A little about the original vocal orchestra.

Australian, Dutch, British and Eurasian women and children were interned together in appalling conditions in Palembang, Sumatra between 1942 and 1945.  During this terrible internment, two English women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers arranged four-part vocal music in secret – they were forbidden from writing.  They pieced together orchestral repertoire from memory, and also wrote one song “The Captives’ Hymn“.  They then taught the parts in secret to about 30 women in the camp.  This was a courageous and creative effort to raise the spirits of the women who were malnourished, diseased and living in atrocious conditions.

Helen Colijn, camp survivor and author of the book “Song of Survival” described the first performance of the group:

“The singers sat on little stools, too weak from malnutrition and disease to stand a long time. They wore faded, patched dresses or shorts and sun-tops. They were barefoot. Bandages around their legs covered tropical sores. Norah Chambers raised her hands. Very softly, as through a haze, the first chords of the ‘Largo’ of the New World Symphony reached us listeners packed together in the compound. Some of us wept. We had not expected such beauty among the cockroaches, the rats, the bedbugs, the lice, and the smell of the latrines. The concert renewed our sense of human dignity. It gave us courage to go on.”

The vocal orchestra continued to perform for over a year, by which time half the singers had died and the rest were too weak to continue. After the conclusion of the War a copy of the manuscript of the music was donated to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California where the Peninsula Women’s Chorus gave the first post-war performance of the music in 1982, in the presence of Norah Chambers.

The original manuscripts of the music are kept in the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.

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