According to one of the most often repeated anecdotes in the history of Western music, the composer Arnold Schoenberg intimated to his student Josef Rufer one day in the summer of 1921 that he had “discovered something which will ensure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years.” The discovery was dodecaphonic serialism, the compositional technique that Schoenberg believed held the key to recovering practices specific to German music that had been undone in the early decades of the twentieth century by the overthrow of the tonal tradition, an overthrow Schoenberg himself had done more than anyone to bring about. Less frequently noted, however, is that, if Rufer's story is to be believed, Schoenberg's promise to the future of German music would have come just weeks after the composer and his family had decamped from an Austrian lakeside resort, having received anonymous warnings to the effect that, as a Jew (albeit also a long-since converted Lutheran), he was not welcome there. If there was more than the usually sharp edge of irony in Schoenberg's voice as he anointed himself the guarantor of German musical dominance, Rufer appears not to have noticed.
Through the 1920s, Schoenberg continued to explore the implications of serial technique in his work while at the same time deepening his idiosyncratic engagement with questions of Jewish faith, identity, and politics, processes that merged and culminated in his most ambitious serial composition, the unfinished opera Moses und Aron (1930–1932). When the Nazis took power in 1933, Schoenberg happened to be in Paris, where he now found himself ejected in absentia from his faculty position in Berlin at the Prussian Academy of Arts. He took the occasion to stage a public “reconversion” to Judaism and made his way to the United States, eventually settling in Los Angeles. From there he monitored events in Europe as the war approached and, like many other expatriates, assembled his tally of personal losses when it ended. The stories emerging in the months after the war of what had been done with the Jews of Europe formed the basis for one of his final serial compositions, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).
A work for narrator, men's chorus, and orchestra, with a text in three languages (English, Prussian-inflected German, and Hebrew) and a performance time of less than seven minutes, Survivor is often described as a cantata, but in truth it is nearly uncategorizable. It depicts Schoenberg's reimagining of a death-camp selection: German soldiers roust imprisoned Jews from a barracks at dawn and force them with threats and beatings to organize their own execution by gassing. The Jews break from the fragmenting ritual of counting themselves off to chant together in Hebrew the Shema yisrael, the central prayer declaring the unity of God, and the V'ahafta, the commandments that instruct Jews to maintain an awareness of their commitment to God through all the rituals and routines of daily life. The dramatic opposition between the Jews and their tormenters is stark. Here, the compositional technique once posited as the means of salvation for German music is made the vehicle for an uncompromising indictment of German culture.
As Joy H. Calico makes clear in Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw in Postwar Europe, the reintroduction of Schoenberg to Central and East European audiences after nearly twenty years through the avatar of this particular work was bound to encounter a thicket of cultural, historical, and political interests, not infrequently working at cross purposes with one another. Calico examines the events leading up to premiere performances of Survivor and the critical response to those performances in several of the countries where the events it memorializes were planned and implemented, tracing its migrations across concert hall stages in West Germany, Austria, Norway, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Throughout his lifetime and for decades after his death in 1951, performances of Schoenberg's music were driven by the efforts of small groups of dedicated cognoscenti rather than by popular demand, and these local premieres of Survivor were largely not exceptions. Calico offers profiles of many of these advocates, giving special attention to the professional and personal risks undertaken by those in the Soviet bloc, where Schoenberg's peculiar brand of modernism was anathema to the official aesthetic of socialist realism.
The most striking theme Calico finds in the reception of Survivor is a recurring process of erasure in plain sight, as if the only way to make the work palatable to audiences—or local authorities—was to rob it of its specificity. Despite the prominence of the Hebrew text, performances repeatedly downplayed or ignored altogether the Jewish identity of the victims. At all but one of the performances Calico discusses, no translation of the Hebrew text was provided to the audience, and in more than a few cases the work's overtly Jewish character was not acknowledged in either the program or the published reviews.
The patterns of these deflections would be recognizable to anyone familiar with the post-Holocaust history of these places. In Schoenberg's native Vienna, where a history of complicity with the Final Solution was already being supplanted by the myth of national victimization, the text was altered for the 1951 performance, with the English (though not the Hebrew) text translated into de-Austrianized German and the explicit reference to gas chambers removed. In West Germany, too, audiences were spared hearing mention of gas chambers, though that was not enough to mollify one critic, the apparently less-than-thoroughly denazified musicologist Hans Schnoor, who attacked the work as a “provocative obscenity” (p. 32). By contrast, A Survivor from Warsaw found a welcoming audience in Warsaw, though Calico notes that some of that may have stemmed from Polish audiences’ conflation of the brief Jewish resistance at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 with the Warsaw Uprising the following year.
Calico's survey offers a valuable illustration of the ways a work of art can excite enthusiasm and hostility, with neither reaction having much at all to do with the merits of the piece itself. In case after case, A Survivor from Warsaw, a work that makes its views on the cultures that collide in its frame quite clear, is reduced instead to a platform for the stories its audiences wanted to tell themselves about themselves. What its irascible composer might have thought of the many differing claims they made on his brief, blistering composition is not difficult to imagine.