Thursday, April 16, 2015

Commemorating the Holocaust in Music

It is a truism--and a typical piece of philistine thinking--to say that it is "impossible" for words, or art, to capture the reality of the Holocaust. On some level, words and art--the only tools at our disposal--are "incapable" of capturing many realities and experiences, and yet we use them to try to approximate that goal. Still, most of us would nonetheless agree that addressing the Holocaust through the arts does pose steep challenges. Just avoiding the maudlin, the hackneyed, and the banal is challenge enough--never mind actually capturing the essence of the tragedy or making an original aesthetic statement.

And what of music commemorating the Holocaust?

At first, it seems hard even to think of pieces that might serve such a debate. Commemoration and depiction have been much more the domain of literature. Still, there are examples.

When I was a kid, I was present in New York at the world premiere of Darius Milhaud's cantata, "Ani M'amin" ("I Believe") to text by Elie Wiesel. In the words of a recent review: "a meditation on the possibility of faith in the presence of unbridled and seemingly unpunished evil." In all honesty, mostly what sticks in my mind is one rather cynical adult saying he had enjoyed the Holocaust more. He was, I suspect, no fan of modern and contemporary music. I am. Still . . .

I hadn't listened to the piece in years. I enjoy much of Milhaud's music, but somehow, this one, and this particular style of choral singing never did much for me. In any case, you can  judge for yourself from this excerpt.

A review of Donald McCullough's more recent "In the Shadow of the Holocaust," made it sound more promising, but I have not heard it yet.

Here, for what it's worth, are some of the compositions that I find most accomplished or most regularly play:

Lukas Foss, Elegy for Anne Frank

I've always been partial to the music of Lukas Foss, the German-born American composer who succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as professor of music at UCLA.

His "Elegy for Anne Frank" is a modest but moving piece. The elegiacal mood, crudely interrupted by variations on the Nazi hymn, the "Horst Wessel Song" (not as the Milken Archive describes it: the "German national anthem"), before returning to the original register, somehow captures both the innocence of the insightful girl and the anxiety of life in the Secret Annex. (It exists in two versions, one with spoken text, and one without, critics generally preferring the latter.)

Sample here

Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor From Warsaw, Op. 46

Speaking of Schoenberg, this treatment of the Holocaust stands out by virtue of its relatively early date (1947) and its power. Although Schoenberg had converted to Catholicism, the rise of Nazism prompted him to return to Judaism. The text is Schoenberg's own, based on the account of a survivor of the Ghetto Uprising and liquidation. In the liner notes, fellow composer Nancy Van de Vate, noting that "many" regard the composition as "Schoenberg's most dramatic and moving work," describes it as follows:
     The narration is in Sprechstimme, a kind of speech-singing which Schoenberg developed, precisely notated for rhythms, more approximately for pitches, Olbrychski's moving narration is uniquely authentic, yet faithful to Schoenberg's notation. The cantata builds to a powerful, dramatic climax when, at "the grandiose moment," the male chorus begins spontaneously to sing the Shema Yisroel ("Hear, O Israel") in Hebrew, the third language of Schoenberg's life. It is "the old prayer" central to Judaism, that its martyrs have sung throughout history in defiance and resignation in their hour of death. It is the dramatic climax of the piece, for which Schoenberg has skillfully prepared the listener from the narrator's first lines when a French horn softly played the opening of the Shema Yisroel melody.
     The music vividly accentuates textual details throughout. A trumpet fanfare first awakens the Jews for transport to death camps. There are suggestions of military drum, unusual string effects from taps or scratches of string with bow sticks, high woodwind trills, muted brass fluttertonguing, snarls of muted horns and trumpets. The music builds to the terrifying counting off, louder and faster to prepare for the choral entry. "They began again, first slowly: One two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began to sing the Shema Yisroel." The sung Hebrew dramatically contrasts with the spoken English and brutal Nazi commands, and gives the work a powerful, moving climax in its only extended melody.
Here is a version narrated by the great Maximilian Schell:

I have a couple of recordings of this piece, but the following version, by Polish performers, conveniently combines it with other works commemorating the atrocities of the Second World War.

No list of Holocaust music would be complete without

Krzysztof Penderecki's "Dies Irae," or Auschwitz Oratorio.

Back in the day when I was a high school student, first learning properly about classical music, this piece was issued on a vinyl LP with a bleak black-and-white image of a crematorium chimney.  Popular, too, was his "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima," and these became obligatory items on the record shelves of all right-thinking progressives who prattled on about "man's inhumanity to man" even if they didn't really know any history and could not fully appreciate the jarring, and indeed, terrifying music. They may have bought it, but I really doubt they often listened to it.

Penderecki's piece, composed for the dedication of the international memorial at the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) death camp in 1967, differs from the others here in that it does not focus on the Jewish victims. Although Jews made up the largest number of victims at Auschwitz, the camp served first for the internment of Polish political prisoners, and subversives and resisters from many countries. It is also a site of specifically Polish national mourning. Penderecki is also Catholic (literally and figuratively) in his textual choices. Although he does not use the text of the requiem mass, he draws upon the Psalms, Apocalypse, Revelation, and Corinthians, as well as Greek tragedy and modern poetry.

The piece also reminds us of a very exciting time in the history of avant-garde music and other arts, not least, when artistic experimentation flourished in the countries of the East Bloc between the tyranny of Stalinism and the prosaic repression and philistinism of the post-1967 "normalization" and the following "era of stagnation."

As Nancy Van de Vate says in her liner notes,
     Dies Irae is an atonal, extremely dissonant work employing precise notated pitches, quater-tones, and sounds of indeterminate pitch. As in other works from the composer's early period . . . combinations of many unusual timbres, used both simultaneously and in succession, create unusual textures, neither homophonic nor conventionally polyphonic. Extreme dynamic contrast, from the softest to the loudest imaginable musical sounds, adds further to the music's drama and intensity. The sound of an air raid siren at the end of the second movement intensifies a section of the music which depicts beasts and men being burned alive. The rattling of a chain and shaking of a thunder-sheet (lastra) further evoke feelings of fear and horror appropriate to the subject.
     The chorus sing, speak and chant with an unusual variety of vocal sounds. The imagery of their text is dramatic and terrible, ranging from references to the shorn hair of a little girl's pigtail once tugged by cheeky boys at school to the triumphant "Death is swallowed up by victory" (Absorpta est mors in victoria) of the final movement. Yet the work closes tragically with the phrase Corpora parvulorum (Bodies of the little ones) which has been heard many times earlier.
Part I:

I am a great fan of mid-century modernism in all fields, from architecture to avant-garde music, but more recently, the minimalists have made their contribution, too.

Among more contemporary compositions, one that I find the most compelling is

Steve Reich, Different Trains

Trains, along with chimneys and barbed wire, are among the most common and evocative images of the Holocaust as the epitome of modern industrialized death. (Not coincidentally, a train also figures on the cover art of the final CD that I will mention.)

Using the symbol of the train, Reich's piece offers a brilliant and troubling mediation on the vagaries of chance:
     The concept for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since the arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.
He says that the work, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, "begins a new way of composing," "the basic idea" being "that speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments." It features recordings of his governess, an African-American Pullman porter, three Holocaust survivors, and historical train sounds from the era of his childhood journeys. It is divided into three parts:
America--Before the war
Europe--During the war
After the war

Popular music has not often ventured into the territory of the Holocaust, and that's probably a good thing. Still, there are notable exceptions.  One of the truly great albums is

Yehuda Poliker, Efer ve Avak (Ash[es] and Dust)

Poliker is one of the most multi-talented and influential Israeli musicians, a compelling vocalist and a stunning soloist on a wide range of intstruments.  His parents were Greek Holocaust survivors, deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz, and at the same time as Reich was writing "Different Trains," Poliker teamed up with son of Polish Auschwitz survivors Yaacov Gilad, who wrote most of the lyrics for "Ashes and Dust." Eight of the twelve songs deal with the Holocaust, and the album became not only a bestseller and reflection of Israeli Holocaust culture, but also a shaper of it: specifically, in the shift from collective to individual commemoration, and in its emphases on the new role of children of survivors in shaping the reception of the events as the focus moved from history to memory.

Like much of the best Holocaust literature (I always think of the works of Aharon Appelfeld), this music succeeds because it is subtle and often indirect, moving around the margins of the topic, confronting it by implication rather than declaration. The result is an overwhelming mood, a persistent sense of loss.

The title song:

When You Grow Up (a subtle meditation on the children of survivors)

A Small Station Called Treblinka (request English lyrics)


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