4.27. Arnold Schoenberg, cantata ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ (1947)

A Survivor from Warsaw is a cantata in two sections about the suffering and the uprising of a group of Jews in Poland during World War II. It is scored for narrator, male chorus and orchestra; the narrator acts only in the first section of the work (mm. 1-80), and the chorus only in the second section (mm. 80-99). The first section begins with a stylized bugle call, whereas the second section ends with a stylized shofar blast; these two signals mark the moments of “catastrophe” and “redemption” which determine the cantata.

The first section of A Survivor from Warsaw seems to be set in a fictional concentration camp; *The problem regarding the chronotope is discussed at the end of this chapter the narrator, whose story is incomplete as a result of unconsciousness and loss of memory, recounts how the prisoners are awoken by the usual bugle call and driven to the roll call square, where a selection for the gas chambers will be made. In the second section, the prisoners recite the Shema Yisroel, the prayer they had neglected for many years and as well the prayer which has figured prominently in Jewish martyrology; *“Shema.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion 631 these words are sung by the male choir in unison. The narrator speaks English, incidentally quoting a German speaking sergeant and soldier, whereas the choir sings in Hebrew.

In both the bugle call and the shofar blast, the characteristic intervals of a “brass” instrument *The essential characteristic of a “brass” instrument is not the material, but tone production by means of lip vibration; therefore, both a bugle and a ram’s horn are “brass” instruments are recognizable: in the bugle call the 4th and 5th, and in the shofar blast the 5th. The ideological differences between the two signals are stressed by rhythm: nervous and fanatic in the bugle call, calm and determined in the shofar blast, and by melody: a rising 4th and augmented 5th *notated as a diminished 6th in the bugle call, a falling perfect 5th in the shofar call. Both signals are strongly stylized and subjected to the twelve-tone technique; in this way, a technique from concert music in the Present changes the traditional shofar blasts and bugle calls from the Past. One single twelve-tone series with its permutations provides the (of course, non-traditional) melody for the Shema Yisroel and all other melodic material. The first four pitches of the series in its prime form, F♯-G-C-A♭, constitute the “primary cell” of both the bugle call in m. 1 and the shofar blast in mm. 97-99.


Schoenberg p106

Ex. 6a. Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, m. 1. Score in C. © 1949 by Bomart Music Publications, Inc.; © assigned to Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; Revised Edition © 1979 by Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; © assigned 2011 to Schott Music, Mainz, Germany. Reproduced by permission.

After m. 1 (Ex. 6a), the bugle call is heard in mm. 25-26, when the narrator says, “The Day began as usual. Reveille when it still was dark[;]” it is transformed in the strings in mm. 61-63 (“Then I heard the sergeant shouting, ‘Abzählen!’”) and m. 66 (“Achtung!”). The bugle call, announcing violence and cruelty, is the parodic stylization of a military call with the perfect 5th C-G overstretched into the 6th C-A♭ and the perfect octave G4-G5 into the 9th G4-A♭5.

The first section of the cantata often refers to the shofar and to the Jewish religion with details which could easily escape the attention of the listeners. There are several shofar-like motifs with a teruʿah-like tone repetition, and this association is often enhanced by the text. Before m. 12 with the words of the narrator “I can not remember ev’rything,” the trombones in m. 11 play the chord C/E/A♭, which is similar to the notes of “Adonoy Elohenu” (“the Lord is our God”) in mm. 81-82, and this chord appears again in m. 51. After mm. 20-21 with the words “the forgotten creed!” the horns, supported by clarinets and flutes, play a tekiʿah-like motif, consisting of a dotted quarter note followed by an stressed eighth note. The shofar timbre is imitated in m. 30 in the upper register of the bassoon, in unison with the violas in a shevarim-like motif: two rising 5ths: F4-C5, followed by twelve teruʿah-like staccato notes.


Schoenberg p107

Ex. 6b. Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, mm. 18-21. Score in C. © 1949 by Bomart Music Publications, Inc.; © assigned to Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; Revised Edition © 1979 by Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; © assigned 2011 to Schott Music, Mainz, Germany. Reproduced by permission.

The second section of the cantata, from m. 80 onwards, has a completely different character from the first; the narrator’s story about the events in the concentration camp changes abruptly into a prayer sung by the male choir, and above the short motifs, the long melodic line of the Shema Yisroel sounds. The beginning of this melody has already occurred in mm. 19-21 of the first section, in the 1st horn, which comments in pianissimo and con sordino on the words of the speaker: “I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years—the forgotten creed!”

Here, the Past is again altered by the Present: the prisoners in their distress find new inspiration in the old prayer. The primary cell F♯-G-C-A♭ of the bugle call is transposed down an augmented 5th to B♭-B-E-C and the rising 4th G4-C5 of the bugle call is changed into the falling 5th B3-E3 of the shofar blast (Ex. 6b). The hoarse, pinched timbre of the muted French horn approaches that of a shofar. In this passage (mm. 18-21), faith is symbolically represented by the harp, violins and violas, playing harp-like broken chords, whereas the forgetting of the faith is represented by the pianissimo, muted horn and strings.

The second section of the cantata consists of the Shema Yisroel, sung in unison by the male choir, supported by the 1st trombone, in the twelve-tone series with some permutations; the start “Shema Yisroel Adonoy . . .” in mm. 80-82 is the primary cell B♭-B-E-C, which represents the shofar in mm. 19-20 (Ex. 6b). Schoenberg does not use the full text of the prayer, *The full text can be found in The Koren Siddur 38 in order to conclude his composition with a reference to the resurrection of the dead (though in the Shema, rising from sleep is meant instead of rising from death):

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart. Thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thy house and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up.

After the words u-ve-shokhbekho u-ve-kumekho (“when thou liest down and when thou risest up”) in mm. 96-97, the primary cell F♯-G-C-A♭ is played again by the trumpets and repeated by the trombones and French horns (Ex. 6c).

Schoenberg p114

Ex. 6c. Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, mm. 97-99. Score in C. © 1949 by Bomart Music Publications, Inc.; © assigned to Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; Revised Edition © 1979 by Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; © assigned 2011 to Schott Music, Mainz, Germany. Reproduced by permission.

The motif B♭-B-E-C of the muted solo horn in m. 18-19, symbolizing the remembering of “the old prayer they had neglected for so many years,” is played open and fortissimo in mm. 97-99 by all brass instruments, symbolizing the determined return to the old religion. At the same time, the shrill bugle call from the beginning of the cantata, the call for assembling on the roll call square, representing the herald of death, is transformed at the end of the cantata into the mighty shofar blast, representing the victory over death, and the authoritative discourse of the bugle call turns into the internally persuasive discourse of the shofar blast. The musicologist Camille Crittenden stresses the fact that the shofar call (and the prayer) and the bugle call are permutations of the same twelve-tone series/row:

The concluding prayer is the most straightforward presentation of the row from which the piece was composed, and it reflects the prayer’s text in several ways. The opening forte sixteenth-half note pattern (“Sch’ma”) acts as a battle cry against the injustices suffered by those who pray, a choral parallel to the trumpet call of the oppressor that opens the piece. *Crittenden, “Texts and Contexts of A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46” 245-6.

The end of the cantata can be symbolically interpreted in different ways: either as a conclusion, as a victory of Jewish faith over the Nazi ideology, or as an open end with a continuation of the struggle against both oppression and forgetting. Schoenberg emphasized the latter interpretation and considered all Jews as his addressees:

Now, what the text of the Survivor means to me: it means at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. We should never forget this, even if such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the Survivor. *Schoenberg, in Schiller, Bloch, Schoenberg, and Bernstein 123.

“[T]he manner in which I describe in the Survivor” is perfectly clear, except with regard to the chronotopes of both the first section with the bugle call and the second section with the shofar blast. In m. 25 of the first section, the narrator says “The day began as usual.” A military bugle call is heard and a sergeant is quoted; the Jewish prisoners know that they must go to the roll call square, and that death in the gas chambers awaits them. Here, the chronotope can only be a concentration camp, instead of the Warsaw ghetto, to which both the title and mm. 22-24 refer: “But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time . . .” Moreover, there is no allusion whatsoever to the historic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. *Should the title of the cantata have read A SurvivorofWarsaw, then the narrator would probably have been a survivor of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. However, the title reads A SurvivorfromWarsaw; semantically, this could mean that he was an former inhabitant of Warsaw, who was deported to a concentration camp, which he survived. The German title, Ein ÜberlebendervonWarschau, could have both meanings. The composition is so carefully made, that a gross inaccuracy in Schoenberg’s own libretto is unlikely. If the chronotope of Warsaw in the second section is ignored, then there are two possibilities left. First, the chronotope is still the concentration camp and the prisoners are the addressees of their own prayer. The musicologist Beat Föllmi, author of the most comprehensive study on A Survivor of Warsaw, suggests another possibility: the chronotope is the concentration camp and at the same time the concert hall, in which the singers/prisoners sing, in a sense, for the public, just as the choir in Bach’s Passions sings as a deputy of the congregation. *Föllmi, “‘I cannot remember ev’rything’: Eine narratologische Analyse von Arnold Schönbergs Kantate ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ Op. 46” 48.

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