In the years of the World War II the Czech town of Terezín
(Theresienstadt) hosted a large concentration camp. Thousands
of people, mostly Jews, were brought from Czechoslovakia and
the nearby countries. 15,000 children passed through the camp,
but since the only way out of it led to the furnaces of Auschwitz,
barely a hundred were still alive by the time the war ended.
The grown-up prisoners did all they could in order to give the
children some faint shadow of life: they taught them, organized
them into activity groups, played and entertained them. The
children published a clandestine magazine with their stories,
poems and drawings.
The Cantata for the Children of Terezin sets children’s
poems that were written in Terezín and here translated
into English. Six poems form its kernel, one of them indirectly
- it is a song without words, dedicated to the author of a poem.
These are surrounded by two instrumental parts, Transports
5:30 AM and Evening Transports: the former brought
the children to the camp, the latter carried them away to their
death. The cycle is closed by a poem whose author was killed
when he was only eleven years old.
The music does not depict the horrors. There are no direct images
in the songs themselves. The poems speak of hope and future.
Some are just childish poems that could be written any time
anywhere, because children remain children, and they want to
be happy and have joy in everyday lives. In the music we hear
dark undercurrents that remind us where and when these poems
were written, and what was standing behind the little authors.
The camp was not far from Prague, which probably influenced
the composer’s decision to start and end the cantata with
two chunks out of Smetana’s Moldau (Vltava), which
pictures the beautiful river that flows through the city. The
composer probably did it to show the normal and beautiful life,
which should have been but was interrupted and broken.
The music of the Transports is mechanistic and soulless;
this is the iron pace of the inevitable. Home is a plaintive
and sad song about a distant and hopelessly unreachable home.
Birdsong, in contrast, is full of happiness and innocence.
It speaks about morning, birds, and the happiness of being alive
- which, considering the situation, is quite potent. Drums and
chunks of the mechanical music of the Transports remind
us of the context, like grey gaol walls that loom behind bright
cardboard decorations. The Mouse is not actually a song:
a child recites the poem over sparse orchestral comments. The
poem is childish, but the music has spooky undertones.
A Little Garden has some of the melodic and harmonic traits
of Jewish music. The song starts sweet and peaceful, but gradually
becomes tragic and depressed. The poem is intertwined with the
Biblical line about Rachel weeping, for her children are no
more. This prayer-like line serves as a leitmotif of the entire
cantata. A Little Song Without Words is purely instrumental,
melodic and bittersweet. It could be a Jewish folk-song or a
lullaby. The Rose is probably the most touching part
of the cantata. The music is static and heavy. The chorus sings
about the scent of a dying rose, and over it the celestial soprano
chants the line of the weeping Rachel.
The sinister Evening Transports come to collect
their prey. Noise dies away. Then the last song, Some Day,
begins with a fragile boy’s voice. It sings about the
day that will bring back hope and mirth and peace. Other voices
enter, expanding the borders of “we”. The music
is solemn and rises to Requiem-like intensity. This parallel
is strengthened by the Biblical references in the text. After
a harsh marching episode with drums and trumpets, the final
part is sweet and soothing again, led by angelic boys’
voices. The cantata ends with another Moldau fragment,
which seems to me too crumpled, hurried and cut abruptly: this
ending confuses more than it unifies, as if it was put there
I’ve never heard of King Singers of Kiev before, and all
the Internet references seem to lead to this disc. Considering
that there was never a King in Kiev, the name sounds suspicious,
like “Caliph’s Singers of Paris”. Still the
chorus is excellent: they sing with sensitivity and good diction,
and their English is perfectly clear. The soprano soloist is
very good; her voice has power without compromising beauty.
She is well balanced against the chorus.
Aceldama (Field of Blood) is the Aramaic name for the field
that was purchased at the price of Judas’s “bloody
money”. As the liner-note says, “this is a meditation
on human suffering particularly that which occurs on such a
large scale that we cannot comprehend the enormity of it all”.
Unfortunately, such things did not end with Fascism and continue
into the 21st century. The work is purely orchestral.
It begins with doleful descending intonations. The sad flute
enters - I am surprised the booklet does not name the flautist.
The music becomes more violent; the flute winds its soliloquy
through the aggression and desolation. It wanders and wonders,
asking questions and answering them. Over a sparse and grim
orchestral background it sings its pleas and prayers. The flute
does not voice a call to arms; it laments the existence of such
sorrows in our world today. The ending reflects the lugubrious
opening. The music goes down, down, and sinks enervated to the
ground, as if drained of the will to live.
Aceldama is strong and poignant, and the performance here
is expressive and sensitive without carrying the heart on the
sleeve. The pacing is just right, and the solo flautist is very
sensitive and has a beautiful tone.
All in all, I liked the music on this disc and its presentation.
The composer’s style is easily accessible; the music is
not too sophisticated, yet is not trivial. I liked particularly
Aceldama with its orderly architecture and clear meaning.
The musical decisions of the Cantata seemed to me a bit
too obvious. This is music with a message, and this message
adds a dimension. The booklet is not especially verbose. One
may insert the CD into a computer to view full scores and extended