Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46

The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most influential musicians in the twentieth century. As a pioneer of the Expressionism, he created music by revealing the true reality of human life; as the first composer who discovered "atonality" with his twelve-tone technique, he presents an innovative way of music making to against compositional tradition. After he composed his first twelve-tone piece - Piano Suite, Op. 25 in July 1921, he continued to produce more and more new music till A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 was accomplished in 1947.

The idea for a work honoring the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany was suggested to Schoenberg in early 1947 by Corinne Chochem, a dancer of Russian origin who had organized programmes of Jewish dances in New York in the 1930s and was co-author of a book containing music, choreography and photographs illustrating dances performed by Palestinian Jews. However, the collaboration between Chochem and Schoenberg was not successful, but Schoenberg decided to pursue the idea and compose this work independently. In the summer of 1947, he received a letter from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and decided to accept the commission for composing this work.

A survivor from Warsaw is such a wonderful work with a variety of novel elements. For instance, the men's chorus appeared through the entire piece; a narrator speaking a story over orchestral accompaniment with full of emotional impact. More surprisingly, this work as short as seven minutes compare to other music with orchestra. Trumpets open with dramatic motive which attract my attention immediately, and keep my attention with building up woodwinds till the narrative comes up.

The narration is the most attractive part to me in this composition. It depicts a story of a survivor from a concentration camp, living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. The survivor has remembered one morning, the Nazis assembled the entire camp (the trumpets sound reveille), and all of the prisoners come out hastily, "get out! The sergeant will be furious" The man was shout, and strings, percussion, woodwinds are creating chaotic and flurried atmosphere as background. "They came out; some very slow: the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility." Even though they were hurried as they can, sergeant still think they were not quickly enough, and beat them cruelly. Even more horrible, "The sergeant and his subordinates hit everybody: young or old, quiet or nervous, guilty or innocent." the tremolos, accents, fortissimos in the orchestra present the commotion of the disorder situation along with German soldiers' shouting and yelling in the camp. “it was painful to hear them groaning and moaning." "I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down." All of these words described how miserable the Jews’ life was.

I am so impressed the way that Schoenberg expresses emotion through the text and music in this work. For example, when the narrator speaks in dotted sixteenth notes on the “I have no recollection how I got underground”, horns accompanied with urgent sound, and then the speaking and music getting more intensive, suggesting a strong sense of tension till the "so long a time" comes with less intense quarter notes. Those quarter notes and "poco rit" bring listeners to the climax with all feeling of agitation. The tempo marks such as "poco rit" and "a tempo" appears almost in every two measures, or the number of juxtaposition of phrases in the text, all of these elements are so effective to present dramatic emotion under Schoenberg’s hand.

A survivor from Warsaw was a widely accepted composition by the public when it was premiered on November 4, 1948 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. No matter it was well received by its special meaning of exposing Nazi barbarism which people abominated the enormity of their crime at that time, or the Schoenberg's development of the twelve-tone method in this innovative work for orchestra, choir and narrative, it is significantly influenced the compositional trends of the twenties century music. I would support it should be included in the canon.

1 comment:

  1. "The narration is the most attractive part to me in this composition. It depicts a story of a survivor from a concentration camp, living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War"

    firstly, your history is back to front, surviving a camp then being in the ghetto is topsy-turvy timeline to say the least. And to say the narration is "attractive" is even more disturbing. No wonder audiences these days have to be REQUESTED not to applaud at the end of this work. Have you even thought about what you are saying?