Classical Music

Classical composers have used the Holocaust as subject matter since the immediate post-war years.  Their artistic representations and memorials not only commemorate the events but also argue for the relevance of art as a viable tool for social commentary and protest.  Although Theodor Adorno asserted in 1951 that, 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,' two years later he praised the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg for his courage in addressing artistically the Holocaust in A Survivor from Warsaw:

The effect of the Survivor … is no less powerful – a companion piece to Picasso’s Guernica – in which Schoenberg made the impossible possible, standing up to contemporary horror in its most extreme form, the murder of the Jews, in art.  This alone would be enough to earn him every right to the thanks for a generation that scorns him, not least because in his music that inexpressible thing quivers that no one any longer wants to know about.

Classical music representations are as diverse as the twentieth century repertory itself, but the most significant works may be divided into three categories: Vocal Cantatas, Orchestral/Choral Works and Electronic Media.

Vocal Cantatas

Often noted as one of the first musical representations of the Holocaust, Arnold Schoenberg’s Holocaust cantata, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), presents the audience with a fictional representation of the Warsaw ghetto Uprising and uses musical and textual devices to depict the labours of traumatic memory.  Schoenberg wrote both the music and libretto for Survivor, in which a Holocaust survivor struggles to recall an experience from the Warsaw ghetto.  The cantata became a model for many German composers who wished to compose a Holocaust memorial, including Gunther Kochan’s cantata, Die Asche von Birkenau (1965) and the collaborative cantata Jüdische Chronik, which premiered in 1966. 

Jüdische Chronik was inspired by a series of assaults in 1959 that culminated in the defacement of the newly reopened Synagogue in Cologne, West Germany.  In his memoirs, West German composer Hans Werner Henze remembered the desecration with unease: 'Signs of antisemitism were once again written large on church and synagogue walls, and anonymous vandals had begun to desecrate gravestones.'  Henze recalled that these derelict activities had prompted East German composer Paul Dessau to organise the composition of Jüdische Chronik, a five-part cantata whose text cited instances of Jewish persecution from both the Holocaust and post-war periods.  In order to emphasise the universality of the Chronik’s political message, Dessau invited artists from both East and West Germany to collaborate on the cantata, which provided them with an artistic opportunity for solidarity at a time of geographic and ideological division.  From the west, he invited composers Boris Blacher, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hans Werner Henze; from the east, he requested the service of composer Rudolf Wagner-Régeny and librettist Jens Gerlach.

According to Henze, the project was attractive to all the composers because it provided the opportunity to confront directly the threats of fascism:

[We] remembered how too often in the past artists had kept their own counsel, and how disastrous their silence had often been in the Third Reich. […] We all believed that any kind of warning would be preferable to the kind of non-political evasiveness that indicates only indifference and insensitivity.

Dessau’s collective reflected the social diversity of Germany’s post-war population, but the composers shared two common perspectives: political orientation (which tended to the left) and the conviction that music could affect political and social change through a 'musical engagement' with civic issues. 

In the case of Jüdische Chronik, Gerlach’s libretto 'engaged' relevant political topics in East and West Germany, including neo-fascism, antisemitism and German shame.  Gerlach combined present-day examples of antisemitism with instances of Jewish persecution from Treblinka and the Warsaw ghetto, thus creating a 'chronicle' of the European Jewish experience over a period of 30 years.  The ‘Prolog’ (composed by Blacher and Wagner-Régeny) describes the extent of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism in the FRG.  Gerlach followed this with two memorial sections that depict the depraved conditions in Treblinka (‘Ghetto’, composed by Hartmann) and the events of the Warsaw ghetto Uprising (‘Aufstand’, composed by Henze).  The work closes with an ‘Epilog’ (composed by Dessau) that sternly warns against the dangers of antisemitism.

The third movement, ‘Ghetto’, is the first to acknowledge specifically Jewish suffering, and Hartmann points to the Holocaust context in the movement’s introduction, which consists of several short melodic fragments that reference common Jewish musical tropes.  To make the Holocaust allusion clear, Hartmann quoted his Second Piano Concerto in the opening bars of the introduction.  He had composed the concerto after witnessing a group of Dachau prisoners marching near Munich, a scene he described as 'infinitely great [in its] misery, infinitely great [in its] pain'.  'Ghetto’s' opening cantabile melody recalls the opening motive of the Piano Concerto, an allusion that not only links Hartmann’s movement with his other Holocaust memorial but also clarifies that he intended the introduction as a 'Jewish' sounding tribute to the victims of Treblinka.  The citation constitutes a personal and intimate memory in which Hartmann references the Holocaust musically rather than through overt textual allusions.

Orchestral/Choral Works

One category of Holocaust memorials references the Holocaust through a dedicatory text with an orchestral setting.  In these works, the pieces do not attempt to represent the Holocaust, but rather provide a musical setting that both establishes dramatic tone and allows for clear declamation of the text.  Two orchestral memorials from the 1960s, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Dies Irae, address the Holocaust in this manner, using carefully selected poems as the centerpiece of their orchestral tributes.

In 1962, the Russian poet Evgeny Evtushenko visited the site of Babi Yar, a deep ravine northwest of Kiev, where in September 1941 an estimated 70,000 Jews were executed by Nazi soldiers.  Evtushenko returned to his hotel room and immediately penned a memorial poem in which the first line – 'There are no monuments over Babi Yar, the steep precipice, like a rough-hewn tomb' – reflected his 'refusal to accept the injustice of history, the absence of a monument to so many innocent slaughtered people'.  Shortly thereafter, Shostakovich read the poem and decided to set it as part of a symphonic work that would include five movements, each of them based on a Evtushenko poem.

Only the first movement, ‘Babi Yar’, cites the Holocaust specifically, and its restrained orchestration seems to suggest, as Roy Blokker has contended, that Shostakovich 'wanted to present his message with the unambiguous force of words'.  The movement begins with the distant tolling of chimes coupled with a foreboding ostinato in the lower strings, which are joined by the winds and muted brass.  From this dark setting, a men’s choir enters chanting the opening stanza, and Shostakovich continues to highlight those instruments with notably dark timbres: bass clarinet, bassoon, and contrabassoon.  The piece ends with the following nationalist (and idealistic) text:

Let the “Internationale” sound
When the last anti-Semite on earth
Has finally been buried.
There is no Jewish blood in me,
But I bear the abominable hatred
Of all anti-Semites as if I were a Jew.
And that makes me a true Russian!

Such bold conclusions sparked controversy around the work.  Shortly before the premiere, Khrushchev levied harsh criticism against Evtushenko and Shostakovich due to the accusatory tone of the poem: 'Is this a time to raise such a theme?  What’s the matter with you?  And then it gets set to music.  Babi Yar wasn’t just Jews but Slavs.'  Despite late attempts to censor the performance, the premiere was held on 18 December 1962 and was enthusiastically received by its public.  Today, the piece is now informally known as the ‘Babi Yar’ Symphony, a designation that increases its memorial potential.

Five years later, the 34-year-old Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki received a commission to write a memorial piece commemorating the unveiling of an international monument 'for the victims of fascism' at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  The short oratorio, which divides into three movements titled 'Lamentatio', 'Apocaplypsis' and 'Apotheosis', was dedicated to 'the memory of the murdered at Auschwitz' and premiered at the camp with the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir on 16 April 1967.

Penderecki himself chose the texts and selected a wide variety of tragic texts, which he assembled into a textual montage of lament.  His sources included biblical passages, Aeschylus’s Eumenides and contemporary Holocaust poetry by Polish and French authors, which Penderecki arranged according to shared themes so that they might seem like an original text rather than a poetic collage.  An excerpt from Lamentatio demonstrates Penderecki’s methodology for textual interpolation, in which mention of the 'sorrows of death' lead to descriptions of death and the image of a 'crown of thorns' evokes a later text about the suffering of Christ:

The sorrows of death compassed me (Psalm 116)
Bodies of children from crematories will fly high above history.  Bodies of boys, bodies of girls in crowns of thorns will flock together.  Bodies of men from field graveyards will march to conquer, will be free.
The utmost hunger and the limits of strength; even Christ did not follow such a path of doom.  He never knew that racking discord between a human soul and an inhuman world.

To add to this textual unity, he translated all of the texts into Latin for consistency (with the exception of the Aeschylus, which is sung in Greek).

In Dies Irae, Penderecki deliberately omitted violins and violas from the orchestra in order to ground the work in a darker timbre, a technique best observed in the opening minutes of 'Lamentatio'.  Here, the movement begins ominously with a men’s choir chanting slowly and monophonically, their words accompanied by muted gongs and pianissimo timpani strikes that lend the passage a ritualistic tone.  Soon after, the contrabasses enter with a recitative-like phrase that comes to rest on a drawn-out pedal point.  Such orchestral darkness is broken by the mournful entrance of the soprano soloist, who declaims the opening text to a restrained atonal melody.  A women’s choir joins the texture, singing several dissonant pitch clusters that heighten the musical tension.  Similar to Penderecki’s other dedicatory works, including his Threnody (1960; originally titled 8’36”), the Dies Irae combines many advanced compositional techniques such as glissandi, quarter-tones, and the use of indeterminate (or estimated) pitch, all of which root the memorial firmly in the post-war musical landscape.

Electronic Media

Luigi Nono was an established composer who had already created several electro-acoustic works that merged manipulated electronic sounds with 'live' sources, most notably his Il Canto Sospeso (1956), which derived its texts from letters exchanged between victims of wartime oppression.  Such politicised music led to a 1965 invitation to compose the incidental music for a West German production of Peter Weiss’s Holocaust drama, Die Ermittlung (The Investigation).  The result was Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto ad Auschwitz (Remember what they did to you at Auschwitz), which Nono released as an autonomous piece in 1966.  Within it, Nono employs the concept of constant acoustical change, in which various sound blocks emerge and fade in a series of calculated crescendos and decrescendos.  Different textures bleed into one another, mixing electronic sounds (reverb, echo effects, amplitude modifications, static pitches) with live or recorded sources (choir, taped sound effects).  The effect is a constantly changing sonic space that seems to represent musically the surfacing of images from the recesses of traumatic memory.  Nono himself considered Ricorda problematic on several fronts.  Aesthetically, he wondered about the appropriateness of his juxtaposition of electronic media with the 'purity of the human voice'.  From a representational standpoint, he also questioned with scepticism the ability of art to depict trauma, especially within the electronic medium.  As Nono himself concluded, his music could never describe the system of Auschwitz, but it could speak to what it signified for him.

In Different Trains (1988), Steve Reich takes a similar 'personal' approach to the problem of Holocaust representation and presents a semi-autobiographical account of the Holocaust that electronically mixes his memories of being a Jewish child in the 1940s with those of child-survivors of the Holocaust who later recorded their testimonies.  As Reich describes the project,

The idea for the piece comes from my childhood.  [Due to my parent’s divorce], I travelled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942. […] While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride on very different trains.  With this in mind, I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation.

To this end, Reich recorded his governess 'reminiscing about [their] train trips together,' a retired Pullman porter, and three Holocaust testimonies from survivors 'all about my age and now living in America'.  He selected various sound clips through digital sampling and then arranged them into a semi-coherent narrative, which divides into three movements: 'America, before the war', 'Europe, during the war' and 'After the war'.  His intent was to 'present both a documentary and a musical reality, and [begin] a new musical direction.'  In all cases, the spoken testimonies are accompanied by a string quartet (the premiere was given by the Kronos Quartet in 1988), which reproduces the melodic and rhythmic contours of the speech samples in a method of 'speech melody' inspired by one of Reich’s favourite composers, Bela Bartok.  The textual phrases become assumed into the musical landscape and thus provide the work with both its musical and textual material. 

Richard Taruskin, who declared Trains to be “the only adequate musical response – one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium – to the Holocaust”, values Reich’s use of archival tapes in that the use of “real material” seems to avoid historical manipulation and melodrama: “There are no villains and no heroes.  There is no role for a Ralph Fiennes or a Werner Klemperer to flatter your sense of moral superiority.  And there is no bathetic glory to comfort you with a trumped-up “Triumph of the Human Spirit.”  There is just the perception that while this happened here, that happened there, and a stony invitation to reflect.”

Taruskin prefers Trains’ unmediated quality and considers its presentation of historical evidence straightforward and non-sentimental.  But mediation is at the heart of Different Trains, especially at its conclusion, which provides perhaps the most beautiful moment in the work and also gives it a distinct memorial tone.  At the conclusion, the survivor Rachella recalls, 'one girl, who had a beautiful voice.  And they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans [did].  And when she stopped singing they said, ‘More, more’ and they applauded'.  This is perhaps the most extended speech melody in Trains, and it provides the work with a sense of lyricism amidst Reich’s otherwise repetitive minimalism.  Reich repeats the speech melody for ‘More More’ until the very end of the quartet, at which point the audience – not the Nazis – applaud for Reich, the performers, and the memory of the murdered singing girl.  As Taruskin notes, it is 'an exquisitely understated closure of the musical form' that also contains an overt memorial stratagem designed to elicit the 'ache and shiver' that Taruskin admits to experiencing.

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