A day of concerts featuring music written in imprisonment during the Holocaust was a powerful testament moving from rage to irony
“Our endeavour with respect to art was commensurate with our will to live” the composer Viktor Ullmann wrote in the 1940s, when he was held at Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech), the ghetto camp near Prague which housed the Czech-Jewish artistic community before transportation to Auschwitz. Composition as an act of defiance or self-definition in the face of the ultimate obscenity was the subject of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion: Music for the End of Time, a day of concerts, films and talks about music written in the ghettos and camps of Nazi-occupied Europe. The programme included not only works from Theresienstadt, but also music by the communist Erwin Schulhoff, who died of tuberculosis in Wülzburg prison in 1942, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in 1941 when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Görlitz.
Alpesh Chauhan conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a lunchtime concert, which placed Schulhoff’s Fifth Symphony, raging against the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, alongside Hans Krása’s nervously ironic Overture for Small Orchestra and Pavel Haas’s taut Study for String Orchestra, both written for the Theresienstadt Orchestra. Players from the BBCSO under Josep Pons, also formed the chamber orchestra for the evening performance of Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, in an austere hard-hitting semi-staging by Kenneth Richardson, and sung by a superb ensemble cast. The opera’s bitter ironies and despairing laughter contrasted with Messiaen’s extraordinary Quartet, with its unswerving proclamation of faith amid the encroaching darkness, sensationally played by musicians from the Guildhall School.
Yet the day’s most powerful concert was given by the BBC Singers and Guildhall musicians at Milton Court in the afternoon. Devised by baritone Simon Wallfisch, it interwove choral works, chamber music and songs with a narration, spoken by Wallfisch himself and drawn from documents from Theresienstadt. A father addresses his baby son in his diary, the entries breaking off with the sudden news that the two are to be transported elsewhere. We were reminded that of the 15,000 children who passed through the camp, only 100 survived. The music embraced arrangements of traditional songs by Ullmann and Gideon Klein as well as Klein’s exquisite String Trio, and astonishing, savagely ironic cabaret numbers by Dieter Gogg. Not always easy to listen to, it was an unforgettable affirmation of the human spirit in the most appalling circumstances.
• Alpesh Chauhan’s concert and Der Kaiser von Atlantis will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds on 11 March.