Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
'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 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 quickly 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 twelve-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 analysis reached its limits.
I listened to recordings by Pierre Boulez (Sony) and Claudio Abbado (DG), both employing operatic bass-baritones 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 festival 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 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.
After an hour or so we are swaying in unison and the conductor is satisfied that I can manage without a microphone. I beg him to have one in reserve.
Next afternoon, I have half an hour with a festival orchestra comprised of tough London freelancers and graduating conservatory students on a country break - no place for the faint-hearted. Under a low studio ceiling, I recite the piece three times, striving to preserve vocal colours while battling orchestral fortissimi.
The ultimate test is the general rehearsal beneath the high arches of the Great Hall, where my voice proves equal to the massed noise. The longer I spend in the thick of the orchestra the more I grow intoxicated with Schoenberg's instrumental writing. I hear tiny effects of ravishing beauty that never reached me as a listener in the hall, inserted as a secret gift to working musicians.
At the ultimate moment, the male voice choir bursts into 'Shema Yisrael' and we are transported back into the horror of holocaust, where survivors of the Ghetto uprising were shot on the spot or shipped to Auschwitz. A handful survived. Some feigned death and fled with nightfall, others, like the resourceful pianist Wladislaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski's chilling film, were hidden by Poles. Schoenberg, in an unpublished letter, admits that things might have happened 'not in the manner in which I describe.' The important thing, he insists, 'is that I saw it in my imagination.'
And there lies the power of the work, not as documentary testimony but in the mind of a great composer who, exiled in Californian penury, fuses common words and complex music, neither fathomable without the other, into an overwhelming impression of tragedy and transcendence.
To study an orchestral masterpiece of this magnitude is pure pleasure, physical as much as intellectual. To perform it in a public concert hall is a privilege that beggars description, a moment where we are humbled by the materials we handle.
I cannot remember everything. The seven minutes of Survivor pass like a flash and the reward of applause seems undeserved. I want to do it again, to do it better, to do it justice. Diego embraces me: 'we made it work!' He swears we will do it again.
If I cannot remember everything it is because, as Schoenberg so brilliantly understood, life's most intense experiences survive in two forms of memory - as general impression and as sliver-sharp fragments, like shattered glass. Art is not history. It does not aim to make a meticulous reconstruction of past events. Its process is to make sense of whatever testimony comes to hand and to find in it a message that surpasses the particular circumstances and enters the general human consciousness.
Great works of art often appear inscrutable at first sight and intractable for practical purposes. What everyone at Dartington learned from our immersion in A Survivor from Warsaw is that persistence in performing a difficult work can yield a collective understanding that binds people together and makes them aware of dimensions that run beyond history and politics, into the primal sources of pain and joy.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]