New Recording Commemorates Young Woman’s Courage against the Nazis
A janitor saw her, a young woman hurriedly tossing leaflets into the atrium of a Munich university building. The woman was 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, who with her older brother Hans, Christoph Probst and several others were members of the White Rose Movement resisting the Nazi regime. The leaflets were anti-Nazi tracts. The janitor was a member of the Nazi party. In mere days, Sophie, Hans and Probst would be arrested by the Gestapo and executed for treason against the Third Reich.
Sophie Scholl’s martyrdom is the subject of James Kallembach’s oratorio Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement. The work has been released in its first commercial recording, performed by the all-women Lorelei Ensemble and its artistic director, Beth Willer, and released on the New Focus Recordings label.
Kallembach casts Scholl’s story in the dramatic framework of Sophocles’ Antigone. In that ancient play, the title character stands up against the unjust edicts of an immoral dictator in order to give her brother, whom the dictator has deemed a traitor, a proper burial. The dramatic chain of events leads to Antigone’s death.
“The common reading of that play is that Antigone wants to do something that’s naturally right, that’s naturally good – she needs to give her brother a proper burial – against the idea of a good that comes from the state or law or something that is more abstracted for a community,” Kallembach said. “And so, it’s the conflict of natural and state law.”
Kallembach crafted the libretto for Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement from Sophocles’ Antigone, from Scholl’s letters and from tracts authored by other White Rose members. Excerpts from Scholl’s letters establish the oratorio’s 20th-century wartime setting and the political context in which the moral dilemmas of Sophocles’ ancient drama play out anew. Quotations from the White Rose tracts function like a Greek tragic chorus, issuing warnings about evil and the immorality of governments that abuse their power over individuals.
Kallembach says his music for Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement embodies his interpretations of a range of musical styles over time, emphasizing the work’s moral messages as perpetual fixtures of the human condition.
“Each of the Greek choruses is set in a slightly different faux genre in my own style,” Kallembach said. “So one is like Gregorian chant, one is sort of serialist, modern, atonal, one is more Renaissance-like, and one is romantic. So the idea is that there’s this timeless telling of a chorus that’s always behind the scenes saying things.”
Though informed by history and classical drama, Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement goes far beyond mere recitation of historical fact. Lorelei Ensemble’s Beth Willer says the work’s messages have the potential to influence present-day conversations and even future political and social landscapes.
“To see that parallel between this very ancient story that has symbolism for a certain culture for a certain time, carried over into this 20th-century story, and then to hear these words in the 21st century when they have new import and new meaning for our modern, living audience – I think it’s important,” Willer said. “It’s important that we’re creating things that not only reflect history but also hopefully shape a current culture or a future culture.”