Paul Arma

Paul Arma is a crucial figure in the history of French Resistance music, both because of the songs he composed and because of his tireless efforts to preserve the enormous body of music created during the war. Arma saw the songs of the Resistance not simply as sources of hope and acts of wartime courage, but also as important artifacts to be saved as symbols of France’s national spirit. Born in 1905 as Imre Weisshaus, the Hungarian pianist, conductor, and composer Paul Arma studied with Bartok at the Academy of Franz-Liszt in Budapest. He worked as a conductor of orchestras and choirs in Berlin and Lepizig until 1933, before being arrested by the SS in Leipzig for spying against the Germans and for his connections with the intellectual and artistic avant-garde. Though deemed not enough of a threat to be imprisoned, Arma was subject to a mock execution by the SS prior to being released. He subsequently fled to Paris, where he worked until 1939 as a pianist for Radio-Paris and wrote songs supporting the Republican Spanish for the International Brigades such as ‘Madrid’ and ‘No pasaran’ (Do not pass). After the arrival of the Nazis, Arma composed ‘Les chants du silence’ (Songs of silence) on texts of Vercors, Eluard, Romain Rolland and Paul Claudel among others, writing: ‘During a period when, in France, freedom had to take place in prescribed silence … I sang silence in order to blackmail life.’ During the war, Arma secretly collected over 1,800 French songs, transcribing the melodies together with his wife. After the war, he sent out an appeal on radio and in national newspapers in France, Spain, Hungary, Italy, the Ukraine, Armenia and Bulgaria, seeking additional songs for his collection. The response was enormous: listeners sent in over 1,300 songs. From October to December 1945, Arma broadcast a number of these songs on the radio as part of a series entitled La Résistance qui chante (Resistance singing). On 20 October 1945, at the opening of his second programme, he gave the following patriotic speech:

Let’s be done with the Resistance that cries, because the real, because the only Resistance, is the one that sings like the future, that sings like a sunny morning, like the youth that is coming, that sings like the birth of an idea, like an act of deliverance, that sings like a clear blue sky ... true Resistance is the one that sings, that sings of tomorrows; the true Resistance, is that of the people of tomorrow ... Thirteen-hundred songs ... constitute one of the most astonishing folklores humanity has known ... Our martyrs had in their eyes a clear triumph and on their lips a song. It is beautiful that France knew how to smile and knew how to sing during its period of most profound sorrow. It is the most beautiful proof of her force and the most durable mark of our immortal spirit. No, the Resistance is not dead: she comes alive in songs. Dedicated to all our comrades, here is La Resistance qui chante.

From 1954-84 Arma conducted research into electromagnetic music, as well as making 81 sculptures out of wood and metal on the theme of music, called Musiques sculptées (sculpted music). In the 1980s he became a French national, was awarded the S.A.C.E.M. Enesco prize, and was made a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, an Officer of the National Order of Arts and Letters, and an Officer of the National Order of Merit. He died in 1987 and his wife donated his music collection to the Musée Régionale de la Résistance et de la Déportation de Thionville (Regional Museum of the Resistance and Deportation at Thionville).

By Daisy Fancourt


Chimello, Sylvia La Résistance en chantant (Paris, 2004).