'A Survivor from Warsaw' as personal parable.
The idea for a work honouring the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany was apparently suggested to Schoenberg in early 1947 by Corinne Chochem, a dancer of Russian origin who had organized programmes of Jewish dances in New York in the 1930s and was co-author of a book containing music, choreography and photographs illustrating dances performed by Palestinian Jews.(1) In her first extant letter to Schoenberg, dated 2 April 1947, she informs him:
I have written to New York for a correct translation of the song 'I Believe the Messiah Will Come' but as yet have not received it.
I am enclosing the music and words to a Partisan Song that was sung by the Vilna Ghetto. I was able to find many verses both in English and in Hebrew, as well as in Yiddish. I am sending you the English words only and if you are interested I will also send you the Hebrew. Two versions of this melody with very slight variation have appeared in different publications and I am submitting both.
Thank you so much for your co-operation and understanding and please call on me for whatever additional help I can give you.(2)
The first extant letter from Schoenberg to Chochem was written some three weeks later (20 April 1947), and it is in this letter that we find the first reference to the work that became A Survivor from Warsaw:
I think it is the best to tell you at once the fee I want to receive for a composition of 6-9 minutes for small orchestra and chorus, perhaps also one or more soloists on the melodie [sic] you gave me.
I plan to make it this scene - which you described - in the Warsaw Ghetto, how the doomed Jews started singing, before going to die.
My fee should be $1000.00 (one thousand) for which I sell you the right to make and sell records.
I hope you do not find this fee extravagant. It is not, because I got for a piece of 4 1/2 minutes for my prelude to the Genesis from Mr. Shilkret $1500.00.
I hope, when you agree to pay this sum to receive also the translations.
From these two letters we can assume that Chochem had approached Schoenberg about the possibility of composing a work that would describe a scene similar to that which is represented in A Survivor from Warsaw. She evidently envisaged a piece that would use a pre-existing song - possibly one or both of the two mentioned in her letter of 2 April. Schoenberg's request for translations indicates that, at this early stage, he was thinking along the same lines.
Chochem's handwritten reply, dated simply 'Monday', must have been written on 21 April, immediately after she received Schoenberg's letter.(3)
Thank you very kindly for your prompt reply.
We really should have talked over the financial arrangements at our first meeting, but I was sure Dr. Toch had explained to you my financial capacity. I wish I were in the position of a wealthy patron. However, my recognition and awareness as to what such an album would be to Jewish cultural life and to the musical world in general is greater than my ability to pay adequately. Unless the composers are willing to help me carry this project through I may have to stop right there.
You have no idea how anxious I am to have your cooperation . . . Would it be alright if I send you $200 and on completion $300 additional? Would you perhaps wish to make just one side of a record (12 inches)?
I am planning to go to San Francisco for a while and would like to meet with you before I do so - If you can possibly see me - I will be glad to come to your house.
In addition to signalling the alarm she felt over the size of Schoenberg's requested fee, Chochem's letter reveals that she was planning to issue a gramophone album of new works by several composers, one of whom was possibly Ernst Toch, who also apparently introduced her to Schoenberg. Perhaps Chochem had conceived of a collection of pieces based on Jewish melodies; or she may have intended to pay homage to Jewish victims of World War II. In any case, she may have been influenced in her plans by the Genesis Suite commissioned by Nathaniel Shilkret in 1944, for which Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Toch, among others, had contributed movements.
Two days later (23 April 1947), Schoenberg again wrote to Chochem, explaining that his time was principally devoted to finishing several projects left uncompleted when he retired, stating that when he took on other work he could only do it to earn extra income 'because my grocer and the State (asking taxes) demand it'. In response to Chochem's appeal to his generosity in helping her complete her project, Schoenberg pointedly argued that 'I have done throughout my whole life so much for idealistic ends (and so little has to be [sic] returned to me in kind) that I have done my duty'. He refused to reduce his fee, but offered to accept an initial payment of $500, with the balance in monthly instalments paid 'by the recording company'. If she was able to make the necessary financial arrangements, Schoenberg reminded Chochem that he 'would like to have as soon as possible the story and the translation of the text'.
There is no further extant correspondence between Chochem and Schoenberg, and it appears that Chochem abandoned her ambitious scheme. Schoenberg, however, was apparently inspired by their discussions to pursue the idea of a work based on the events of the Holocaust and proceeded on his own. In the first week of July, he received a letter (dated 1 July) from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, reminding him that the Foundation was still interested in commissioning an orchestral work.(4) Schoenberg wrote back on 7 July 1947:
It is a co-incidence.
A little more than a month ago I had started a composition for orchestra and had planned to ask the Koussevitzky Foundation whether the commission for a work like that is still in force.
You will understand that my answer to your letter from July 1, 1947 is: yes. I accept with pleasure the renewal of the commission and will try to finish this composition in about two or (perhaps: I never know) six weeks.
But at the same time I would like to tell you, that I have not yet decided upon the definite form of the piece. My original plan was to write it for a small group of about 24 musicians, one or two 'speakers' and a mens [sic] choir of an adequate size. It is still in my hands to make it a 'symphonic: poem' for standard orchestra without speakers and choir - if the commission demands this.
I must receive your answer as soon as possible, because I would like to make now a definite decision.
A week later (14 July 1947), Margaret Grant, Executive Secretary of the Foundation, wrote to assure Schoenberg that he had the freedom to cast the work as he saw fit:
It is true that a 'symphonic poem' for standard orchestra might be easier to perform and would probably be heard more frequently. Nevertheless, Dr. Koussevitzky feels that it is important for you to have complete liberty to choose, and that it would be most interesting to have from you a composition such as you have described.
Schoenberg's letter implies that he had begun working on his new piece in June, but according to 'annotations on the autograph score the actual composition took only thirteen days (11-23 August 1947).(5) On 24 August 1947, Schoenberg wrote to Koussevitzky:
I am happy to inform you that the piece you commissioned for the Koussevitzky Foundation is finished . . .
I could not change the piece into a symphonic poem as I had hoped to do. It would not have been the same thing, I wanted to express. But, though I employ one narrator and a mens [sic] choir, I could at least eliminate the second speaker - it required many changes!
I don't know whether you are aquainted [sic] with the fact that for more than twenty years I abandonned [sic] the habit of writing a conventional score but used a manner of condensation by avoiding transposition in clarinets, horns etc.
But since my illness three years ago I am suffering from a nervous eye trouble which prevents small writing. I was forced to have a special music paper made for me and this is why my manuscript might surprise you. You will understand that as long as this illness lasts I am unable to write music in another manner - but these manuscripts always contain - except for possible errores [sic] - all I can say, in music at least.
In addition to the musical manuscript I send you the manuscript of the text . . . Schoenberg closed his letter by asking Koussevitzky to send his commissioning fee 'as soon as possible, because I am in the hands of terrible crooks: publishers, recording companies etc.'(6) In December 1947, under the composer's direction, Rene Leibowitz prepared a full orchestral score of the work from Schoenberg's 'condensed' (particelle) autograph score.
Except for a brief statement in Koussevitzky's first letter to Schoenberg concerning the commission (1 April 1944) which notes that the composer 'retains all rights to the composition', there is no discussion of performance rights in the extant correspondence between Schoenberg and the Koussevitzky Foundation. One might reasonably assume, however, that the completed work would have been given its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as had been the case with all but one of the orchestral works commissioned by the Foundation between its establishment in 1942 and 1947.(7) But in fact A Survivor from Warsaw was first heard not in Boston or in any other major centre but in the provincial south-western city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
On 12 March 1948, Schoenberg received a letter from Kurt Frederick, conductor of the Albuquerque Civic Orchestra, who, as part of his efforts to promote twentieth-century music, had previously contacted Schoenberg about securing performance materials for Pierrot lunaire:(8)
Just recently I heard that you wrote a composition for a men's chorus and small orchestra. This is to ask whether it would be possible for me to obtain the score, and whether, if the composition does not prove too difficult, there would be a chance of our performing it in Albuquerque?
Schoenberg sent a copy of the score to Frederick on 20 March 1948. In a follow-up letter dated 23 March 1948, Richard Hoffmann, who was serving as Schoenberg's assistant at the time, informed Frederick: 'In the event that you perform the cantata, Mr. Schoenberg, in place of accepting a performance fee, agrees that you give him the copyright parts'.
Frederick, recognizing the implications of Schoenberg's request, quickly wrote to Hoffmann (26 March 1948) to ask for clarification:
There was one point in your letter which I did not understand. It was in connection with the right of performance of the 'Survivor'. Did you mean that I ought to copy the orchestra material and send it to Mr. Schoenberg after the performance instead of paying a fee for the performance? And if so, does that mean that Albuquerque would have the first performance of this composition? This would be, of course, a tremendous boost for our young orchestra, and would make my work in behalf of contemporary good music much easier. I also have no doubt that in this case I could meet our board's opposition against performances of modern music easily.
Please answer soon.
Hoffmann's reply (31 March 1948) reassured Frederick that
the matter stands just as you describe in your letter . . . Yes it means that you would give the work its first performance, but, Mr. Schoenberg would like to draw your attention to the fact that copyists consider their work of great importance and charge accordingly!
Schoenberg's awarding of the premiere of his new composition to Frederick and his amateur orchestra raised eyebrows in some quarters. Ross Parmenter, writing in the New York Times in advance of the premiere, noted:
Arnold Schoenberg has never been prolific. A world premiere of one of his new works is news. It is doubly so when he bestows it unexpectedly on an out-of-the-way amateur organization. And that is what he has done . . .
Having been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the work was expected to be played for the first time by the Boston Symphony. The Albuquerque premiere was a surprise even to Serge Koussevitzky, who said he was very 'pleased' when the news was relayed to him last week.(9)
The premiere of A Survivor from Warsaw, originally scheduled for 7 September 1948, did not take place until the orchestra's second concert of the season on 4 November 1948 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque under Frederick's direction.(10) Immediately after the performance, Frederick wrote to Schoenberg
to thank you for having allowed me to perform 'A Survivor from Warsaw' in Albuquerque. The study of this work was a great experience for me and for every single one of the performers.
I would like to tell you who the performers were. The orchestra, an amateur organization, consisted of lawyers, doctors, secretaries, high school and university students, railroad engineers, etc. Besides our community chorus and the university chorus, a chorus from Estancia asked for the honor of singing the 'Sch'me jisroel'. Estancia is a community of about 1000 inhabitants, predominantly farmers. The singers from Estancia had to drive 120 miles to come to rehearsals and to the performance in Albuquerque. I have never before experienced the devotion with which the above groups studied your composition. I doubt that any professional organization could have shown as much enthusiasm.
The performance was a tremendous success. The audience of over 1600 was shaken by the composition and applauded until we repeated the performance.(11) This happened in a town, which a few years ago was considered to be a small 'Railroad Town'.
Schoenberg's reply, dated 12 November 1948, indicates his pleasure at hearing of the successful premiere of his new work. It also offers some insight into why he was willing to trust Frederick with the first performance:
Your enthusiasm and capacity seems to have produced a miracle, about which not only Albuquerque, but probably the whole of Amerika [sic] 'kopfstehen wird'.
I am very glad that I had the good sense to give you the performance in this small city and I did so, especially on the basis of your personal data. They convinced me that you are a real Viennese musician of the best tradition, but simultaneously with modernistic spirit, which in Vienna is not so rare as the conservative party in Vienna would like to make believe.
I thank you most cordially.
The emotional impact that A Survivor from Warsaw had on the performers and audience at the Albuquerque premiere has not dimmed with time. The source of the work's effect on audiences is not difficult to fathom, for the event to which it bears witness - the brutal and systematic annihilation of most of Europe's Jewish population - is a crime unparalleled in the annals of human history. To audiences of the late 1940s and the 1950s, for whom the bitter experiences of world war were still vivid, A Survivor from Warsaw must have carried a special meaning. Today, when the passage of time has, for many, dulled the sense of shock and outrage that the revelation of Nazi barbarism once provoked - when even the word 'holocaust' has seemingly lost its power to evoke the terror of the death camps - Schoenberg's composition continues to serve as an eloquent reminder of the enormity of the crime that took place half a century ago.
The reports of mass murder that began to filter out of Germany during the war must have shocked Schoenberg, but they certainly came as no surprise. As early as 1923, he foresaw the consequences of German anti-Semitism. In a letter to Wassily Kandinsky dated 4 May of that year, he asked: 'But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not to acts of violence? Is it so difficult to imagine that?'(12) His growing interest in the Jewish nationalist movement and his increasing concern over the fate of German Jews led him to draft a forceful and detailed plan of action just before he left France for the United States in October 1933. He asserted that it was his intention
to engage in large scale propaganda among all of Jewry in the United States and also later to other countries, designed first of all to get them to produce the financial means sufficient to pay for the gradual emigration of the Jews from Germany. I propose to move the Jewish community to its very depths by a graphic description of what lies in store for the German Jews, unless they receive help within the next two or three months.(13)
Schoenberg specified exactly how he intended to accomplish this goal (indicating, as Alexander Ringer points out, an understanding of the power of propaganda rivalling that of Joseph Goebbels or Frank Capra) and then revealed how important this campaign was to him: 'I offer the sacrifice of my art to the Jewish cause. And I bring my offer enthusiastically, because for me nothing stands above my people.'(14) Considering Schoenberg's deeply held views about his role as an artist, this statement serves as the best possible indication of the depth of his commitment to the cause of Jewish survival.
In spite of his efforts, Schoenberg was frustrated in his attempts to awaken public awareness to the dangerous situation. By 1938, when he wrote 'A Four-Point Program for Jewry' (a document characterized by Ringer as 'Schoenberg's political testament'(15)), he realized that the growing spectre of war meant that the Nazi contagion would very likely spread across Europe. Within the next year, he must also have realized that his terrible vision was becoming reality and that there was no longer anything he could do to help.
One can only begin to imagine the anguish Schoenberg must have felt during the war years. For him the tragedy took on a personal meaning when he discovered shortly after Hitler was defeated that his brother Heinrich had not survived. Later, he learnt that a cousin, Arthur Schonberg, had also perished. Without doubt, there were others among his circle of friends and acquaintances who were lost.
On the surface, it appears only natural that Schoenberg would seek to memorialize the Jewish victims of Nazism and that such a musical tribute would be deeply expressive. That A Survivor from Warsaw succeeds at this level is attested to by its reception at the first performance. I feel, however, that the work held a deeper, personal meaning for its composer and that much of the emotional impact of the work arises from the fact that Schoenberg saw in this tragic and inspiring story a parallel to the events of his own spiritual struggle.
This correspondence between the text and musical structure of A Survivor from Warsaw and Schoenberg's own experience has been overlooked by commentators, who have focused on the historical aspects of the story, especially its supposed connection with the Jewish uprising which took place in the Warsaw ghetto during the spring of 1943. Michael Steinberg, for example, in a Boston Globe review of a 1969 performance of A Survivor from Warsaw by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, described the work as
a short, intensely concentrated music drama whose subject is an episode in the battle that began [on] April 19, 1943, in the Warsaw ghetto. A survivor tells the story of a group of Jews, who, at the moment of their deportation to the death camp, suddenly, in a last flaring of spirit and faith, burst into singing the prayer Shema Yisroel.(16)
The title of the work is partly responsible for the tendency for writers to link the story to the Warsaw revolt. The narrator's reference to living in the sewers also plays a role in creating the impression that Warsaw is the setting, since it is well known that the sewers were used by the Jewish resistance fighters.
In fact, the events described in A Survivor from Warsaw have no specific relationship to the 1943 battle. The setting of the story is not Warsaw but a concentration camp. There are several clues to this fact in the narration. First, the narrator states that 'the day began as usual', thus implying that the prisoners were used to a routine such as one would find in a camp. The trumpets sound reveille, and the prisoners are awakened from an uneasy sleep. They come out of what are apparently barracks of some kind, and one of the prisoners urges the others to hurry. 'Get out! The sergeant will be furious!' This sergeant is obviously someone who is well known to the inmates; the narrator tells us that 'they fear the sergeant'. A further indication that the story is set in a concentration camp is the Feldwebel's statement, 'In einer Minute will ich wissen, wie viele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere!' The decision as to who would be sent to the gas chamber was one made at the camps, not at deportation sites. It is highly unlikely that Schoenberg would have used the term Gaskammer as a synonym for Konzentrationslager, especially considering the care with which he handled other details of the text.(17)
It is quite possible, however, that even though it is set in a concentration camp, the story of A Survivor for Warsaw is actually based on an event that took place in Warsaw. Rene Leibowitz, who undoubtedly discussed the work with Schoenberg during the period when he was copying the orchestral score, wrote that Schoenberg based the text on a story related to him by a young man who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto.(18) This could very well be true, and should not automatically be viewed as contradicting the evidence of Corinne Chochem's role in presenting the subject to Schoenberg. After all, the composer indicated at the head of the score that the text was 'based partly upon reports which I have received directly or indirectly'.(19) But by the time he composed A Survivor from Warsaw he had moved away from the depiction of any specific event. This tragic story had become for him a symbol - a parable - of his own spiritual struggle and that of his people throughout history.
The evidence suggests that when Schoenberg constructed his text he sought to dissociate the story from a specific incident, deliberately obscuring details of time and place in order to emphasize its symbolic character. As noted above, the scene is not Warsaw but an anonymous concentration camp. Precise time references have been removed as well. One early sketch of the narrator's text begins: 'I cannot remember all that happened the last day [my italics] before I lived underground, in the sewers of Warsaw'.(20) In the final version of the text, in which the narrator states simply, 'I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time', the listener no longer knows exactly when the events of the story took place.
Thus, the final version of the text is constructed in such a way as to blur the background, thereby throwing the central event of the story into sharper focus. The narrator's recollection of events mirrors this emphasis; he is very vague about how he arrived in the sewers of Warsaw, but he remembers the events leading up to the singing of the 'Shema Yisroel' - wherever and whenever they took place - in great detail.
The key to understanding A Survivor from Warsaw lies in the second sentence of the text: 'I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years - the forgotten creed!' Surely no witness would have reported an incident to Schoenberg in such terms. The words are entirely his, and they reflect his perception of the elemental truth contained in the reports that he heard.(21)
Let us remember the events of the story. The prisoners are run out of their barracks into the pre-dawn darkness. They have not slept; they are worried about their families. They are shouted at, beaten, and then ordered to count off so that they can be sent to the gas chamber. In a sense, they are told to organize their own execution. Every action taken by the Nazis against them has been coldly calculated to rob them of their humanity - simply because they are Jews. Finally, at the point at which they face the ultimate humiliation and the ultimate horror - at the point when one would expect them to break - their Jewishness becomes a positive, defiant force. This is what gives the climactic moment of the work its power; this is what Schoenberg recognized to be the essence of the reports he had received; and this is what moved him so profoundly - for he saw this story as an analogue to his own experience.
Schoenberg converted early in life to the Protestant faith. Like so many other Austrian Jews, he was moved by a desire to enter into the mainstream of Viennese life, and saw his conversion as a passport to acceptability.(22) However, amid a rising tide of anti-Semitism and the growth of Jewish consciousness personified by the writings of, among others, Theodore Herzl and the activities of Benno Straucher, Schoenberg found it harder to avoid confronting the issue of his Jewishness. Ringer states that
When, three years after [World War I] in what was ostensibly a liberal republic, Schoenberg and his family found that Jews could no longer vacation in an Austrian resort of their choice, the composer, struck to the heart, divested himself of whatever illusions he had left about any possible benefits of assimilation and conversion and with typical vigor and determination plunged headlong into his personal search for constructive answers to the Jewish question.(23)
Over the next decade, Schoenberg and all other German and Austrian Jews were faced with ever more humiliating reminders of their deteriorating position. The situation grew increasingly intolerable for Schoenberg after he moved to Berlin in 1925. Finally, in September 1932, in the face of growing Nazi political power and the increasing arrogance of the 'swastika-swaggerers and pogromists',(24) as he had previously described Hitler and his thugs, Schoenberg wrote the following in a letter to Alban Berg: 'I've had it hammered into me so loudly and so long that only by being deaf to begin with could I have failed to understand it. And its a long time now since it wrung any regrets from me. Today I'm proud to call myself a Jew . . .'(25) The correlation between this statement with what happens in A Survivor from Warsaw is striking and not at all coincidental. Like the condemned Jews in that work, Schoenberg finally rebelled against the humiliations heaped upon him and forcefully reasserted his Jewish identity.
The relationship between Schoenberg's cantata and his Jewish consciousness has a spiritual as well as a nationalistic or racial dimension. Schoenberg's characterization of the 'Shema Yisroel' as 'the old prayer they had neglected for so many years - the forgotten creed' is a crystallization of his belief that European Jews, intent on assimilation, had rejected their heritage their one source of strength. In 1933 he stated this explicitly: 'In the diaspora the idol worship of our host nations has uprooted us and deprived us of our faith . . . we must surrender once again to our faith . . . it alone ensures our viability and justifies our existence.'(26) The connection between this statement and the message of Moses und Aron is obvious, and in this sense A Survivor from Warsaw is closely associated with Schoenberg's opera. The later work provides a modern parable of the Jewish people once again embracing the role that the inconceivable God has set out for them and realizing anew the special nature of their life 'in the desert'.
One other issue should be addressed before aspects of the work's musical structure are discussed. If Schoenberg's purpose in writing this cantata was to focus on the larger issues of his own experience and that of his people, then why did he state that his survivor was from Warsaw? As shown above, the construction of the text indicates that he wanted to obscure the background of his story; yet he must have known that listeners would link the name of Warsaw and the reference to the sewers with the heroic battle fought there by Jewish resistance fighters. Even if the evidence suggests that the events upon which Schoenberg based his story may have actually taken place in Warsaw, he could easily have stated that the survivor was from Berlin, Krakow, Amsterdam or any of the thousands of other cities and towns from which Jews were expelled, thereby further distancing his tale from a specific event. But the Warsaw uprising had a special significance for Schoenberg, as it must for all Jews - for there, they fought back. While not the only instance of armed Jewish resistance during the war, the Warsaw ghetto uprising was the largest and best-known revolt, and it has come to be universally regarded as an inspiring symbol of the indestructability of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable brutality and overwhelming odds.
As early as 1923, Schoenberg foresaw the importance of armed struggle when he wrote that the ultimate 're-establishment of a Jewish State can come about only in the manner that has characterized similar events throughout history: not through words and moralizing but through the success of arms and a happy combination of interests'.(27) And, a decade later, in a letter to Jakob Klatzkin dated 13 June 1933 he expressed this sentiment even more forcefully:
The timid will never be able to make the sacrifices required by courage and self-denial. Those unwilling to risk life and property won't be able to participate in our struggle for liberation. We must succeed in persuading Jewish youth of the necessity of this struggle completely and without qualifications.(28)
These two passages illustrate Schoenberg's support for the affirmative, militant Zionism advocated by Vladimir Jabotinsky. He undoubtedly saw in the Warsaw uprising a useful example of what it would take for the Jews finally to acquire and maintain a land of their own. He may have been moved to include an oblique reference to the rebellion in his text, but again, I do not believe that he ever intended that this reference be taken as the central point of the work.
The cantata can be divided into two distinct sections. The first, lasting some 80 bars, consists of the narrator's account of the events leading up to the singing of the 'Shema Yisroel'. The setting of the prayer itself comprises the second section. Although this second part is only nineteen bars long, the intensity of the musical and dramatic expression serves to negate any sense of structural imbalance between it and the much longer narrative section.
The entire piece is based on twelve-note techniques, and the musical materials remain the same throughout, but the two sections are organized according to widely differing principles. The second section is built around the 'Shema' melody, and it thus contrasts with the narrative section, which contains relatively little sustained melodic material. Christian Martin Schmidt has suggested that the two sections are representative of different periods in Schoenberg's compositional development: the first, 'athematic', reflects a return to the techniques of the composer's so-called atonal period; the second, with its clear reliance on the 'Shema' theme, can be seen as representative of the later twelve-note period.(29)
The narrative section does indeed seem to recall the techniques that Schoenberg used in the decade or so before the discovery of the twelve-note method. Schmidt notes in particular the pervasive use of augmented triads as a kind of 'harmonic pedal', recalling that Schoenberg had used similar extended 'harmonic pedals' in a number of works from this period, including the first of the Funf Orchesterstucke, Op. 16, Die gluckliche Hand, Op. 18, and the last of the Kleine Stucke fur Kammerorchester, dating from 1910.
The presence of a sustained melodic line in the second section of the cantata is the feature that most distinguishes it from the narrative. Beginning in bar 80, the 'Shema' melody becomes the framework around which the rest of the piece is constructed. Augmented triads no longer pervade the texture in their role as a 'harmonic pedal'. Programmatic elements that had been used extensively in the first section (the trumpet fanfare, military drum, and fifes - represented by flutes and piccolo) are also absent in this section. The texture becomes much thicker, and there is a greater reliance on horizontal realization of various set forms.
This symbolic progression in A Survivor from Warsaw from the procedures of c. 1910 to those characteristic of 'classic' twelve-note technique is not surprising if one sees the work as representative of Schoenberg's own spiritual struggle. There was always a strong connection between the spiritual and creative aspects of his life, a connection borne out in the opening paragraphs of 'Composition with Twelve Tones':
To understand the very nature of creation one must acknowledge that there was no light before the Lord said: 'Let there be light.' And since there was not yet light, the Lord's omniscience embraced a version of it which only His omnipotence could call forth.
We poor human beings, when we refer to one of the better minds among us as a creator, should never forget what a creator is in reality.
A creator has a vision of something which has not existed before this vision.
And a creator has the power to bring his vision to life, the power to realize it.
In fact, the concept of creator and creation should be formed in harmony with the Divine Model; inspiration and perfection, wish and fulfillment, will and accomplishment coincide spontaneously and simultaneously.(30)
Although Schoenberg continues by admitting that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a human creator to imitate the perfection of the Divine Model, he clearly viewed his creative work as a spiritual activity. He saw a parallel between the struggles of his creative life and those of his personal spiritual life. He considered his discovery of the twelve-note method as a vision - a divine revelation that was perhaps as significant and meaningful as his reconciliation with his Jewish faith and heritage.
The connection between these two decisive events in Schoenberg's life is further strengthened by the fact that they occurred in close chronological proximity. Schoenberg first mentioned his work with twelve-note procedures to Joseph Ruler in the summer of 1921, but, as revealed in a letter to Nicolas Slonimsky dated 3 June 1937, there followed a period of experimentation before he fully realized the implications of his discovery.(31) During this same period, the issue of his Jewishness had also been very much on Schoenberg's mind. On 20 April 1923, he wrote in a letter to Kandinsky that
. . . I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.
I am content that it should be so! Today I no longer wish to be an exception; I have no objection at all to being lumped together with all the rest.(32)
Again, one finds a parallel between the sentiments expressed in this letter and the climactic moment in A Survivor from Warsaw - 'the grandiose moment when they started to sing' the 'Shema Yisroel'. The change in musical style that occurs at exactly that point in the score underlines the deep connection Schoenberg felt between his spiritual reawakening and his discovery of the twelve-note method.
A Survivor from Warsaw stands as a moving tribute to the millions of European Jews who suffered and died at the hands of Nazi Germany. As such, it has stirred audiences from the time of its first performances in 1948. Much of the work's power, however, emanates from the deeper significance that it held for its creator. I am convinced that Schoenberg saw in this story of a small group of condemned Jewish prisoners both a striking crystallization of his own inner struggle with his Jewishness and a modern parable confirming the message of Moses und Aron: God has a special role for His Chosen People, and that only by acknowledging and accepting the uniqueness of their status can the Jews endure and triumph over the adversities that confront them. A Survivor from Warsaw symbolizes the religious and nationalistic ideals of its composer, and ranks with Moses und Aron, Die Jakobsleiter and the three psalm settings of Op. 50 as one of the most profoundly spiritual of Schoenberg's musical expressions.
1 Corinne Chochem & Muriel Roth, Palestine Dances, New York, 1941 (repr. Westport, Connecticut, 1978).
2 This letter and others quoted in this article are found in the Schoenberg collection at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. I should like to thank Mr Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress for his help in locating the relevant correspondence and Mr Lawrence Schoenberg, Dr Kurt Frederick, Dr Richard Hoffmann and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for their kind permission to publish excerpts.
3 In 1947, 20 April fell on a Sunday. Schoenberg must have posted his letter on Sunday immediately after writing it, and it was delivered to Chochem, who was then living in Los Angeles, the next day. Schoenberg's reply to this letter is dated 23 April, thus eliminating the possibility that it was written on a later Monday.
4 This letter has not been located, but its date is mentioned in Schoenberg's reply and its contents can be surmised from his comments. The Koussevitzky Foundation had originally offered Schoenberg a commission or $1,000 for a 'composition for symphony orchestra' on 1 April 1944. In his response to the Foundation's offer, dated 7 April, Schoenberg had asked if he could submit his recently completed Variations for wind band, Op. 43, or a section from Die Jakobsleiter, stating that he had set up a 'five-year plan' to complete Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron and did not want to deviate from it to compose a new orchestral work. Alter discussing the matter with the Board of Directors of the Foundation, Serge Koussevitzky informed Schoenberg on 28 May 1944 that 'it would be contrary to the policy of the Foundation to approve a grant for a work already completed or for a fragment of a greater work'. He expressed understanding of Schoenberg's programme and informed him that 'we shall be very happy to hold the grant offered to you open until such a time as you will be able to write a work lot the Foundation'.
5 Arnold Schonberg: Samtliche Werke, Abteilung V: Chorwerke, B/19, ed. Christian Martin Schmidt, Mainz, 1977, pp. 61-63.
6 In fact, Schoenberg's fee was not sent until 17 October 1947 because Koussevitzky was out of the country at the time that the score of A Survivor from Warsaw was received by the Foundation. The delay prompted several increasingly impatient letters from Schoenberg.
7 Among these were Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Stravinsky's Ode, Copland's Third Symphony and Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie. The one exception was the overture Tom Paine by Burrill Phillips, which was commissioned by the Foundation in 1944 and first heard in New York on 15 May 1947. As well as symphonic works, the Koussevitzky Foundation also awarded commissions for the composition of chamber works and two operas, Britten's Peter Grimes and Blitzstein's Regina.
8 Frederick was unable to obtain the parts and therefore had to abandon his plan to perform Pierrot lunaire during the 1948-9 season. Having received his musical education in Vienna, Frederick emigrated in 1938 to the United States, where he served as first violinist of the New Friends of Music Orchestra and, from 1940 to 1942, as violist in the Kolisch Quartet before joining the music faculty of the University of New Mexico in 1942.
9 Ross Parmenter, 'The World of Music: Schoenberg in Albuquerque,' New York Times, 31 October 1948. One cannot help but speculate that the misunderstanding between Schoenberg and the Koussevitzky Foundation concerning the payment of his fee may have had something to do with the fact that his new work was not given its premiere in Boston.
10 Frederick explained the reasons for the postponement in a letter to Schoenberg dated 2 October 1948: '. . . the chorus of the University of New Mexico was most eager to sing the choral part of the Survivor. Due to our late registration date the chorus could not get together until a few days ago. There were also difficulties with the narrator whom I had to replace.'
11 H. H. Stuckenschmidt, relying on the account of an unnamed journalist, states that after the first performance 'the listeners remained silent with shock' and that after the work was repeated applause 'thundered through the hall': Arnold Schoenberg, trans. Edith Temple Roberts & Humphrey Searle, London, 1959, pp. 141-2. Frederick's version of the events of the premiere (confirmed in a letter to me of 3 December 1992) should be accepted as accurate.
12 Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernest Kaiser, Berkeley, 1987, pp. 92-93.
13 Quoted in Alexander L. Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: the Composer as Jew, Oxford, 1990, p. 135.
14 Ibid., p. 137.
15 Ibid., p. 140.
16 Michael Steinberg, 'Schoenberg Drama Awesomely Performed', The Boston Globe, 19 April 1969.
17 The most vivid example of the attention Schoenberg devoted to the subtleties of the text can be found in the spelling of some of the German words, in which 'j' has been substituted for 'g' (e.g. stilljestanden, Jewehrkolben). This change reflects north German (i.e., Prussian) usage and was consciously made by Schoenberg to reinforce the impression that the Feldwebel was from Prussia, the region traditionally associated with the German military.
18 Rene Leibowitz, Introduction a la musique de douze sons, Paris, 1949, pp. 322-3. Moreover, in an interview in 1949 Leibowitz recounts the testimony of the young survivor, which he says Schoenberg used 'verbatim'. This interview is reprinted in Willi Reich, Schoenberg: a Critical Biography, trans. Leo Black, London, 1971, pp. 122-3.
19 According to Jewish religious practice, the 'Shema Yisroel', the ancient Hebrew profession of faith, should be uttered by any Jew at the moment when he or she faces death. Therefore, incidents such as the one described in Survivor would not have been uncommon. In Shoah, the monumental documentary film about the Holocaust, one witness recalls hearing a group of prisoners reciting the 'Shema Yisroel' as they were led into one of the trucks that the Nazis used as portable gas chambers before they devised more efficient methods of mass murder. See Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: an Oral History of the Holocaust, New York, 1985, p. 79. Another survivor recounted an incident remarkably similar to that described by Schoenberg that took place at Auschwitz, in one of the 'undressing rooms' in which prisoners were told to disrobe before going to the 'showers'. 'The violence climaxed when [the SS men] tried to force the people to undress. A few obeyed, only a handful. Most of them refused to follow the order. Suddenly, like a chorus, they all began to sing. The whole "undressing room" rang with the Czech national anthem, and the Hatikvah. That moved me terribly, that . . .' Ibid., p. 164.
20 Arnold Schonberg: Samtliche Werke, Abteilung V: Chorwerke, B/19, p. 72.
21 According to Leibowitz, the survivor who related his account to Schoenberg stated, 'I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing the old prayer': Reich, Schoenberg: a Critical Biography, p. 222.
22 Even this decision, however, reveals something of Schoenberg's determination to seek his own path, for Catholicism, not Protestantism, was the dominant religion in Vienna.
23 Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: the Composer as Jew, p. 124.
24 Schoenberg, Letters, p. 164.
25 Ibid., p. 167.
26 Arnold Schoenberg, 'Jewish Religion', listed as H41 in Joseph Rufer, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, trans. Dika Newlin, London, 1962; quoted in Ringer, Arnold Schoenberg: the Composer as Jew, p. 134.
27 Pro Zion, ed. Rudolf Stein, Vienna, 1924, p. 34; quoted ibid., p. 124.
28 Quoted ibid., pp. 128-9.
29 See Christian Martin Schmidt. 'Schonberg's Kantata "Ein Uberlebender aus Warschau" op. 46', Archiv fur Musikwissenschaft, xxxiii (1976), 180-81. Schmidt's article is perhaps the best commentary on the musical structure of the work; but see also Leibowitz, Introduction a la musique de douze sons, pp. 322-32.
30 Schoenberg, 'Composition with Twelve Tones (1)', Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 214-15.
31 Reich, Schoenberg: a Critical Biography, pp. 130-31.
32 Schoenberg, Letters, p. 88.
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|Title Annotation:||composition by Arnold Schoenberg|
|Publication:||Music & Letters|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1995|
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