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Hélios Azoulay: composer, clarinetist, writer

On April 27, 2017, after introductions by Professors Miranda Spieler and Brian Schiff, Hélios Azoulay—composer, clarinetist, writer, and music director of l’Ensemble de Musique Incidental—used storytelling and music to further illuminate the subject that he’s written and played about in L’enfer aussi a son orchestre [Hell Also Has its Orchestra] and…même à Auschwitz […Even in Auschwitz]: the haunting music composed by Nazi concentration camp prisoners during World War II. “You’re surprised when you learn that there was music in the concentration camps,” Azoulay noted to his audience at the Maison de la Chimie, “You say, it’s impossible! Inconceivable! But think for another minute: music is everywhere. So why wouldn’t it have been in the camps?”

When explaining the crucial role played by music, Azoulay quoted Primo Levy, who wrote that for the prisoners, “c’est la musique qui les pousse en avant comme le vent les feuilles sèches” [it’s the music that pushes them forward, like wind does to dry leaves]. The Nazi soldiers in charge of the camps would use music to motivate and deceive: for example, in Treblinka, soldiers would play music and force prisoners to dress up as clowns in order to try to fool new arrivals into thinking that they had landed in a pleasant place. Azoulay refers to this environment as a “negative world”, one where imprisoned parents, “sang lullabies, not to put their children to sleep, but to wake them up. Lullabies for the dead, les absents. Imaginary lullabies for imaginary children. We also, right now, we’re playing for les absents.”

For the next two hours, Azoulay would walk his audience through pieces that tell their own tale of an unbearable time, an unthinkable place. He introduced the music of prisoners like Ilse Weber, a nurse in Terezin, who sang her lullaby, Wiegala, to children being led to the gas chamber; Robert Dauber, who died at 23 and wrote music that recalls the soundtracks of Golden Age, Hollywood films; Olivier Messiaen, whose Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus expresses a powerful ecstasy that still stuns; Josef Kropinski, who upon being liberated, had to leave 400 of his 700 scores behind, and then burned another 300 in order to stay warm on his long journey home. “Each one is a miracle.”

How can a lullaby, crooned by one woman and accompanied by a simple piano melody, echo through a space and yet feel as if it’s being sung just to you? At the end of this heartbreaking and entrancing evening, as we were urged to sing along with a playful rendition of a Kropinski air, Azoulay gave an explanation of sorts. “This is the definition of music from the other side: calling you, impolite, not to be ignored. You must not just sing. You must scream. From within your song.” This is perhaps the only way to bring back les absents, if just for a single night.