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Symphony in the Snow — A Personal Recollection

An article by Edith Brandon, reproduced from Writings from Richmond by kind permission of the author

As we march out of the camp the cold wind makes us gasp. Clad in rags, we try to shield ourselves with scarves tied around our faces, showing only our eyes and even they are cold, with ice forming on the lashes. The column marches quicker than ever and the snow comes up to our knees at times. The air is dry and the landscape desolate but in a way beautiful.

Ten women are called out, ten again and so forth until we stand around in huddled groups, forming little black spots in the white snow, thrashing our arms around our bodies and stamping our feet to keep warm. We still do not know what kind of work it will be: as long as we will be able to move, nothing really matters!

Shovels and picks are handed out to each group and we are led away in various directions of the town, the guards splitting up to go with each group. Work! Clearing the snow! Hard work, if you are young and strong enough to keep at it, but warming and interesting for those who want to see the town.

My group marches to the middle of a wide and lovely square; large buildings surround it with wide streets leading to it from many sides. We have to clear the snow away from an important looking building. It is a concert hall. The snow is to be cleared all around the building and from its steps which lead to a wide and imposing entrance.

Three of us are at the back of the building. The guard makes his rounds and slowly walks from group to group cursing all the time by way of encouragement. But we have time, all day in fact. No sooner have we cleared the snow away from one corner, the next group shovels it back again. The three of us at the back of the building start snooping around for food. Maybe a caretaker is somewhere down in the basement. One of us goes inside while the others shovel the snow and look out for the guard. She doesn’t return and the second one goes in. I begin to feel uncomfortable. A little shout brings them back, panting with excitement and their cheeks flushed. There is a concert rehearsal somewhere in the basement and they have been listening. They are happy and a plan is made. The day is made for us too and we give up the thought of finding a caretaker and some food. We will take our food in a different way. The plan is elaborate and has to be exact. One at a time we will go in and the other two will shovel and keep a look-out. The door will be left open and the banging of two shovels will bring the listener back. Fifteen or twenty minutes or so for each of us starving music lovers! Inside there is a niche under some stairs. It is certainly warmer there than outside in the snow.

The first of us leaves and the two remaining start shovelling. By now we have only one wish — to stay here long enough for each of us to hear some music and, while we are shovelling the snow from one side of the pavement to the other, our thoughts are on the music and the music is our purpose for that day. The cold is no longer that important nor are our hungry bellies. The guard appears around the corner and a few short loud bangs against our shovels brings our concertgoer scurrying back. Her shovel is leaning against the back door. She picks it up and starts clearing the snow away from around the door. The guard passes, grumbling to himself and shouts to us to hurry up and that he has no intention of walking around this big square all day. We know that is exactly what he is going to do! By lunch time two of have been inside and our talk is of music. Beethoven. The beauty of it all and we are filled with it. Humming passages from the Pastoral while the snow seems to melt away with our love for music… and the sun is shining!

It must be lunch-time because the musicians file out and we worry that they might not return. We pluck up courage and ask them whether they will be rehearsing again in the afternoon. They say that they will. The guard returns carrying his dinner in a tin container. He goes inside to eat and our only thought is “When will he come out again?” The musicians return and whisper to each other as they pass us and give us friendly and significant looks. The guard comes out and, stamping his feet in the cold, disappears on his rounds.

The instruments are tuning up inside the building and we are trembling with excitement. The atmosphere has changed. Our imaginations are playing tricks on our music-starved senses. We feel we want to snuggle back into our warm, comfortable seats, chandeliers glittering above us, well-dressed people around us, humming of whispered conversation, the last little cough … we are in another world. Then, much louder than before we hear the sweet opening bars of the Pastoral. Slowly, as if drawn by the beauty of these notes, compelling us to draw nearer, we move towards the door … forget the snow, forget the guard. Trembling, we huddle together inside and under the stairs and we realise the musicians have left the door open and we can see them, see the conductor and he looks around for a moment, nods, friendly and understanding, acknowledging our presence and we know they are playing for us. They are giving us this music and we are very grateful. We do not know how long we have been sitting here. We are transfixed but at the same time we are carried away each to her own past, and we are filled with longing. We do not look around us and we do not look at each other. Each of us is alone just for once, given to her own thought and memories.

The last movement begins and we feel we want to hold this music for ever. But we are getting restless — the guard, oh God, the guard! One of us looks towards the street and there, in the doorway, big, rough, menacing, stands the guard. We jump to our feet, knowing that it is all over, our lovely moments of tranquillity. We make our way towards him and then, with a gesture of his head and putting one finger to his lips, he beckons us to sit down again. He turns his back to us and stands in the doorway, the smoke of his cigarette black against the snow. He leans his head against the side of the door and he is listening too! We look at each other thinking he might be human after all.

The music reaches its haunting finale, the conductor bows towards us, the musicians stand up and clasp their hands silently above their heads, their eyes shining and friendly. We stand up too and applause is in our eyes, filled with tears as we stand outside.

The guard shouts and pushes us outside and, as we take our spades, he puts his finger to his lips once more and we silently promise not to tell anyone that we think he is human.

Around Christmas 1943


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