A performance piece, featuring spoken word and music ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Rachmaninov to Leonard Cohen, exploring themes of morality, culture and humanity, all spliced together against a backdrop of the origins of humanitarian law, might seem destined to collapse under its own weight. Yet in East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil, these elements assume a cohesion that belies its complex subject matter and sprawling format.

Nuremberg Trials, East West StreetNuremberg Trials, 1946. Hans Frank sits in the first row, fourth from right. 

Based on leading human rights lawyer Philippe Sands’ bestselling book East West Street, the piece explores the lives and contradictions of three men central to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial: Hersch Lauterpacht, an international law scholar; Raphael Lemkin, best known for coining the term ‘genocide’; and Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer. Interweaving the personal effects and correspondence of these figures with the classical music they found solace in, Sands zeroes in on one thorny problem – how Lauterpacht and Frank could both seek comfort in Bach’s St Matthew Passion despite being on opposing sides in the courtroom.

“In researching East West Street I noticed that the three lawyers I wrote about – Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Frank – were all passionate about music,” says Sands. “I started gathering references – concerts they attended, recordings they listened to, musicians or composers they might have met. I kept a list. It grew and grew. One day I asked my friend [French bass-baritone] Laurent Naouri whether we might collaborate on a piece together, telling the East West Street story through words and music. I don’t think he was too thrilled with the idea at first, but it grew, and we sat and planned it together. He’s in charge of the music, I of the words, but we share ideas.”

Philippe SandsPhilippe Sands.

It was actually Dennis Marks, former director of English National Opera, who first gave Sands the idea for the performance piece. After giving a lecture on his book at Oxford University, Marks suggested that a violinist accompany Sands at certain points. “So the next time I gave the lecture in London, I invited Maya Lester, a friend and barrister who plays viola, if she could do Ebarme Dich.

“The effect was extraordinary,” he recalls. “The words coupled with viola caused many people to weep, not something I had experienced before in giving a lecture. The music simply took the experience to a different level.”

Naouri recalls Sands approaching him with the idea. “Early in 2013 he sent me an email [explaining] his idea of a lecture in music about the Nuremberg Trials and the birth of international law… and I must admit at first I didn’t see his point! Later on the same year, as I was rehearsing Falstaff in Glyndebourne, he called me and invited me to visit him in London on a Sunday, to talk this over. I drove to London, trying on my way to think of diplomatic ways to turn down his offer!”

But as Sands presented his idea to Naouri, the bass-baritone began to imagine how the show would come together, tickled by the idea of performing Bach and Leonard Cohen in one evening. “I do love these musical splits… I just had to find a pianist able to perform these splits too! And I immediately thought of [jazz pianist] Guillaume de Chassy, who accepted with great enthusiasm.”

Philippe Sands and Laurent Naouri, East West StreetLaurent Naouri and Philippe Sands.

Naouri was given free reign to “choose and add whatever I felt was necessary” to the programme. One of his first selections was the opening number, Ravel’s L’énigme éternelle, which features a Yiddish text that poses that “the world is asking us this riddle: tralala, tralala, to which one may answer: tralala, tralala, or, if one chooses so: tralala, tralala,” says Naouri. “A grim and absurd riddle which reminds me of the Nazi soldier answering Primo Levi [when Levi asked why he could not quench his thirst as a newly arrived prisoner at a concentration camp] ‘hier iest kein warum’ (there is no ‘why’ here) as told in If This is A Man.

Naturally, Bach’s St Matthew Passion occupies a central role in Sands’ performance piece, a neat way to explore the possibility (or limitations) of culture as a civilising force. “I find it extraordinary that two men on opposite sides of the courtroom should find solace in the same musical space,” he says. Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of Poland for the Third Reich, was charged during the Nuremberg Trials with crimes against humanity for his role in the murder of three million people. Lauterpacht, integral to the development of crimes against humanity, was part of the prosecution that found Frank guilty.

Sands speculates that for Lauterpacht, the St Matthew Passion “offered sustenance at a difficult moment, having learned of the murder of his entire family – by Frank, the man he was prosecuting – and being charged with writing the closing legal arguments [during the Nuremberg Trials].” For Frank, “it offered an escape from the prospect of death, and perhaps the possibility of salvation.”

Philippe Sands Philippe Sands in East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil.

“Over the past five years I have attended five live performances [of the St Matthew Passion] – in London, New York and Leipzig – and listened to countless recordings. On each occasion I have tried to imagine the two men,” Sands says.

“It’s a difficult period for Lauterpacht, a time of personal grief and professional challenge, as he prepares the closing argument for the British. He writes frequently to his son Eli. One letter describes the ‘moving strains’ of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  He draws solace and strength. The Matthew Passion must have had a particular resonance for Lauterpacht. The work reflects Bach’s desire to emphasize a Pietist belief in the individual: every aria but one in the Passion is sung as ich – I; the three landmark choruses are sung in the first-person plural, downplaying the Priest-celebrant and the church, the group. The connection with Lauterpacht’s focus on the vital importance of the individual is plain,” he speculates.

“As to Frank, awaiting the Judgement, I imagine him thinking about music. He frequently evoked the Matthew Passion in conversation with Captain Gustave Gilbert, the American army psychologist who had been tending him. It must be Erbame dich, Erbame dich mein Gott – ‘have mercy, have mercy, my God’.”

But despite the psychological insight that Sands possesses, he says he is no closer to reconciling or understanding this shared love of Bach’s music. “I have reflected on this for five years… music is unique. Even more than words and the reader, the appreciation of the listener is personal, intense, unique and direct,” he considers. “No two listeners, it seems, will have the same experience, bringing to the act of listening their own baggage. Even less than words, music does not impose a response.”

East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil plays City Recital Hall, Sydney on February 17, Hamer Hall, Melbourne on February 21, Elder Hall, Adelaide on February 23, and Griffith University, Brisbane on February 24.