Teaching History Through Music

Music scholar visited WBHS to talk about Jewish traditions

By Caitlin Marsch, Current Staff

One way to study the Holocaust is by using your ears.

Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Northwestern University, visited band students at the West Bend High Schools Feb. 26 to deliver a presentation about Jewish music. Her presentation was part of the ongoing WBHS project to integrate the art, music, culinary and social studies departments for a Holocaust memorial taking place in April. All three band classes are playing pieces either by a Jewish composer or regarding the Holocaust.

According to Northwestern’s website, Ruppenthal Stein’s research “focuses on issues of Jewish identity in art music, with particular focus on issues of assimilation, musical-liturgical reform, as well as personal and communal identity reinterpretation at the end of the 19th century.”

During the presentation, band students were exposed to different types of Jewish music. Examples Ruppenthal Stein presented included the Klezmer music of traveling Ashkenazi Jew groups and Jewish liturgical, or sacred, music.

“When we think about music and how it can reflect identity, that can be pretty universal,” Ruppenthal Stein said. “Many cultures have folk songs, songs about memory, music that represents their religion. Even though it might sound completely different, we can see the connections of how music is used by cultures different than our own.”

Ruppenthal Stein also offered a new perspective on pieces being played by the bands, including classics such as “West Side Story” and “Schindler’s List,” along with pieces memorializing the Holocaust, such as Symphonic Band’s “Scenes from Terezin.”

“You can think about them as reflective pieces in which the composer was thinking about the tragedy, the horror, and the memory of those who perished.”
– Amanda Ruppenthal Stein

“Since the works that WBHS bands are playing are not actually pieces composed during the Holocaust, but are rather works that are about the Holocaust, you can think about them as reflective pieces in which the composer was thinking about the tragedy, the horror, and the memory of those who perished and who no longer have a voice,” Ruppenthal Stein said.

Leah Duckert-Kroll, the band director, learned new things about the band’s pieces that she hadn’t previously realized.

“I hadn’t made the connection with the Concert Band’s piece ‘Hatikvah’ that Smetana used the same melody when he composed ‘The Moldau’ even though I played ‘The Moldau’ in orchestra when I was in college,” Duckert-Kroll said.

Smetana was a Czech composer who lived during the 1800s.

East sophomore and Symphonic Band member Monica Miranda-Hernández also gained new insight into her music.

“We learned a lot more,” Miranda-Hernández said. “You’re able to assume what the music means, and what it could be about, and you can put more meaning towards it.”

Students were shown a shofar, a traditional Jewish instrument similar to a trumpet. The shofar is typically made from the horn of a kosher animal, such as a ram.

Duckert-Kroll is enthusiastic about the cross-curricular collaboration among the different academic departments.

“Essentially, we’re using two different subjects, history and music, to help teach the same concept,” Duckert-Kroll said. “Not everyone learns the same, and not everything speaks to people the same way. For some people, seeing art really speaks to them, for others, it’s music, for others, it’s reading about it or hearing a talk about it.”

Ruppenthal Stein says that she’s glad WBHS students are seeking to expand their musical vocabulary by exploring Jewish music.

“Music is a really powerful tool for social engagement and cultural exchange among different groups of people who might not necessarily come in contact,” Ruppenthal Stein said. “I think we can foster understanding of people that are different than us through studying their music or music written about them or to honor them.”

(Top image: Amanda Ruppenthal Stein speaks Feb. 26 in the WBHS band room. Photo courtesy of Leah Duckert-Kroll.)

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