A Song of Good and Evil, by Philippe Sands

A musical lecture explores the links between three men connected by the Nuremberg trials, writes Matthew Reisz

November 13, 2014

A Song of Good and Evil

Directed by Nina Brazier
Written by Philippe Sands
Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Philippe Sands, Laurent Naouri and Guillaume de Chassy Purcell Room
Southbank Centre, London
29-30 November 2014

Five years ago, Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, gave a lecture on genocide and crimes against humanity at Lviv University in the Ukraine.

He has worked for a long time in these areas of the law, most recently acting for the government of Croatia against Serbia in its claim that the events in Vukovar in 1991 amounted to genocide. In Lviv, he was welcomed as “the first international law academic to give a lecture there on such issues in 50 years”. But he also had a more personal reason for wanting to go, since the city was home to his maternal grandfather until he was forced to seek refuge in Vienna and then Paris.

Lviv was indeed at the heart of some of the most ferocious upheavals of 20th-century Europe. Since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, it has been briefly Ukrainian, Polish, German-occupied, Soviet and then Ukrainian again under the names of Lemberg, Lwów and L’vov as well as Lviv. In any event, Sands became fascinated by the city, the inter-war period “when Ukrainians, Poles and Jews lived together in relative harmony” and the way that was torn apart by history.

Even after Frank had been tried and hanged, Strauss described him to a reporter as ‘a nice guy, a music lover, refined, with a great sense of humour’

And then he discovered something else. His own field of humanitarian law had largely been forged by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) and Hersht Lauterpacht (1897-1960). It was these two men who developed the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” – with their linked but distinct stress on individual and group rights – and lobbied to have them adopted in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Both, it turned out, had studied at Lviv University under the same teachers.

All this has led Sands to embark on a series of linked projects that he calls “the Lemberg Quartet”. At its heart is a book, to be published in 2016, interweaving the story of his grandfather and the origins of his branch of international law.

Lawyers are trained, he explains, “to think of the texts rather than the personal agenda behind them…we tend to focus on the product, what emerged at the end of the process. We don’t ask ourselves how the individual reached that point” – why, for example, “Lauterpacht came out in favour of the protection of individual rights rather than the protection of groups”. Neither Lauterpacht nor Lemkin, admits Sands, “reflects on what led them to that area of law and would resist any effort to connect what they were doing with what had come before. Two generations on, it’s much easier.” His book will therefore attempt something unusual in academic study of the law: to re-entangle the personal and the political in even the most abstract areas of legal thinking.

So what is the link between this and the performance piece that will see Sands up on stage at the end of this month alongside Vanessa Redgrave, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri and pianist Guillaume de Chassy? The final piece in the jigsaw is yet another lawyer, the leading Nazi Hans Frank, who in 1939 was appointed governor-general of the occupied sector of Poland.

In 1942, as Sands tells it, Frank comes to what was then Lemberg and “personally chooses the music for the concert, starting with Beethoven, which will unleash the Final Solution. That music is being used to create an environment in which people are killed…”

Quite apart from the scale of human suffering at the time, what Frank did in Poland has echoed down the decades until today, since his deputy set up the Waffen-SS Galicia division, the first to admit foreigners as members. The result, as Sands puts it, was to “unleash and solidify Ukrainian nationalism. And that is incredibly relevant today, because it is their activities which motivate Putin when he says the country is full of Nazis and fascists.” Research for a film he is making as another part of his “quartet” has convinced Sands that “there’s an element of truth in what Putin is saying”.

Like many people, he is fascinated and baffled as well as repelled by the evil of people such as Frank. In September, he took part in a discussion organised by the International Association of Conference Interpreters on “The pioneers of simultaneous interpretation”. The Nuremberg trials are widely regarded as marking the beginning of interpreting as a proper profession and one of the “pioneers”, Siegfried Ramler, was still alive to discuss his experiences. Although he and his family had suffered greatly under the Nazis, he kept stressing the technical challenges of the work, with Sands trying and failing to get him to describe the emotional impact of looking into the eyes of defendants such as Frank and even ventriloquising their words.

In researching the lives and careers of Frank, Lauterpacht and Lemkin from Lemberg to Nuremberg, Sands discovered that they were “all passionate lovers of classical music”. The breakthrough came when he discovered a letter Lauterpacht wrote to his son shortly after the war “about it all being very difficult, learning that the entire family had been murdered, drafting closing arguments [for the Nuremberg trials] and listening to the strains of [Johann Sebastian Bach’s] St Matthew Passion. One gets the sense that that piece of music played a great role in getting him through a difficult time…

“At the very same time, Hans Frank is telling the US army military psychologist about the incredible stress of his trial and imagining himself listening to the St Matthew Passion.

“I was pretty bowled over by the idea that two men, in the same courtroom, a prosecutor and a defendant, are connected by the same piece of music and seek to draw solace from the very same piece of music. That blew my mind.”

Sands had already delivered lectures on these themes but now decided to “burn a CD of all the music referred to” by his three protagonists, send it to his friend Laurent Naouri and ask “if they are linked and coherent in such a way that they could construct a narrative that interweaves the music and elements of the story”. It was this which became the core of A Song of Good and Evil.

With the exception of Leonard Cohen, all the music in the show was either referred to or connected with the protagonists or “contemporaneous pieces that Laurent thought they would have known of”. There is also a highly unusual “premiere” of a piece by Richard Strauss.

Germany’s most famous composer at the time, Strauss was close to 70 when Hitler came to power in 1933 and had a distinctly lukewarm war record, occasionally sticking up for Jewish colleagues and friends but still more than willing to collaborate with the regime. Two of the most damning incidents relate to Frank. Even after Frank had been tried and hanged, Strauss described him to a reporter for a US military magazine as “a nice guy, a music lover, refined, with a great sense of humour”. Furthermore, since Frank helped Strauss’ driver avoid service on the eastern front in 1943, the composer wrote a short piece in his honour, set to the most sickeningly sycophantic text (“Who enters the room, so slender so swank?/Behold our friend, our Minister Frank”). This piece, perhaps unsurprisingly, has since disappeared as it is more than embarrassing for the composer’s reputation. But might it, Sands wondered, be possible to reconstruct it?

Naouri put him in touch with Frédéric Chaslin, the composer and Strauss expert, who rapidly set the ghastly words in a pastiche of the style Strauss was using in 1943. It is this that will be performed in Sands’ remarkable dramatised musical lecture, which raises some crucial questions about both the psychology of the law and the ethics of the arts.

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