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Music was a refuge for the internees of the Nazi death camps of World War II, both musicians in the camps and the audiences of prisoners. Some of the works written in concentration camps survive, even if the authors did not. The Quartet for the End of Time, by Olivier Messiaen (who did survive), was written in a prison camp in Silesia (which is now southwest Poland), and first performed in front of 5000 prisoners. Chamber works of Gideon Klein, Ervin Schulhoff, Victor Ullmann, and many others who perished during the Holocaust, also survive.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was among the musicians who escaped the atrocities that were occurring in Europe by emigrating to the United States. He was profoundly disturbed by the anti-Semitism sweeping Europe and by the death camps and the reports of Hitler’s “final solution” for ridding Europe of Jews. In a 1923 letter to Wassily Kandinsky, Schoenberg prophetically asked: “But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not to acts of violence?”

Indeed, in Poland alone, beginning in mid-March 1942, nearly 500,000 Jews were rounded up and imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, the former Jewish quarter of that city. The ghetto was a virtual prison, at first enclosed with barbed wire and later with a brick wall 10 feet high. Most of those who didn’t die of starvation and disease were transferred to the death camp at Treblinka (Poland). A small handful fled to the forested mountains of southern Poland and lived underground for the duration of the war.

Schoenberg was deeply moved by a story he had heard – from actual survivors of the purge of Polish Jews – about a group of prisoners who began singing the “Schema Jisroel,” a traditional Jewish prayer (see translation below), as they were being led away to the death camp. Schoenberg began his own dramatization of that story, A Survivor from Warsaw, in 1947. Interestingly, it was in the aftermath of his own personal story of survival: he had suffered a severe heart attack only months before, brought back from the brink of death by an injection directly into his heart.

The Survivor story is told through the eyes of a narrator who speaks for the Jews who have been discovered hiding in the sewers of Warsaw. Schoenberg creates an angular and jarring orchestral sound world to surround the narration. He was very specific with his notation of the rhythm of the narrator’s vocal line, and very exacting in his wish that “never should there be a [sung] pitch” in that part. The German police are represented by sharply biting percussive shouts by the narrator, in German, set against a similarly jarring orchestral sound palette. As the prisoners, represented by the male chorus, are rounded up, asked to count out loud, and about to be sent to the camps – and by implication to their death – they defiantly and powerfully sing the “Schema Jisroel” prayer in unison, a last-minute declaration of their dignity to the German captors.

The entire work is united by a “tone row,” a method advanced by Schoenberg in which a predetermined sequence of 12 notes becomes the foundation for the entire composition. From the opening trumpet fanfare to the final singing of the prayer, this tone row is manipulated and tweaked, giving the melodic lines a sense of weightlessness and also a perpetual sense of anxiety.

A Survivor from Warsaw was completed in September 1947 and premiered by the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Civic Symphony Orchestra under Kurt Frederick on November 4, 1948. According to Schoenberg biographer H. H. Stuckenschmidt, the audience at that premiere was stunned: “The work… was performed twice. After the first time the audience of 1500 sat in astonished silence; after the second the applause was stormy.”

Schoenberg wrote of this work: “It [is] at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us… We should never forget this… The miracle of [the story] is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”

As we know, tragedies such this are not isolated to that era; events in Kosovo or Rwanda remind us of that. Perhaps we can be consoled by the incredible faith that Schoenberg depicts in this work, as well as by the powerful musical setting he has created to commemorate the tragic, yet in this instance still somehow heroic, event.

DETAILS: These are the first Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, small drum, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, strings, male chorus, and narrator.

Dave Kopplin is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl, and a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.

Text Translation:

Schema Jisroel

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.

And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.