Duke University Alumni Magazine

Giving Voice to Unsung Heroes

Kimbrough's crusade: performing the works of forbidden European Jewish composers
usic can evoke memory--sometimes the memory of times of tragedy. But with its power to play on the emotions, music can inspire hope and satisfaction in the most wrenching of circumstances. Those are the themes given voice by baritone Steven Kimbrough: music as history; music as a human passion, human necessity, and healing force.

     Last fall, Kimbrough B.D. '62 sang his current program, "Forbidden Composers Banned by the Third Reich," in a Duke performance. The program focuses on the works of artists singled out by Hitler--Kurt Weill, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and many more. Those who were not imprisoned or killed were forced into exile; a number of them came to the United States. In theaters, orchestras, and concert halls, the banned composers had been triumphantly greeted by critics and the public. In exile, they had to begin again, often setting to music the poetry of Goethe and other German-language poets. Yet, their repertory has remained largely unsung and unheard. They have remained in large measure, as one of Alexander von Zemlinksy's song titles puts it, "The Lost Crowd."

     For Kimbrough, performing and recording the literature of forbidden European Jewish composers has become a crusade. In 1978, after meeting the daughter of Frenz Schreker and researching the composer's work, he sang the title role in the world premiere of Schreker's opera Christophorus. That was forty-five years after its scheduled premiere in Freiburg, Germany. The premiere had been canceled by local Nazi officials. Since taking on the opera role, Kimbrough has produced the first-ever Schreker recording, and he has performed the works of the banned artists in concert halls and for radio stations around the world.

     The Nazis campaigned to demean Jewish composers by declaring that their contribution was naive and their impact destructive. In their experiments with the classical harmonic structure, these artists were said to be promoting the noxious themes of futurism and Bolshevism. Ironically, in their embrace of the culture, "the German-language Jewish community was as much German, if not more German," than the Aryan ideal of the Nazis. "That is why even when you find these composers in other countries, they continue to set the best of German poems to music," says Kimbrough.

     "You can't call this Jewish music just because these people were Jewish. And it doesn't deserve to be performed just because they were Jewish. It deserves to be performed because much of it is superb and excellent music; some of it is great. And it is waiting to be heard."

     Kimbrough, who made his operatic debut in Italy as a winner of the American Opera Auditions, was for years leading baritone of the Bonn Opera Company. He has sung a broad range of more than forty operatic roles, from Marcellos in La Boheme to Eugene Onegin. Also a specialist of modern opera, he has performed leading roles in twenty-two world premieres, most recently in Siegfried Matthus' Mirabeau. His career has taken him around the world, to the operatic, concert, and musical stages of Berlin, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Geneva, London, Vienna, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Miami, and New York. Eclectic as a scholar as well as a performer, he is the author or editor of ten books on literary, historical, musical, and theological subjects--among them, the new Methodist hymnal.

     It was pretty much a sure thing that he would enter into a musical career. Kimbrough's father, a Methodist minister, was "a fabulous musician and a marvelous singer," as Kimbrough describes him; his mother was a concert pianist. All around him, "music was both a vocation and an avocation," he says. "I think it was always understood that I would be a musician." At Duke's divinity school, he was happy to discover that he could take undergraduate music-theory courses at no charge. He later earned a doctorate in Old Testament Semitic languages from Princeton.

     For a time, Kimbrough thought he wanted to be an archaeologist. He lived in Israel and Jordan, and studied in Italy and Greece. "But I think that desire to excavate carries over into music. I have especially enjoyed over these last fifteen years trying to--so to speak--'dig up' the work of these expatriated Jewish composers." Through the vehicles of performance and recording, he hopes to break a long silence--and to revise the notion of the standard repertory of European music.

     A teacher of comparative religion as well as a researcher, writer, and opera singer, Kimbrough says it's vital for him to maintain a sense of balance in his pursuits. "You can take a paycheck and applause until the cows come home, but in the end all you take to your grave are your programs and reviews. I've seen that happen time and again. If you haven't given back that very talent that God's given you--if somewhere along the way you haven't learned how to give that to other people and to share it--then I think you miss the whole point. In that sense, ministry and music, for me, have always been hand-in-glove."

--Robert J. Bliwise

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