‘As blended voices filled the air. The soul could soar to world’s more fair. Escape from prison bounds.’
(Margaret Dryburgh, 1943)
This year is the 70th anniversary of a unique musical event which took place in 1943 in a Japanese-run civilian internment camp at Palembang, Sumatra. To mark this anniversary, selected pieces from the original repertoire will form part of SINGING TO SURVIVE.
This special concert takes place at St Paul’s Church, Chichester on Saturday 26 October. The Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra has been specially formed for this concert by conductor Christopher Larley.
Many of the British women held at the Palembang camp were evacuees from Singapore whose evacuation ships were bombed by Japanese planes in April 1942. Shipwreck survivors were washed up on the east coast of Sumatra where they were joined by Dutch and other nationals caught trying to flee the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. They were interned by the Japanese for over three and a half years.
During captivity British internee, Norah Chambers, nee Hope, a music scholar, suggested forming a vocal orchestra. Combining her talents with those of Presbyterian missionary, Margaret Dryburgh, they both wrote musical scores from memory, re-arranging them into four-part voice scores. They created thirty orchestral pieces, including such classics as Dvorak’s Largo and Ravel’s Bolero. By using only vowel sounds they overcame language difficulties.
In September 1943 thirty women formed the vocal orchestra. Rehearsals had to be held clandestinely in small groups as the Japanese forbade social gatherings. Eventually, in a blatant act of defiance, on 27 December 1943 the women gave the first concert of the vocal orchestra. As the first chords floated across the squalid Palembang camp compound, the Japanese guards were ordered to break up the gathering. But awe-struck and captivated by the music coming from the shelter they stopped in their tracks. The concert continued to its finale. More concerts followed. But by April 1944 many of the members were too weak to perform and others had died and so the vocal orchestra ceased. Out of the 600 women in the camp only 300 survived. Some of those who had performed in the vocal orchestra carried their musical scores with them to freedom and eventually into archives around the world.
Margie Caldicott has been pivotal in bringing this work to public notice in Chichester. For her, this concert is personal. Both her mother and grandmother, Shelagh and Mary Brown, had performed briefly in camp choirs and later in the vocal orchestra. Mary Brown and Margaret Dryburgh both died in Sumatra. Margie recalls her mother, Shelagh, talking about the music:
‘She said that rehearsing helped them forget about the squalor of the Barracks camp in Palembang and when they sang the music went out, it was free, giving them spiritual release’
70 years on from those secret rehearsals, this very special concert is a tribute to all those remarkable women. Their story was told in the 1997 Hollywood film, Paradise Road. Before this, in 1981, producer Lavinia Warner had already created Tenko, the BBC’s hugely successful and much loved fictional drama series about women prisoners of the Japanese. She subsequently wrote about the vocal orchestra in her factual book on the Palembang camp in Sumatra, ‘Women Beyond the Wire’. She says today:
‘Those brave women of the camp originally inspired me to create Tenko, and their friendship has been an incredibly important part of my life. 30 years on I shall be filming this very special concert as the centrepiece for a TV documentary. I am proud to support this event. It is vital that we bring their inspirational story to a new generation, it has so much to teach us all.’
The Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra is made up of twenty-four women from all walks of life. They will be using published copies of the original scores. In addition to the music, SINGING TO SURVIVE will feature diary extracts, poetry and prose written by Margaret Dryburgh and other internees.
The concert is sponsored by the Malayan Volunteers Group (MVG) which represents relatives of former British Volunteer servicemen, many of whom were former colonial administrators, professionals and managers of plantations throughout Malaya and Singapore pre-war. For information about MVG visit: www.malayanvolunteers.org.uk
SINGING TO SURVIVE takes place at St Paul’s Church, Chichester, 7 for 7.30pm, Saturday 26 October 2013. Tickets – £12 each (£6 for children under 16) including a commemorative programme. Click on ‘Purchase Tickets’ from the top menu for further information.