Proms at St Jude’s: Extraordinary letters from Auschwitz put to music

Letters from Lony

Letters from Lony - Credit: Archant

Newly commissioned song cycle is based on heart-breaking letters from a Nazi camp inmate to the grandson she would never meet

Letters from Lony

Letters from Lony - Credit: Archant

When you’ve been around for a quarter-century you’re entitled to celebrate; and the Proms at St Jude’s are doing nothing less for their 25th anniversary season, which starts on Saturday June 24 with the now-traditional opening-night opera and runs through to July 2 with visits from the celebrated clarinettist, Michael Collins (Tuesday June 27), and paragon of choirs, Kings College Cambridge.

But one of the best things a music festival can do to mark a major anniversary is commission a new piece; and St Jude’s have commissioned something for mezzo, string quartet and piano that you could call a song cycle, except it’s based not around song texts but a sequence of extraordinary letters that tell a story. A true story that ends up in modern Hampstead Garden Suburb but begins in Amsterdam in 1939.

Called ‘Letters from Lony’, the music is by the composer/conductor Ronald Corp, best-known in these parts for his work with Highgate Choral Society. Lony - full name Leonie Rabl - isn’t so well-known, but then she died in 1944 in Auschwitz.

Lony’s letters, which begin on ordinary paper but then change to concentration camp supply, were written to her grandson Peter Lobbenberg. And it was at his house in the Garden Suburb that he showed them to me, filed and stored in plastic folders.

“I didn’t know they existed,” he says, “until my mother (Annemarie) died and I was clearing out her house. They’re mostly written to me, but I could never have read them because I was too young: the first was sent when I was only one day old. Of course they were really meant for my mother, but addressing them to me was, I think, a sort of therapy: as a new baby I was a beacon of hope to my grandmother in bleak times.

“My parents were here in Britain, where they’d arrived as Jewish regugees from Germany in 1938. But the family was spread around, and Lony had stayed behind in Amsterdam, running a cafe. Her letters begin just after war is declared, and life becomes difficult. But she doesn’t say much about that – probably because she doesn’t want to worry my parents.”

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In May 1940 Holland was invaded, Lony was now stuck. But somehow, she gets letters out, asking for food and clothes. And filtering through the banal, everyday requests comes the occasional, half-suppressed cry from the heart.

“If it weren’t for the terrible longing for you all,” she writes, “I’d be quite calm and at peace no matter what happens. I’ve a lot of self-control and am trying to picture the future.”

Appallingly, the future for Leonie Rabl proved to be the holding camp at Westerbork from which she writes, in a final letter, to say her next address will be Theresienstadt. From there she went to Auschwitz. And knowing what awaited her, it’s a moving experience to sit in Peter Lobbenberg’s house and hold that final letter, which for some reason fixes on the specific need for a black dress – maybe, says Ronald Corp, “because by that point she had nothing else in her life, so she’s seizing on minutiae.”

Corp’s selection of which passages to put into into his piece was, as he says, “no easy matter”. Nor was choosing the musical language, “although I settled on something between conversational recitative and song-like melody, and in my own compositional voice. It was tempting to quote Jewish folktunes, but I resolved against that. And I’ve tried to ensure that the 60-minute running time isn’t completely saturated in misery: as in the letters, there are lighter moments.

“But I tell you, at the first run-through with the performers we were all in tears. I think there will be a few more on the night”.

“Letters from Lony” has its world premiere at the St Jude’s Proms, performed by the Chilingirian Quartet, mezzo Sarah Pring and pianist Andrew Brownell: Wed June 28, 7.45pm.

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