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Arts & Culture Jewish Roots Permeate Music of Honored American Composer

June 21, 2002
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In a song about Italy that appears on his recent CD, “Home,” the award-winning American composer and songwriter Willy Schwarz writes about the final resting place of his grandparents and other relatives.

“In a little cemetery in the hills above Milano/Sipping grappa, sharing gossip/All my ancestors are there/And they argue about the family just like when they were alive.”

The cemetery he sings about is in Arcisate, an ancient town amid the rolling hills on Italy’s border with Switzerland.

Last month in New York, Schwarz won a prestigious Drama Desk Award for the music he wrote for the hit Broadway drama “Metamorphoses,” an evocation of the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s writings, which also tied for the award as best new play.

Schwarz’s soundtrack for “Metamorphoses” is an evocative mix of ethnic influences, combining the voices of more than a score of instruments — from an accordion to a conch shell, from conventional keyboards to the tabla, ocarina and oud — most of which Schwarz plays himself.

A few weeks after winning the award, the composer revisited the Arcisate cemetery, where he spoke about the compelling influence that his family’s European Jewish experience of assimilation, persecution and immigration has had on his work.

“I feel very attached to this place. It is the ‘patria,’ the homeland,” said Schwarz, 53, a wiry man with a bushy mustache and gray hair. “I feel that my roots come through, somehow, in whatever music I write. My family has gone through a lot of metamorphoses.”

These changes, in fact, trace a road map of the complex history of Jews in Europe and their fate.

Schwarz’s father was an Italian Jew from Milan whose mother was a member of the Rothschild family in Germany, and Schwarz’s own mother also hailed from Germany.

His grandfather, who is buried in the Arcisate cemetery, was, Schwarz says, “a typical assimilated Italian Jew — a furrier who sold furs to the La Scala opera crowd and who knew a lot of musicians.”

In the early part of the 20th century, Schwarz’s grandfather’s sister Lina became celebrated in Italy as a poet and writer of children’s books.

She also became a founder of the Italian branch of the Anthroposophist movement, an esoteric spiritual movement founded by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner, whose members carried out experimental work in education and agriculture.

Other family members also came under the influence of Anthroposophy. At the outbreak of World War II, they bought a house at Arcisate.

“All the family moved out here to Arcisate from Milan,” Schwarz said. “They also took in other people, such as an anti-fascist partisan fighter and his wife.

“They used Arcisate as a refuge, but also as a staging point for trying to go to Switzerland, particularly after the Germans occupied northern Italy in 1943,” he said.

Schwarz’s grandparents tried to make it on foot to Switzerland, but were discovered. Despairing, his grandfather committed suicide by throwing himself across a railroad track.

“This put everyone else at risk,” Schwarz said. “My grandmother was taken in and sheltered by a convent, but she then converted to Catholicism.”

His grandparents on his mother’s side fled Berlin in the 1930s and made it to the United States, where they settled in Chicago.

Schwarz’s parents, meanwhile, managed to sail for America in February 1940 on the last trans-Atlantic passenger ship to leave Genoa, bringing with them their baby daughter, the first of their seven children.

Schwarz evokes his parents’ flight in another song on the “Home” CD: “A newlywed couple with a baby girl/Forced to flee to a faraway world/Out on the ocean, the wide Atlantic ocean/My father and mother, out of the ocean, comin’ home.”

They had applied for exit visas to Argentina, Uruguay and the United States in 1938, when Italy’s fascist government imposed harsh anti-Semitic laws and Schwarz’s father lost his job.

“The U.S. visa came through first,” said Schwarz. “Maybe it was because their financial guarantor was Clara Clemens, Mark Twain’s youngest daughter, who was an opera singer married to a Russian Jewish orchestra conductor. My grandfather, the furrier, had been friends with her.”

Schwarz’s parents ran into more trouble, however, once the United States entered World War II in 1941. As immigrants with German and Italian nationality, they were regarded as enemy aliens and his father again lost his job.

“In the town where they lived, there were only two other Jewish families and neither reached out,” Schwarz said. “But an Irish Catholic intellectual befriended them, helped them, and gave my dad a job. Eventually, my parents both converted to Catholicism.”

In personal terms, Schwarz has reversed his family’s immigrant experience. Married to a German woman, he lives today in Bremen, Germany.

This patchwork background is seen in much of Schwarz’s music.

His “Home” CD is described as “Songs of Immigrants, Refugees and Exiles,” and Schwarz has spent decades living in different countries and studying and playing the music of different cultures, from the Caribbean to India, from Italian folk songs to klezmer.

“I have a grounding in the immigrant experience,” he said. “At the same time, I’m grounded in eclecticism, what with my German mother, my Italian father, and then the American influence.”

Still, despite the fact that his parents — and other family members in Italy — converted to Catholicism, Schwarz said he considers himself a Jew “in my whole nature, if not in practice.”

“I feel that the Jewish influence permeates my music, even when it is not overt,” he said.

“It’s there, no matter what instrument it is played on.”

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