Playing the Survivorby Norman Lebrecht
/ September 22, 2005
cannot remember everything," writes Arnold SchoŽnberg 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 Ė my speaking voice pitted against an orchestra of 60
musicians playing atonally, in micro-intervals and climactically as loud as
they possibly could.
SchoŽnberg'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 SchoŽnberg'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. SchoŽnberg
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 Ė
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!"
To find a credible cadence, I listened to a radio
interview that SchoŽnberg 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 SchoŽnberg 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 SchoŽnberg'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 Ė 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. However, Diego, 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 where 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 SchoŽnberg'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
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 fied with nightfall.
Others, like the resourceful pianist Wladislaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski's
chilling film, were hidden by Poles. SchoŽnberg, 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
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 fiash 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
SchoŽnberg so brilliantly understood, life's most intense experiences survive
in two forms of memory Ė 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. *
caption photo :