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Based on research of original music sung by incarcerated inmates in Holocaust concentration camps, this 40-minute cantata is an emotional, musical journey through one of the bleakest episodes in human history. Working from translations of original Polish materials found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and starting with just a single line of melody, McCullough has fashioned a haunting choral tribute to the 6 million Jews who were systematically persecuted and murdered as well as to the millions of other individuals the Nazi Party classified as “undesirables,” including Poles, Romanian gypsies, homosexuals, transsexuals, political opponents, religious dissidents, the mentally ill and the physically disabled. What emerges from the insanity of one of history’s worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man is a sense of music’s life-affirming powers.

The work is in 13 movements that alternate between music and readings. The Choral Score contains the choir, piano, cello and narrator parts, but a separate part is required for the cellist. Cello part sold separately (HMB219A). A CD of the work performed by the Master Chorale of Washington is available for purchase.

Choral Score Movements: 1. Chorus: The Prisoner Rises (SATB, piano & cello); 2. Reading: Singing Saved My Life (male narrator); 3. Chorus: Song of the Polish Prisoners (TTBB & piano); 4. Reading: The Execution of the Twelve (male narrator); 5. Chorus: In Buchenwald (SATB & cello); 6. Reading: A State of Separation (narrators 1 & 3, male or female; narrator 2, male; narrator 4, female); 7. Solo and Chorus: The Train (baritone solo, SATB, piano & cello); 8. Reading: Singing from Birth to Death (male narrator); 9. Chorus: The Striped Ones (SSAA or quartet, a cappella); 10. Reading: There’s No Life Like Life at Auschwitz (male narrator); 11. Instrumental: Tempo di Tango (cello & piano); 12. Reading: Letter to Mom (female narrator); 13. Duet and Chorus: Song of Days Now Gone (soprano & mezzo-soprano duet, SATB, piano & cello).

Voicing: SATB divisi
Instrumentation: Mixed Chorus, Piano, Cello, SAB Soloists & Narrators
[Full orchestra accompaniment also available (Please contact me)
2222 | 2220 | Hrp | Timp | Perc(1) | Strings]
Duration: 40 minutes
Text: English Lyrics and Readings by Denny Clark (from the original Polish)
Difficulty: Medium to Medium-Difficult

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The following notes are from the Holocaust Cantata CD liner notes

Notes on the Music
by James Carmen

It is well-known that during the Holocaust inmates wrote music while incarcerated in concentration camps. Much of it has since been recorded. At Theresienstadt, for instance — the infamous “Paradise Ghetto” — the Nazis organized an orchestra made up of young musicians who had studied under such luminaries as Leos Janacek and Arnold Schoenberg. Most of these musicians, among them such promising students as Gideon Klein and Viktor Ullmann, perished during the Holocaust, leaving behind but a few pieces, composed under duress and co-opted by the Nazis for their own propaganda purposes. What might they have eventually accomplished had they survived? Such classical music — beautiful as it is — was the product of formally trained musicians. What about the music of the common man — music embraced by the whole community and passed secretly by aural transmission — music that carried with it powerful words revealing different aspects of camp life, or expressing the inmates’ innermost feelings, of mourning, or resistance, or patriotism? Was there other Holocaust music, akin to the spirituals that sprang from slavery in America, that spoke with the same startling immediacy to express the agony of the victims of the Nazi regime?

It was this question that first led Maestro Donald McCullough on a year-long journey through one of the cruelest chapters of the 20th century. His quest, to extract from the mammoth archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the material that formed the basis of the Holocaust Cantata, was, like all difficult endeavors, marked with equal amounts of intuition and good luck, but it also yielded unexpected rewards. No one involved with this project on any level went away from it unaffected — not McCullough, not the archivists and translators mentioned herein, not lyricist Denny Clark (who transformed the translated words into singable poetry), not the marvelous singers of the Master Chorale Chamber Singers, nor the members of the audience, such as I, who were privileged enough to attend the Cantata’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center on March 17, 1998.

McCullough’s pursuit began with a call to Bret Werb, musicologist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who revealed the existence of the Aleksander Kulisiewicz collection in the museum archives. Kulisiewicz (as Werb explains on page TK) had traveled about Europe during the postwar period collecting and preserving what he could of the music that had emerged from the Holocaust concentration camps, but little was known about the music itself.

McCullough’s first task, then, was to immerse himself in the collection, playing through the hundreds of tunes. He was encouraged to find that they contained some compelling melodies, and for the first time he began to wonder whether a choral cantata – perhaps reflecting the role of music in the camps or evoking the daily lives of these people – might emerge from the material. But he still had no idea what lay within the accompanying text.

At some point, someone had added a rough, English-language index to the collection, but the materials themselves were mostly in Polish. Marcin Zmudzki, a young Pole, was engaged to sift through the mountain of texts. McCullough told the translator that he was interested in anything that had to do with camp life, especially as it related to music. As he recalls, “It was my good fortune that not only was Marcin an excellent translator, but also he had a sense for poetry and thus grasped, very quickly, the type of material I was seeking.”

In addition to music, Kulisiewicz also collected interviews, articles, and letters that had anything to do with camp life. With this wealth of material, McCullough decided to place between each musical arrangement readings that also spoke of life in the camps. After considering and rejecting literally hundreds of documents, he finally decided that he had what he needed from the archives. But in a sense, the real work was just beginning.

“Because I wanted the Cantata to speak with a sense of immediacy,” says McCullough, “I thought it should be sung in English. But before I could arrange a single note of it, I needed to have singable translations. Here I employed the talents of lyricist Denny Clark, who at first worked with Marcin, getting a word by word translation. Knowing which words appear on which notes is important in keeping the overall impact of the song.” A trained singer himself, Clark was able to make transliterations to ensure that the best vowels for singing fell on the proper notes, all while remaining faithful to the original text. It was an immensely complicated task. As Clark finished the lyrics for each song, relates McCullough, “he would pass them on to me and I would begin the arrangement.” And as the translations neared completion, the Cantata itself began to take shape, as sections were added or subtracted to balance the overall mood of the piece. It was also during this process that critical choices were made concerning the orchestration of the piece. In the end, McCullough chose a path of simplicity, limiting the accompaniment to piano and cello, the vocal lines to small ensemble and featured soloists. The narrative sections would be spoken by ensemble members.

A few words about the structure of the Cantata. As you listen you should not look for a plot, as such. Because each song and reading represents a different person, a different place, and a different time in the Holocaust experience, you should be wary about viewing the entire piece as a streaming narrative. Nonetheless, certain common truths will begin to emerge, and no doubt others will come to you with each successive hearing. Among these is the certainty that these are nakedly honest responses to the most unthinkable of acts. Sometimes the responses are jarring; who could find humor amid such horror? And yet humor – albeit dark in nature – undoubtedly exists within this work. Nevertheless the inmates’ responses never sink to the level of triteness. For them, music functioned as something much more than just a light in the darkness; its very existence was a form of spiritual resistance in an environment where such resistance risked instant extermination.

I myself have resisted – until now – the temptation to say too much about Don McCullough’s accomplishment, restricting myself instead to descriptions of his methodology. But the world and the people he has memorialized so movingly with this Cantata, owe him an immeasurable debt of gratitude. As he has demonstrated many times with his own original compositions, and once again with his arrangements for these pieces, he is a composer of immense talent and great sensitivity who possesses unerring musical instincts. In the end, those talents allowed him to succeed in a project where many others might have failed. I, for one, will never forget the moment when the premiere performance ended. As is often the case when an audience has experienced a work of incomparable power and beauty, there was in the hall a moment of almost crystalline silence. Then, almost as one, we arose to acknowledge what we had heard.

And what is this work, this Holocaust Cantata? That, as with anything, is for each listener to decide. Maestro McCullough has told me on several occasions that he was never completely clear on his intent for undertaking the project, just as he remains unsure of its lasting impact. But one hope, he says, is that it may “transform statistics into people in the minds of the Cantata’s listeners, and perhaps be a part of making it more difficult for such a horror ever to occur again.” In the end, for me, the work flows inexorably back to its source: it is the voice of humanity, crying out to be heard.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Aleksander Kulisiewicz Collection
by Bret Werb, PhD 
Musicologist, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims and six million were murdered. Gypsies, the handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny. The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as on their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

In 1992 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired the enormous private archive of the Polish collector and concentration camp survivor Aleksander Kulisiewicz. Born to a family of intellectuals in Krakow, Poland, in 1918, Kulisiewicz studied law but gravitated toward journalism, amateur theatrics and songwriting. Not long after German armies overran Poland in 1939, Kulisiewicz was imprisoned for antifascist activities; in 1940 he was deported to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, where as a political prisoner he would spend his next five years. In Sachsenhausen, Kulisiewicz took on the role of camp troubadour, performing his own songs and those of his fellow prisoners, and was subjected to brutal reprisals at the hands of the camp command for his unsparing depictions of inmate life. Soon after his liberation in May 1945, confined to bed in a Krakow hospital, Kulisiewicz dictated to his nurses more than 700 pages of poems and songs committed to memory during his years of imprisonment. The doctors, he said, thought he was a madman. In postwar Poland, Kulisiewicz worked as a journalist; but, increasingly haunted by his wartime experiences, he began corresponding with other musician survivors. At his death in 1982 he had amassed a vast library of manuscripts, literature, and recordings, and had all but completed his monumental study of the music culture of the Nazi concentration camps. Kulisiewicz felt duty bound to safeguard the memory of those who suffered by making their music known to the world, declaring: “I came to this earth to share with you pain, in the same manner in which others come to share pleasures. With the same passion others use to hoard their gold.”

What the music directors are saying …

“What a fine and moving composition this is—the students absolutely loved singing the piece and the audience was moved to tears. It’s one of those pieces that reaches places in the soul where things often remain untouched.”

Dennis K. Cox, D.M.A.
Director of Choral Music, University of Maine
Orono, Maine

“The conception of this cantata is so strikingly original and the music works so perfectly with the texts, both read and sung. Our audience sat in stunned silence at the end, which seemed the only right response.”

Rodney A. Wynkoop, Ph. D.
Director of Choral Music, Duke University
Durham, North Carolina

“The students have completed two successful performances of the Cantata. It was so well received that two temples in surrounding towns are requesting encore performances! We also did an assembly here at Cheshire High School for nearly 600 students, faculty and administrators. We have all grown so much from our experiences with this piece.”

Beth Rosenblatt
Director of Choral Music, Cheshire High School
Cheshire, Connecticut

“We were honored to present such a moving choral work. It was an outstanding educational experience for our students.”

Patrick Castro
Director of Choral Music, Snohomish High School
Snohomish, Washington

“Each year our school district hosts a Masterworks Concert in late January or early February consisting of 11th and 12th grade students from all four high schools in the district. In past years we have performed such works as Haydn Lord Nelson Mass, Mozart Mass in C, Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Rutter Requiem and Rutter Gloria. Next year we are planning to feature Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata.”

Dwayne E. Dunn, Ph.D.
Director of Choral Activities, Olathe East High School
Olathe, Kansas

“I cannot tell you how much my Chorale has loved singing Holocaust Cantata.”

Carolyn Eynon
Artistic Director, Arizona Arts Chorale
Scottsdale, Arizona

“It was an amazing experience for me and for my choir. Our audience was stunned to silence.”

Gregory Ruffer
Music Director, Orlando Chorale
Orlando, Florida

What the music critics are saying …

“Perhaps the prospect of such a somber subject coupled with the thought of venturing out on a chilly late winter night kept some people home—as evidenced by many more empty seats than usually found at a Festival Singers’ concert. However, those who braved their emotional and meteorological concerns were richly rewarded from the program’s first note to the last.”

Bill Blankenship The Capita-Journal (on the event of Washburn University’s Topeka Festival Singers’ performance of Holocaust Cantata), Topeka, Kansas

“Voices from the past filled the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night—not muted voices, but vibrant, engaging ones, deeply involved with life although most of the people represented are long dead. It was the world premiere of Holocaust Cantata, a cycle of songs and spoken prose written by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps selected and arranged by Donald McCullough from material archived at the Holocaust Museum…. The people in the camps were vividly evoked in an experience that should linger long in the audience’s memory and should be regularly revived, perhaps in an annual concert at the Holocaust Museum.”

Joseph McClellan, Music Critic The Washington Post Washington, DC

What the audience is saying …

“I have never experienced a musical performance that touched me as deeply and powerfully as last night’s performance ofHolocaust Cantata at the Library of Congress…. This composition doesn’t exploit the emotional aspect of the subject matter as it could. Rather, by its clarity of purpose, balance—even restraint—it offers a glimpse into the daily horrors that thousands of individuals faced while also demonstrating how they found comfort in secretly expressing themselves through the power of words and music.”

Sherry Schiller, Ph.D.
Alexandria, Virginia

Holocaust Cantata was, beyond any doubt, one of the most heart-wrenching and touching musical works I have ever heard. I was absolutely riveted to my seat from the first note to the last, as were all those around me.”

Fran Blendermann
Silver Spring, Maryland

“I want to thank Richard Coffee and CONCORA for an unforgettable and important presentation. This program forces us to confront our past and commit ourselves to a better future.”

Sarah Hager Johnston
Hartford, Connecticut

“This afternoon’s CONCORA concert at Center Church was the most powerful and memorable of any concert I have ever heard anywhere. I am not easily moved to a moistening of the eye, but several times this afternoon I had to reach for a Kleenex. Thank you. Not for moving me to tears, but for bringing home to me the horror and the pathos of the Holocaust.”

Robert Howard
Hartford, Connecticut

“Each movement was my favorite until I heard the next one. The work is such a rich tapestry of textures, colors, intensities, and patterns, all woven together in a way that makes it impossible to imagine them in any other form.”

Kathleen Franz
Chesapeake, Virginia

“…the Cantata is in a league by itself. We want to thank you for even thinking of creating a work like this and for piecing it together with such skill and inspiration. It is hard to express how moved we were; tears well up just thinking about it. We are Jewish, but it didn’t matter what people were—they all seemed equally moved.”

Kitty and Walt Sherwin
Bethesda, Maryland

“The concert last night was magnificent in every detail! I took three students with me who sat mesmerized throughout the concert. The Cantata is, indeed, a work of art, and I hope it will enjoy many more performances, because it really pulls listeners in and takes them on an important journey.”

Mary-Hannah Klontz
Public school music teacher, Arlington, Virginia

“It is seldom that I have been as deeply moved by anything as I was by the Washington Singers’ performance of Holocaust Cantata.”

Betty Wildman
Bethesda, Maryland

Holocaust Cantata is a very powerful piece that successfully puts a human face on a horrible episode of modern history without becoming maudlin. Thank you for this important creation—I so hope it will be done over and over throughout the country.”

Debbi Iwig
Bethesda, Maryland

“It was the most moving musical experience I have ever had.”

Hugh A. McGaughy
St. Louis, Missouri

“It was a powerful, emotional experience. From the first notes that were played, I was pulled in. The artistry and skill of every person involved immediately freed me from just listening to notes and words and I was taken to a place where only music can take you.”

Kerry Arnold
Centreville, Virginia

“We were overwhelmed! What an incredible piece of music!

Edith and George Lowy
Silver Spring, Maryland

What the performers are saying …

“Performing music that Holocaust victims were only able to whisper in their hearts has been a great honor. The very least we can do is remember, and perhaps, in this way, we can do our part to make sure that history never again repeats itself.”

Kimberly Barrante, HS Senior (Soprano)
Cheshire High School
Cheshire, Connecticut

“The Cantata is not a ‘downer.’ The message is that the human spirit can be kept alive by artistic expression—that music can make a living hell at least bearable…. And as one of the few Jews in the choir, I also find that one of the Cantata’s most uplifting values is to see folks who have had little or no relationship with the goings-on during the Holocaust gaining new insights.”

Ray Litt, Baritone and Choir President
Rackham Symphony Choir
Detroit, Michigan

“Even though I’m not Jewish, I have done a lot of work with Israelis and grew up in a town with a number of Holocaust survivors. I found Holocaust Cantata an incredibly powerful work; it took all my concentration not to “lose it” during some of the readings. The music manages to be both understated and overwhelming at the same time. It was a privilege to participate in the world premiere.”

Tim Hoyt, Baritone
The Washington Singers
Washington, DC

“Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata will be performed in Wooster and Kidron, Ohio on November 8 and 9 by the Cantate Singers. I was asked to play the cello for these events….I wanted to let you know that I really feel moved every time I practice the Cantata.”

Terry W. Ling, Cellist
Wooster, Ohio


Lincoln Center Premiere …

Review of the Lincoln Center Premiere of the orchestrated version: In the Shadow of the Holocaust

 

 

 

 

User Submitted Reviews

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