When University of Michigan Music Theory professor Patricia Hall heard of musical works potentially composed at Nazi concentration camps, she began her research into the sounds of Auschwitz. During Hall’s tours of the most deadly system of camps during the Holocaust last summer, she was struck by the irony of the manuscripts she analyzed. Upon deeper review, Hall decided she wanted to delve more broadly into music’s relationship with the history of the Holocaust.
“I was immediately coming across highly ironic titles of popular German songs; I was so affected by them I had to stop what I was doing and stare at them to process some of these titles,” Hall said.
A particularly intriguing piece Hall found was titled “The Most Beautiful Time of Life."
“I decided to research the foxtrot “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” because it was the most ironic title I could imagine in that setting,” Hall said. “At that point I didn’t know anything about the popular song it was based on or much else. I was utterly convinced that we needed to make a recording of this piece and that we could do it here at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance because this is a huge school of music.”
Hall’s analysis of prisoner testimonials provided insight into the music played at the concentration camps during Holocaust and how it was used. She said orchestras were positioned at camp entrance gates performing upbeat pop music or foxtrots to entertain the soldiers. The musicians and musical arrangers were prisoners who used Nazi-confiscated instruments and played in orchestras as large as 120 members.
“They had difficulty finding the right instrumentalist; moreover, a lot of these instrumentalists were amateur musicians … They would have them certainly for playing this music that prisoners were forced to march to … but they were sometimes used for entertainment,” Hall said. “They had a smaller ensemble of about 20 members that functioned as a dance band and the later hours would be light entertainment so the SS and other soldiers can dance.”
Prisoner testimonials revealed the men’s orchestra would play three-hour sets. While musicians were often exempt from hard manual labor in the camps, they were still in danger. Hall referenced the Piotr M.A. Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum who said musicians were sometimes taken out and shot.
“The main difference was these prisoners did not have to march out of the camp and do heavy labor during the day,” Hall said. “They could stay in the camp and work on commandos there, for instance the potato peeling commando. A lot of members of the orchestra were doing that and as a result they had more access to food.”
Hall found two of the arrangers of the musical piece “The Most Beautiful Time of Life” signed the manuscript with their prisoner numbers. From this, Hall was able to discover when they entered the camp. Though there might not be a signature, Hall said she could distinguish differences in handwriting and style.
Throughout her research, Hall grappled with understanding and processing the weight and irony of her discoveries and how to best honor these musicians.
“So far, one of the only ways I’ve found of dealing with it is realizing that, in the end, this is an example of prisoners who, under these excruciating circumstances, were still able to express themselves artistically and create this beauty,” Hall said. “I think of a concert like this is literally a tribute to them, that we are hearing their music again, their artistic efforts and enjoying the beauty of it.”
Hall returned from her trip last summerwith the daunting task of recreating the music.
“Frankly, we have no idea what this music sounded like, we don’t know what type of ensemble were playing these pieces usually, we don’t know how many performers there were,” Hall said. “Having a manuscript like this and making a historically accurate recording, you have not only the notes of it but you have exactly the instrumentation that was used in that ensemble. So it’s the closet you are going to get to the accurate sound of those ensembles.”
At the University, Hall relied upon the help of Rackham student Josh DeVries, who is pursuing a doctorate in music theory, to arrange this music for modern-day musicians while still maintaining its authenticity. DeVries worked to create a full score for the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, a music group at the University, to perform. Throughout the process, DeVries and Hall made difficult decisions in changing notes for the modern time.
“Usually the role of an engraver who works with the composer is to ‘correct’ things they’ve done wrong or written incorrectly,” DeVries said. “The word ‘correct’ is a strange one to use when working in this context. Throughout this whole project, one of our goals has been to not only honor the memory of those who perform but to create as honest a performance as possible.”
DeVries said the performers will be reading the modern parts, engraved and arranged by him, adjacent to the original parts to pay homage to the original manuscript.
Hall and DeVries enlisted the help of assistant professor Oriol Sans, director of the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, to bring the piece to life.
“From the point of view of the performers and working with these students, first of all, it’s like it is bringing back the life of these people and part of what it was for them to be in that terrible situation, doing exactly the same as what the students do, which is play their instruments,” Sans said. “It establishes a very special connection with (students’) experience. I think for the students it has been very interesting to have this experience and they are very grateful to have this experience.”
Sans described the lapses of musical information the team had to fill in to create a complete piece. According to Sans, the instrumentation consisted of four first violins, five second violins, one viola, two clarinets, one trombone and one tuba, a result of whatever instruments or people they had available.
“There were a couple of spots where things could be a little strange or a little different in some of the dynamics; I don’t know if that was the same case in 1940 in a concentration camp,” Sans said. “That was a challenge for the recording, balancing the dynamics, and there are some cool features and the intention from Day One was to play as they would have played it at the camp.”
Sans said finally seeing the performance of the music, combined with photos of the camp shown during the concert, was very powerful for all involved.
“The first time we played this music out of the camp, that was a very emotional day for the students knowing that we told the story,” Sans said. “There was some personal connection and I think that made it closer or more personal for all of us, and that was I thought very special.”
Hall, DeVries and Sans have worked together since early summer to develop the performance that made its debut in a concert last Friday. Hall said she is still processing the project and looks forward to writing a scholarly article about it with an included recording.