Why a song cycle?

If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice…. though it’s the oldest way in the world.

Songwriter Sue Casson explores why David Maxwell Fyfe’s love of poetry, often quoting his favourites to drive home a legal point, made a song cycle the natural choice for a show that tells the story of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Recently, at a meeting where Tom Blackmore and I were pitching Dreams of Peace & Freedom, which tells the story of Tom’s grandfather, someone asked, ‘why a song cycle?’

It’s a fair question. If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice.

Although it is the way Tom and I have often chosen to tell a story, and as he would tell you, it’s the oldest way in the world. Troubadors since ancient times have entertained rapt audiences with mythic histories, in verse, in song – often with no more than their voice and whatever instrument was light enough to carry. What’s more, I’m a songwriter, Tom a writer – we write shows like that.

But really, that isn’t the whole story, and neither of us have put together a show quite like this before. For the link between those two important post war events was David Maxwell Fyfe, a well-read Scot, who often turned to poetry in his speeches to illustrate what he wanted to say. 

In his closing at the Nuremberg Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe quoted Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V – The Soldier

‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness

In hearts at peace’

are not the prerogative of one nation. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.’

David Maxwell Fyfe quoting Rupert Brooke in his closing at the Nuremberg Trials August 1946

This speech, the first he had made at Nuremberg, and written after he had forensically examined all the evidence and confronted the perpetrators, sets out his commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, and signals his future involvement in enshrining them in law. It is the fulcrum of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. And to drive his point home – Maxwell Fyfe, a learned lawyer – quotes a poet: Rupert Brooke. If we were looking for an opportunity to incorporate music directly into his story it was this – poetry that he had chosen, demanding a musical setting.

‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing about his English teacher at George Watson’s College in his autobiography, A Political Adventure (1964)

With this as our point of inspiration, reading the other four war sonnets in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 collection, published when Fyfe was just fourteen years old, Tom was struck by the way the poetic language expressing Brooke’s idealistic values at the outset of the First World War had filtered through into his grandfather’s speeches.

In his closing at Nuremberg, he not only quotes Brooke directly, but goes on to speak of ‘heritage’, a concept that closes Brooke’s War Sonnet III. As he seeks to create an enforceable treaty to protect human rights after Nuremberg, he champions Safety (War Sonnet II has the same name) and Security, which appears in the same sonnet. Norman Birkett, a British judge at the Nuremberg Trials, goes to considerable trouble to give Fyfe a Scottish poetry collection as a leaving gift, knowing exactly what it will mean to him.

For Maxwell Fyfe delights in finding the imaginative truth through reading, on occasion writing stories and verse himself.

‘romance … is poetry in action. It comes when the inevitable moment finds the inescapable deed,’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing of the tales that defined his childhood in The Watsonion, alumni magazine of George Watson’s College

This almost defines that moment at Nuremberg, when his closing speech expresses an awareness of rights and freedoms for all. A self-confessed romantic of the law, the poetry flows through Fyfe’s conscious and unconscious mind as he expresses what he is seeking to achieve.

In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

Fyfe praised the ‘incomparable songs’ of Scotland, and so musically setting the poetry in his heart beside his spoken words seemed not only effective, but perfectly natural. It represents the imaginative life that informs and reinforces his legal practice. Which is the real reason why his post-war dreams of peace and freedom and how he sought to achieve them, are best brought to life in a song cycle.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the fully mastered recording, will be launched in June 2020. Find out more at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.


Watching History

When we are able to see raw footage of historical events – with our own eyes – as part of the timeline of history, it ensures that these events can never be forgotten.

Robert Blackmore, who has incorporated extracts of archive footage in his editing of The Human’s in the Telling film, describes the emotional impact of seeing history unfold on screen.

A picture paints a thousand words as we are often told. Historical film footage shows us at a glance how people used to be – their style, representation, and stories. Unedited footage so often can tell a story of its own.

One of the most interesting parts of my role in The Human’s in the Telling is editing together the archive footage from the Nuremberg Trials, which we use with great thanks to the people at USHMM.

Watching the material shows me how the desire to film historical events hasn’t changed that much over the years. There has obviously has been an enormous change in technology, and we can now see more detail in colour rather than just black and white. ​​

But our reason for documenting life is not that different. When the Russian army decided to film the liberation of Auschwitz when they entered the camp for the first time, they had to make a moral judgment as to whether it was appropriate to film what they found there.​

They must have decided that without good evidence, we cannot have justice. And with a film, we can look at the bigger picture that affirms the written word for that evidence.​​

I think that if there had not been such extensive filmed footage from Auschwitz, it would have been easier in the years to come to become a  Holocaust denier – the evidence may have been written down, but with the technology we have now, it would be much less strong in the public eye.​​

Nuremberg was not only revolutionary in terms of the law, but it also revolutionized how we see the evidence. ​​

Watching the trials, I often wonder what the response of the judges and the prosecutors would have been at Nuremberg. Even some of the defendants responsible for those terrible events, watching the reality of the Holocaust unfold in front of their very eyes for the first time.

That is why I believe the Allies wanted to film those horrific events. They believed that someday, in some capacity, sometime in the future – there would be an opportunity to show what really happened in Auschwitz.​​

And with developing technology it is a role that Steven Spielberg has taken on – through digitizing the film making it possible to show the past in schools, in museums and through hundreds of documentary films.

In turn, this has empowered people to speak out – they are less afraid of telling their side of the story. One can only wonder at the times in history when cameras were not invented, where its’ course might have been changed by using the power of film. We take it for granted that we can capture anything anywhere at any time now – obviously within reason.​​

When we are able to see raw footage of historical events – with our own eyes – as part of the timeline of history,  it ensures that these events can never be forgotten.

Footage Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration

VE Day – When Freedom Roared Back

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died during the Second World War, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the week leading up to 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May, Tom Blackmore remembers why people fought and contributed in a thousand different ways to the defeat of the Nazis and why that has special relevance this year.

Early in this pandemic, before he was ill, Boris Johnson surveyed the future. He was introducing widespread restrictions on his people’s movement and freedom, but his concern was the disruption to GB plc. Not to worry he said, ‘The economy will roar back.’

After the Second World War there were many financial hardships and problems to be faced. The economy had been turned upside down by the war effort. There was widespread displacement, bomb fuelled dilapidation, and there was loss.

But there was also joy. Because in the war for freedom, those who loved freedom had won. The Nazi threat had been to freedom conducted under fair law, and it had been defeated.

On VE Day people tasted the first fruits of their freedom restored.

The Russians defeated one dictator to enable another and were lost for fifty years. They sucked the freedom from the Eastern Block, until the Berlin wall came tumbling down.

But in western Europe after the war, freedom came roaring back into everyday lives.

And governments took steps to protect it.

As well as commemorating victory, this year provides the chance to remember the first steps taken in Europe to ensure that there could be no repeat of the threat to freedom.

At the War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg, the allies sought to re-establish freedom under the law by giving to the leading Nazis that which they had deprived so many, justice. Opening a mere six months after the end of conflict, in November 1945 this justice was rough-hewn and incomplete. But it did allow for the collation of immense stockpiles of evidence of guilt which stands as record. And it did provide the opportunity to confront the leading Nazis with this evidence, and their part in the atrocities. And it did provide a springboard for discussions about the prevention of a repeat of barbarism.

These discussions continued through the 1940s in the shadow of the drawing up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations in New York. And so, in 1950 Europe signed a legally binding treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms enforced by a court. This Convention has become the pre-eminent regional instrument of the Universal Declaration.

In the Second World War people fought for freedom. When they won, they ensured that freedom roared back into all aspects of their life.

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt :

‘All we have to fear, is fear itself.’

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933 inaugural address

Under an English Heaven

As an English graduate I wanted to stay true to the original text, as a lyricist, I knew I needed to pluck the words and lines, rather as David Maxwell Fyfe had, to tell his story most effectively.

On the anniversary of his death, Sue Casson describes why the 1914 War Sonnets of Rupert Brooke, a favourite poet of Maxwell Fyfe, are the beating heart of her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Rupert Brooke

Dreams of Peace & Freedom began life as a soundtrack to Under an English Heaven – a film about the life of David Maxwell Fyfe that Tom Blackmore made for the Kilmuir Papers website. It took its’ name from the final line of Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet The Soldier, which Fyfe had quoted in his closing at Nuremberg, and comprised five songs – musical settings of poetry that inspired him.

Of these, four were settings of the poetry of Rupert Brooke, The Soldier acting as a springboard to our inspiration. At this time, our daughter Lily was a chorister in the Southwark Cathedral Girls Choir, and Tom and I both loved the ethereal effect created in blending two strands of young voices. Inspired by that Southwark sound, I wrote to evoke ‘English music’ of the early 20th century, in 3 rather than 2 parts to enrich the harmony.

The Soldier

At the same time, I experimented with a setting of Brooke’s War Sonnet III – The Dead which ends with the word ‘heritage’, echoed by Fyfe in the same speech when he describes rights for all as the inalienable heritage of mankind. It opens with the lines –

‘Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
 But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.’

Defendants at Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

Brooke was writing about the First World War, but these lines take on a further resonance in a story telling how human rights evolved into law after the Second. The sound of the bugles blowing over the battlefield dead echo on in a musical herald to an unprecedented trial seeking to impose meaning on the waste of life; bringing gold out of the base metal and carnage of WWII – restoring Honour and Order to Chaos.

I began to realise that in attempting to bring out the sentiments in Brooke that had inspired Maxwell Fyfe, the words were likely to be subtly deconstructed. As an English graduate I wanted to stay true to the original text, as a lyricist, I knew I needed to pluck the words and lines, rather as Fyfe had, to tell his story most effectively.

‘These hearts were woven of human thoughts and cares’

Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet IV – The Dead

The Dead begins as a meditation on the humanity of the inert bodies lying on the muddy French battlefields. But it also suggests the obscene waste of life in concentration camps, film of the liberation of which was presented as evidence at Nuremberg. I subtly altered Brooke’s words from the first half of the sonnet to make what became These Hearts and took a line from the second half to ‘blow through’ the cycle thematically and drive the narrative of the story. This motif was ultimately extended to become another song.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter,

And lit by the rich skies, all day.

Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet IV – The Dead
David Maxwell Fyfe

These lines to me suggested the winds of change blowing through Europe after the war. Winds of change that David Maxwell Fyfe, as part of the Council of Europe, was very much responsible for fanning. After aggression, reconciliation to restore order and morality.

Using my lyricist’s licence, these lines formed Verse 1 of There are Waters whilst some from Brooke’s Sonnet II – Safety formed verse 2, the imagery of the ‘blown’ waters swelling to ‘dark tides’, before the ‘unshaken’ peace and rest of port. To echo the lack of formality of the setting, the melodic line has echoes of popular 1940s dance band, combined with the folk voice that in Dreams of Peace & Freedom became the other strand to the cycle.

Non Semper Imbres, a poem Maxwell Fyfe mentions in a letter sent to Sylvia from Nuremberg, which also invited a folk setting, completed Under an English Heaven. It was recorded by the Phoenix Singers under the direction of David Chapman in 2010.

But when we came to add to these songs to make Dreams of Peace & Freedom later, we turned again to Brooke looking for lines to express the defining moment of Fyfe’s career – his cross-examination of Hermann Goering at Nuremberg. The opening heartfelt prayer from his War Sonnet I – Peace perfectly expressed the moment when everything comes together – preparation, knowledge, and opportunity:

Now, God be Thanked, who has matched us with his hour’

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet I : Peace

Though Brooke was writing of the moment of poise before going into battle, the words catch the spirit of ambitions for that post war trial, and this famous battle of wills. I set it in an antiphonal style with a solo and choir response, suggesting the lawyer and the courtroom reaction, perhaps anticipating that the baritone voice that had been a feature of the Phoenix Singers recording of Under an English Heaven, breezing through the piece singing There are waters might re-appear. We later put that to one side, but what with this song and another I wrote revisiting Sonnet II – Safety, all five of Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets, in six different songs, now formed a solid backbone to Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

To hear the Phoenix Singers’ performance of ‘Under an English Heaven’ click this link – http://suecasson.co.uk/under-an-english-heaven/4579279089

Nuremberg : A Modern Miracle

When David Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life.

Lily Casson has been researching the life of her great-grandparents, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe with her family for the last decade. Here, she writes her impressions of Nuremberg, which she first visited in April 2009…

Before going to Nuremberg in 2009, I had never been to Germany before. Apart from my patchy school history knowledge of the Second World War, I didn’t have any idea as to what I might discover. It had extra meaning for me, as we were going to find out about my great grandfather, who spent a year there after the war, during the War Crimes Trials as the chief prosecutor of the British team.

Nuremberg, 1945

When Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life. It has been rebuilt with care and attention, the buildings have been carefully restored to look new and vibrant. Inside St Sebalds, known as the peace church, an icon of renewal whose towers stayed standing throughout the bombing, the war is remembered with plaques that show the rebuilding process from ruins to the church it is today.

Documentation Centre, Nuremberg, former Nazi Rally Ground

The importance of remembering and confronting the past is at the heart of two museums in the city which tell the story of the Nazis from different perspectives : The Dokumentation Centre, set within the footprint of the Nazi rally ground, which documents the rise of the movement, and Courtroom 600 which brings to life the place where leading Nazis were cross-examined after the war. I, like many of the German schoolchildren who have visited, found it shocking to see the past brought to life where it actually happened.

Market Place, Nuremberg

The willingness of the people of Nuremberg to remember, whilst also moving forward with hope for the future is one of the reasons I love the city so much. Confronting the past with courage and conviction, and learning the lessons of history, it is a testament to the past and an example for the future – truly a modern miracle.

The Cross-Examination : The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

For those familiar with John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man who shot Liberty Valence, America’s Robert Jackson played Ransom Stoddard to David Maxwell Fyfe, Britain’s ‘Tom Domiphon.’

In March 1946, British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe cross-examined Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring  at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Trials. Tom Blackmore reflects on the significance of the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Sadiq Khan wrote in the New Statesman some years ago :

“As deputy chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Maxwell Fyfe was responsible for one of the most noted cross-examinations in history when Hermann Göring took the stand.”

Sadiq Khan, The New Statesman 2011

Only last year the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh described it as

“widely considered the most significant cross-examination of modern times.”

Faculty of Advocates

These are accolades for David Maxwell Fyfe’s performance at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials when he confronted Göring late on the afternoon of March 20th 1946.  

The quotes above pale when compared to the hysteria of the press shortly after these exchanges. 

Guy Ramsay from the Mail wrote :

“Then rose to cross-examine Herman Goering the British Prosecutor, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, his dark hair receding, his heavy face stern, his massive body impressive, his voice steady and controlled.  Ruthless as an entomologist he pinned the squirming wriggling German decisively to every point he strove to evade reducing his sudden spasms of legal quibbling, his spots of rhetoric to the hollow shams they were.  Fyfe’s skills in cross-examination alone saved the reputation of the court.”

Guy Ramsay, The Mail 1946

And Freddy Birkenhead writing as Atticus in The Times went further:

“The British delegation dominates, and the genius of the place is Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who so far excels the other prosecutors that he has almost played them off the stage.  Indeed his skill in cross-examination has alone prevented the Germans from turning the court into a theatre for the display of patriotic histrionics.”

Atticus, The Times 1946

It can confidently be said that the cross-examination went well, but in the aftermath, its impact grew from being part of the folklore of Nuremberg to igniting dreams of international justice.

The Nuremberg story revolves around the American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson whose vision fuelled the Nuremberg Trials and who set the Tribunal alight with his opening speech. At the time of the Trials, Jackson was a long time away from a Courtroom, rusty at cross-examination, very probably physically impaired, and determined to prove conspiracy between the leading Nazis (conspiracy is hard to prove in a dictatorship in which orders flow one way). Consequently, Göring was able to boss Jackson, who turned to the Tribunal for support and felt let down when none was forthcoming.

For those familiar with John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man who shot Liberty Valence, Jackson played Ransom Stoddard to Maxwell Fyfe’s Tom Domiphon. Jackson’s idealism radiated through the Tribunal as he brought law and order back to a desolate Continent. There was something of the improvised Wild West Court House about Nuremberg. 

The Sketch, 1946

Except of course, that it is Tom Domiphon who shoots Liberty Valence. Maxwell Fyfe acted as chief prosecutor in Nuremberg in the absence of Hartley Shawcross, and he had the British team prepare their cross-examination forensically as they sought to prove murder, aggressive war, and even genocide. 

Maxwell Fyfe spent more time in Court than anyone apart from the judges, he tamed the extraordinary environment of arc lights and translation babble and, he prosecuted what he could prove, usually with the evidence of the Nazis themselves.

And so he shot Liberty Valence.

However, there was a little more to it than that. Rebecca West offered this insight when reporting the trials:

“In the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe holds the honors. This gentle and heavily built man, who never exempts himself from the discipline of fairness, drives witness after witness backward, step by step, till on the edge of some moral abyss they admit the truth.”

Rebecca West, New Yorker Magazine 1946

Maxwell Fyfe was fired by his own, very Scottish and very hidden ideals. In this case, it was the desire to reawaken natural justice in Europe. Natural justice depends on fairness and proper procedure to protect the defendants. All qualities that had been in short supply in Nazi Germany.

Jackson was wrong. Europe was no Wild West. It was an epicentre of the civilization of the world. And Europeans had shared values born out of more than a thousand years of neighbourliness and conflict.

Whilst acknowledging that :

“The barbarian is never behind us but always underneath us ready to rise up.”

David Maxwell Fyfe

Maxwell Fyfe later wrote:

“I believe if anyone had suggested to three quarters of the defendants in 1933 that they should do the things they did without a tremor of conscience in 1943, they would have refused with genuine indignation.”

David Maxwell Fyfe

For most of the defendants, there was a moral abyss, and for many, they chose truth, or a version of it, over a descent into that black hole. They felt guilt.

And this was the beginning of the reconciliation of Europe.

As Harold Nicholson wrote

‘In the courtroom at Nuremberg, something more important is happening than the trial of a few captured prisoners. The inhuman is being confronted with the humane, ruthlessness with equity, lawlessness with patient justice, and barbarism with civilisation’. 

Harold Nicholson

Why we are telling our story

Next year marks the dual anniversaries of the Nuremberg Trials (75 years) and the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights (70 years.) Tom Blackmore writes about ‘The Human’s in the Telling’ and why David Maxwell Fyfe’s story is at the heart of this commemoration.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom is the story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg, where he was a leading prosecutor in the War Crimes Trials, to Strasbourg, where he was a champion of the Convention on Human Rights in Europe.

In The Humans in the Telling we, members of his family, tell the story in a song cycle.

‘In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

 Sue Casson, Composer of Dreams of Peace & Freedom

So that we can tell the story more widely in 2020, we have in the past year, made a recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom, and a podcast which provides further depth and background. We have created a filmed recording which explores the landscapes of the story, and produced a book that throws light on the raw resources of the history, and tells you more about the historians.

We are telling this story:


As the European Convention is threatened, The Humans in the Telling is the debris of the past from which to build a barricade. We will join with those working to halt the march of populism and nationalism with the raw facts of history.


The Humans in the Telling remembers events too easily forgotten. It remembers the evidence of holocaust, murder and tyranny presented at Nuremberg. Why people fought in the Second World War, not to win, but to protect and restore peace, justice and freedom under the law. And it relates how the first hesitant steps to win the peace were taken in the trial of leading Nazis and in the drawing up of a continental code to keep the people safe.


Looking at the future through the prism of the past is a way back to coherence and unity. It allows a reset of the mind.

The Humans in the Telling invites reflection on the response to the Second World War, the last time the nation was at war.

After the Second World War a movement that had grown underground for many years flowered. There was a passion for peace, an awakening to the need for natural justice, and an understanding that freedom could only be exercised under the law both at home and around the world.

We can reconnect and learn again that:

‘A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons’

Desmond Tutu