Category Archives: History

All Quiet on the Western Front

…geen nieuws van het westelijk front” by Henri Theunisse, published by N.V. Algemene Muziekhandel en Uitgeversmaatschappij van Esso en Co (Rotterdam, 1929) and illustrated by Haas.

“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” – Carl Maria Remarque

In 1929 the German novelist Carl Maria Remarque wrote his anti-war masterpiece Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). This book about war’s physical horror was the inspiration for a Dutch song by Henri Theunisse. You can hear his wife Jeanne Horsten sing the song together with Louis Noiret.

The book follows a young German, barely nineteen, and his fellow German classmates who fight in the Great War. They joined the army voluntarily after listening to the patriotic speeches of their teacher. After weeks of fighting Paul Baumer realizes that war is not glorious nor honourable, and that it makes enemies of people who have no grudge against one another. Amidst the ravages of poison gas, artillery bombs, destroyed horses and lost limbs Paul faces sorrowful disillusionment.

Left: ‘Kriegers los‘ by Fritz Redl & Hermann Frey, published by Fülnhorn Verlag (Berlin) Right: ‘Vision…‘ by P. Jullien, published by Schott Frères (Brussels) and illustrated by Amedée Lynen (1917).

The book became an international bestseller. A year later, in 1930, it was adapted as an American film. It became one of the first talkies to win the Oscar for best picture. Because of the defeatist view on war’s meaningless slaughter the book and film were vilified by the emerging National Socialists In Germany. Goebbels led some Brownshirts into tossing stink bombs from the balcony of a Berlin theatre, throwing sneezing powder in the air and releasing white mice. These obnoxious pranks however went further by shouting insults to Jews and even beating people thought to be Jewish. The show was stopped. The next evenings rallies were organised against the film and similar riots erupted across Germany. The film was banned.

When I was in my early teens All Quiet on the Western Front was required reading at school. It moved me so much though that I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row. Since then I’ve been a committed pacifist.

My language teacher —who was responsible for the class’ reading list— was quite an appearance! She was a short, matronly lady with a heavily made-up face: white powder and ruby lips. Her hair was painted raven-black, which she wore in an imposing chignon. A heavy bosom completed her formidable look. At the time I thought her to be at least 100 years old. She held her husband, a now long forgotten poet and writer, in adulation. Her boundless admiration for him led her to tell us interminable stories about him and his works. Boring, but sometimes surprisingly interesting… Contrary to her old-fashioned demeanour, she was a feminist, a pacifist and atheist.

On the right my language teacher next to her husband, the poet and writer Paul Rogghé. Picture taken in 1948, some 20 years before I became one of her pupils. (source: AMVC-Letterenhuis, Antwerpen)


She not only taught us to appreciate literature but told us all about  Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe and the role of Bernadette Devlin in the student-led civil rights movement in 1968. At the same time, as she found us an unruly bunch of young teenage girls, she taught us about etiquette, which magazines were appropriate for young women, and how to decorate our future homes. After all, you wouldn’t want to live in a petty-bourgeois interior, now would you?

Speaking for myself, I’m inclined to say: mission accomplished Mrs R.! Except maybe for the etiquette thing.
This song is for you.

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.

Seadromes

‘Tout Là-bas’ by Allan Gray & Bernard Zimmer, published by Salabert (Paris, 1932) and illustrated by Ch. Roussel.

The sci-fi cover for the song Tout Là-bas – Chanson de Matelots  shows air planes taking off from an artificial floating island. The song comes from the 1932 film I.F. 1 ne réponds plus. This was the French version of a German UFA production F.P.1 antwortet nicht, by Erich Pommer the producer of Metropolis and Der blaue Engel.

During the early talkie period, before dubbing and subtitling became popular, films were produced in several languages for international markets, the so-called multiple-language version films. For F.P.1 antwortet nicht, the same plot, sets, crew and costumes were used to also make the French-spoken version and an English one, F.P.1 Doesn’t answer. Only the cast was changed.

The three lead actors with the same role, aviator Elissen. Left: the German Hans Albers, middle: the English-speaking Conrad Veidt and right: the Frenchman Charles Boyer. Source: http://www.virtual-history.com.

The film F.P.1 antwortet nicht was based on a novel written by science fiction writer Kurt Siodmak published the previous year. The F.P.1 from the title stands for Floating Platform Number One.

Edward R. Armstrong with a scale model of his seadrome. Source: Pinterest.

Siodmak got his idea of a floating platform from the ‘seadromes’ invented by Edward R. Armstrong. This DuPont engineer had worked for years on a scheme for building a string of floating airports across the Atlantic. Air planes would then make stops at the various points where the seadromes were anchored.

The Atlantic seadrome chain as shown in Popular Science, february 1934

In Popular Science from 1934 we find a clear description: it was Edward R. Armstrong’s plan to bridge the Atlantic with a string of artificial islands. Five of the seadromes would become anchored between America and Spain by way of the Azores. These would serve as refuelling stations each three hours of flight apart. Planes using these islands as steppingstones could thus transport heavier loads at greater speed since they carried less fuel. The platforms would have stabilizer legs to prevent the flight deck from pitching and rolling. Each seadrome would accommodate 100 travellers in addition to quarters for it’s own crew and hangars for 50 large planes. The seadrome would be run like a ship with a captain, officers, sailors, a physician and two meteorologists.

The design and construction of the Armstrong seadrome, illustrated in Popular Science, february 1934

Edward R. Armstrong had already been designing and experimenting with sea bases for more than a decade, when in 1927 Charles Lindbergh succeeded to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Within days songs were composed, and sheet music published, in order to pay tribute to Lindbergh’s Transatlantic Flight.

Left: ‘I fly to Paris!‘ by Helge Lindberg published by Reuter & Reuter (Stockholm, 1927). Right: ‘Aero-Marsch’ by Charles Nestor, published in Sweden (1927).

The most beautiful cover without doubt, was drawn by the Belgian illustrator Peter de Greef for the song De New York à Paris.

Sheet music illustration for Lindbergh's flight of the century
‘De New York à Paris’ by Langlois & Tutelier, published by L’Art Belge (Brussels, 1927) and illustrated by Peter De Greef.

Lindbergh’s flight of the century encouraged Armstrong to further develop his idea to use the seadromes as floating airport platforms for refuelling during transatlantic flights. However the Great Depression crossed the plans to effectively install the seadromes. After World War II the ambitious project became obsolete altogether because of the use of long-range aircraft that did not need such refuelling points. Later though, the idea of an anchored deep-sea platform would be set to use for floating oil rigs.

But back to the film… Not a great plot: the classical love triangle and some sabotage aboard the F.P.1. It has Peter Lorre in a supporting role. If your secret pleasure is to listen to deep male voices singing in choir to the tune of a melancholic far-way-from-home accordion, then the Song of the Sailors from the sheet music cover at the top is worth your attention: fast forward to 48:45.