4.66. Stefan Heucke, opera ‘The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz’ (2006)

In Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was an orchestra of women prisoners; this ensemble provided the SS with a status symbol, entertainment on demand and musical accompaniment of terror; they also offered other prisoners some distraction and, above all, they could postpone their own death in the gas chambers. About this orchestra, the French singer and piano player Fania Fénelon wrote the autobiographical novel Sursis pour l’orchestre (“Reprieve for the Orchestra,” 1976), *Translated as Playing for Time (1977). Fania Fénelon was the pseudonym of Fania Goldstein (1918-1983). Her year of birth is sometimes given as 1908 or 1922; according to Patterson et al., Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature 47, it is 1918 which inspired the German composer Stefan Heucke (born 1959) to compose the opera Das Frauenorchester von Auschwitz (“The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz,” 2001-2006), to a libretto written by his brother Clemens.

In Heucke’s opera, two orchestras appear: an orchestra in the pit and an onstage orchestra as a reduced version of the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz, which performs the repertoire of the camp orchestra. The opera’s principal character is Alma Rosé (1906-1944), daughter of the violin player Arnold Rosé and niece of the composer Gustav Mahler. As a Jew, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was recognized as the famous violin player and conductor, and then ordered to lead the already existing women’s orchestra, a difficult task, because most members were inexperienced amateurs. In general, the opera follows Fénelon’s novel and contains episodes from the history of the women’s orchestra led by Alma Rosé and her successor Sonia Winogradowa, from the period January-November, 1944.

Despite the facts that the orchestra consisted not only of Jewish women and that religion played a minor role in Fénelon’s novel, Heucke gave his opera a Jewish-religious dimension by using the system of 100 shofar blasts from the Rosh Ha-Shanah service as a structure-defining element. The only other work in A Tool of Remembrance in which this is the case is Avraham Loewenthal’s painting 100 Sounds of the Shofar, that was discussed in the preceding chapter. Heucke makes a few changes in the system of shofar blasts. He simplifies the four traditional blasts by reducing the two pitches—the second and the third harmonic—to one, and reduces the volume of the blasts, thereby increasing the contrast between the shofar blasts and the extremely high, low, loud, and virtuoso vocal and instrumental parts in the opera. The tekiʿah is one single note with a little swell at the end, the shevarim consists of 6 notes, and the teruʿah of 8 notes, while length, tempo and notation differ per scene. Each of the 30 lines, just as in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, is either a TaShRat, a TaShaT, or a TaRaT. *TaShRat: Tekiʿah-Shevarim-teRuʿah-Tekiʿah; TaShaT: Tekiʿah-Shevarim-Tekiʿah; TaRaT: Tekiʿah-teRuʿah-Tekiʿah. Cf. Chapter 3.3.

The division of the 30 lines into four groups follows the usual one, as shown in Fig. 1 of Chapter 3.3: aaa-bbb-ccc / abc-abc-abc / aaa-bbb-ccc / abc, with the exception of the second group, which is equal to the first and the third groups: aaa-bbb-ccc / aaa-bbb-ccc / aaa-bbb-ccc / abc. This difference probably has no musical or dramatic reason. *In an e-mail to the author of February 12, 2011, Heucke stated: “I use a system which the cantor of the Jewish congregation of Duisburg gave me; according to him, it was the usual system.” In the opera, each of the four groups of 30 or 10 blasts is connected to a dramatic motif: the first group of 30 blasts in the Prelude, Prologue, and Scenes 1-9 is connected with the motto of the opera and the transport to the concentration camp, whereas the second group of 30 blasts in Scenes 10-17 deals with the nature of the camp; the third group of 30 blasts in Scenes 18-31 is connected with death and the liquidation of the orchestra; and the last group of 10 blasts in Scene 32 with the flashback in the Epilogue. *This interpretation was endorsed by the composer in an e-mail to the author, February 12, 2011.

Many shofar lines are announced by the timpani motif E♭-E♭-A-D-E, which is pronounced in German as /ɛs ɛs a: de: e:/ and represents the sentence “SS Adé” (“SS adieu”), an interpretation which was endorsed by the composer. *“The timpani motif is indeed a symbolic motif for the SS! That was planned and intended by me. The idea of the ‘Adé’ is new to me! . . . Your interpretation makes sense!” Heucke, e-mail to the author, February 12, 2011. Translated from the German by KvH. The timpani motif is, as it were, a barrier between the secular music expressing life and death in the concentration camp, and the sacred shofar blasts. The blasts constitute a separate musical layer and the shofar does not enter into a musical dialogue with the orchestra in the pit and the women’s orchestra on stage. The shofar manifests itself only acousmatically, as it does not appear on stage and the characters do not respond to the blasts. In the following synopsis, the shofar lines consisting of three or four blasts are marked by “Sh”, while the passages of the orchestra in the pit are marked by pointed brackets.

The Prelude, Prologue, and Scenes 1-9 with the first group of 30 shofar blasts deal with the problem of reflecting life and death in a concentration camp in a work of art; the second subject is the transport to the camp. Prelude I. Darkness. <The strings play a twelve-tone chord, which slowly turns into an A minor chord. The shofar is announced by the timpani motif E♭-E♭-A-D-E. Sh1. The orchestra introduces the principal themes and motifs.> Sh2, Sh3. On the curtain appears a motto by Maimonides, referring to the arousing shofar:

Wake, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers wake from your slumbers. Examine your deeds and turn in teshuva [repentance]. Remember your Creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time, spending the year in vanity and emptiness that neither helps nor saves. Look to your souls and improve your ways and deeds. *English translation quoted from The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 501, Note.

Prologue. Closed curtain. An actor representing Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of the surviving members of the orchestra, reads her letter to the composer Stefan Heucke. In her opinion, Fénelon’s novel is unreliable and the subject is too complex for an opera. Prelude II. <Hectic orchestral music evokes the atmosphere of a deportation by train.> On the curtain appears a second motto, by Thomas Mann, expressing deep scepsis about man, who is a threat to God’s creation. *From Mann, Lob der Vergänglichkeit (“In Praise of the Transitory”). This text is followed by a picture of the watchtower of Birkenau and the railway to the camp. Sh4, Sh5, Sh6. // Act I. Scene 1. A transport is on its way to Auschwitz. The prisoners Fania (Fénelon) and Berthe decide to stay together to help each other. Scene 2. Arrival of the transport in Auschwitz, where men, women and children are being separated. SS-Hauptsturmführer and camp physician Dr. Mengele selects the strong and the weak. Scene 3. All prisoners are ordered to undress. Sh7 <over a dissonant chord in the pianississimo strings.> Fania manages to hide her diary under her arm; the kapo *kapo: a prisoner assigned by the SS to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks claims Fania’s earrings and abuses her: “Du Judensau!” (“You Jewish pig!”). At this moment, Sh8 is heard. Women are being hit. Sh9 <with great outbursts of the orchestra and falling 2nds as sigh motifs.> Of this first group of 30 shofar blasts, the most important are Sh2 and Sh3, which introduce the motto by Maimonides. Sh7 is the only shofar blast in the opera to which the characters respond, as they seem to freeze.

The subject of Scenes 10-17 with the second group of 30 shofar blasts is the nature of the concentration camp. Scene 4. Blockowa (“block head”) Tschaikowska is looking for singers and musicians for the camp orchestra. Scene 5. Fania auditions as a singer and piano player with the requested aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly: “Soon we’ll see at daybreak a tiny little thread of smoke rise where the sky borders on the ocean. And then a ship in motion.” *Puccini, Madama Butterfly Act II, No. 12, mm. 1-8. Orchestra members recognize Fania as the singer from Paris, while she, in turn, recognizes Alma, the famous violin player. Fania is informed about the performances of the orchestra, outdoors for prisoners and indoors for the SS. Of the 1200 prisoners of the last transport, 50 men and 50 women are left; the orchestra members conclude that the other 1100 have already ended up in smoke. Fania and Berthe again audition for SS-Oberaufseherin Mandel with the duet from Madama Butterfly: “A balm from hands caressing violets, tuberoses, the springtime’s tender blessing, petals of ev’ry flow’r.” *Ibid., Act II, No. 80, mm. 1-8. Mandel engages them. Scene 6. Alma rehearses with ruthless discipline, as poor performance would lead to the end of the orchestra and death in the gas chambers. Scene 7. Orchestra members report how the women’s orchestra conducted by Alma has developed from a primitive marching band, accompanying prisoners to work. The SS are getting tired of the limited repertoire and Alma does not have time to make new arrangements. Fania is able to orchestrate and offers help. She asks: “Isn’t saving your life more important than trying to please the SS?” Alma replies: “Do you think that the one is possible without the other?” Scene 8. Fania writes in her diary about the ordeal of arranging seventeen hours a day and playing on demand for the SS. Prisoners march past to the beat of the music and whoever cannot keep up is shot. Scene 9. Sh10 <accompanied by an extremely soft twelve-tone chord.> Fania is busy arranging music. Electrician Schmuel urges her to keep her eyes wide open and to write down everything she sees. Sh11, Sh12. Scene 10. After a performance at an execution, some orchestra members lose heart; others want to stay alive for a future revenge on the Nazis, or point at the fact that the orchestra is their only chance to survive. Fania realizes the scale of the murdering: “You mean, they use gas to kill?” <A big crescendo in the orchestra and Sh13. A duet, accompanied by eighth triplets (the “gas chamber” motif) swells to a women’s chorus on death in the gas chamber,> Sh14, and ends with Florette’s laconic statement: “Well, it is not exactly a sanatorium here!” Sh15. // Act II. Scene 11. Thanks to the prisoner Mala, who acts as an interpreter to the Russian kapos, the sick Martha is taken to the sick bay instead of the gas chamber. Scene 12. Alma talks with Fania about Mala, whose cunning has already saved the lives of many prisoners. Her discipline is an example to the orchestra, which has to deal with the both unpredictable and musical Mengele. “Anyone who cannot play will die,” says Alma. “Our playing must constantly improve, otherwise I don’t know how long they will be tolerating us.” Fania doubts whether she can summon the discipline to entertain the SS amid all the horrors and asks: “But can I, as an artist, not remain human?” “Art and humanity are different things,” Alma objects. “The audience is not your concern, certainly not here in the camp, where your life is at stake.” Scene 13. An argument between Fania and Berthe, who prostitutes herself for a kapo in exchange for food. “We orchestra members are no better than prostitutes,” says Berthe, “when we entertain those murderers” and “We won’t survive anyway.” Fania argues for self-respect; she refuses the sausage offered by Berthe, but eventually yields to the temptation. Scene 14. The orchestra plays Suppé’s overture Leichte Kavallerie at a selection by Mengele. “Our Alma is a genius!” Mengele claims, and SS-Obersturmführer Hössler adds: “With music, everything goes better!” Sh16. Deportees pass along and Schmuel says to Fania: “Those are for the gas.” At the same time, Sh17 sounds. “A new idea from Hössler: with music into the gas,” says Schmuel. “Fania, now they gas twelve thousand people a day.” <The falling gas chamber motif is heard. Sh18. The same run is played ascending and the brass plays long notes with a variant of the seufzer motif.> “Twelve thousand angels fly upward every day,” Schmuel adds. The women’s orchestra plays Suppé’s Leichte Kavalerie. Scene 15. Immediately after the selection, the orchestra plays for the SS and Fania sings Butterfly’s aria: “Soon we’ll see at daybreak a tiny little thread of smoke rise where the sky borders on the ocean. And then a ship in motion.” The SS are deeply touched: “What a wonderful music! What a pleasure that comforts the soul!” And Mengele adds: “It gives us strength for our heavy task here.” Scene 16. The orchestra members discuss the question whether the SS are humans or beasts. Fania’s opinion about Mandel: “She is a human like you and me and that’s the problem.” Scene 17. Orchestra members argue with Berthe, who prostitutes herself for food, for fear of becoming barren from undernourishment. Four Jewish women sing the Adon ʿOlam (“Lord of the Universe”), while Catholic Eva sings the Ave Maria as a fifth part. Berthe, who does not sing, pleads: “Don’t let me down.” “He is my God,” sings the choir, “my living Redeemer, Rock of my pain in time of distress,” *The Koren Siddur 300 while Eva sings, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.” Many shofar blasts from this second group of 30 are used to reveal the absurdity of life in the camp, for example, Sh10, which is blown immediately after the musical accompaniment of mass murder.

The subject of Scenes 18-31, with the third group of 30 shofar blasts is death, in particular the death of Alma, and the liquidation of the women’s orchestra. Sh19. Scene 18. While the Adon ʿOlam is still heard, Mengele and four SS men appear, this time also selecting women and children. Sh20. One of the deportees flees, ends up in the barbed wire and gets stuck in it. <Sh21 is drowned out by the crescendo of the orchestra.> // Act III. Prelude. The orchestra rehearses a duet from Madama Butterfly. Scene 19. Marta has left the sick bay, but as she is too exhausted to play, Alma orders her to mop the floor, which leads to discussion. Scene 20. Lagerführer (“Camp Commander”) Hössler takes away both the piano and accordion player Flora, who has to serve as a nanny. Scene 21. Alma says to Fania that she is about to leave the orchestra; she will go on tour in the Wehrmacht, which she considers progress after having played for the murderers of the SS. She wants Fania to take over her work as a conductor, but Fania hesitates: “We almost never agreed on anything, Frau Alma. I even believe that you are completely wrong, if you think that music will remain innocent and pure, no matter where it is played and for whom. But I admit that you have saved our lives so far.” Scene 22. Alma has died unexpectedly; SS and prisoners file past the bier. “What a beautiful funeral,” says Hössler to Mengele, “something like that we don’t have here in Birkenau every day. By the way: do you want to carry out an autopsy?” “A brain autopsy could be interesting,” Mengele answers. “I would like to find out whether musical talent can be located in the brain.” <Sh22 is accompanied by a ghostly staccato episode.> According to Schmuel, the rumor is spread that kapo Schmidt had poisoned Alma out of jealousy, Sh23, because she could not bear the thought that Alma was allowed to leave the camp. Sh24. Scene 23. The SS appoint the “Aryan” Sonia conductor; however, the orchestra members protest because she does not know how to conduct and therefore, she puts their lives at risk. Scene 24. Mala has fled with her lover Edek, in men’s clothes and with false papers. Scene 25. During a selection by Mengele, a little boy runs to Mandel. She takes him with her and the boy’s mother is shot. Scene 26. After being arrested at the Slovakian border, Mala and Edek are returned to the camp; they are interrogated and tortured, but they do not talk. Fania catches Berthe with a kapo and urges her to keep at least a spark of humanity. Mandel arrives at the orchestra with Ferenc, the boy whose mother was shot; she wants to keep him and lets the orchestra members play with him. Casually, she says that Mengele wants the orchestra to perform for the mentally handicapped, to investigate the effect of music on their behavior. Tschaikowska enters with the message: “You must play! Whatever you want! Hurry up!” Scene 27. <Sh25 in march tempo, accompanied by dotted rhythms, derived from the timpani motif and the gas motif.> Mala is dragged to the gallows. <After a big crescendo the orchestra falls silent. Sh26 sounds with soft strings, a heroic solo of the bass trumpet> and Hössler’s command: “Achtung, Kapelle! Spielen!” The orchestra plays Schubert’s Rosamunde. Mala tears herself loose and cuts her radial artery with a razor. <After an outburst of the orchestra, the scene ends in darkness with Sh27>. Scene 28. Sonia fails as a conductor and orchestra members warn her that Mengele has already left a concert. During an air raid, the women wonder why allied airplanes do not bomb the camp or the railway. Suddenly, Mandel enters the barrack in a desolate mood, and with Ferenc’s teddy bear in hand; she has “given back” the boy to his mother. The orchestra plays her favorite aria. Scene 29. Fania writes in her diary about the concert in the barracks of the mentally handicapped. Scene 30. Sonia wants to rehearse during an air raid, but the orchestra members find it useless, and moreover, the Russians are coming. The argument increases and the orchestra members threaten Sonia with death. Fania thinks that her end is near and wants to give her diary to Eva. Scene 31. SS-Aufseherin Drechsler enters the barrack, saying: “That’s enough! Stop fiddling. The Aryans stay here. The Jewish pigs get off!” Berthe is appointed kapo; during transport, she hits Fania, who can barely walk, with her stick. The superior calm of the shofar blasts of this third group contrast strongly with the extreme character of the orchestral music.

Scene 32 with a group of 10 shofar blasts is a flashback on the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. Scene 32. Fania writes in her diary about the deportation of the orchestra from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. After five months of waiting for death, they were liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945. Fania tells about the lives of the surviving orchestra members after the war. Sh28. <During the concluding music with patches of Schumann’s Träumerei, Schubert’s Rosamunde, Puccini’s Bohème and Sh29, the Birkenau concentration camp appears on the curtain, as it looks today from the watchtower. Accompanied by extremely soft strings, Sh30 concludes the opera.

There are two musical dialogues in the opera: first, that between the women’s orchestra on stage and the orchestra in the pit; and, second, that in the hybrid music of the women’s orchestra itself. It is half the discourse of the prisoners, who play to stay alive, and half that of the SS, who determine the orchestra’s function and repertoire. The shofar remains outside these dialogues. It represents one of the opposing authoritative discourses in The Womens’ Orchestra of Auschwitz: the system of orders shouted by the SS and the system of shofar blasts. The shofar expresses the deepest fears and desires of the prisoners, and highlights moments of insight, in which their weakness turns into spiritual power. For the audience, the shofar blasts have two functions: they interrupt the gruesome action and the turbulent music, providing moments of distance and reflection, and they call on the audience to make Maimonides’ authoritative discourse their own internally persuasive discourse. The Past of traditional shofar blowing is altered by the Present of the opera as a result of Heucke’s point of departure, the attempt to create a chronotopical change by means of the shofar blast—not unlike the sanctification of the wood in Auschwitz by shofar blasts in the film version of Osvaldo Golijov’s Tekyah. *Chapter 4.64. For the duration of a blast, the hell of the concentration camp turns into a place where God is recognized as Adon ʿOlam, Master of the Universe. In Bakhtin’s words, He is “the invisibly present third party who stands above all the participants in the dialogue” *Bakhtin, “The Problem of the Text” 126 and the shofar blasts’ superaddressee.


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