Playing for our lives, for string quartet

Playing for our lives, for string quartet (2012)—23’
Commissioned by the Cassatt String Quartet
Excerpt (complete 3rd movement):

Note: I have (in 2015) written a version of this piece for full orchestra, also available from the composer.

Click here for sample of “Playing for our lives” score (pdf)

Note by composer Gerald Cohen

Playing for our lives was composed for the Cassatt String Quartet, who gave the premiere of the piece in New York City in February 2012.  The Cassatts, in planning a program of music of the composers who were interned in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt), asked me to compose a piece which would be a contemporary memorial and tribute to the musical life of that place.  Terezin, near Prague, was in essence a transit camp, where Jews and some other prisoners were kept until transport to the death camps such as Auschwitz. The Nazis allowed a certain amount of art and education to take place at Terezin, both as a way of occupying the prisoners, and also since it served their purpose of deceiving the world as to the nature of concentration camps in general.  And there were a great number of excellent artists of all sorts in the camp, among those many excellent performers and several excellent composers—and so musical life flourished with a passion in these very strange surroundings.

In my string quartet, I have used several musical essences of the life at Terezin.  One is the Yiddish folk song “Beryozkele” (Little birch tree), a poignant song that was arranged there by the composer Viktor Ullmann (I use the melody, not his arrangement). Folk songs—Czech, Hebrew and Yiddish—were important parts of the lives especially of the children at Terezin, who sang them in choirs formed in their barracks.  The second is a lullaby from Hans Krasa’s opera Brundibar, which was one of the most important musical experiences of Terezin–an opera performed entirely by children as the singers, and which was so popular there that it was performed more than 50 times.  Finally, I use excerpts from Verdi’s Requiem, a piece that was championed at Terezin by the dynamic conductor Rafael Schachter, and was also performed many times, but by three different choruses–as after each of the first two performances, virtually the entire chorus was transported to their deaths at Auschwitz.

With all of these pieces, but especially the Requiem, the layers of paradox and poignancy are extraordinarily powerful: for the prisoners, music was something that gave them deep joy; at the same time, the Nazis used the concerts as a propaganda tool to fool the world as to the nature of the camp.  The Requiem spoke to people of their own deaths, but at the same time, in speaking of  a Dies Irae—a day of wrath—was a defiant stab at the Nazis.

In my quartet, these various feelings and musical elements are woven together to create a memorial to the musical and emotional life of the camp.  “Beryozkele” and its tender lament dominate the early part of the piece; the middle section is a set of variations on the lullaby from Brundibar, as the music attempts to bring the joy of that piece to the fore; and the final section is dominated by elements of the Requiem, with its passion, anger, and also quiet mourning.

The title of the piece is inspired by a quote from Paul Rabinowitsch, who at the age of 14, was the trumpet player in Brundibar, and was one of the few in that opera to survive the war: “When the SS was present, I always had this shadowy feeling at the back of my head. I knew I could not play wrong, and you can hear every wrong note very clearly on a trumpet.  Rahm [the commandant of Terezin] would notice, I thought to myself, and be mad at me, and put me on a transport.  And in those moments it was as if I were playing for my life.”1

1. Quote from The Girls of Room 28 by Hannelore Brenner (Schocken Books, 2009)

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