Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men's Chorus, and Orchestra, Opus 46

A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men's Chorus, and Orchestra, Opus 46

Arnold Franz Walter Schönberg, who spelled his name Schoenberg after settling in the United States in 1934, was born in Vienna on September 13, 1874, and died in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, on July 13, 1951. Author of the narrator's text as well as composer of the music, Schoenberg wrote A Survivor from Warsaw between August 11 and 23, 1947. The first performance was given on November 4, 1948, by the Albuquerque Symphony, Kurt Frederick conducting. Sherman Smith was the narrator, with the Estancia Men’s Chorus and members of the Albuquerque Choral Association prepared by Edgle Firlie. (Kurt Frederick, like Schoenberg, was a Jewish refugee from Vienna; he had joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico in 1941.) The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work in September 1995; Benjamin Luxon was the narrator and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with the men of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Schoenberg composed A Survivor from Warsaw on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and the score is dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. The orchestra consists of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, chimes, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, castanets, harp, and strings. Duration: about seven minutes.

A Survivor from Warsaw is Schoenberg's last composition for orchestra. In seven minutes, it encompasses everything that made Schoenberg one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music—classical precision of utterance, unsurpassed orchestral virtuosity, a fabulous sense for the vivid musical gesture, and above all, his passion and the white-hot intensity as well as the strength and directness of his emotional response to a text or dramatic situation. At nearly seventy-three, in shaky health, with his eyesight in a condition that made writing out a score a sometimes nearly insuperable labor, he wrote this piece in just thirteen days. That is remarkable, but writing at high speed and in a fever of inspiration were always normal conditions for his composing. In this instance, the subject itself—a vignette from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943—energized him powerfully. (“The text,” Schoenberg wrote, “is based partly upon reports which I have received directly or indirectly.”)

In 1898, at twenty-three, Schoenberg had been converted from a loose sort of Judaism to Lutheranism—and how like him, in a strange way, to have chosen a form of Christianity that allowed him to keep his status as member of a despised minority in Vienna. All his life he was intensely religious, but always in that critical way that turns membership in any formally organized religion into an uncomfortable fit. His work on the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder—1921-22, unfinished), the play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way—1926-27), and above all the opera Moses und Aron (1928-32, unfinished) shows us that his connection to his Jewish origins stayed stubbornly alive.

In 1926, Schoenberg had moved to Berlin to succeed Ferruccio Busoni as teacher of compo­sition at the Prussian Academy of the Arts. His conversion had counted for nothing when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and the composer Max von Schillings began the Entjudung—literal­ly “dejewing”—of the Academy. This experience speeded Schoenberg’s need to make peace with his Jewishness. His hegira, after leaving Berlin, first took him to Paris, and there, on July 24, 1933, he formally returned to the Jewish faith. Marc Chagall was a witness at the ceremony.

Three months later Schoenberg arrived in the United States, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Here, among other things, he composed a Kol Nidre for a congregation in Los Angeles, made an attempt to continue Die Jakobsleiter, and was preoccupied with the idea of completing Moses und Aron. After 1947 and A Survivor from Warsaw, he worked on several more projects that asserted his identification with Judaism. In 1950, the year before his death, he wrote the beautiful texts (and a little of the music) for Modern Psalms, which bear the wonderful subtitle Conversations With and About God. Almost to his last days, he worked on more psalm texts.

In his brilliant Music to Accompany a Film Scene (1929-30), like A Survivor from Warsaw an extraordinary tour de force of compression, Schoenberg had invented a scenario whose phases he identified as Threatening Danger, Fear, and Catastrophe. Twelve years later, he built his Piano Concerto on a plan that begins this way: “Life was so easy/Suddendly [sic] hatred broke out/A grave situation was created. . . .” These were essentially abstractions, though the concerto does seem to have some autobiographical content. The revelations after the war about Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, and the rest of those hideous places invested such scenarios with terrible reality. Bertolt Brecht lamented “Zu Hitler fällt mir nichts ein,” which might be translated as “I can think of nothing to say about Hitler.” But Schoenberg wrote A Survivor from Warsaw.

In A Survivor from Warsaw, a man tells the story of a group of Jews who, at the moment they are being loaded for transport to one of the death camps, suddenly, in a last flaring of spirit and faith, burst into singing the prayer Shema Yisroel, Adonoy elohenu, Adonoy echod (Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One). The scenario for Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, after hatred and gravity, ends “But life goes on.” That is the meaning of the singing of the Shema.  

We hear three languages in this terrifyingly concentrated music drama—the storyteller's English, slightly foreign in diction and accentuation, the German sergeant's Berlin-colored German, and the Hebrew of the chorus's Shema Yisroel.

With this go three ways of projecting a text. The narrator uses Sprechgesang (Speech-Song), that halfway‑house between speech and song that Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hansel and Gretel, had invented in his opera Königskinder, but which is always associated with Schoenberg, who had first used it in Gurrelieder, returning to it in Pierrot Lunaire, Die glückliche Hand, Moses und Aron, and the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Rhythm is precisely notated; pitch is not, though Schoenberg indicates the contours he wants (in thoroughly idiosyncratic notation, one might add).

Typically, the narration in A Survivor from Warsaw is fluid in rhythm; this, however, changes when Schoenberg quotes the abusive and shrill words of the German sergeant. There, the rhythm becomes more mechanical (or less “musical”), and the diction is percussive. At one point—“In einer Minute will ich wissen wieviele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzählen!” (“In one minute I want to know how many I'm delivering to the gas chamber! Count off!”)—the words are given in straight, totally non-musical speech. (This is a historical inaccuracy on Schoenberg's part. Those who died in the gas chambers usually did not know what was in store for them until they arrived at the camps, and even there gas chambers were often disguised as shower rooms.) At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Shema Yisroel, sung in powerful unison throughout.

Writing about his setting of Byron's malicious Ode to Napoleon, which Schoenberg in 1942 used as a hate letter to Hitler, the composer pointed out that the instruments “unceasingly paint in the background, underline, and illustrate.” This they also do in A Survivor from Warsaw, passionately and vividly. The trumpet call that jolts us into alarmed attention, and which haunts the entire score; the kaleidoscope of colors and textures, whose nervous and too rapid spinning conveys so well the state of exhausted humans who have lost all sense of secure ground beneath their feet; the human, all-too-human wail of oboes and violins that accompanies the words “You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents”; the extraordinary contrast between commotion and deathlike stillness—these are but some of the most obvious examples. Every page, every gesture, every sound of A Survivor from Warsaw reminds us that this is the work of a man who was both a fiercely sentient mensch and a consummate master of musical theater.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New England Conservatory Chorus, with narrator Sherrill Milnes (RCA Red Seal)  |  Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with narrator Franz Mazura (EMI Classics)  |  Robert Craft conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Joly Chorus, with narrator David Wilson-Johnson  (Naxos)  

Reading: Schoenberg, by Malcolm MacDonald (second edition; Oxford, Master Musicians series)  |  The Arnold Schoenberg Companion, edited by Walter B. Bailey (Greenwood)  |  Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, by Allen Shawn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)  |  Schoenberg: A Critical Biography, by Willi Reich (Praeger)  |  Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, by H.H. Stuckenschmidt (Schirmer)

(June 2012)