Rare Musical Manuscript

Rare Musical Manuscript played at Auschwitz found by Patricia Hall, Professor of Music Theory at the University of Michigan

by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A.

Fourteen student musicians enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (SMTD) recently made history. They recorded a rare musical manuscript found by U-M Prof. Patricia Hall at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. The manuscript was based on a popular song in the early 1940s that was arranged and played by Auschwitz prisoners in 1943 during World War II and the Holocaust. It hasn’t been played in 75 years.

A capacity crowd of 132 people came to Hankinson Hall on Nov. 30, 2018 to hear the student orchestra play “Die Schonste Zeit des Lebens,” the rare manuscript Patricia found at the museum as she was researching their card catalog. The arrangement, written by hand, was based on a German song composed by popular film composer Franz Grothe (1908-1982).

Oriol Sans conducts the Contemporary Directions Ensemble on Nov. 30, 2018 in Hankinson Hall at the University of Michigan. The student orchestra is playing an arrangement that was first played by Auschwitz prisoners and has not been performed in 75 years. (Photo: Student News Net at the Nov. 30 concert)
Patricia Hall, music theory professor at the University of Michigan, explains the rare musical manuscript she found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum that hasn’t played in 75 years. After her introduction, student musicians performed the arrangement, a fox trot that was popular in the 1940s, on Nov. 30, 2018. (Photo: Student News Net)

Patricia has been researching musical manuscripts for 40 years and is especially interested in the connection between music and politics. Finding this manuscript was quite a surprise though.

Students at the University of Michigan perform a rare arrangement found by Prof. Hall at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum
Student News Net interview with Prof. Hall on Nov. 30, 2018

Arrangement by three prisoners
It caught her eye for a few reasons. Only about 5 percent of documents from the Auschwitz concentration camp were preserved, Patricia said to Student News Net after Friday’s concert. To have an original arrangement by Auschwitz prisoners is very rare.

At first Patricia did not realize it, but two sets of numbers in the margins – 5665 and 5131 – Word of the Day denoted prisoners. She conducted additional research and put names to the numbers. Antoni Gargul was prisoner 5665 and prisoner 5131 was Maksymilian Pilat. Both men were Polish political prisoners who resisted Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. They survived Auschwitz. Pilat played with the Baltic Philharmonic in Gdansk after the war.

It’s estimated more than one million prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz.

As the student orchestra performed the rare arrangement on Nov. 30, 2018 at Hankinson Hall on the Univ. of Michigan campus, photos of Auschwitz prisoners were shown on the wall behind the orchestra. This photo is Maksymilian Pilat, prisoner 5131 who was one of three prisoners who wrote the arrangement. (Photo: Student News Net at the concert on Nov. 30, 2018)

One prisoner signed the manuscript by drawing a picture of a bird. Patricia is continuing her research to identify him, the manuscript’s third copyist (arranger).

Song’s title and instrumentation
And then there was the song’s title. What a surprise to Patricia when she translated the title to English – The Most Beautiful Time in Life. It’s a song about falling in love in the month of May. Why would that song be played at a death camp, she wondered?

Patricia concluded the song was likely played during a Sunday concert for the German Commandant. Long concerts were held on Sundays for the German soldiers and often they would dance. Since the song was a light fox trot and a popular one at the time, Patricia surmises the orchestra played the song while German soldiers danced.

Finally, Patricia studied the song’s unusual instrumentation. The prisoners had arranged the song for four first violins, five second violins, a viola, a first and second clarinet, a trombone, and a tuba. Possibly the arrangement was dictated by orchestra personnel available at the camp or it was simply an aesthetic choice, Patricia concluded. She said it’s unknown if the prisoners chose the song or if they were told to play it by their guards.

Bringing the rare manuscript back to life
While in Poland, Patricia decided the arrangement just had to be played again. Once back in Michigan, she contacted Oriol Sans, conductor of the U-M Contemporary Directions Ensemble. He was very enthusiastic about her idea. With the help of a graduate student in music theory, the manuscript was scanned and reviewed. They decided the instrumentation had to be identical. Fourteen student musicians were recruited to perform and record the song. The professional recording was completed in October.

University of Michigan video

Prof. Patricia Hall explains events, including help from a graduate student and Oriol Sans, leading up to the Nov. 30, 2018 concert.

News of the rare manuscript, unique arrangement, and new recording has spread far and wide. Patricia said about 150 newspapers have printed a story, written by the Associated Press (AP), about the recording and she is fielding calls from around the world. The October recording is being sent to the Auschwitz Museum where visitors will likely soon be able to listen to it.

Patricia noted to Student News Net that she made sure her student musicians understood the historical significance of the arrangement. They responded enthusiastically. “They are psyched,” Patricia said.

Copyright (C) 2019. All rights reserved. Judith Stanford Miller/Student News Net. No portion of this article can be copied, disseminated, or distributed without the author’s permission.