On Thursday 4th May, Pureland Series welcomed world renowned composer and conductor Dr Nick Strimple from the University of Southern California. Dr Strimple treated us to a fascinating and incredibly moving insight into the role music played in the lives of those worst affected during the atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II.

Dr Strimple focused around a few key composers of the time, including Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullman, as well as some incredibly moving tales of how so many prisoners in concentration camps would use music as a reminder of hope. Accompanied by singers from the distinguished London Voices, Dr Strimple’s discussion was punctuated by excerpts from pieces composed and performed by the prisoners during this period.

One tale he told was of a group of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau who had been assigned the horrific task of removing the bodies of those who had perished in the gas chambers. In late October 1944, they staged a revolt and managed to escape into the surrounding countryside. However, they were later rounded up and taken into the square of the camp for execution in front of their fellow prisoners. As they were lined up in front of the crowd, the hordes of inmates began to sing the Shema or the sixth article of the Jewish faith, as delivered by Moses; thousands of people came together in unity and sung to their captors: ‘I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah’.

Another poignant moment that Dr Strimple recounted was from the period when large convoys of prisoners from Hungry were being taken to camps, a group of Hungarian Jews were rounded up and driven into the synagogue in the dead of night. While they could only speculate what their fate was to be – they had heard tales of groups of people being herded into places of worship by the Nazis, before the building were set on fire – they could do nothing but huddle together in the pitch darkness. At that moment, one cantor arose in the unlit room and began to sing ‘In Diesen Heil'gen Hallen’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The opening words of this piece could not have been more touching or appropriate to the situation – ‘In these sacred halls, there can be no hatred’.

The evening was enhanced with the element of surprise and emotion; just as Dr Strimple invited us all to imagine this scene in the synagogue, all the lights in the room were cut and a singer, who had previously been masquerading as an audience member, stood and performed the emotional solo to an entranced audience.

In an emotional end to the evening, Dr Strimple brought the singers to the stage one last time, before playing a crackly, antiquated recording of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ through the sound system, the low quality of which did nothing to diminish the sheer volume of singers present. Dr Strimple explained that the Nazis themselves had recorded this in late 1944, and the sound quality was just as bad back then as they had recorded it straight onto a faulty wax cylinder. After much research and a chance encounter with two audience members at one of his talks in Minneapolis, Dr Strimple stated all but two of the choir, who sang in this recording has subsequently perished at the hands of their oppressors. When in the audience of this talk, these two survivors were stunned to recognise themselves in an accompanying image that Dr Strimple had managed to procure over the years.

As the sound system began to fade the singers took over, giving the audience one last, passionate delivery of Elijah, and the powerful and defiantly hopeful opening lyric ‘Help Lord wilt thou quite destroy us?’

Dr Strimple’s Pureland Series talk left the audience reflecting on the still-relevant topics discussed, sombre from the wonderful performances by London Voices; it was an all-round successful evening.

The Pureland Series at China Exchange London invites inspirational speakers and like-minded people to share their visions of a world grounded in compassion, empowerment, spirituality and creativity. The series is hosted by the Pureland Foundation, supporting charitable endeavours to promote social, spiritual and emotional wellness. It also aims to enrich lives through art and music.

Text by Amelia Hubert