Gerhard Rosenfeld

Composer of an opera about Willy Brandt

Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00
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Gerhard Rosenfeld, composer: born Königsberg, Germany 10 February 1931; died Rebrücke, Germany 5 March 2003

Gerhard Rosenfeld was best known for his opera Kniefall in Warschau ("Kneeling Down in Warsaw"), first staged in Dortmund in 1997. It is one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.

The two-hour work deals with the life of Chancellor Willy Brandt from his flight to Norway in 1933, to escape the Gestapo, to his resignation as Chancellor in 1974. The title refers to Brandt's mission to Warsaw, in December 1970, when, visiting the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto memorial, he spontaneously fell to his knees as if asking for forgiveness for Nazi crimes committed in Germany's name. The act attracted worldwide attention at the time. The opera was the idea of John Dew, British director of the Dortmund Opera House, who commissioned Rosenfeld to compose it.

Gerhard Rosenfeld was born in Königsberg (now in Russia) in 1931, but settled after 1945 in the Soviet Zone of Germany, which became the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1949. He studied music at Humboldt University in East Berlin and, after graduation, under Hanns Eisler, collaborator of Bertolt Brecht and composer of the DDR's national anthem. Rosenfeld composed six operas and was most successful with Der Mantel ("The Overcoat") inspired by Gogol's book of the same name. Also successful was Das alltägliche Wunder ("The Everyday Miracle"), first performed in Stralsund in 1973. Among his last works was Requiem für Kaza Katharinnna, first heard in 1991, and regarded as a commemoration of all persecuted Roma and Sinti.

Rosenfeld's big breakthrough came with his First Violin Concerto, first performed by the Dresden Philharmonic in 1963. Although he tried his hand at the full range of music, from chamber music to a cello concerto and symphonies, many Germans remember him for his film scores. His introduction to this activity came through the composer Rudolf Wagner-Regeny and Eisler. With Eisler's help, Rosenfeld was appointed lecturer in film music at the famous Babelsberger Filmhochschule at Potsdam.

The best-known film to which Rosenfeld contributed was Das Kaninchen bin ich ("The Rabbit is Me") which, although made in 1965 by Kurt Maetzig, was banned for 24 years by the Communist leadership as a pessimistic and revisionist film. It is the story of the love of a young woman for an opportunist Communist lawyer and the subsequent break-up of their relationship. All those associated with the film were under suspicion, including Rosenfeld. However, both Maetzig and Rosenfeld continued with their film work for DEFA, the DDR's state film company.

Rosenfeld was involved in such films as Das Mädchen auf dem Brett (The Girl on the Board, 1967), and the highly political Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog (The Flag From Kriwoj Rog, 1967), about a symbolic Soviet flag being hidden by German miners during the Nazi era and proudly displayed to the advancing Red Army in 1945.

Rosenfeld was still working on film music until near the end of his life. In 1998 he provided the music for the animation Wie die Schnecken Hochzeit hielten ("The Snails' Wedding") Earlier, in 1996, he contributed to Kind von Golzow ("Golzow Child"), one of a series of studies which followed the changing lives of the inhabitants of an East German village before and after reunification.

Rosenfeld's style was considered somewhat bourgeois and "off message" by the Communist cultural bosses of the DDR. In the West, it was criticised as too academic by admirers of modern music.

Rosenfeld's Brandt work met this criticism in some quarters, but Brandt's closest adviser, Egon Bahr, who attended the first night, was well pleased and thought that "Willy would have been happy that an East German composer was chosen for this opera".

David Childs

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