James Simon: Transcription Project Part 1

3/30/2020

After performing cello yesterday for friends and neighbors to relieve the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders issued for my city, I spent much of the night online looking for more music to perform. Near 2:00 in the morning, looking through IMSLP’s archives, I stumbled across a manuscript. “Arioso fur Violoncell allein” by James Simon. Thinking nothing of it, I did a search for printed music to practice, and found none. Only a website: Forbidden Music Regained. As I read, James Simon became real to me.

He was a composer and musicologist in Germany and the Netherlands in the early 1900s. As a Jew, he was persecuted by the Nazi regime and his music was banned. He perished in Auschwitz in 1944, and to this day, most of his work has never been found, let alone published or performed. “Arioso” has, to my knowledge, been performed three times in this century, and been recorded only twice. All that exists is this manuscript.

This morning I woke with the mission of transcribing and preserving this piece at my kitchen table. So I sat with my cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal and researched this man’s life and compositions, trying to understand this man who had composed even on the train to his death at a Nazi concentration camp. I cried into my bowl of oatmeal. Simon’s life had been stolen from him, his work suppressed by a government who refused to see his humanity and the beautiful contribution he made to the world. No one remembers him anymore.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair that his music was inseparable from his identity, that his life’s work was to create beauty and share it, and that it was willfully destroyed and forgotten. I have no choice: I must remember him. What began as a quest for free cello sheet music and possibly an interesting project to bolster my college resume has become a sacred duty to preserve Simon’s work and give voice to the man whose own was torn from him. As I write this journal entry, I am holding back tears. I haven’t cried this much in months, and I’ve never felt this way before – about anything. It’s as if heaven itself, if I believed in such a place, has given me this mission, because though Forbidden Music Regained has located many of his manuscripts and libraries across the world hold onto them in archives, no one has transcribed them and made them widely available. No one has performed them on a large scale since before the War. So I must.

One Reply to “James Simon: Transcription Project Part 1”

  1. Hi Maxfield, I’m happy to find another James Simon fan out there! Part of my dissertation, titled “Voices from the Holocaust, Remembered: Selected Works for Cello,” was about James Simon. I too, was shocked and appalled that his music is largely unknown!

    I also created an edition of his Arioso, which you mentioned, and compiled a repertoire list of other works for cello by other composers affected by the Holocaust: https://www.mollyjonescello.com/sheet-music.html

    I’m so thrilled to learn that you are also transcribing some of his other works! Please let me know if there’s any way I can be of assistance in your research.

    Best,
    Molly

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