The last weekend of May saw the climax of the 27th Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, an annual festival for book lovers in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. Amongst the hundreds of events, including talks and discussions from Stephen Fry, Simon Schama and Antonia Fraser, was a dramatic adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s The Mozart Question.

The Mozart Question is a children’s novel set in the modern day about an acclaimed violinist Paolo Levi and his family’s connection to the Holocaust. In short the novel follows Paolo as he recounts the story of how his parents were both interned in a concentration camp and forced to play in the camp orchestra. As the book progresses the story behind ‘The Mozart Question’ is gradually unveiled, as the reader discovers that much of the music Paolo’s parents, Gino and Laura, had been forced to play was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Although The Mozart Question was originally written as a children’s novel it has now been adapted by Simon Reade for performance on stage. So as the Hay Festival welcomed its penultimate evening, author Michael Morpurgo and actress Alison Reid led a dramatic reading of the novel along with accompaniment from the violinist Daniel Pioro and the string quartet The Storyteller’s Ensemble.

The combination of music and word introduced a perhaps lesser known history of the Holocaust; that of the concentration camp orchestras. Varying in size, structure and formation the orchestras consisted of both amateur and professional musicians. For example, the first camp orchestra in Auschwitz I was established in December 1940 and was led by Franz Nierychlo. Upon its establishment it consisted of 6 musicians including violin, trumpet and saxophone but grew to almost 100 musicians by 1942 and over 120 by 1944.

Discussing the centrality of Auschwitz I’s orchestra, prisoner Jerzy Brandhuber stated:

The orchestra is a permanent, daily component of life here. It plays when you go out to work or when you come back. It plays – sometimes when the wagon carrying the dead is already driving through the gate. Sometimes it plays during work, or when a commission comes, it plays concerts in the camp on Sundays and in front of its gates. And when suddenly it is no longer there – then it is strangely empty.

As Brandhuber alludes the orchestras would play on a number of occasions for a variety of reasons. In some instances the orchestras would perform in concerts for the SS or important visitors, whilst on other occasions they would play as new prisoners arrived at the camp.

Records of the performances survive including concert programmes which provide an insight into the type of music that was played. German marches, popular melodies, operettas and works by well-known composers including Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Strauss were often to be found in the programmes. Formal performances usually consisted of two parts, with an interval, and lasted for the duration of between 8 and 10 pieces.

Discussing his reasons for writing The Mozart Question Michael Morpurgo said “I wondered how it must have been for a musician who played in such hellish circumstances, who adored Mozart as I do – what thoughts came when playing Mozart later in life? This was the genesis of my story…” He goes on to say:

For me, the most haunting image does not come from literature or film, but from music. I learned some time ago that in many of the camps the Nazis selected Jewish prisoners and forced them to play in orchestras; for the musicians it was simply a way to survive.

The performance at The Hay Festival fused words and music in order to explore this history and is available to watch via BBC iPlayer until the end of the month. You can also pick up a copy of The Mozart Question from our bookshop. 


Fackler, Guido. ''Cultural Behaviour and the Invention of Traditions: Music and Musical Practices in the Early Concentration Camps, 1933-6/7''. Journal of Contemporary History 45 (3) 2010, pp. 601-627

Hay Festival 'Michael Morpurgo: The Mozart Question Concert', Hay Festival [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 8 June 2015)

Michael Morpurgo 'The Mozart Question', Michael Morpurgo [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 8 June 2015)

Gilbert, Shirli (2005) Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Spiegelman, Art (2011) MetaMaus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic. New York: Pantheon.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 'Music', USHMM [Online]. Available at (Accessed 8 June 2015)