In 2009 the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester approached me to write a work for their whiz-bang Children’s Choir. My answer was an immediate “yes” and an idea followed swiftly. I had in mind the underlying theme of the Kindertransport Movement of 1938-39 – children abandoned and saved by a quirk of history. The shape of the choir stalls at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall seemed to echo the dimensions of a railway carriage. When filled with a hundred or so children it could stage the critical scenes from the Kindertransport story – the rescue by train from three key cities, Prague, Vienna and Berlin, of thousands of Jewish children from inevitable death at the hands of the Nazis, to safety in England.
But how to tell the story? Spoken narrative seemed obvious but perhaps a more original way would have to be to have the children themselves tell what happened to them. I turned to an experienced writer of children’s books, Hiawyn Oram, who had previously collaborated with me on musicals and songs specifically for children to perform. We both were very moved by the story and at times could barely talk about it for emotion. But we both set to work reading purposefully the many accounts written by survivors.
What evolved was a sequence of songs (we looked carefully at Schubert’s song cycles) each of which moved the story further along. The events that preceded the train journey from the three cities to London’s Liverpool Street Station are told in flashback. Young actors linked the set pieces with historical context. The work ends with the arrival of the children at Liverpool Street Station as they face a new life in England.
And what about the music? First, the sound; I wanted to limit the range of sonorities, a sort of black and white feel, so no woodwinds or brass. I chose strings, percussion, and piano four hands – the stark line-up present in many interwar concert works. And the style? I thought of what music the children might know from their life before the journey. Of course they would have heard, and the older children played, the classical masters. But also the popular music of the day, sometimes rather Broadway-ish, as well as Jewish songs, hinting at tragic separation and tempered with humour. And I knew the work had to end optimistically in a major key. After all, thanks to the British, these children were saved from the camps, a cause for celebration.
The performance of The Last Train to Tomorrow coincides with both Remembrance Day and Holocaust Day, November 9th 2014, and it will take place at a Victorian railway landmark, The Roundhouse, Camden Town, functioning since the 1960s as a leading arts venue. The choir and orchestra are London-based – The Finchley Children’s Music Group and the City of London Sinfonia. Also for the first time the producers, The Association of Jewish Refugees, have a direct involvement with the story, and some liturgical references will frame the work as well as the violin concerto of the prescribed composer Felix Mendelssohn, performed by an outstanding student at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Luisa Staples. .
I am conducting the work and have to brace myself for a direct assault on my emotions in which I try to express the many themes of the Kindertransport story – separation, isolation, and rejection. Looking at today’s world, 70 years on, what could be more relevant?