Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

My Music Lesson; Schoenberg Declared That His Survivor from Warsaw Should Not Be Performed by a Professional Singer - Which Is Where Our Writer Comes In

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

My Music Lesson; Schoenberg Declared That His Survivor from Warsaw Should Not Be Performed by a Professional Singer - Which Is Where Our Writer Comes In

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

"I CANNOT remember everything," writes Arnold Schoenberg at the opening of A Survivor from Warsaw and I, for the first time, see what he meant. Last week, at Dartington, at a few days' notice, I gave a public performance of the terrifying seven-minute work - my speaking voice pitted against an orchestra of 60 musicians playing atonally, in micro-intervals and climactically as loud as they possibly could.

Schoenberg's Survivor is an unequal contest at the best of times but when the narrator (me) has never appeared before with a full orchestra and the experienced conductor (Diego Masson) admits he has never heard a convincing performance, the odds turn ominous and the legs to jelly.

The text, at first sight, looks unrecitable. English is Schoenberg's second language, halting and stilted.

The German orders barked by an SS sergeant in the piece sound more First World War than Second. The lines are staggered and unconnected.

It is not clear whether the narrator is in Warsaw or Auschwitz, whether he is alive or speaking from the dead.

I researched the work's origins.

Schoenberg wrote Survivor in August 1947, based on accounts he had "received directly or indirectly" from individuals who had escaped the 1943 liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. It describes how rounded-up Jews began singing, moments before their annihilation, the eternal affirmation of faith: "Shema Yisrael - Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!"

To find a credible cadence, I listened to a radio interview that Schoenberg gave in California for his 75th birthday in 1949, precise and self-aware. "I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words," he confessed, an admission that filled me with relief. The truth of the piece had to lie in the music.

The Vienna website of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute demonstrates how he used half of a 12-note row in each part of the work, reversing the order of the six notes to create a mirror effect. So far, so clear, but once I got past 48 transpositions of four compositional modes to the "hermeneutically meaningful elements of the narrative discourse" my tolerance for technical detail reached its limits.

I listened to recordings by Pierre Boulez (Sony) and Claudio Abbado (DG), both employing operatic bassbaritones who observe the correct rhythms and surmount the swelling orchestra, albeit at the expense of narrative naturalism. In Schoenberg's Letters (Faber, 1964), there is a clear instruction that Survivor should not be done by a professional singer: "This must never be made so musical as other strict compositions of mine - this never has to be sung."

Diego Masson strongly concurs. So does the Dartington director, Gavin Henderson-Which is where I, as broadcaster and public speaker, come in.

Fresh off First Western, I meet Diego in the bar and go into the studio with Clement, one of his students, who plays a note-perfect piano accompaniment to my stumbling declamation. Finding a rhythm is hardest.

The score is barred in such a way that you have to count in 16s to locate the rests. Diego, however, a contemporary-music pioneer for 40 years, knows how to bend bar-lines without breaking structure.

We stop, start and stop again, pencilling in the places where Diego will give me an extra cue, or I need to pick up a notch into the next tempo. …

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