Visualization, Technical Mastery and Ethical Responsibility in Performing Music from the Holocaust: between Creation and Commemoration

Chiara Antico

CESEM / FCSH – NOVA University, Portugal


The political and social events of the twentieth century brought a new complexity, and the contemporary world must lead with it: not only the wars and the tragedies, but also the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights; the trauma and the respect for silence but also the emotional impact of sounds and the reconstruction of cultural societies. Although artistic expressions accompanied all the historical dynamics and transformations, it is important to remind that during the Holocaust musicians found different destinies:some of them went abroad to exile, someone became a displaced person migrating from land to land, and others lived the experience of the ghetto or concentration camps.

This paper seeks to elaborate on the creative process embodied by the performer while playing music written during the Holocaust. Musical performance is the creation of sound through instrumental techniques and effects, emotional-scapes and eventually infinite meanings or messages. Performing music from the Holocaust needs a deeper process: an unimaginable space has to be visualized, and extreme psychological and physical life conditions have to be taken into consideration. Both exiled musicians and prisoners in occupied Europe did experience suffering and fear, but they described the world from wherever they were, in their own point of view.

Music written in concentration camps often reports a classical structure but complex language: both technical and harmonic mastery are required to the performer. Playing that music is not just the creation of an artistic sound moment. The performance is complete only through an embodied contextualization and understanding of the meaning thatmusic could hold. Each camp and ghetto worked as an isolated macro system with own conditions and rules, so that each storytelling is indicative for one single place. In order to be able to transfer the creative act to the audience, today’s performer has to place himself right after the gap of time which divides him from the events. Musical performance is always in the present, it finds its value and mission in the present. Nevertheless, visualizing the possible context when the music was conceived or the soundscape of the moment when it was performed is necessary and has to be considered as making process and artistic research around the piece.

Main aim of the collective reflection proposed in this paper is to recognize the important steps of the artistic research and analysis when approaching music of the Holocaust. Pain, starvation, loneliness, screaming, violence, solidarity, wishes, loss, fear could have been projected into music. Because of the consequences of Holocaust which led to the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, music written during those years can’t be performed as a masterpiece recurring only to the aesthetics side of music: it requires ethical responsibility as inner part of the performing-commemorative process.

Keywords: Artistic research, Commemoration, Holocaust musical remembrance


Italian viola player, Chiara Antico is a DMA candidate at Universidade NOVA in Lisbon, writing about musical activity during the Holocaust, crossing Musicology and Memory Studies. She was selected for the training courses in Auschwitz-Birkenau and BergenBelsen former concentration camps. She presented papers in international conferences about music and the Holocaust. A coauthored book chapter proposal for “Micro-historical Perspectives on an Integrated History of the Holocaust” (Gruyter editors) has been accepted. The author holds a MA summa cum laude in Music Performance and a Master’s degree in Pedagogy: apart from teaching she collaborated with professional orchestras in Italy and Portugal. She played in very important concert halls around Europe, presenting also chamber music and solo pieces. She is particularly concerned with non-verbal communication linked to collective memory.