Milken Archives Volume 19: Digital Album 7
I Never Saw Another Butterfly
To the Spirit Unconquered

May 22, 2015
Charles Davidson : I Never Saw Another Butterfly (24:17)
1. It All Depends on How You Look At It
2. Man Proposes, God Disposes
3. Terezin
4. The Butterfly
5. The Garden
6. The Little Mouse
7. On A Sunny Evening
8. Yes, That's The Way Things Are
9. Birdsong

Charles Davidson’s choral song cycle, I Never Saw Another Butterfly (1968), is one of many Holocaust-inspired musical works related to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) experience. It is also one of a number of settings, by various composers, of poems from the collection of the same title (in its 1964 English-language edition)—poems written by Jewish children imprisoned in that former walled city turned transit-concentration camp as they awaited removal to death camps. Davidson saw in these poems the artistic potential of a serious choral work that would in no way trivialize the Holocaust or the barbarity symbolized by Terezin. For this is no simplistic, meek victims’ memorial, nor is it an aesthetically enhanced so-called commemoration of an event in history that has no place for aesthetic value on its own terms. Rather, it is a dramatic reminder to the world—by virtue of the childlike innocence and naïve hope expressed in the resolute courage of those young poets—of the depth of the unredeemable, savage brutality of the German and German-led death machine that sought nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people and its children. It is, of course, also the composer’s way of providing remembrance for these children, most of whose lives were extinguished soon after their poetry was written and who thus have no descendants—in emblematic Judaic terms, "no one to say kaddish for them. But its deeper significance may be its function as a document of the essence of sheer, unalloyed evil, personified by the Germans and their collaborators in their destruction of European Jewry and Jewish life—facilitated by all those whose action might have made some difference but who remained disinterested or silent, vocally or militarily.
Commissioned by the East End Synagogue in Long Beach, New York, I Never Saw Another Butterfly was composed originally for a three-to-five-part choir of boys’ voices. It is dedicated to the Columbus Boychoir, in Princeton, New Jersey, since renamed the American Boychoir, which has performed the work at concerts throughout North America and Europe. It can be performed with equal success, however, by other types of treble choirs—girls’ voices, or boys’ and girls’ voices in combination.
The work comprises settings of twelve poems, preceded by a Preludium, "Night in the Ghetto. The poetry and its musical expression are filled with poignant sentiments of bleakness and fear, as well as touching references to deprivation and longing—all tempered by youthful resilience—and the music echoes in its most lyrical moments the universally typical spirits of children rather than mature lugubriousness or a sense of doom. That the poems might not on their surface reflect the full reality of the surreal horror of the situation, nor acknowledge the certainty of the eventual murder that awaited most of the children only heightens for us some of the more deeply layered subtexts of the genocide and of the perversity that could perceive some mortal threat in these children’s very lives.
In 1988 the original piano accompaniment was orchestrated by the British composer and conductor Donald Fraser for a performance and recording by the American Boychoir at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. That choir has also frequently performed the work in a staged presentation created by the Broadway stage director Dennis Rosa. In addition, the work has received, in the aggregate, more than 2,500 performances throughout the world by many non-Jewish (including public school and church) as well as Jewish children’s and youth choirs during the more than forty years since its completion. Among these have been several presentations at the Vatican in the presence of the Pope and those at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
But for Davidson, the most moving and most momentous of all its renditions was its 1991 performance at the actual site of the poems’ genesis, Terezin, in the presence of Václav Havel, the writer turned president of what was still known as Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic), and in the presence of 350 aging survivors of the prison camp that once occupied the city. That performance, with symphony orchestra, once again featured the American Boychoir, which also sang it in Prague and at the Jesuit church in Brno in that time frame. The choir’s European tour was timed to coincide with the Terezin performance, the occasion of which was the official opening and dedication of the new Jewish Museum in the former barracks of imprisoned Terezin children—something unimaginable in the only recently collapsed era of the Iron Curtain, when Czechoslovakia was still under the Soviet Union’s embrace as a satellite country. Nineteen ninety-one marked the fiftieth year since the Germans’ establishment of Theresienstadt as the infamous way station for Jews destined for death camps and as the ruse sadistically and mendaciously called the Paradise Ghetto, which was designed to delude and deceive the International Red Cross (and through it, the world) on its inspection visit there during the war, thus to put the lie to circulating rumors of mass murder and genocide. The October 1991 dedication ceremonies, at which Havel spoke, were cosponsored by the Terezin Initiative, an organization of concentration camp survivors; the Jewish Committees in Czechoslovakia; the State Jewish Museum in Prague; and the International Terezin Committee. A documentary film for television was made of the occasion, including the actual ceremonies as well as footage of the town and its surroundings, along with the arrival of the survivors, dignitaries, and other guests—among whom was Charles Davidson—and interviews.
For Davidson, this was understandably one of the most moving as well as troubling experiences of his life. "I had lived with the music and the poetry for many years, he wrote in 1993, "and have always believed that it expressed my deepest feelings of sorrow at the destruction wrought upon the Jewish people and other peoples by the inhumanity. . . . But I never thought that I would be forced to confront the reality of the poems and their authors in the very place they last lived before they were murdered."
Of all his numerous works—of many genres and on so many programmatic topics—I Never Saw Another Butterfly remains closest to Davidson’s heart, the one composition—were he forced to choose—by which he would want to be remembered. Indeed, though he has earned countless well-deserved accolades for much of his liturgical oeuvre as well as his larger, musical-dramatic pieces, many in the Jewish as well as general choral worlds consider I Never Saw Another Butterfly to be his finest work.

Sheila Silver : To the Spirit Unconquered

Inspired in part by the writings of Italian poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Shelia Silver's To The Spirit Unconquered is, in her words, "about the ability of the human spirit to transcend the most devastating of circumstances, to survive and to bear witness." Commissioned by the Guild Trio, it was premiered in 1992 and subsequently recorded for the CRI label in 1996.
Silver designed each movement to reflect a different aspect of the concentration camp experience Levi conveyed in his writings, though she confesses to having added a bit of optimism not present in Levi's work. In the first movement, marked "With great intensity—strained, sometimes violent," fear is expressed. Dark tremolos in the strings and crashing dissonant piano chords create a strong sense of foreboding. "As if in a dream," the second movement, focuses on memory and its importance to camp victims' survival. Here, piano lines often seem to float above swooning strings. At other times, the different instruments play off one another like flashes of memories passing by in the mind.  The third movement, "Very fast, rhythmic, and precise," a scherzo, depicts barbarism. The rhythm is quick and syncopated, with staccato stabs and angular melodies. Only a pause separates the third movement from the finale, "Calm and stately," which, with its soaring melodies, represents the spirit's transcendence.
In a 1998 interview with the Milken Archive, Silver claimed To the Spirit Unconquered as her most successful piece to date, stating that it had been widely performed and had won over audiences skeptical of modern music.

By: Neil W. Levin