- Professor Patricia Hall is a professor of music theory at the University of Michigan.
- Prof. Hall has visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum a number of times to conduct research on original musical manuscripts.
- On her visit in 2018, she found a manuscript for a popular song at the time. The manuscript was “Die Schonste Zeit des Lebens” or “The Most Wonderful Time in Life” about falling in love in the month of May. She thought it was very unusual it was part of the Auschwitz museum collection. The song was written by Franz Grothe as a popular song suitable for a Fox Trot dance.
- As she conducted her research, she realized two numbers in the manuscript’s margin – No. 5665 and No. 5131 – denoted prisoners. She learned the prisoners were Polish political prisoners at Auschwitz in 1943.
- The prisoners were professional musicians who arranged the score to be played on Sundays for the Auschwitz commandant. There were three prisoners who arranged the piece. The third prisoner did not have a prisoner number but is most likely represented by a drawing of a bird on the original manuscript. All three prisoners survived Auschwitz.
- Prof. Hall decided the manuscript had to be played again. She brought it back to the university where a team of students and professors prepared a concert to play it for the first time in 75 years.
- On Nov. 30, 2018, the manuscript was played by fourteen student musicians at a public concert. They also privately recorded it earlier and sent that performance to the Auschwitz museum where visitors to the museum will be able to hear it.
Editor’s note: The following story was first published on Dec. 4, 2018 after attending the concert in person. The story has been updated and edited for this publication.
Dec. 4, 2018 – Fourteen student musicians enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance recently made history. They recorded a rare musical manuscript found by U-M Prof. Patricia Hall in 2018 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 last Friday evening 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).
Video of concert (Nov. 30, 2018) – audio of orchestra provided by the University of Michigan
Patricia is a professor of music theory. She has been researching musical manuscripts for 40 years. She is especially interested in the connection between music and politics. Finding this manuscript was quite a surprise though.
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 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 – 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.
A third 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.
Video: Background Information by the University of Michigan
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 that she made sure her student musicians understood the historical significance of the arrangement. She did not have to worry about that. “They are psyched,” Patricia said.
- Where is Auschwitz?
- Who was held at Auschwitz during World War II?
- Who recently found the rare original musical manuscript at the Auschwitz museum?
- Why was it an unusual find? Why was it rare to find such a manuscript?
- How were the Auschwitz’s prisoners who wrote the manuscript recently honored?
- From the videos in the story, reflect on Prof. Hall’s comments on finding beauty, art and spirit in the most difficult times. How does that speak to the power of the arts?
- Why do you think one prisoner chose to draw a bird instead of writing his prisoner number on the musical manuscript?
- What do you think the effect of the 2018 concert and concert recording will be on current and future generations?