A Survivor from Warsaw

Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) should not be understood as a historical account of the Warsaw ghetto; it contains inaccurate information about the Warsaw ghetto (the most infamous being the mention of gas chambers, even though none existed in the ghetto) and, as David Schiller argues, Schoenberg seems to have “conflated two phases of the history of the Warsaw ghetto” – the liquidation of 1942 and the revolt of 1943 – in order to dramatise the narrator’s tale. Schoenberg also fashioned his libretto from textual sources that referenced Jewish persecution that occurred outside of the Warsaw ghetto, including ‘Never Say That You Are Walking the Final Road’, a partisan song from the Vilna ghetto. As Schoenberg admitted, historical veracity was not his intent in ‘Survivor’, which he valued more for its imaginative and memorial potentialities:

'What [does] the text of ‘Survivor’ mean to me?  It means […] a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us. […] We should never forget this, even if such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the ‘Survivor’.  This does not matter.  The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.'

Page of the original manuscript, taken from: Arnold Schoenberg. A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 4. Facsimile Edition of the Autograph, ed. Therese Muxeneder, Laaber-Verlag 2014. ISBN 978-3-89007.778-9. © Laaber-Verlag (www.laaber-verlag.de). Photographic credit: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In ‘Survivor, Schoenberg 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.  As the narrator states in his prologue: 'I cannot remember everything.  I must have been unconscious most of the time.  I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if pre-arranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed!'

Thereafter, the narrator describes the conditions of the ghetto and a moment in which German soldiers consolidated and then violently beat a group of Jewish prisoners nearly to death.  The work concludes with the victims singing the Shema Yisroel (the Jewish profession of faith) as a means of musical resistance and Jewish solidarity against their Nazi captors.

Although it is a twelve-tone work, ‘Survivor’s musical language recalls the composer’s earlier expressionistic pieces, which include Schoenberg’s other psychological monodrama, Erwartung (1914).  In this work, a woman discovers her lover’s murdered body and regresses into her thoughts and memories.  As O.W. Neighbor notes, 'There is no realistic time scale [in ‘Erwartung]: past and present co-exist and merge in the woman’s mind as terror, desire, jealousy, and tenderness cut across one another in confused association … disrupted by innumerable contradictory emotions.'  In Survivor the narrator is also challenged by his own psychological trauma, and Schoenberg’s libretto recreates these mnemonic fissures through textual interruptions: semantic phrases break off into fragments, ellipses denote a trailing off of ideas, and verb tenses shift without explanation.  The account is further hampered by the narrator’s rudimentary English, which he speaks in a laboured and broken manner.

Schoenberg’s music provides a ‘soundtrack’ to these psychological events that includes both literal illustration and more abstract representations of traumatic memory.  As the Feldwebel enters, trumpet fanfares announce his presence; when the Jews are separated from one another, weeping motives appear in the violins; and when the Nazis quicken the pace at which they count Jewish bodies, Schoenberg calls for an accelerando.  As these images flood or recess from the narrator’s mind, the music enacts more abstract 'waves of memory' through dramatic shifts between dynamic, timbral, and textural extremes.  At times, musical Leitmotivs (such as the trumpet reveille) precede their textual signifiers, which gives the impression that the textual remembrance is prompted by a musical memory.  Elsewhere, the text and music appear in close synchronisation, suggesting that the narrator is re-experiencing his memory in ‘real time’.  Most vivid is the concluding shift from the narrator’s expressionistic Sprechstimme (a form of 'speech-singing' notated by Schoenberg in the score) to the choral singing of the Shema Yisroel by a men’s choir.  If speech denotes textual recollection and music the survivor’s psychological memory, then this final instance of song invites the audience to experience the narrator’s private memory in a most visceral manner.

The work received its premiere in 1948 under the baton of Kurt Frederick, conductor of the Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra (NM), who wrote to Schoenberg to share the audience’s reaction to the work: 'The performance was a tremendous success.  The audience of over 1,000 was shaken by the composition and applauded until we repeated the performance.  This happened in a town, which a few years ago, was considered to be a small "Railroad Town."'  Survivor’s success with American audiences continued in April 1950, when the work finally received its first large-market performance with the New York Philharmonic Symphony under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos.  At that performance, Survivor made orchestral history at the Philharmonic; as Musical America reported: 'The listeners cheered and would not let the performers leave the stage for the intermission until the conductor had broken a Philharmonic Symphony precedent [and] repeat[ed] the performance.'


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