film will be digitally projected at Coolidge Corner’s main auditorium via BluRay using the theater’s 2k projector, according to the Coolidge’s program manager, Jesse Hassinger. A musical score commissioned by Goethe-Institut Boston from composer Aaron Trant will be performed by three members of his After Quartet. Following are BMInt Interviews with the director of Goethe Institut Boston, and with the composer.

Jerusalem during the Third Crusade from Noa's "Nathan der Weise"

BMInt’s Lee Eiseman conducted an email-interview with GIB director, Detlef Gericke-Schoenhagen:

Why is the Goethe Institut Boston sponsoring a screening of Manfred Noa’s Nathan der Weise on September 11?

Nathan is a play about religious and cultural toleration.  It’s the first German play that presented positive images of both a Jew and a Muslim; both groups were strongly stereotyped in Germany in 1779, when the play was written.  In 2011, we are still facing strong stereotyping of Muslims and Jews, both in Germany and the United States. We also face strong stereotyping of Germans by Muslims in Germany. This has become a real problem.

Why on September 11?
The terrorists who attacked on September 11, 2001, used their inter­pre­tation of the Koran as justification of their actions.  This led to hard feelings against Muslims in general.  By screening Nathan the Wise on Sept 11, we remind viewers that it is important to base our interactions with each other on reason and mutual respect.  In Germany 24 theaters put on productions of Nathan the Wise in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  When the play was staged in New York on the first anniversary of 9/11, the New York Times theater critic wrote: “Timelessness is a good thing in a play, but timeliness is better. The 18th-century drama Nathan the Wise wins on both counts.”

Why Boston?
In Boston many future decision-makers prepare for future tasks. No other city in the world has such a high concentration of universities and colleges of outstanding quality. Students from all over the world read, study and do research here to prepare for leadership roles in their countries. With our programming at the Goethe Institut we would like to contribute to shaping their mindsets and their moral outlook. Boston is exactly the place where Nathan the Wise should be performed.

Werner Kraus as Nathan

Are members of the world’s warring sects any more likely to respond to pleas for tolerance than they were in 1779 when Lessing’s play came out or in 1922 when Manfred Noa’s film came out?
Let me first say some words about Nathan as a plea for tolerance. Nathan is actually a very shrewd analysis of the way people’s minds work.  The play asks about the elements that go into shaping one’s identity.  Will you follow your heart or will you follow reason?  Will you follow opportunity because you want to make a buck, or will you act decently because you have been educated to be a moral person?  What determines who you are: your descent (your “blood”, i.e. your genes) or upbringing?  If you look carefully at the play, you will see that Lessing is, in fact, quite pessimistic and not upbeat at all about the success of toleration.  He thinks toleration is likely to fail because people are morally weak. People today would do very well to study the play carefully.

Having said that, I should add that Lessing wrote the Nathan 100 years after a 30-year war of conflicting religions which devastated Germany and killed half of its population. In 1779 people still remembered what a war of conflicting religions can mean. Lessing’s “Parable of the Ring”, [read synopsis here] put on stage, or just read to the many illiterates, had a powerful impact on the people and their expectations of those in power.

We also know how in 1922 the fascists were reacting to the film which could have reached a mass audience. They threatened to demolish any movie theater in which the Nathan was to be shown.  After 1933 they destroyed virtually all existing prints. They were afraid of the power of the story, of its metaphors and of the force of the parable.  The essential messages of the Nathan ran counter to the Fascist world view: the message that the equal treatment of religions, faith groups and ethnicities; that neither of the three world religions is better or more human per se than the others, that Jews, Christians and Muslims are equal players, that the different ethnicities are revealed as siblings and close relatives; and that Lessing appointed a Jew as the moderator of the plot and the advocate of humanity.

Today, there is no more problem of illiteracy (as in 1779), nor there is a problem in freedom of artistic expression (as in the 1920’s Munich and 1930’s Germany).  Thus today the “Parable of the Ring” and the narrative of the Nathan can reach its audience and future decision-makers. We will know in 20 years if the message succeeded.

Nathan and his daughter Recha

The restored film’s 2009 Munich debut was accompanied by a multi-cultural youth orchestra performing a score by an Arab composer, Rabih Abou-Khalil. Did this performance have a particular resonance for modern Germans?
The first performance was on October 24, 2009 in Munich, the second on August 20, 2010 in Berlin. The resonance in Munich as well as in Berlin was overwhelming. More than 1,000 spectators gave half an hour of standing ovations for film, orchestra and composer.  It was touching to see the 60 teenage musicians facing the challenge of a score that combined elements of western and eastern music and instruments.  The national “Bundesjugendorchester” consists of the absolutely best young musicians from all over Germany.

How well do today’s Germans know the Lessing play? Will Americans be able to understand the nuances in a silent movie adaptation?
Lessing’s Nathan is among the most-often performed theatre plays in the German speaking countries, it is part of the High School Curriculum and over the last 150 years it has often been quoted in political speeches as point of reference.  Nathan the Wise is hard-wired in the German consciousness.

I am sure Americans can understand the nuances in the silent movie adaptation.

Will GIB’s lecture help?
The lecture will present an analysis of the play.  Knowing the play well means that it is easy to see where the producer, screenwriter, and director made changes.  Right away we see that the film people frontloaded the movie with historical information, while Lessing was playing on the stereotypes of the Jew that he wanted to explode in the course of the play.  Knowing the play really is reading basic to understanding of the film.  Knowing the play well helps understand the movie; but the movie also helps one understand the play.  It’s easy to overlook Nathan’s horrific biography.  The play allows Nathan to speak about himself only once; it’s easy not to listen carefully at that point because so much is going on in the play.  Nathan’s biography (his wife and seven sons are burned to death by bandits and crusaders) begs the question why Nathan is not more angry.  A protestant theologian in the 1780s complained that the play was not realistic because the Jew Nathan should be angry and full of revenge at his mistreatment.  But he isn’t.  Similarly, the play shows Nathan as not resorting to counter-violence.  Hitler’s deputy in Munich called the movie of bag of Jewish lies; maybe he too couldn’t believe that the Jews wouldn’t rise to the contemporary threat.  This is all very explosive stuff, and to ask today whether violence should be answered with violence or whether non-violence is the right response, is precisely the question.  After the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, how to respond was the CENTRAL question.  Nathan the Wise represents the road not taken.

BMInt’s Lee Eiseman talked by phone with composer Aaron Trant:

I should start out by saying that I have a real fondness for silent movies as well as a strong preference that they be accompanied by music of their period—preferably the music presented at their premieres. But I know that’s not always going to happen and so I try not to be a snob and attempt to listen to new musical approaches on their own terms. I’m not really familiar with your compositional techniques, so I would like to have you tell the BMInt readers what your approach is to scoring and to expect.
The main thing is with the group I’m starting with, the After Quartet, for this performance, actually a trio of trumpet, bass and percussion— sometimes we have guitar in the group and sometimes we don’t. It depends on the logistics— sometimes it’s impossible to get all of us together at the same time. The instrumentation itself lends itself to non-traditional silent film scoring.

 Something like the Alloy Orchestra?
Something like that, though they sometimes use keyboards to emulate string patches or orchestral sounds in that sense. So we moved further away from it. All of the styles I’ve incorporated didn’t exist when the film was made. All the material I’m using is post 1940s musical influences. There’s a lot of jazz and little bit of choral writing, there are some improvs that are in a jazz vein— not necessarily swung, but in that style. And then there are some improv sections that are completely free and meant to be a sort of noise-ish sounding. Large chunks of the film I did as minimalist style. In the more important scenes I’m playing long patterns that repeat.

 Did you consciously think of motifs for each character?
I started out that way since the film contrasts three distinct cultures with the whole idea of the conflicts and resolutions among these three religions and cultures. I first attempted to write stylized themes for the main characters— a little klezmer thing for Nathan; a sort of Gregorian chant type thing for the knights. For me that kind of writing does not come that easily. I’m not what you’d call a world music composer. So I ended up scrapping that whole idea. And I really wanted to add something partly because of the 9/11 memorial, but partly because we have these three cultures that we’re dealing with. But now that it’s seven years later, we’re playing this particular performance in America, so I wanted to have a lot of American influence musically to tie everything together. That’s why I went with jazz styles and minimalism.


Carl de Vogt as the Knight Templar with Nathan

Do you highlight action in an obvious way or is the music more of a background?
It goes back and forth. I try not to overwhelm the film. I think the film is the most important element and music should underlay that. But especially in this movie there’s a big battle scene toward the top- there’s a lot of action and violence especially at the beginning of the move, and all of that stuff is fairly heavy and militaristic, in my approach to that. Then there’s other stuff that’s more subtle where I’m trying just to support what’s going on visually.  I’m hoping that it doesn’t overwhelm the film. My goal is to have everything, even the bigger stuff, underpin what’s going on visually and not taking over the visual aspects.

There seem to be two major schools of silent film scoring: one that underlines ever bit of action with a very distinct musical cue and the other simply attempts to offer a sensitive background. It sounds like you’re of the sensitive background school.
For the most part, though especially on this film I go back and forth. In a Keaton or a Chaplin when there’s a lot of slapsticky comedy it’s easier and more intuitive to bring attention to those actions and  have stuff that goes along with falling down or whatever happens. In a film like this you don’t want to make it comical. One can underline actions with expressive variation of the characters’ motifs— and I do that— there definitely are moments where I’m trying to capture the mood that’s going on.  There’s the whole thing between Recha [The daughter of Nathan] and Leu [who is the main Knight Templar, also known as Curd von Stauffen] where they’re trying to be lovers but they’re actually brother and sister-I definitely have a Recha theme. There’s a Nathan them which comes back in many forms depending on the mood on the screen. I do that. It’s not just background music.

Since this will be in the main auditorium at the Coolidge will you use amplification?
The bass will be amplified and the trumpet will be amplified for some stuff since he’s doing some noise effects, but I think he’ll play open otherwise. Percussion will be acoustic and I don’t think we’ll have problems with volume. We’ll be on the floor off in the corner so we won’t be blocking views

Sunday, September 11, 2011, 11:00 am
Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street, Brookline
German silent film with English intertitles
Tickets: $10 ($7 students/members)
Info: +1 (617) 734–2501 or

A special seminar on Wednesday, September 7 at the Goethe Institut, 170 Beacon St., will examine the play on which the film is based.

BMInt published a review here.


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