An Interview with Tracy Carr, Kayla Paulk, Jennifer Laubenthal, Jean Ornellas: “Music of the Holocaust—An Examination and Recital of Two Compositions Influenced by Atrocities”

Mar 6, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, could each of you provide a brief description of your musical instrument, and then how you got involved in this particular performance.

TC: I am an oboist and really enjoy the music of Benjamin Britten. The Temporal Variations for Oboe and Piano combine my two loves: oboe and music history. I believe to have an effective performance, for the audience members and the performers, knowledge of Britten, his philosophies, and (possible) inspirations are necessary. I always enjoy collaborating with my colleagues and Kayla and I have had a long and successful history of faculty recitals and other collaborations.

This particular topic for the Faculty Lectureship Series came to me during Jenny Laubenthal’s recital last March. Her recital was a few weeks after my Britten collaboration with Kayla during our CMS Conference and I thought the two (Britten and Laitman) would go well together for a lecture-recital.

KP: I am a pianist, and am most active on the ENMU campus as a collaborative pianist. In addition to accompanying a majority of our 119 ENMU music majors in rehearsals and performances, it is always a pleasure to collaborate with my colleagues. Tracy and I have performed faculty recitals together annually since I arrived at ENMU eight years ago, and I always enjoy making music with her. This past year, Tracy invited me to collaborate musically with her in her research presentation centered on Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations at the regional College Music Society conference, held at ENMU. That lecture recital was a huge success, and I’m thrilled we have another opportunity to share this work and Tracy’s research with the ENMU community through the ENMU Faculty Lectureship Series.

JL: I am a clarinetist. Last March, I programmed Lori Laitman’s I Never Saw another Butterfly on my recital.

I also included Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time movement III: Abyss of the Birds. These two pieces were composed as a result of the Holocaust.

Laitman included poetry written by children of the Holocaust and Messiaen composed the Quartet while being imprisoned during the Holocaust. At this time, Tracy was working on the Britten. With a common theme between these pieces, it seemed natural to perform these pieces in a lecture recital setting.

JO: I am a soprano and echo what Jenny said above.

2) Now, could each of you perhaps speak to why the linking of music, and the Holocaust?

TC: I’ve always been intrigued by what inspires or influences composers. Being married to a composer, and having had several good friends that are also composers, I have firsthand knowledge that composers often prefer to delve in to the vast array and spectrum of emotions that sadness, loss, heartbreak, and anguish can bring. The color spectrum for expressing happiness, joy, exuberance, is wide, but the former can often express so much more. The Holocaust and World War II were both horrific events that adversely affected millions of people both then and ever since.

KP: Tracy can speak specifically to how her research draws a correlation between Britten’s Temporal Variations and the historical atrocities surrounding the Holocaust. I will add that, historically-speaking, the human spirit often transcends the most horrible of experiences and, through them, finis somehow able to create beauty. For those victimized by Nazi cruelty, music often served as an important vehicle for maintaining and demonstrating their humanity. We know that official camp orchestras (camp ensembles) existed, as well as camp choirs. (Music in Concentration Camps 1933-1945: The Nazi regime worked mightily to strip its captives of their dignity, sense of self and, sadly for many, even their lives; however, the gift of music could not be taken from them. It’s heartening to read of the creative ways many musicians found to make music and share it with their fellow captors. It reminds me as a musician of the power of music, and the sacrifice many have made in the past that helps us enjoy the freedom to express ourselves in music today.

JL: Music is a form of human expression. When people are faced with horrific adversaries, one would expect them to express themselves through the arts: music, art, poetry and composition. The Holocaust also speaks deeply to humanity.

JO: I am inspired and moved by the way people – and in this case particularly children – are able to express themselves so eloquently through music and art, and are able to remove themselves, even if for only a brief moment, from the pain and depredations that they are suffering through their art. In the poetry and artwork included in our presentation, I see how children who suffered so terribly were still able to see beauty and hope in their world.

3) The first questions are for Tracy Carr and Kayla Paulk- could you describe first of all your research and the spoken presentation parts of the program?

TC: I am currently reading Britten’s Diary (Journey Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 1928-1938), Susan Willoughby’s Art, Music, and Writings from the Holocaust, and Benjamin Jacob’s The Dentist of Auschwitz. (Incidentally, Jacob himself came to ENMU to speak on his book shortly after I joined the faculty here at ENMU. I found his presentation to be fascinating and inspirational.)

For the Lectureship Series, there will first be a brief biography of Britten followed by a timeline of Hitler’s rise to power. Britten was a pacifist, so his philosophy of composition and life are important underlying elements that will pervade the lecture portion of the presentation. Following the brief presentation, Kayla and I will perform the piece in its entirety.

KP: I will defer to Tracy here, as she is responsible for the research portion of our presentation. I am involved only in the performance aspect of the Britten.

4) Now for Jennifer Laubenthal and Jean Ornellas-could you discuss your performance and presentation?

JL: I will be discussing Laitman’s life and composition style. I will also share the inspiration behind the work.

JO: I will be discussing briefly the plight of children during World War II, especially children of the ghettos and concentration camps. Then I will give some background on Terezin, the ghetto-labor-transit camp, and the artwork of the children there.

5) Now musically, what are the challenges you faced putting together this performance? Whoever feels appropriate

KP: Because each of us enjoy full teaching loads, both in the classroom and private studio (plus ensemble work for some of us), the biggest challenge is finding a mutual time to be in the same room! Honestly, once we do that, the rest is a piece of cake! When we finally get to the rehearsal process, each of us has spent ample time preparing our individual part and the ensemble tends to come together quite smoothly. That is a testament to the outstanding level of artistry each of my colleagues possesses. It makes our collaborations easy and a true joy. Subsequently, such collaborations cause us to grow as artist-musician-teachers and informs our teaching.

TC: I agree with Kayla, scheduling is the greatest challenge due to all of our busy schedules! Specifically for the Temporal Variations, there are no metronome markings, so I believe each of the performers would have the latitude to use their own musical judgment in selecting the tempos they believe best reflect the music and the emotions behind each of the movements.

JL: The more I learn about the piece, the more difficult it is to perform. The music and text speaks to me so deeply, it is difficult to keep from getting emotional during the performance!

JO: – Every time I work on these pieces (I have performed them three times before) I find something different in them – and each time they touch me more and more deeply. In addition, as I researched and prepared the Powerpoint for the performance, I learn more and more about the amazing ways that human beings find to be cruel. Of course, scheduling rehearsals is always a challenge, but it is so rewarding to get together and communicate non-verbally so well with a good friend!

6) Now, on the research end- what were the challenges you faced in terms of historical accuracy?

JL: There has been a significant amount of research done on this subject matter. I was lucky, Laitman has been very open about her life and compositional style.

TC: I agree with Jenny that there has been a large amount of research as well as primary source documentation on music and the Holocaust. For Britten, there are significant writings by him and about him. Although, regarding his Diary, the connections between the Variations and Hitler and the Nazis are more anecdotal.

JO: – There are many different versions of the Terezin story, and deciding which are the most reliable is difficult. Of course, much is word of mouth and second hand from survivors. Also, many of the sources I found had their own spins to give – whether trying to minimize the atrocities, rationalize the actions of the regime, or garner sympathy from their audience by exaggerating or leaving out details. I have tried to stick to the bare facts, and let the audience decide for themselves how they feel about the presentation as much as I possibly can. That being said, I cannot help but include my emotional reactions in the presentation – but hope I do not make easy with facts in doing so.

7) This is more of a factual question- for anyone- but is there any one composer, arranger,performer who seems to have made The Holocaust a central theme to their work?

KP: There are many composers – quite naturally, those who lived and were writing actively during the time of World War II – for whom a humane response to the Holocaust informed their music. Most well-known of formal composers would be Henryk Gorecki, Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Krzystof Penderecki, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sir Michael Tippett. Of course, there are many Jewish composers, as well. Charles Davidson, for example, wrote the powerful choral work, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a setting of children’s poetry from the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia (where only 100 of the 15,000 imprisoned children survived). I had the great privilege of performing this work with the young men of the Atlanta Boys Choir in a European performance tour in the late 1990s. A powerful, life-changing experience.

JO: – As Kayla mentioned, numerous composers have used the Holocaust and their experiences as the foundation for major works. I would also mention that the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” and several others like it containing the art work and poems of children of Terezin has been the basis for numerous plays, musical works for various ensembles, including an opera titled “Hana’s Story.” (I can give you more details if you wish) The poems and drawings used in our presentation are only a few of the thousands which were rescued from the ghetto after the liberation, and there are infinite possibilities for works based on them.

8) I must confess that I do not consider myself a musical historian by any means- so could one of you discuss other similar compositions or pieces that have been linked to other historical events?

KP: For me, another example of the power of music linked to a historical event also occurred in WW II and also connects closely with the Holocaust.

Helen Colijn, a young 20-year-old Dutch woman, lived with her parents on a small island near Borneo when the Japanese invaded in 1941. She and her two younger sisters were captured by Japanese soldiers and moved from concentration camp to concentration camp throughout World War II. Her story, Song of Survival (made into the film, Paradise Road), recounts Margaret Dryburgh, a Presbyterian missionary who gave her fellow prisoners a means to survive spiritually: the vocal orchestra. Working from memory, Margaret wrote from memory, on scraps of paper, music she had heard many years earlier: the “Largo” from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, and works by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Ravel, and Grainger, and taught them to a chorus of prisoners. Thirty women rehearsed this music under severe conditions in 1943. They surprised their fellow prisoners on December 27, 1943 with a concert that included the Largo from the “New World Symphony” by Dvorak and several other compositions from symphonic and piano literature. The concerts continued throughout 1944 and early 1945. By then over half of the chorus had died, and the chorus ceased to function. Especially moving to me is The Captive’s Hymn, an original piece by Margaret Dryburgh, written during her interment. This piece was her musical response to the atrocities she observed and lived. I had the pleasure of serving as accompanist for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale when we created the CD, Journeys of the Spirit, and this particular piece was included in this recording project. It is hauntingly beautiful.

JL: John Adam’s composed the opera, Nixon in China, after President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

TC: I agree with all the above-stated composers and compositions. Let me also add Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Bukvich’s Dresden 1945, and the Shostakovich Symphonies that Kayla previously mentioned. This is a difficult question as there are many, probably hundreds of pieces composed for specific events and people.

JO: We can go back through history and find so many works whose inspiration comes from war and tragedy – from Schumann’s “Die Beiden Grenadiere” to Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory to Haydn’s Missa Temporis (Mass in Time of War). Tracy and Kayla’s composer, Benjamin Britten wrote the “War Requiem” in 1962, and we cannot forget all of the protest songs of the 60’s and early 70’s that were inspired by the Vietnam War. Shostakovich wrote his 7th symphony in Leningrad in 1941, and just this afternoon on the ENMU band concert we heard Daniel Bukvich’s “Symphony No. 1 – In Memorium Dresden, 1945 depicting the sirens and screams and destruction of the Allied bombing of Dresden.

9) What are the challenges that you as musicians, and performers faced when attempting to put together a program of this nature?

TC: Putting together the program and its scheduling were rather easy. I would say that presenting both the lecture portion and the performance of the pieces are the most vital parts of the program. All of us feel very strongly about the music we are performing and want to present them as well as possible since they do have such strong emotional and personal connections – we owe it to the composers and to the victims of the atrocities.

KP: As I already mentioned, perhaps the biggest challenge is finding the requisite time for rehearsal. We are all eager to collaborate together in projects such as these, and I must add how grateful we are that the ENMU Department of Music, College of Fine Arts, and upper administration and ENMU community at large are so supportive of these endeavors. A special thanks to Dr. Linda Weems and the Faculty Lectureship Series for providing a forum for faculty across the ENMU campus to share research with our campus community. The four of us are thrilled to participate in this lectureship series.

JL: Musicians want to communicate to the audience through sounds and silence; (they want to emotionally move the audience). People relate to the Holocaust in many different ways. I find it difficult to speak to everyone in the audience because of their unique experience with, feelings about, or views of the Holocaust.

JO: It is difficult to put into a half hour or so such a wealth of information and emotion – to give the audience enough to fully understand what we have come to feel from our rehearsals and research and, as Jenny said, communicate thoroughly with the audience.

10) What have I neglected to ask? Anyone—

KP: I think you’ve covered it all! Thanks Mike!

TC: Thank you Mike for giving us this opportunity to speak on our research, music, and lectureship series. We are also very grateful to Dr. Linda Weems and the Faculty Lectureship Series Committee for supporting us and giving us this opportunity and vehicle for expression.

JO: – Thank you Mike!!

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