It’s difficult for composer Jaap Nico Hamburger to explain most of what goes into writing his music: it happens quickly, he doesn’t sketch or work things out on the piano, and he writes directly into a full score in about as much time as it takes to perform the piece.
He is frequently inspired by ideas he finds when reading, and then he often starts with a visual, architectural image of the music before writing down what is already a fully conceived piece of music.
In the case of his Second Symphony, “Children’s War Diaries,” Hamburger was moved by the experience of reading the diaries of children who had been killed in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. While the start of the piece came from these specific stories, he overall wanted to express, “the emotional trauma on people who are subjected to the evil of war.”
He connects these experiences to what children are suffering today in many parts of the world. In our recent interview online he said, “It doesn’t really matter what page of the history book you are on when you are a victim of war. You don’t really care where that fits in history, what country you were born in, etc….When you are a victim to war, you are a victim to war, period.”
Hamburger’s parents had both experienced the death camps; they were sole survivors of their respective families, and were some of the very few Jewish people in the Netherlands who survived the Holocaust.
As a kid, he realized that things were different for their family, because unlike his classmates, he didn’t have grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins. His mother was the storyteller in the family, sharing memories of those who were gone. She later published her autobiography including stories of her experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, “Een hemel zonder vogels” [“A sky without birds”].
Music was another defining facet of Hamburger’s childhood. He figured out the turntable to listen to classical records starting when he was three years old, and was especially drawn to Beethoven and Bruckner. He studied piano, and went on to begin a career as a classical concert pianist while also playing in rock bands, all while also studying to be a cardiologist.
While practicing medicine, he gave up playing concerts at night, but kept music as part of his life through composing. After 35 years of enjoying his work with patients as a cardiologist, he retired from medicine and returned full-time to music. His mother, who had insisted when he was younger that he pursue medicine as well as music, had a change of heart.
Hamburger recounted that his mother, then in her 90s, said to him over dinner, “Enough is enough. You have spent enough time juggling two careers. Focus on your music.” He laughed as he recalled saying, “You’re only telling me now?”
He has no regrets about following her advice either time. Hamburger has lived in Canada for several decades, first in Vancouver, and more recently in Montreal, where he is Composer in Residence with Mécénat Musica. The pandemic has put many projects on hold, including his first opera, Goldwasser, that was set to premiere at Lincoln Center last spring.
In addition to recognizing the great loss and pain that the pandemic has caused, he also expressed hope that, “we very consciously, deliberately remember the positive lessons that came out of this,” including appreciating things that we may have taken granted before, including family and experiencing music and art in person.
Hamburger's First Symphony, recorded alongside the Second Symphony, draws on the idea of having the strength to live a full life, in spite of circumstances.
This music takes its inspiration from the life of Hungarian-Jewish composer György Ligeti, combined with a reflection on an ancient bit of wisdom from the Tanakh, or Old Testament, the seemingly contradictory statement: “Remember to forget.”
Hamburger interprets this idea as an encouragement to remember to hold on to your sense of self, while letting go of doubt and regret that can keep you mired in the past.
Like Hamburger’s parents, Ligeti had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust: he was a prisoner subjected to hard labor, and his father and brother died in the camps. Ligeti later fled his home due to the Soviet oppression that followed.
Reading Ligeti’s biography, Hamburger was struck by his positive approach to his life and music after these devastating early hardships. It’s a very different sort of remembrance than the "Children’s War Diaries," but they are connected through how they lead us to approach the world, as Hamburger reflects: “You have to remember who you are to be a wholesome person, to move on, and to make this a better world.”
To hear more from this fascinating musician, including more about his opera and the story of his unusual piano, you can listen to our full interview here.