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  • Resurrecting music that got buried alive

    Mollie Kaye

    Suzanne Snizek wields her flute as a weapon against bigotry and suppression.


    WE'VE ALL SURELY LEARNED the history lesson: Professionals in the arts and sciences, the “intellectuals” and “creatives,” get suppressed—or eradicated—by authoritarian regimes and despotic leaders. Those people who can extrapolate, interpret, question and rebut are seen as a tremendous threat to the lockstep, unthinking allegiance the fascist government requires. Needless to say, whatever the “subversives” are producing—books, paintings, plays, musical compositions—must be buried or destroyed.

    Add in a centuries-old ethnic bias, and those creators and intellectuals are conveniently cast as “enemies.” So it was with the learned and artistic Jews in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe during the era of the Third Reich. Many talented and accomplished refugees fled to “friendly” countries like Canada, the US, and Britain. They were not necessarily welcomed with open arms, but grudgingly accepted, and only after “extreme vetting.” Even if they were permitted to resettle, they were still suspect, subject to discrimination, and, at times, segregated and interned without warning.

    It’s precisely this type of bigotry, and the suffering and mayhem it causes in innocent people’s lives, that awakens award-winning flautist and UVic faculty member Suzanne Snizek’s passion for social justice. A longtime activist, she has built community around and raised her voice against the unjust detentions and horrific torture meted out in the name of “national security.” And she has found a way to combine that passion with her accomplished musicianship.



    Suzanne Snizek (Photograph by UVic Photo Services)


    Snizek has performed on flute with such diverse notables as the National Orchestra of Taiwan, the Moody Blues and Roger Daltrey. She also served as co-principal flute of the Bel Canto Opera Company of Philadelphia. Now, as a professor, Snizek augments her teaching of flute performance with academic research and musical recordings that unearth and resurrect the “forgotten” works of composers who were suppressed in the first half of the 20th Century.

    It was during doctoral studies at UBC that she first figured out to combine her passions. Most doctoral flute candidates choose something fairly tame and flute-related for their thesis, but the petite, soft-spoken Snizek didn’t fit that mould, and initially felt somewhat adrift. “Some people know what they want to do; I did not. My first year of study, I had no idea what I would do. I wanted to choose a topic that had larger ethical questions,” she says. “I didn’t think I could sustain interest in a research area that was just narrowly about the flute. I love to play the flute, I love to teach the flute—but I don’t love to talk about the flute, necessarily,” she says with a laugh.

    Snizek says she stumbled upon her research topic “by accident, like most things,” coming across the work of a composer who’d been in a British internment camp. “In 2006, I started looking at this. I was so ignorant about this; I didn’t know there were British internment camps,” she explains. “In 1940, [the British government] decided to intern all ‘foreign national aliens,’ including Germans and Austrians. Overnight, they went from ‘protected refugees’ to being arrested and interned indefinitely.”

    “They were seen as suspicious because they were from those ‘enemy’ countries,” Snizek continues. The British back then, like the US today, perhaps, “didn’t quite seem to understand the nature of the war they were fighting: ideology, not national boundaries.” So 70,000 people were interned, about 90 percent of them Jewish refugees. “The intention of the camps was not to exterminate people, but it was a place where they would be held because they were ‘under suspicion.’ It was a huge blow psychologically to people who had lost everything, and had just gotten their footing again. You can imagine how devastating that would have been.”

    Snizek says her research into the impact of the internment on the musical landscape was breaking new ground, and it generated a lot of excitement. “In 2008, musicians hadn’t really looked at the British internment at all. There were historians who’d looked at it in a general view; lots of work had been done on that, but no one looked at the music and musicians specifically. That was my doctorate. Because it was unusual, and no one had looked at that aspect, I was invited to Cambridge in 2010 to give a paper.”

    This past May, Snizek received a REACH Award at UVic. These awards “celebrate the extraordinary teachers and researchers at UVic who are making an impact in the classroom and beyond,” according to a University press release. Most of what Snizek teaches at UVic is performance, “which means I’m responsible for teaching all the flute lessons,” she says. She also teaches the integrated performance seminar, and coaches chamber music.

    Part of Snizek’s mission is to perform and record the suppressed music she unearths. “The problem [for composers is that] it’s almost as if you have one window of opportunity to get your work out,” she says. “If you miss that window, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to get it disseminated and performed.”

    To help remedy this situation for at least a few composers, Snizek recorded five works last summer, all formerly suppressed. “One of them is by Weinberg, a trio, a great piece. It’s only been recorded a couple of times. There’s a lag between what scholars are looking at and what the average flute player is playing. Recording helps…nudge that process along a little bit.” Snizek says the recording was the product of 12 musicians from both within and outside the University, as well as several UVic colleagues who donated their time and talents as performers and producers, including recording engineer Kirk McNally. Funding was provided by the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, and a University of Victoria Internal Research and Creative Project Grant.

    There will be an opportunity to experience the intersection of Snizek’s academic research and flute performance on Saturday, July 15 at 2:45 at the University of Victoria School of Music (Phillip T. Young Recital Hall). Snizek and UVic theorist and pianist Harald Krebs will present three works, one of which is a solo flute piece by Günter Raphael, a composer identified as a “half-Jew” by the Nazi regime. As a result, Raphael lost his position at the Leipzig Conservatory, and his work was banned by the Third Reich. Snizek and Krebs recently performed together in Germany. This presentation at UVic will be by donation.

    Writer Mollie Kaye sings with The Millies, a Victoria-based trio.

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