Songs of Silence

‘Chant funèbre pour un guerrier’ by Paul Arma & Claude Aveline, published by Heugel (Paris, 1953) and illustrated by Henri Matisse.

You had to be someone special to get Matisse, no less, to illustrate your song. Apparently Paul Arma was that special. The cover of his ‘Chant funèbre pour un guerrier‘ in our collection proves it. Paul Arma was born in Hungary in 1904 as Imre Weisshaus from a Jewish family. He studied with Bela Bartok and just like him, became fascinated by folk songs. After finishing his studies he led a successful career as a pianist, performing contemporary music across Europe and the USA, where he lived for a while.

In the early thirties Imre Weisshaus became convinced that only communism could overcome fascism. He returned to Hungary to mingle with the anti-fascist struggle. But he soon left for the more artistic scene in Germany and became an active supporter of the Communist Party. He started to distribute pamphlets at the entrance of factories. Before long he was invited to lead proletarian choirs. In Berlin Weisshaus became artistic and musical leader to one of the Party’s Agitprop Truppen. Those groups were mostly composed of working-class youngsters, singing revolutionary songs and playing propaganda sketches. While there, Weisshaus also worked together with Hanns Eisler and Bertold Brecht. In the forbidden 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, written by Bertold Brecht, we get a good impression of the class-struggling songs of the times. The Solidarity Song in the clip below was composed by Hanns Eisler.

Apart from his political activities in Berlin, Imre Weisshaus also led the musical activities at the Dessau-based Bauhaus, lecturing on modern music and experimenting with electronic music.

But the rehearsals and public performances of Imre’s choirs were constantly interrupted by increasingly violent hordes of SA and SS. The Bauhaus school was closed. In 1933 the Nazis blamed the Reichstag fire on communist agitators, and Imre’s connections with the intellectual and artistic avant-garde got him imprisoned. He was cruelly put through a mock execution, but later released thanks to his Hungarian passport. Imre fled to Paris where he was helped by the Secours Rouge International (International Red Aid) and the Comité d’aide aux réfugiés juifs.

Postcard sold in support of the German refugees in France after the Reichstag fire in 1933.

In France Imre changed his name to Paul Arma and he continued working with choirs. He composed and performed for French radio and wrote songs for the International Brigades in Spain.

Paul Arma clandestinely stayed in France during the war and surprisingly succeeded to keep out of trouble. Numerous friends and the family of Edmée, his wife, helped him. Together they secretly collected over 1,800 French songs, transcribing the melodies. Edmée Arma was not Jewish, and declared to the authorities that her husband was missing. She even managed to get the songs published under Paul Arma’s name, whom no one seemed to connect with Imre Weissmann. Paul Arma also collected the songs of the Maquis, of partisans and prisoners. This collection is now kept at the Resistance Museum of Thionville.

‘Civilisation’ by Paul Arma & René Maran, published by Heugel (Paris, 1953). Cover illustrated by Fernand Léger.

Between 1942 and 1945 Arma composed his set of eleven songs, Les chants du silence (Songs of Silence). He used texts by contemporary French authors that reflect on the ravages and mindlessness of war, on justice and man’s destiny. The lyrics of the first song ‘A la jeunesse’ were written by the French Nobel prize winner, Romain Rolland.

Left: ‘Chant du désespéré’ by Paul Arma & Charles Vildrac, illustrated by Raoul Duffy. Right: ‘Notre entente’ by Paul Arma & Marie Gevers, illustrated by Edouard Pignon. Both published by Heugel (Paris, 1953).

In 1953, the brothers Heugel wanted to publish the complete song cycle. For Paul Arma it became a prestigious project in which he wanted to combine poetry, music and fine arts through the work of eleven painters, eleven writers and one musician.

‘Fuero’ by Paul Arma & Vercors, published by Heugel (Paris, 1953) and illustrated by Marc Chagall.

He chose amongst France’s finest painters. The first artist he approached was who-else-but Picasso. In his memoirs Arma recounts how he went to Picasso’s studio with his song and the text by Rolland. A few days later he got a phone call that his drawing was ready. On arrival at the studio Arma saw thirteen drawings lined up against the wall. Picasso warned him: “Do not look at the first twelve, they are bad. Only the last one is good. I believe it will suit you, mon vieux“.

‘A la jeunesse’ by Paul Arma & Romain Rolland, published by Heugel (Paris, 1953) and illustrated by Pablo Picasso.

Paul Arma obtained ten more drawings, from Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, André Beaudin, Maurice Estève, Antoni Clavé, Edouard Pignon, Léon Gischia and Marc Chagall. He dedicated the songs ‘A la mémoire de ceux qui ne sont jamais revenus’ (To those who never came back).

Left: ‘Depuis toujours’ by Paul Arma & Jean Cassou, illustrated by Georges Braque. Right: ‘Le soleil ne se montrait pas’ by Paul Arma & C. F. Ramuz, illustrated by Léon Gischia. Both published by Heugel (Paris, 1953).

Short of Paul Arma’s original melodies, we know another famous song of silence, here in an unexpected interpretation. Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.