Soldiers and composers: “Time’s Echo,” a review

Composer Arnold Schoenberg painted circa 1905 by Richard Gerstl (detail)

First the battle, then the music

“Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance,” by Jeremy Eichler (Alfred A. Knopf, 386 pp, $30)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Let’s start with the premise and purpose of “Time’s Echo,” which is impeccably researched and astonishingly well thought out.

Alluding to words written by Theodor Adorno, author Jeremy Eichler writes that “The role of music in particular as an ‘unconscious chronicle’ — as a witness to history and as a carrier of memory for a post-Holocaust world — is the subject of this book.”

Furthermore, he says, “Time’s Echo” examines the ways that “music bears witness to history and carries forward the memory of the wartime past,” while focusing on four composers and four compositions: Richard Strauss (“Metamorphosen”), Arnold Schoenberg (“A Survivor from Warsaw”), Benjamin Britten (“War Requiem”), and Dmitri Shostakovich (the “Babi Yar” Symphony). “During the war years, [these men] stood at four very different windows looking out at the same catastrophe.”

The same catastrophe that they did not see or experience in the same way.

Eichler sought to delve into and establish a true connection with the past by way of music, and in this case works specifically related to the Second World War. It’s not an easy task for several reasons, one being that while music resounds over time it also comes to embody new meaning, or to be appropriated for other purposes — like hearing one of your favorite pop songs now relegated to selling pickup trucks.

This is the cover of “Time’s Echo,” by Jeremy Eichler

Another difficulty, at least for the typical listener, is that the four compositions that Eichler has chosen to emphasize are not really well known. And, perhaps with the exception of “Metamorphosen” by Strauss, they’re not easy to appreciate and do not necessarily encourage repeated listenings. I know, I sound like a philistine, but the pieces are challenging.

As mentioned, “Time’s Echo” is well researched, and Eichler enlightens us with nearly forgotten historical figures such as Arnold Rosé, a long-time concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic — until the Nazis relieved him of his post in 1938, for no reason, of course, other than he was Jewish. His daughter, Alma, was taken to Auschwitz where she led a women’s orchestra. This spared her briefly, but she was dead within a year.

One realizes that the horrors of the Holocaust underlie much of this book, which understandably is the case when discussing Arnold Schoenberg; but too often the persecution of Jews and Jewishness seem to take precedence, to be pushed into the foreground of whatever topic when not really necessary. Furthermore, there appears to be a certain bias against Germans and Germany. Still the villains, eh?

Which brings us to Strauss, who tried to have it both ways and not roil the waters. He neither embraced Nazi ideology nor denounced it, therefore hoping he could stay put and continue writing his operas, especially in the 1930s with his librettist, Stefan Zweig, who was Jewish. Strauss was the celebrated son of Garmisch, a town in southern Bavaria, where he lived comfortably. Eichler visits his shrinelike house. Then he mentions a Jewish couple, Michael and Emmy Schnebel, who lived but a mile away from Strauss, and who fell victim to the Nazis. Even if indirectly, this seems to implicate Strauss. We do understand that he made compromises, as Furtwängler made compromises, both men hoping that they could uphold and safeguard Germany’s musical legacy even if they were forced to make concessions and risk their international reputations. Strauss may forever be judged harshly by some for not speaking out against the Nazi regime and for not leaving the country, but compromises are not crimes.

In somewhat of a curious afterthought, bridging Strauss with author W.G. Sebold, Eichler mentions an alpine lake called the Walchensee and an Allied bombing of Munich which injured and killed many civilians. What he laments, however, are not the casualties of the air raid, but the seven crewmembers of the bomber that took enemy fire and crashed into the lake, where it sank. He even names one of the pilots and their base, Wickenby, England, but says nothing of the dead in Munich. What we can infer from this is that the men whose task was to kill and destroy, and who came to do so from far away, are more deserving of being remembered than the townspeople who lost their lives.

There’s a bit of this throughout the book, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know. As for Strauss and “Metamorphosen,” described as “a death mask in sound,” we remain unsure what the words “In Memoriam!” refer to, which Strauss added to the end of his score and apparently never explained for posterity. What we do know is that it’s perfect music to mourn an era gone sadly wrong.

“Metamorphosen” ranges from 25 to 30 minutes in length and was written for 23 solo strings. Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw” is just seven minutes, but it’s seven minutes of aural shards that may pierce us to the heart (or chase us away). The composer Luigi Nono claimed it to be, at least figuratively, the unwritten third act of Schoenberg’s opera, “Moses und Aron.”

Eisler bends over backwards to elevant “A Survivor from Warsaw,” which Schoenberg wrote in Los Angeles in 1947 (and that’s a tale unto itself). But perhaps the most interesting story here is how “A Survivor from Warsaw” came to have its world premiere in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and performed not by a professional orchestra but by a ragtag ensemble of amateur musicians with mostly mundane day jobs.

“A Survivor from Warsaw” is a visceral composition, but even so, Eichler writes, some critics remarked that by aestheticizing the horror, by transforming the memory into “art,” the music does violence (or, strangely, disrespect) to that memory. In short, some things are too tragic or shocking or maybe too sacred to put into an art form. I don’t think we have any 9/11 musicals, but we do have a successful one about the sinking of the Titanic, another incident in which hundreds of people perished. No one’s made a great fuss about that. On the other hand, enough voices — mainly Jewish, of course — were raised in protest against John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” because the Palestinians were portrayed in a not unsympathetic light. Due to that vocal minority, the opera staged at the Met in New York was not broadcast to theaters across the country as most of the company’s operas usually are. Needless to say, there is still a unified effort in this country to suppress sympathy for the Palestinian people.

Eichler brings up an important point, which is that concert hall attendees tend to cheer and applaud at the end of any performance. Of course to any sensible person cheering or applauding is the last thing that should be done after a performance of “A Survivor from Warsaw,” let alone the other works of art under discussion here. Would you cheer and shout “Hurrah!” after a funeral oration? It’s more fitting to sit quietly, with bowed head, and to allow the impact of the work to resonate within. I was surprised and stunned by something similar in Dresden 50 years to the day after the city was firebombed, upon the concluding notes of a Bruckner symphony. The entire audience was eerily silent. I’ve never before or since experienced that kind of collective intensity in a concert hall or music venue.

The chapters focusing on Benjamin Britten are quite engaging, with more of a narrative sense, life and art discussed in equal proportion.

Britten, like Strauss, has a strong presence in the 20th century opera repertoire. The “War Requiem” is a little harder to digest (I’ve been listening to the Decca recording for years, trying to get closer to the heart of the work). The German bombing of Coventry and the demolishing of Coventry Cathedral seem to be at the heart of Britten’s composition, written with a universal focus on the one hand but ultimately for a British audience. It premiered in 1962, in the newly consecrated Coventry Cathedral. It incorporates text by the Englishman Wilfred Owen, a poet associated with World War I, thus connecting the two wars that Great Britain fought in the last century. There are many other things the piece could allude to, but Eichler is disappointed that it does not mention or highlight Jewish victimization. He writes, “But there is no similar acknowledgement, even nominally, of the Holocaust.” Well, why should there be? There isn’t any allusion, nominally or otherwise, to the destruction of Dresden and its famous opera house or the Frauenkirch or the packed ships of German refugees, with eight or nine thousand people on board each, that were torpedoed in the Baltic Sea. I don’t think Britten’s audience was thinking about the Holocaust while standing in the ruins of Liverpool or London.

“Time’s Echo” author Jeremy Eichler. Photo by Tom Kates

For Dmitri Shostakovich, it was the horribly repressive Stalin dictatorship more than the Nazi invasion that made his life miserable. His “Babi Yar” symphony was inspired by a poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Babi Yar was a site near Kyiv where people of all ages were taken and executed — mostly Jews, but thousands of non-Jews, “roughly 30,000 more people, among them Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, Soviet prisoners of war, patients from the local psychiatric hospital, and everyday Kyivans, bringing the total dead to approximately 100,000.” Eichler’s descriptions are fairly graphic, as perhaps they should be.

Eichler’s book is recent enough to include mention of Vladimir Putin’s effort to “denazify” Ukraine, “as if the year were 1943 and the Second World War were still raging.”

“Time’s Echo” wants to conclude on an upbeat note, at least a gentle sigh rather than a debilitating sorrow — and it’s our trove of preserved music that allows us to temporarily transcend history’s most ignoble moments. Or, as Eichler writes, “When it comes to attaining a genuine felt contact with these multiple pasts, music indeed possesses a special relationship to memory. Through a performer’s rendering of notes set down on a page decades or centuries ago, we listen to moments of lost time, summoning from the ether glimmers of what another era has written, heard, dreamed, hoped, and mourned.”

There’s truth in that. I’m listening — at this very moment — to music by Franz Schreker, a German-Jewish composer who died in 1934, whose works, while not mentioned in the book, were also banned from the concert halls.

Eichler quotes Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” which can be read many ways — that we are doomed to remember it or doomed to never escape from its tentacles. As I write this, killing on a large scale is taking place with more in the wings. Present and no doubt future conflicts will give men and women more fodder, and more reasons, to compose requiems and memorial pieces. It never ends, does it?

“Time’s Echo,” as Eichler writes near the beginning, is “an experiment in the reciprocal enchantment of music and history.” At times it’s a formidable thicket, and in my opinion it runs off track here and there, which I’ve mentioned, but it’s foremost an admirable endeavor and an important addition to the literature that helps us grasp and understand some essential musical masterpieces that arose from the ashes of war. ER


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