I Never Saw Another Butterfly (1991) for mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano.

Thomas Oboe Lee

About this work:

Commissioned by Amnesty International USA.

Premiere performance by D'Anna Fortunato, Chester Bresniak and David Witten.

Words and poetry by the children in the Terezín Concentration Camp outside Prague, 1942-44.

I.   The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads
        To bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.

        We've suffered here more than enough,
        Here in this clot of grief and shame,
        Wanting a badge of blindness
        To be a proof for their own children.

        A fourth year of waiting, like standing above a swamp
        From which any moment might gush forth a spring.
        Meanwhile, the rivers flow another way,
        Another way,
        Not letting you die, not letting you live.

        And the cannons don't scream and the guns don't bark
        And you don't see blood here.
        Nothing, only silent hunger.
        Children steal the bread here and ask and ask and ask
        And all would wish to sleep, keep silent and 
        just to go to sleep again ...

        The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads
        To bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.

        Mif    1944


... We got used to standing in line at 7 o'clock in the morning, at 12 noon and again at seven o'clock in the evening.  We stood in a long queue with a plate in our hands, into which they ladled a little warmed-up water with a salty or a coffee flavor.  Or else they gave our a few potatoes.  We got used to sleeping without a bed, to saluting every uniform, not to walk on the sidewalks and then again to walk on the sidewalks.  We got used to undeserved slaps, blows and executions.  We got accustomed to seeing people die in their own shit, to seeing piled-up coffins full of corpses, to seeing the sick amidst dirt and filth and to seeing the helpless doctors.  We got used to it that from time to time, one thousand unhappy souls would come here and that, from time to time, another thousand unhappy souls would go away ...

From the prose of 15-year-old Petr Fischl (born September 9, 1929), who perished in Oswiecim in 1944.

III.   On a purple, sun-shot evening
            Under wide-flowering chestnut trees
            Upon the threshold full of dust
            Yesterday, today, the days are all like these.

            Trees flower forth in beauty,
            Lovely too their very wood all gnarled and old 
            That I am half afraid to peer
            Into their crown of green and gold.

            The sun has made a veil of gold
            So lovely that my body aches.
            Above, the heavens shriek with blue
            Convinced I've smiled by some mistake.

            The world's abloom and seems to smile.
            I want to fly but where, how high?
            If in barbed wire, things can bloom
            Why couldn't I?  I will not die!

        1944 Anonymous    (Written by the children in Barrack L 318 and L 417, ages 10-16 years.)

IV.    Fifteen beds.  Fifteen charts with names.
            Fifteen people without a family tree.
            Fifteen bodies for whom torture is medicine and pills,
            Beds over which the crimson blood of ages spills.
            Fifteen bodies which want to live here.
            Thirty eyes, seeking quietness.
            Bald heads which gape, out of the prison.
            The holiness of the suffering, which is none of my business.

            The loveliness of air, which day by day
            Smells of strangeness and carbolic,
            The nurses which carry thermometers
            Mothers who grope after a smile.
            Food is such a luxury here.
            A long, long night, and a brief day.

            But anyway, I don't want to leave
            The lighted rooms and the burning cheeks,
            Nurses who leave behind them only a shadow
            To help the little sufferers.

            I'd like to stay here, a small patient,
            Waiting the doctor's daily round,
            Until, after a long, long time, I'd be well again.

            Then I'd like to live
            And go back home again.


V.      The last, the very last,
            So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
            Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
            against a white stone ...
            Such, such a yellow
            Is carried lightly 'way up high.
            It went away I'm sure because it wished to 
            kiss the world good-bye.

            For seven weeks I've lived in here,
            Penned up inside this ghetto
            But I've found my people here.
            The dandelions call to me
            And the white chestnut candles in the court.
            Only I never saw another butterfly.

            That butterfly was the last one.

            4.6.1942    Pavel Friedmann


            Spem in alium nunquam habui           
            praeter in te, Deus Israel,             
            qui irasceris et propitius eris,             
            et omnia peccata hominum    
            in tribulatione dimittis.            
            Domine Deus, creator coeli et terrae    
            respice humilitatem nostram.        

            My hope have I never put in any but in you, 
            God of Israel, 

            who will be angry, 
            and yet be gracious, 

            and who absolvest all the sins of mankind in tribulation.  
            Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, 
            be mindful of our lowliness.

Poems from Terezín used with permission of the State Jewish Museum, Prague. 
"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" published by Schocken Books, New York. 
Poems translated by Jeanne Nemcová. 


Year composed: 1991
Duration: 00:17:00
Ensemble type: Unspecified Instrument(s):Ensemble
Instrumentation: 1 Clarinet, 1 Piano, 1 Mezzo-Soprano

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