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The two-day festival "Forbidden Songs" explores the fraught artistic and personal decisions confronted by the Polish composer Roman Palester (1907–1989). Highlights include the world premiere of the film Forbidden Songs (1947) in English and U.S. premieres of Palester's chamber music and vocal works performed by Ensemble X.

Forbidden Songs was the first feature film released in Poland after WWII. Conceived and written by Ludwik Starski, a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the film remarkably adopted the genre of light musical comedy to portray the diverse experiences of Warsaw's inhabitants during the period of Nazi occupation (1939–1945). The film's score, created by Palester, draws heavily on authentic popular sources, notably satirical Polish "street songs" banned by the Nazis but nonetheless performed as expressions of resistance and a means of psychological sustenance during this time of deprivation and terror.

The world premiere of the film Forbidden Songs with English subtitles has broad interdisciplinary import. It will be of great interest to anyone fascinated by European cinema and music, WWII history and politics, and Holocaust studies. "The film gives us a glimpse into the ways in which music helped Polish Jews and non-Jews alike to reclaim notions of community in the immediate postwar years," explains Barbara Milewski, Associate Professor of Music at Swarthmore College. "It also compels us to consider the tensions between personal and official acts of remembering—and forgetting—within the contexts of Poland's historically oppressive regimes and the nation's contemporary politics."

The American premiere of Palester's music is a major event for both concert audiences and scholars. Palester's blend of neoclassical energy with a lyrical sensibility made him among the most distinctive composers of twentieth-century Poland. But his music was long banned there and has been almost completely forgotten. "Palester had to overcome the two authoritarian regimes: first, the brutal and terrorizing Nazi occupation and then the repressive communist government that rebuilt Poland from the rubble up," notes Mackenzie Pierce, a musicology PhD candidate at Cornell. "His compositions provide insight into how music creates a sense of continuity over rupture. They also remind us that every step towards war and censorship strikes at the lifeblood of an artistic culture."

Members of Cornell's new music group, Ensemble X, will lead the premieres, including pianist Xak Bjerken, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and violinists David Colwell and Susan Waterbury. "It's very attractive music," observes Waterbury, Professor of Violin at Ithaca College; "it's playful yet soulful."

The film screening and short talk about the film by Dr. Milewski will take place at 8:00 pm on Saturday, March 17th in Klarman Auditorium. The concert will take place at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 18th in Barnes Hall. At 2:30 a pre-concert lecture/discussion with Pierce will explore the fascinating story of Palester's life and music.