Waiting for the music

Joyce Ditmanson and Joe Cotterill have a special appreciation for Mendelssohn's “Elijah.”

They remember the disease, the fear and the uncertainty; the crushing boredom, the guards and the violence that stretched across an entire nation. But they also remember the music.

The beautiful music.

And after seven decades, they’ll hear it again this month in Green Valley.

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Joyce Ditmanson grew up in Peking, China, the daughter of Salvation Army parents. Joe Cotterill was a young Pentecostal evangelist working near Mongolia. The year was 1941; she was 14, he was 24, and overnight, everything changed.

The Japanese had occupied China since 1937, but it wasn't until Dec. 7, 1941 — Dec. 8 in China — that the crackdown on foreigners intensified, driven by the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaration of war.

For 15 months, the city (known today as Beijing) was on lockdown. Foreigners — most of them missionaries, diplomats and businessmen — weren’t allowed to leave or to communicate with the Chinese. They were under city arrest, and ordered to wear red armbands and carry identification. Everybody was inoculated against typhoid.

The clampdown left a lot of free time and made for a few awkward moments as the ex-patriot community struggled to adjust.

Cotterill and Ditmanson, who spend summers in England and winters in Green Valley, said there were 10 to 20 missionary organizations in Peking at the time, but not much collaboration among them. Unexpectedly, they were thrown together — “people who wouldn't normally speak to each because one is Presbyterian and one was Baptist,” Cotterill said with a laugh.

The ex-pats began meeting at Peking Union Church and learned to work together.

“We became a community,” Ditmanson said, and they soon discovered music was a common denominator. To deal with the boredom, they put together a choir led by American music teacher Curtis Grimes, a man in his 40s whose parents were missionaries.

In spring 1942, Grimes decided the choir would perform Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” but nobody's certain just why.

“It's just possible that somebody brought with them a copy of ‘Elijah’ with all the music and the words, the complete thing,” Cotterill said. “So we went to work on ‘Elijah.’ He was asked to take us all over and knock us into shape.”

There would be no orchestra accompanying the masterpiece, just an organ and piano, but the choir was 40 to 50 strong, and motivated.

“The whole choir was so enthusiastic about it because it was something to concentrate on rather than wondering where the battleships were in the Pacific,” Cotterill said. “It was a wonderful distraction.”

The oratorio, first presented in 1846, depicts events from the life of the biblical prophet Elijah, including raising a boy from the dead, bringing rain to a parched Israel, and the stare-down pitting him against the prophets of the false god Baal.

Ditmanson, who was 14 at the time, remembers one line of music in particular: “‘Baal we cry to thee,’ which as Christians we shouldn't enjoy that too much,” she said with a chuckle.

They practiced for weeks and invited all the ex-pats in Peking to two concerts; they were well-received.

They didn’t know it, but the next concert would be at a new venue.

To the camp

In March 1943, with little notice, the foreigners in Peking were ordered to pack up and move to a Civilian Assembly Center 500 miles south. It was an internment camp called Weihsien.

Ditmanson recalls her father saying, "We don't know where we're going or how long we'll be there. But wherever we go, we'll need music."

They smuggled a cornet, trombone and euphonium between two mattresses; Ditmanson’s sister carried her viola on her back. They also managed to get a violin into the camp, a 24-acre, former Presbyterian mission compound.

The camp held about 1,800 ex-pats from across China, and Grimes once again started up practices for a presentation of “Elijah.” This time it was trickier. They didn’t have all the books so Ditmanson and others copied the parts by hand. They had their instruments and created a small orchestra. A broken piano was repaired. There was no organ, but the choir was about twice as big, with around 100 members.

They performed “Elijah” one time, and everybody in the camp attended — even a Japanese guard sent to check up on them. Grimes, the music teacher, was shipped out in a prisoner swap in September 1943, but the captives held concerts nearly every Friday and Saturday in the church compound until their release in August 1945.

Music was distraction, music was freedom, music was beautiful.

Going back

In 2015, Joyce Ditmanson, her husband, Joe Cotterill, and 15 family members returned to the camp to mark the 70th anniversary of their release on Aug. 17, 1945 — Joyce’s 18th birthday.

The camp is barely recognizable; a former hospital has been turned into a museum, there are remnants of buildings, and several monuments.

The grounds include a bronze statue of Eric Liddell, who’s life and love for Christ was captured in the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire.” He was the Olympic runner who refused to run on a Sunday, but who managed to win a gold medal in another event. Cotterill roomed with Liddell in the camp, and the couple calls him a light in the midst of darkness.

Liddell, a Scotsman, died in the camp of a brain tumor in February 1945, and today is revered in China, where he was born, married and died.

Despite the circumstances, "These were very, very special times," Cotterill said.

The Green Valley couple will be in the audience Jan. 28, when True Concord Voices & Orchestra presents “Elijah” at Valley Presbyterian Church. It will be the first time Ditmanson has heard the oratorio live since the camp. Cotterill — who turns 100 in March — hasn’t heard it live since a performance at the opening of London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1951.

“This is very special for us,” Ditmanson said.

Dan Shearer | 547-9770