“The first orchestra of voices concert, given [in Sumatra] on December 27, 1943, made a deep impression on the listeners. Instead of the popular songs we were expecting, we heard beautiful music from Dvořák’s New World.… The music strengthened our feeling of human value.”
"From April 1942 until the end of the war in August 1945, an average of 600 Australian , British, and Dutch women and children lived in a Japanese internment camp in Sumatra. They had been taken from their homes in South Sumatra or had left Singapore on evacuation ships that had been sunk in the Banka Strait. My two teenage sisters and I were among the Dutch prisoners. For three and a half years, we lived packed together in houses or ramshackle barracks. We were never given enough to eat, nor were we given medicine for the many cases of malaria, dysentery, and beriberi. We had no idea how the war was progressing; we never heard anything from the men or fathers in prisoner-of-war or civilian camps or from family members in other camps (nearly 100,000 non-Asian citizens were imprisoned in the Dutch East Indies). We had no books to read or instruments to play. But we could sing. Small groups of women would sing popular songs in Dutch and English. After a year’s time when none of us could remember any more songs, two British women had the idea of forming an orchestra of voices.
A Dutch–English Choir of Thirty Women
Margareth Dryburgh had been a Presbyterian missionary in Singapore and for years had given piano lessons, conducted choirs, and played the organ in church services. She transcribed scores for piano and orchestral pieces from memory. Norah Chambers, the wife of a government engineer in Melaka, had studied violin and voice at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She helped Margareth Dryburgh in making four-voice arrangements of instrumental music and conducted a new Dutch–English choir of thirty women, one of whom was my sister.
A New World in the Middle of Hunger
The first orchestra of voices concert, given on December 27, 1943, made a deep impression on the listeners. Instead of the popular songs we were expecting, we heard beautiful music from Dvořák’s New World. […] The music was like a miracle in the middle of all the hunger, disease, rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, and the stench of the latrines. The music strengthened our feeling of human val ue. We were able to raise ourselves up out of all that misery. We didn’t give up. The orchestra of voices gave multiple concerts, and their repertoire grew to include thirty works, including Ravel’s Bolero. […] The orchestra of voices was forced to disband, however, after nearly half the singers died of malnutrition and tropical diseases.”