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Music Remembers Wartime Trauma

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Yet it is not only we who remember music. Music also remembers us.

For myriad reasons, Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance makes for an unusually important and continuously compelling read. His dual passions as music critic and cultural historian fuse to offer extraordinary ways of reconsidering and hearing four of the 20th century’s most significant musical works: Eichler places these works Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar), and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and their composers within a richly detailed historical and cultural context. “Witness to history and a carrier of memory … they stood at four different windows overlooking the same catastrophe. Each responded to the rupture through intensely charged memorials in sound.”

Even those who feel conversant with the biographies of these composers will learn much from the extravagance of historical detail surrounding their lives and music, their friends, their countries, their times and their religious and political choices. A huge swath of European, Russian, and American luminaries made indelible appearances and alliances. Little seems to end well for most of these walk-ons—particularly writers and librettists—who paid a huge price for describing the “murderous contradictions” of their worlds.

Philosopher Theodor Adorno fled into exile. The critic Walter Benjamin took his own life while trying to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, as did the writer Stefan Zweig while living as an exile in Brazil. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova suffered through war and revolution. The novelist Vasily Grossman died with his crowning masterwork unpublished and, as he put it, under permanent “arrest” by the KGB. The sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who invented the entire concept of collective memory, perished at Buchenwald.

Eichler’s magisterial tome is further distinguished by two distinct things, one of which is the extraordinary grace and beauty of his writing. I don’t recall a book in my decades of reviewing so compulsively readable and re-readable. Quite remarkably for a book with 60 pages of endnotes, Eichler’s book is suffused with 47 pictures embedded into his text without captions, in an homage to the great German author W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) whose books of fiction also used this haunting technique. (At the book’s end the illustrations and photos are all identified). Even the book’s eerie cover gives a glimpse of music as a conveyor of historical memory, juxtaposing a ghastly photo of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral from 1940—a wretched image one does not soon forget—and a bar and a half from Britten’s War Requiem.

Time’s Echo took Eichler ten years to research and write, during which time he also served as Chief Music Critic for The Boston Globe. His book contends that “the art of music possesses a unique and often underappreciated power to burn through history’s cold storage. Its power may originate in the visceral immediacy of sound itself: sound surrounds us, penetrates our bodies, vibrates within us.” His record of his pilgrimages to many of the sites central to the history of the music described in these pages—the location of the Babi Yar massacre outside Kyiv, the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, Strauss’s stately Landhausin southern Bavaria, and the deeply furrowed, weather-beaten stump of Goethe’s oak inside the gates of Buchenwald―moved us profoundly. “The music may no longer be in these places,” Eichler maintains, “but these places are forever in the music.”

The Schoenberg chapters take the reader on the compelling and ultimately tragic story of German-Jewish composers, many of whom converted to Christianity for career and personal advancement. “Books could later be burned. Monuments could be toppled. But this grand belief in the ennobling force of art, this vision of music as a language of the soul’s freedom, this entire extraordinary chapter of the German and Jewish past, is preserved, crystallized, and carried forward perhaps nowhere more purely than within the lucid beauty and spiritual balance of Mendelssohn’s music itself.” We are introduced to the tragic history of German and Viennese Jews who worshiped “the holy cross of culture (38) …“and who contributed mightily to all areas of culture.” Arnold Schoenberg, for the first six decades of his life, “worshipped at the shrine of Richard Wagner, whose music was so integral to German identity, and who declared in an 1850 essay that Jews were foreign implants on German soil.”

Schoenberg is the first composer whose German world Eichler so capaciously describes, giving him the opportunity to discuss the age-old tangle or the alleged symbiosis of German-Jewish relations, conversion, and A Survivor in Warsaw, the earliest Holocaust musical (a large-scale cantata) memorial by a major composer (also the subject of Eichler’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia). A believer in the emancipation through culture, and the symbiosis of German and Jewish culture, Schoenberg allows Eichler to explain the significance of Bildung “personal transformation for Jews “on the wings of culture…. The life of dignity implicitly promised by Bildung was open to all, regardless of one’s origins (that is, of course, as long as you were male). To trace the thrilling invention of this particular dream, followed by its painful eclipse, it is necessary to begin with music’s role in emancipating German Jews—and the Jewish role in returning the favor, by emancipating German music.”

While his book is structured around four monumental musical works, it is the elucidating details unearthed by Eichler’s fastidious research which draw the reader into the lives and times before and after these works’ creations. The memorable accounts of what occurred before and during each work’s premieres constitute some of the most riveting aspects of Time’s Echo. Schoenberg’s query to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky about a premiere of A Survivor from Warsaw went unanswered for some seven months, and thus he had no date for an American performance. The New York Times and Newsweek, finally, in 1948, trumpeted the success of “Schoenberg in Albuquerque,” “…as incongruous as a Sacher torte at a rodeo.” Choristers were rounded up from a local farming community 60 miles away, who included cowboys and ranchers. The premiere went triumphantly, with 1,600 enthusiastic people in the audience. (Later receptions in Germany, France, and the U.S. varied considerably.

As Eichler summarizes, Theodor Adorno, the often-quoted German-Jewish philosopher-critic (“After Auschwitz there can be no poetry.”), saw A Survivor from Warsaw as the great exemplar of postwar memorial music—a score akin to Picasso’s Guernica—because it forced the barbarism of the Holocaust directly into the frame of the work of art itself.” In his view, it was precisely the music’s incorporation of horror and suffering—and its rejection of false consolation—that made this work of art “true” and, from the time of its first encounter with audiences, ferocious in its power, its radical sense of truth telling. Still considered ahead of its time, A Survivor from Warsaw continues to be lauded for its uncanny power, potent and deep affect, as well as being dismissed as melodrama or kitsch. “If only for a span of seven minutes,” Eichler muses, “we become witness to an act of witness, and a fading generation’s past becomes … our past.” 

Benjamin Britten and his lifelong companion Peter Pears were famous for, among many other things, being fiercely committed conscientious objectors. In Eichler’s book, Britten comes across as inscrutable as ever. “Fame… had always been a double-edged sword for Britten. In many ways he took well to the life of a tennis-playing, ascot-wearing, tea-sipping, Jensen-convertible driving English gentleman… only one mask among many.” Eichler also shares Leonard Bernstein’s revealing take on the composer: “Ben Britten… was a man at odds with the world,” Leonard Bernstein once observed. “It’s strange because on the surface would seem to be decorative, positive, and it’s so much more than that. When you listen to Britten’s music, if you really hear it, not just to listen to it superficially, you become aware of something very dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”

Comprehending the story of Britten’s War Requiem (1962) requires understanding Britten’s deep-seated dislike for war. He had long been interested in writing a requiem, and, when the opportunity to do so arose in 1958 (at which point he was England’s most distinguished composer) he craftily deployed the powerful words of the British poet, Wilfred Owens, who died on the battlefield in the First World War. Britten believed a composer should “be of use” to his society, and in this work, he was. “If one listens closely, the work challenges all of the civic and patriotic virtues. Reinforced by war monuments, the notion of a noble sacrifice justified by the future of the state, the importance of unity around the flag, the dominance of the conservative social order (even if it is that very social order that led a country into war in the first place).” 

Eichler raises an interesting point, that although Owens’s poetry was inspired by the First World War (in which he was killed on the battlefield) and was dedicated to friends of Britten who died in World War Two, there is not a mention about the Holocaust, reflecting the historical reluctance of Britain herself to delay recognition of this horror. Eichler points out that perceptions in Britain changed in the 1990s, “but even Britain’s Imperial War Museum did not have a permanent Holocaust exhibition until 2000 … . Britain’s clumsy handling of the news of the horrors and their deracinating of the Jewish victims made it hard for the British public to seriously comprehend the extent of Nazi evil. “Against this backdrop, the War Requiem begins to emerge as both art and artifact … a creation very much of its times.”

Britten’s memorable visit to the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp with (violinist) Yehudi Menuhin is chilling (Pianist Gerald Moore was set to play, but Britten insisted he wanted to have the experience of, as Menuhin put it, “community with the suffering world.)” The shaken Britten was 31 and was unable and unwilling to talk about this “concert” tour until the very end of his life. Pears remarked that Britten was forever scarred by what he saw, and that the experience had colored everything he wrote subsequently. Eichler writes with great intelligence about Britten’s musical sensitivity to the psyche’s contrary pulls—ambivalent or liminal states: “The opaque regions lying just beneath the cartography of darkness, map the century’s many destructive impulses: societal, political, and those within the inner precincts of the self.”

The most painful parts of Eichler’s multinational examination of monuments come in his devastating portrait of the life and times of Dmitri Shostakovich. This massive 13th Symphony Babi Yar—the working with poet Y. Yevtushenko, the premiere, its afterlife—had enough condensed material to fill another book. There were too many incidents in the Babi Yar chapters that I would love to forget, but can’t. I hadn’t known before of the story of the deep mutual respect and friendship between Britten and Shostakovich, whose War Requiem and Symphony No. 13 premiered within months of each other. Eichler ponders their deep connection, which had a great deal to do with being outsiders: “Britten because of his homosexuality, Shostakovich because of the inner sensitivities he bore, his impulse to write music of existential honesty in a society built on a thin tissue of lies.” Shostakovich movingly wrote to his British kindred spirit, “Your music is the most outstanding phenomenon of the 20th century. And for me it is the source of profound and powerful impressions. Write as much as possible. It is necessary for humanity—and certainly for me.” To acknowledge this friendship, Shostakovich wrote Symphony No. 14, which bore a formal dedication: “To Benjamin Britten.”

Unsurprisingly, the description I most admire of the 13th Symphony, the “memory of suppressed memory,” was written for The Boston Globe several months ago by Eichler himself:

Shostakovich wrote his Thirteenth Symphony in 1962 and, thanks to criticisms leveled by Yevtushenko through the five poems set in this score, it would become the composer’s most overt symphonic indictment of his own society. The poems, one per movement, attack conformism in Soviet life; call out the disfiguring effects of living in a state of perpetual fear; celebrate the unsung role of Soviet women as heroes of downtrodden everyday life; and praise humor as the last defense of the defenseless against those who wield arbitrary power.

We get a bitter dose of modern Russian history here, painfully portrayed through the decades of the Soviet attempts to- literally- cover-up the almost unfathomable murderousness of Babi Yar. Mstislav Rostropovich, a close friend of the composer, smuggled out a copy of the score—without its title page—and passed it on to Eugene Ormandy, who premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1970; this was one of the most fortuitous moments in Shostakovich’s life. The Berlin Philharmonic performed it in 1983, just 6 years before the wall fell. If premieres of musical memorials, Eichler points out, offer a view into a nation reckoning with its past, then Vienna Philharmonic’s decision to shun the work speaks volumes.

Eichler’s travels to and impressions of often-monstrous (physical) monuments constitute some of the most memorable aspects of this personal book. His descriptions of the Soviet treatment of the ravine that was Babi Yar is utterly bone-chilling. An expert historian accompanied Eichler and pointed out the high likelihood that the executions (some 60,000 murders) took place there. Eichler sees the chaos of memory—leaves, charred logs, fast food wrappers, liquor bottles. He tries to retrace his steps two days later, and finds nothing, as if he had witnessed an apparition. “I thought about how music, by virtue of its abstraction, its immateriality, its way of floating free of time and space, may be the perfect medium for holding the memory of the placeless dead.For Eichler, this symphony “endures as a home for conscience … a testament to music’s power of witness in a world of disfiguring silence.” Physical memorials, he reminds the reader, can be destroyed, can succumb once again to the very forces of destruction they seek to recall. By contrast, the ephemeral art of music remains … untouchable.”

Eichler treats the morally and politically complicated case (with its many misguided decisions) of composer Richard Strauss with fairness and care, but I remain a lifelong non-admirer of the man who composed some of my favorite music. The thorough descriptions of his collaborations with his librettist, Stephan Zweig, will doubtless be of great interest to those who knew Zweig mainly through his other compelling writings.

I had the time to listen to all four of Eichler’s musical memorials, and unexpectedly, Strauss’s Metamorphosen (premiered in Zurich in 1945) touched me the most deeply. Eichler’s captures the mystery of its “majestically soaring beauty… spiraling sorrows. “This is music of farewell, a pebble on the grave of German culture’s utopian dream.” Strauss never designated a dedicatee for this memorial piece. “The hope would be to lash new remembrances to its rafts of sound … to broaden its circle of moral concerns, and to angle its sorrow toward nearby suffering of the sort to which Strauss in his own lifetime seemed all too impervious.”

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A book to buy in hardcover, for sure. I was privileged to be a choir boy in the second set of US performance of the War Requiem (Washington Cathedral, 1964)* and have been entranced / snared by Britten’s music ever since.

    LB’s remark is, to me, spot on and underlined by PP’s observation about BB and YM playing at B-B (not being flip here, just concise). For a life-long pacifist there is something unutterably violent and grim in Britten’s music, and it’s not that far below the surface. Many examples come to mind but for me the mask slipped most clearly in Owen Wingrave: “Heroes since Domesday, heroes of Agincourt, of Crecy…” That, and the climax of the Libera Me – Shocking violence.

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — August 28, 2023 at 11:07 am

  2. Sorry, meant to add this to the * above:
    Here’s a recording of that performance with stellar soloists; Freddy Begun’s timpani solo in “Be slowly lifted up…” will curl your hair!
    https://rwdirksen.com/musical_work/benjamin-britten-war-requiem/

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — August 28, 2023 at 11:09 am

  3. What a fascinating and heartfelt essay. I learned so much. Thank you.

    Comment by Ashley — September 6, 2023 at 2:29 pm

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