School of Movement Medicine - Mindfulness in Motion

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Issue: December 2011
The Angel in the Forest

By Julian Marshall

In November 2007 I stumbled across the poetry and letters of Gertrud Kolmar.

Her work, the most important of which was mostly written during the 1930s (she perished in Auschwitz in 1943) is strikingly full of life – colour, vibrancy, deep sensation – and her cycle Welten especially stood out to me as presenting a remarkable group of poems to set to music.

Kolmar’s writing evokes powerful images in a constant morphing from ‘fantasy to reality’ - simultaneously serving as an eerie foretelling of the imminent tidal wave of horror about to hit the world and a most vivid account of life experienced in full colour. For me, it exquisitely demonstrates a remarkable body of work springing from a life of impossible circumstance. As a German Jew, her work is, of course, firmly imbedded in both time and social context but profoundly addresses timeless issues that have relevance for so many today.

I have been asked what are the more personal reasons that I might have for writing this music and setting Kolmar’s poems.

It was only when my mother died, some ten years ago, (who was herself Jewish, my father Anglican - and both fervently non-religeous) that I became properly interested in my Jewish roots. I learned that my great grandfather was the last in an unbroken line of ten Rabbis and that a good deal of the family came from Poland. I also learned a lot more about my Jewish family history. But what lay behind the interest in the personal story were other, much more universal thoughts and questionings about identity and the never ceasing drive for me of wondering what it is that we do, as human beings that denies our oneness within the plethora of human diversity?

I attended retreats at Auschwitz, read books and watched films about the Holocaust, Israel the Middle East and talked to my Jewish and non-Jewish friends about life, being Jewish, not being Jewish and everything.

Gertrud Kolmar deeply fascinated me – I found myself being more and more drawn into her life.

Here she was, an assimilated German Jew, with a highly successful German (Jewish) judge as a father who suddenly found herself as ‘other’ – one day, a patriotic and respected ‘friend’ of Germany and the next outcast and killed…. And yet, her writing, to me, always reveals a humanity that shines through only the stronger, it seems, for the darkest of circumstances.

My life experience, as I have become older, has been a great deal about acknowledging shadow – mine and ours. Martin Sheen, the actor, has been quoted as saying that beginning to find community starts with surrendering to our brokenness. To me, Kolmars writing reveals this quality way beyond the words she uses.

But a common mistake I can make is to think that I can take my ideas and feelings and just plough them into a piece of music. What I have finally begun to glean is at least SOME recognition that the whole point of music and the arts is that they begin where words and ‘ideas’ end. To me, music in particular can reveal both a specivity and a whole world of experience way more powerfully than I can speak or write about – even think about. And it is here, for me, that the mystery lies. Kolmar’s writing invites me into an enquiry. All I can do, in my own way, is to do my best to musically serve the words she writes.

I have come to serious musical composition quite late in life (I didn’t have a language that I felt I could draw on until now). I have no idea what this journey is really about, only a conviction that it is a journey well worth taking. If hearts get touched in the process, then perhaps that reveals a more authentic underlying drive… for what else is there, when all is said and done, other than to live, love and to heal?

Julian Marshall

The Premiere of Angel in the Forest,  a Dramatic Song Cycle with
music by Julian Marshall and text by Gertrud Kolmar
will be on the 21st January at St James, London.  For more detail follow this link.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www.