The grim realities of Auschwitz often played out against a backdrop of jaunty music. An orchestra of prisoners was forced to perform as their fellow captives marched to and from work, and on Sundays, the musicians were tasked with entertaining Nazi officers.
Though the Auschwitz I men's orchestra was a fixture of the notorious concentration camp, few manuscripts of works arranged and performed survive to the present day. But as Sarah Laskow reports for Atlas Obscura, a University of Michigan researcher recently took a deep dive into one such manuscript at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum—and the piece will be performed tonight for the first time since the Second World War by the U-M Contemporary Directions Ensemble.
Patricia Hall, a professor of music theory at the University of Michigan, has been researching musical manuscripts for the past 40 years. She knew that the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum kept music in its archive, and had heard from a scholar at the museum that some of the documents might include penciled annotations. So in 2016, Hall decided to travel to Poland to explore the archive herself.
“I wasn't sure if I would find anything,” she tells Smithsonian.com, “but I couldn't contain my curiosity.”
Hall expected that if her efforts to comb the archive were at all successful, she would unearth printed music. But she was amazed to find several handwritten manuscripts, one of which struck her as particularly poignant due to the cruel irony of its cheerful title: “The Most Beautiful Time of Life.”
The arrangement, a foxtrot, was based on a love song by the popular German film composer Franz Grothe. Three prisoners had penned the manuscript, adapting Grothe's music to suit 14 musical instruments: nine violins, a viola, a tuba, a trombone and two clarinets. Hall suspects the piece was played during one of the regular Sunday concerts in front of the villa of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.
“This was for the SS personnel,” she explains. “It was about a three-hour concert that was broken up into stages, and at one point, they had a dance band so that soldiers could dance. Given the instrumentation of this foxtrot, I think that’s probably what it was used for.”
Remarkably, two of the manuscript’s authors had signed the document with their prison numbers, which allowed Hall to identify them as Antoni Gargul, a Polish soldier and a violinist, and Maksymilian Piłat, a professional bassoonist who had conservatory training. Both were political prisoners, and both survived the war. (They were not Jewish; according to Laskow, Jewish prisoners were not permitted to join the men's orchestra in Auschwitz until the latter end of the conflict. That was not the case at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination sub-camp, where each camp area had its own prisoners’ orchestra, including one for Jewish men.)
The identity of the third musician is unknown, but Hall thinks he may have also made it out of Auschwitz alive.
After unearthing the manuscript, Hall worked with Joshua Devries, a graduate student in music theory at the University of Michigan, to transcribe the arrangement into printed notation and correct erroneous notes. Then Oriol Sans, conductor of the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, helped make a professional recording of the piece last month. The recording uses the exact instrumentation of the Auschwitz orchestra, which is valuable to historians because, by and large, “we don't really know what camp ensembles at Auschwitz-Birkenau sounded like,” Hall says.
The new recording will become a part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum’s collections. Due to popular demand, tonight’s performance of “The Most Beautiful Time of Life," which will take place during a free concert on the university’s campus, will be livestreamed here at 8 p.m., starting with a pre-performance talk by Hall.
Though it arose from one of the darkest chapters in world history, Hall believes it is important for a contemporary audience to hear the piece. “[I]t relates us on a very emotional level to some of the things prisoners endured,” she says, “and how they were able to create beauty nonetheless.”