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In attempting to deconstruct and analyze the Royal Conservatory of Music’s deeply moving chamber concert Sunday afternoon, featuring a program of works by the relatively unknown composer Robert Müller-Hartmann, I can’t help but recall a speech delivered by Viola Davis in 2017.
“There is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard,” said Davis, while accepting an Oscar for her performance in the film adaptation of “Fences” by August Wilson. “Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories: the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”
Davis went on to thank Wilson who, through his plays, “exhumed and exalted” ordinary people. The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) deserve similar appreciation — for the Toronto chamber ensemble’s contribution to reviving classical composers whose work deserves to be exalted.
You likely won’t see Beethoven, Mozart or Bach programmed at an ARC Ensemble concert. Instead, the Grammy-nominated group, led by artistic director Simon Wynberg, has dedicated much of its effort to reviving works by composers who had been stifled and largely forgotten under oppressive regimes of the 20th century. They’ve reintroduced artists like Alberto Hemsi, Szymon Laks and Jerzy Fitelberg back into the public consciousness — often decades since their music was last performed.
On Sunday, it was the chamber works of Müller-Hartmann that were reborn at the warmly intimate Mazzoleni Concert Hall. The German-Jewish composer enjoyed a productive career in Hamburg at the start of the 20th century. He found considerable success as a composer, garnering a handful of awards and commissions, all while teaching at Hamburg University and contributing articles to various music publications.
His blossoming career, however, was suppressed by the Nazi regime. Müller-Hartmann was forced to leave his post at the university. He fled Hamburg in 1937, arriving in London with nothing more than a few suitcases of belongings.
Though England provided a refuge from the terror in continental Europe, it wasn’t altogether welcoming. Interned on the Isle of Man for part of the war, Müller-Hartmann wasn’t permitted to teach again until 1943. While he survived the war, he was never able to find the success he once had in Germany. He died in 1950.
Of the six pieces performed Sunday, only two were ever printed, while the other four only survive in manuscript. None of the works had been played live in more than eight decades; his grandchildren have never heard a note of his compositions, as Wynberg pointed out in the program.
So it was indescribably powerful watching the ARC Ensemble bring to life these pieces once again. Here’s a man whose body of work has been shrouded in relative obscurity not by lack of skill nor talent, but by circumstance and lack of opportunity.
If this world were fair, Müller-Hartmann would be up there with the other great German composers of his generation, his works programmed in some of the world’s most hallowed concert halls alongside contemporaries such as Richard Strauss and his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The program presented Sunday demonstrated Müller-Hartmann’s breadth of style and form. His “Elegy,” performed by cellist Thomas Wiebe and pianist Kevin Ahfat, features a melancholic, folklike melody that’s traded back and forth between the two instruments.
The following piece, “Sonata for Two Violins,” performed by Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, is of an entirely different quality: dense and polyphonic, with a cacophony of biting counterpoint bouncing back and forth between the violins, giving way to poetic melodic phrases.
“String Quartet No. 2,” the final piece in the concert, is an even further departure from those two works. Performed by Raum, Bérard and Wiebe along with violist Steven Dann, the composition appears to be one of Müller-Hartmann’s later works based on opus number (none of the scores is actually dated), and eschews traditional qualities of the late romantic era for a more expressionistic sonic palette in the way it explores tension and harmony.
Listening to this diverse offering of work, it’s impossible to not think of Müller-Hartmann’s immense unfulfilled potential: the would haves, should haves, could haves. What if he lived another decade? What if he was able to return to his pre-war compositional output? What if the Nazi regime never came to power?
Though there is a pang of sadness that accompanies these thoughts, I think we should be equally grateful for the invaluable work the ARC Ensemble is doing. At last, Müller-Hartmann’s music will be heard by audiences. (The Sunday concert was recorded by CBC Radio Two for future broadcast and a studio album will likely be released in the coming months.)
This work — the act of reviving this music and so, too, these composers’ life stories — is highly symbolic. In the face of the oppressive regimes of today, as they continue to silence artists and their cultural achievements, what the ARC Ensemble has done these past two decades is a powerful reminder that art endures.

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