Composer 'Nearly Fell Over' at What He Found at Auschwitz

Composer Leo Geyer has re-created incomplete scores of music played by orchestra at Nazi camp
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 24, 2023 9:10 AM CST
Music Played by Auschwitz Orchestra Is Resurrected
The railway tracks where hundred thousands of people arrived to be directed to the gas chambers inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, are pictured in Oswiecim, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.   (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, file)

Music played amid the highs and very deep lows of Auschwitz will be heard again for the first time in 80 years. Leo Geyer, a composer and conductor pursuing a doctorate in music and composition at Oxford University, has re-created musical scores from sheets held in the archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. During a 2015 visit to the former concentration camp, he learned there were "210 pieces of music of varying levels of completion," which had been performed by prisoner orchestras, per CNN. Researcher Juliane Brauer has described how the forced listening to and performing of music could be used as a kind of torture in camps. But prisoners also used music as a form of resistance by performing in secret or weaving hidden messages into the scores, says Geyer.

"I knew there were orchestras in Auschwitz," but "I nearly fell over" upon hearing that musical scores had been preserved, Geyer tells CNN. However, there were "incomplete pieces, many with burnt edges," he tells the Religion Media Centre. Geyer made it his goal to re-create the music by matching up pages and composing what was missing. Geyer's Constella Orchestra will perform four of the pieces in a work dubbed "The Orchestras of Auschwitz" at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre on Monday as a way to raise money for the ongoing project. Among those to perform is baritone Simon Wallfisch, the grandson of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who served as cellist in the women's orchestra of Birkenau and believes the role helped her survive the Holocaust.

"As long as the Germans wanted an orchestra, it would have been counterproductive to kill us," Lasker-Wallfisch says, per the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. She recalls "playing every morning and every evening at the gate of the camp so that the outgoing and incoming work commandos would march neatly in step to the marches we played." She says the orchestra would also be at the beck and call of SS officers who "wanted to hear some music after sending thousands of people to their death." Geyer hopes to "finish the rest of the job and present the full series so that people can hear this music around the world," per CNN. At Auschwitz, "many people were extremely grateful for the music that they heard," he notes. It served as "a chink of daylight in the darkness" of "an otherwise unimaginable place." (More Auschwitz stories.)

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