Sign up to the Newsletter for the latest news from the Baillie Gifford Prize

You are here

'The introduction of music is transformative' - 2016 winner Philippe Sands on East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil

'The introduction of music is transformative' - 2016 winner Philippe Sands on East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil

Ahead of its US premiere at 92Y in New York City next month, we spoke to 2016 winner Philippe Sands about the origins of East West Street: A Song of Good  and Evil, and how this musical performance differs from the book.

How did East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil come about?

A few years ago, while writing East West Street, I gave a lecture about a city (Lviv), two crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity) and the interweaving lives of four men. I touched lightly on each’s connection to music, which gave rise to the suggestion that I might add piano or violin. I did. The effect was striking. I took the exercise a step further.

A childhood friend, the opera singer Laurent Naouri, reviewed the music I mentioned - from Johann Sebastian Bach (solace) to Parisian jazz (distraction). He helped turn the lecture into a performance, eight songs,  numerous piano interludes. Another way of thinking about the 20th century.  

We tested the idea at the Hay Festival, in 2014, with piano and voice, later added a second narrator, then a director. Now we perform four times a year, around the world, from the Nuremberg courtroom, to Istanbul , to Lviv, joined by the great pianist Emmanuel Ax, who will be with us in New York on 14 October. 

How does the music and the performative element affect the way East West Street is received by the audience?

The intensity of audience reaction – a consequence of words coupled with music – is deeply affecting. As a barrister and a lecturer I have come to appreciate the significance of delivery, and  -  as a sort of sixth sense – the longed-for moment that bonds performer and listener, that rare, deep silence. Words rarely cause an audience to weep (“I bawled my eyes out”, wrote an audience member in Adelaide). The introduction of music is transformative.  

How did winning the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction change things for you?

The Baillie Gifford Prize has been utterly transformative, for the reach of East West Street in the UK and beyond, and for the strange and wonderful other things it has caused to tumble in my direction. I am in little doubt that some of the many translations of the book are directly connected to the Prize.

After New York, East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil will be performed in Paris, on 5 November, and Brussels on 28 January 2019. For more information and to book tickets visit

2016 winner Philippe Sands, photographed by Antonio Zazueta Oleos


Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate...
Bestselling author and veteran journalist Craig...
The shortlist for the £50,000 Baillie Gifford...
Kate Summerscale, author of The Haunting of...