The Power of Music

It's no secret that music can have a profound effect on all of us. It can lift or lower our mood; it can make us think of a certain time, place or person; it can be the best method of expression when words are simply not enough.
This medium has been used for hundreds of years to convey emotions and feelings. It has touched on revolutions, celebrations, mournings and historical events, with each composer striving to reflect the mood of the public, for example, or even internal anguish that others may be able to relate to.

How does this fit into the Holocaust, then? Well, firstly, it's a well-known fact that music was played throughout the history of camps such as Auschwitz. A camp orchestra was set up that played whilst prisoners went to work and when they came back, and also for the leisure of the SS (it is a misconception that the orchestra played at the gas chambers, as shown in films such as 'The Grey Zone'; often, new arrivals believed the music was being played to welcome them, but this was not so. They just happened to arrive at a time other prisoners were leaving for or returning from their duties). A place in the orchestra saved a prisoner from hard labour, and food rations could be better. In short, such a job gave a better chance of survival, so music saved these people in more than just the figurative way.

There is also, however, the issue of how music is used in accounts and portrayals of the Holocaust since the liberation of the camps. The first thing that often springs to mind is film, as most will have an accompanying soundtrack. In Holocaust films, I think it would be fair to say anything other than classical music may be deemed inappropriate, unless used in context (for example, other genres could be played at an SS gathering, as that would probably be accurate). 'The Pianist', unsurprisingly, chose a soundtrack of pieces from the likes of Chopin and Beethoven, as these were the pieces survivor Wladyslaw Spzilman would have played. On the other hand, music for Holocaust films has also been composed. The most powerful to me is the soundtrack to 'Schindler's List'. Below is the eighth composition, simply entitled 'Auschwitz-Birkenau'. I urge you just to take three minutes out of your day, now, to listen to it.

Sit, and let the music wash over you. You don't need to have seen the film to appreciate this piece. It does the talking for itself; the feeling of horror, misery, darkness, impending doom. The first few times I heard this I could not shake off the shudder that ran down my spine, and the uneasy feeling it gave me. Just this one piece of music on its own does an incredible job of giving a 'voice' to unspeakable horror. What makes it worse is that this is not from the score of a fictional thriller - this conveys events and emotions that actually happened.

The other example I want to leave you with is something that I came across only a few days ago, and was amazed by. The video below is an excerpt from 'Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz'. This was recorded to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, and the Museum actually permitted the entire thing to be filmed within the camp itself. Stars of the classical scene came out to perform pieces from composers such as Schubert, Chopin and Gorecki, all with some link to the Holocaust itself.
The video I have embedded here is entitled 'Symphony Three: Sorrowful Songs (Part II)' by Gorecki. The orchestra are playing in an arnaments factory built by prisoners; the soprano, the amazing Isabel Bayrakdaraian, is singing from a wooden barrack in Birkenau. I'm sure this will give you just as many chills as it gave me. It's simply sublime. 'Enjoy', if that is the correct word to use.