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Terezín: Music the Nazis couldn't silence

In the Czech ghetto, amid malnutrition, exhaustion and despair, hope flourished in the form of music, created and performed by artists and composers as they awaited their fate.

A drawing from Theresienstadt, where art thrived despite the horror Photo: HISTORY AND ART COLLECTION/ALAMY

Everyone agreed the weather was perfect. It was cold; not the crisp, drinking hot chocolate type, the unpleasant, damp sort. A stubborn mist framed empty buildings – the city of London sleeps on Sundays.

“Enjoy,” the steward smiled at me as I took my place in the bowels of the Barbican. It seemed an odd thing to say to an audience about to watch a screening of The Music of Terezín, a 1993 documentary by Simon Broughton about compositions and performances made by prisoners at the Czech ghetto, which was used as a holding pen before detainees were murdered at Auschwitz and elsewhere.

But, as Broughton said in his introduction to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion: Music for the End of Time – a day-long programme of events dedicated to art created in camps of Nazi-occupied Europe – as well as reflecting on humanity’s darkest failings we should also celebrate its extraordinary achievements.

Many renowned Jewish musicians, academics and artists were sent to Terezín (Theresienstadt) and, despite malnutrition, exhaustion and the constant threat of ‘transports’ – when large groups were taken away to concentration camps – a rich cultural life emerged. Smaller instruments such as violins were smuggled into the ghetto and an upright piano was discovered in a disused house.

Before he was killed, Czech composer-conductor Rafael Schächter organised 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem, teaching dozens of prisoners the music from a single score and accompanied by the piano. The Nazis used the concerts as a smokescreen to cover what was really happening there: when the Red Cross visited in 1944, delegates were treated to a performance of the requiem.

Viktor Ullmann had studied composition with Schoenberg and was developing his musical career in Prague, having left Germany when Hitler came to power. When he was detained in Terezín, Ullmann expressed defiance through music, composing and performing, as well as organising concerts. These used whatever resources were at hand – Beethoven was arranged for violin and accordion, for example.

Works including several piano sonatas, songs and arrangements for choir were premiered there.Some of these pieces were performed by the BBC Singers and musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at Milton Court. Baritone Simon Wallfisch – recently praised in The Big Issue for his performance in the UK premiere of As One, and grandson of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, an Auschwitz survivor who was in attendance – read extracts from diaries written in Terezín.

One described excitement over the birth of a baby, hidden from the guards; the entries ended abruptly with the news that the family had been selected for ‘transport’.

Ullmann’s own selection may have been accelerated after an attempt to stage his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). Written for seven singers and 13 instrumentalists (including parts for banjo and saxophone), the cast includes Death, who has gone on strike in protest at the behaviour of Emperor Overall. The distortion of the German national anthem was too much for the Nazi officials overseeing rehearsals and the staging was cancelled. Ullmann and the cast were despatched to Auschwitz.

Although most of Ullmann’s manuscripts were destroyed, the score to Der Kaiser survived and is gradually being revived. Musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a blistering performance in the Barbican hall, joined by a stellar ensemble cast. The performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds on March 11.

I recently attended Strengthening Music in Society: The way forward for UK Conservatoires, a conference hosted by a consortium of music institutions including the Guildhall. In her keynote speech, Helena Gaunt – principal at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – cast music as being something that lives within society, rather than simply an abstract activity. The achievements of the musicians in Terezín is an extreme – and critical – example of this principle in practice.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor. claire-jackson.co.uk @claireiswriting

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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