Wilhelm Rettich was born in 1892 in Leipzig. His parents wanted him to become a doctor but he himself knew from an early age that his future was in music. When he was seventeen he began to study piano and composition with Max Reger at the Leipzig Conservatory.
The outbreak of the First World War interrupted Rettich’s music career. As a prisoner of war in a camp in Siberia he set up an orchestra of selfmade instruments, and he wrote an opera entitled König Tod (King Death) on scraps of paper. The work was not premiered until 1928 in Stettin. Following the October Revolution of 1917 Rettich had greater freedom of movement. He lived for several years in the south Siberian town of Chita and gave piano lessons there. In 1920 he travelled via a lengthly route (working in Shanghai, Trieste and Vienna) back to his hometown of Leipzig. He had several jobs as an orchestral music director and then got a job with Leipzig Radio as a conductor and composer of music for radio plays. In 1930 Rettich moved to Berlin, where he conducted the orchestra for the Schiller Theatre and also worked for Berlin Radio. An outstanding work from this period is Fluch des Krieges (The Curse of War) for soloists, choir and orchestra, based on a Chinese poem by Li Tai Po (1932).
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 Rettich was issued with a 'berufsverbot' (order to cease his professional activites); apart from being Jewish he was also a pacifist and therefore doubly suspect. He fled to the Netherlands and lived from 1934 in Haarlem. He changed his first name to Willem and worked for music schools, amateur orchestras and choral associations. He also worked for the Dutch public broadcasting association VARA and held a post at the Haarlem Music Institute as head of the orchestra class and tutor for piano and music theory. The German Occupation in May 1940 robbed Rettich of his job and steady income; in 1942 he went into hiding with friends in Blaricum. His mother and younger brother, in hiding in Haarlem, were betrayed in 1943 and deported and murdered by the Nazis.
In Blaricum Rettich had no access to a piano but he nevertheless composed a number of pieces in which he treats the theme of his Jewish background. In the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra he uses a theme from the Hebrew Songbook by a distant relative of his, Abraham Zwi Idelsohn. He dedicated this work to his dead mother. In Blaricum he also composed his Sinfonia Giudaica, a key work that was not performed until 35 years later in Frankfurt. He gave it the subtitle ‘In memoriam fratrum’.
After the Liberation Rettich returned to Haarlem. He took Dutch nationality and worked in The Hague and in Amsterdam, where he conducted the Hoofdstad Operetta. Here he met the singer Elsa Barther and they married in 1946. In the following years she interpreted many of his songs. From an artistic point of view they found working in the Netherlands somewhat unsatisfactory, so that in 1964 the couple returned to Germany and settled in Baden-Baden. Wilhelm Rettich was active for another 24 years as a composer and conductor. He died on 27 December 1988.
König Tod opera, reworked in 1982 by the composer to Liebe und Tod
Fluch des Krieges cantata for soloists, choirs and orchestra
Else Lasker-Schülerzyklus 1923-1928 for voice and piano
Violin Concerto op. 51 for violin and orchestra
Piano Concerto op. 54 for piano and orchestra
Synagogengesänge for tenor and male choir
Symphonischen Variationen für Klavier und Orchester for piano and orchestra