The Women’s Camp Vocal Orchestra

The Palembang Women’s Vocal Orchestra

The women were dispirited, far from home, hungry and ill. In an attempt to help morale, two English women internees, Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, both trained in classical music, began to form a camp choir. They were able to transcribe beautiful classical pieces from memory, writing the parts to represent different musical instruments and with sounds to be sung by groups of women. The internees of twenty different nationalities and speaking many different languages learnt to sing this music without words, forming a Vocal Orchestra. The women rehearsed in secret, each small part separately, as gatherings were prohibited.

The first concert was held on 27th December 1943. The audience was invited to attend the event, held outside in the evening and slowly came forward. The women were afraid of the guards but excited at the prospect of something new. They tried to dress in something other than their usual worn and patched clothes. Little girls had a ribbon added to their hair and some women shared a valued and much-used lipstick.

The women gathered to listen and even the guards, usually rude and angry, were silent. The strains of remembered and much-loved music gradually rose above the spellbound internees. It was the first beauty the women had experienced in nearly two years of imprisonment.

They sat motionless beneath the darkening skies, absorbing the wonderful notes. Their thoughts were lifted far above their hunger, their fear and loneliness, the filth and odours as they remembered the peace, order and beauty of their past lives.

All too soon, the music finished but the memory stayed with the women during the months and years to come. Other concerts followed with the same wonderful effect until the choir became too weak and debilitated to continue and death depleted their numbers.

Shelagh Brown, later Mrs Shelagh Lea, recalled that she was helped to endure life in prison camp by three things – her faith in God, watching the sunrise and sunset and singing the transcending music of the choir.

The women in the camp were starved and unwell and far-removed from their normal lives. They were humiliated and ill-treated by their guards; they were made to stand for hours in the hot sun for roll calls, abused and sometimes beaten by their captors. They were afraid for their children and their absent husbands. Despite this, with the uplifting music, the women were able to retain an element of their lives in which they found beauty and escape from hardship.

In the 1985 a women’s choral society in California performed some of the songs. This performance can be watched on YouTube. [Lied ter Overling = Song for Survival].

In between concerts, life was still difficult. Always trying to help her fellow internees, missionary Margaret Dryburgh wrote ‘The Captives Hymn’ which was sung at church services on Sunday:

The Captive's Hymn

Father, in captivity,
We would lift our prayers to Thee,
Keep us ever in Thy love,
Grant that daily we may prove
Those who place their trust in Thee
More than conquerors may be.

Give us patience to endure,
Keep our hearts serene and pure,
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own Thy will,
Be we free or captives still.

For our country we would pray,
In this hour be Thou her stay,
Pride and sinfulness forgive,
Teach her by Thy laws to live,
By Thy grace may all men see
That true greatness comes from Thee.

For our loved ones we would pray,
Be their guardian night and day,
From all danger keep them free,
Banish all anxiety,
May they trust us to Thy care,
Know that Thou our pains dost share.

 May the day of freedom dawn,
Peace and justice be reborn,
Grant that nations loving Thee
O’er the world may brothers be,
Cleansed by suffering, know rebirth,
See Thy kingdom come on earth.

The Vocal Orchestra

In September 1943, after 18 months captivity in various prisoner-of-war camps in Muntok and Palembang, the ‘vocal orchestra’ was formed by Mrs Norah Chambers. Her idea was to bring women of different nationalities together to sing without words, to give them new interests, and enable all in the camp to enjoy again much-loved music usually played by an orchestra, string quartet, or a pianist. They could use their voices instead of instruments.

She discussed this with Margaret Dryburgh, a very talented musician, artist, writer, teacher, and missionary, who had already done so much in the camps to uplift the spirits of her fellow prisoners.  Norah said of her friend: ‘You could go to her and hum a tune, and straight away, she could harmonize it.’  Together, they started on various pieces of music. Norah chose the items and Margaret worked out the harmonies of most, but those she did not know were done by Norah. They arranged the music for four parts: 1st and 2nd sopranos, and 1st and 2nd altos, and produced about 30 items in all, including selections from symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, and piano pieces, etc.

In her article for Music Maker in1989, following a concert in Adelaide where some of this music was first performed in Australia, Cara Hall wrote: ‘The remarkable thing about the Dryburgh / Chambers achievement, however, was the way they condensed complex works (even movements from symphonies), taking main themes with the right modulations and harmonic changes, then weaving them into beautiful miniature works, complete in themselves.’

 Norah spent many hours writing out her own ‘conductor’s’ scores, and also many others for individual singers. She also trained, rehearsed and conducted the Vocal Orchestra. As Norah Hope, in her student years at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1920s, she had been at the front desk of the second violins in the Orchestra which was then conducted by Sir Henry Wood. This experience was to have a great influence in her later life.

Rehearsals of the Vocal Orchestra

Rehearsals of the Vocal Orchestra began in the camp at Palembang, (formerly occupied by the men, so known as the ‘Men’s camp’) on September 18th 1943. The members, about 32 in number, were of various nationalities, backgrounds, and abilities. With only a few trained singers amongst them, there was some teaching along the way.As each section would rehearse their parts separately, it was often difficult to realize how the combined group would sound. Some members found this ‘new music’ quite a challenge compared to singing with the ‘Glee Club’ and other choral groups in the camp.

First Official Concert

Their first official concert was held just after Christmas, on 27th December, 1943. It had a tremendous effect on all in the camp:  the singers, the audience, and even the guards! Sister Betty Jeffrey, one of the Australian Army nurses who sang with the 2nd altos, remarked: ‘What a wonderful experience, it was out of this world! Having this music! Singing it! When we sang the Largo (fromthe ‘New World’), we were not in a scruffy, dirty camp at all. We were ‘out there’… FREE!’

Several concerts followed during 1944 whilst in the ‘Men’s Camp’, but by October the whole camp was moved from Palembang, Sumatra, back to Muntok.  There conditions deteriorated even further.  The war-time Vocal Orchestra ceased to exist when almost half of the singers had died, and the remaining ones were too ill and weak to continue.

On display

A list of music included in the Vocal Orchestra Repertoire with copies of  selected manuscripts from the original set of scores which Norah Chambers wrote in the camp.

Donated on behalf of Norah Chambers’ daughter and grandson.

              September, 2015.   Revised: 28/01/17.

The Vocal Orchestra Music –  Post War

The Vocal Orchestra story and music lives on …

Revival of the Music:

After World War II, the music was revived in America, chiefly through the efforts of Helen Colijn, whose two sisters, Antoinette and Alette, sang in the original group. Antoinette donated her fading manuscripts to Stanford University in California. The musical scores looked interesting, but how would they sound?  Consequently, Helen contacted Patricia Hennings, who was the director of the Peninsula Women’s Chorus.  After much teaching and rehearsal, their first ‘Song of Survival’ concert was given in San Francisco, in 1982.

The success of this concert produced a repeat performance in 1983.This was referred to as the ‘Re-Union Concert’, as among the special guests were nine of the surviving members from the original war-time Vocal Orchestra.  Tape recordings of this revival were made and also special interviews which became the basis of a radio programme which was broadcast in America and later, in Australia.  A documentary film ‘Song of Survival’ was also produced and released in the United States in 1985.  Helen Colijn also wrote of her camp experiences and her book, Song of Survival, was published later in 1995.

Publication of the Music:

In 1986, the original Vocal Orchestra music was published in The Netherlands. Dirk Jan Warnaar, a Dutch musician working with the firm Universal Songs was chiefly involved with this. He worked directly with Norah Chambers on her original manuscripts as his primary source. He formed and trained his own choir, the Bodegraven Stemmen-Orkest, and he sought Norah’s guidance to ensure authenticity of the music before publication. Some members of the original Vocal Orchestra received copies of tape-recordings from Dirk Jan, and commented on the wonderful sound he produced with his Dutch choir.

On 18th June 1986, Norah Chambers was guest of honour at a special concert in the Netherlands, where she was presented with the first volumes of the newly published music.  A full set of published Vocal Orchestra music, in small booklets, now consists of 6 Volumes.

Concerts, Films, and Plays:

A wave of interest spread around Western Australia in 1990 following a commemorative concert promoted by the Red Cross to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of the release of Australian Army Nurses from a prison camp in Sumatra. The introduction to the Vocal Orchestra music was given by Mrs Vivian Statham, formerly Sister Bullwinkel, who was the sole survivor from twenty-two Australian Army nurses who were marched into the sea at Radji Beach, Bangka Island,and shot by the Japanese. The music advisor for this concert was Cara Hall (Mrs Cara Kelson), a former New Zealand concert pianist. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, Cara had a strong personal interest in the Vocal Orchestra music through her letters and friendship with Norah Chambers, Vivian Statham, Betty Jeffrey, and other camp survivors. 

A specially selected Song of Survival Choir was directed by Evelyn Thompson for the performance in the Perth Concert Hall on 22nd August, 1990.This concert inspired musicians, writers, and film makers to produce their further tributes in stage plays and film: Martin Meader and David Giles began a script for a film in the early 1990s. This was later re-developed by Bruce Beresford and he produced this as the feature film: ‘Paradise Road’, which was released in Australia in 1997.Around that time, two stage plays, offering different perspectives of  life in the women’s Sumatran camps were written and first performed in Australia.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata’   writtenby John Misto.  Originally performed by the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney in 1975, thisstage play was featured in the Festival of Perth in 1996.

Voices’   a play written by Mary Morris, was first performed at the old Fremantle Prison on 22nd May 1997.

Concert :    ‘Singing to Survive’  

The first live performance of this music in the United Kingdom, this special concert commemorated the 70th Anniversary of the creation of the original women’s Vocal Orchestra in Palembang, in 1943. It was given by the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, conducted by Chris Larley, at St Paul’s Church, Chichester on 26th October 2013.

September, 2015.