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DURATION: ca. 7 Min.

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“This masterpiece is, due the creative necessity of the relationships between the text and the music, and the music and the listener, the aesthetic and musical manifesto of our epoch.” (Luigi Nono)
The impetus for Arnold Schönberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw,” Op. 46, came in late March / early April, 1947, from the Russian dancer, dance teacher and choreographer Corinne Chochem (1907–1990). On April 2nd, 1947, Chochem sent Schönberg the melody and English translation of a partisan song for use in a commissioned work of his, either in the Yiddish original or in a Hebrew translation. On April 20th, 1947, following the discussion of the commission with Corinne Chochem, Schönberg named his price “for a composition of 6-9 minutes for small orchestra and chorus, perhaps also one or more soloists on the melodie [sic] you gave me,” and added: “I plan to make it this scene – which you described – in the Warsaw Ghetto, how the doomed jews started singing, before gooing [sic] to die.” Chochem immediately responded that she would not be able to meet his financial demands, for which reason, even after a further concession by Schönberg (“If you can arrange this, then I would like to have as soon as possible the story and the translation of the text,” April 23rd, 1947), the project failed to be realized in this particular constellation.
At the beginning of July, 1947, Schönberg received a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, which he accepted with the mention of a composition he had started, which he would be able to complete within about six weeks: “My original plan was to write it for a small group of about 24 musicians, one or two ‘speakers’ and a mens choir of an adequate size.” (letter to Margaret Grant, Koussevitzky Music Foundation, July 7th, 1947). Due to vision problems, Schönberg had written down the composition and the text – of which he was also the author – on a large short (condensed) score, which was converted to a standard score for printing under the supervision of René Leibowitz in December, 1947, in Los Angeles.
The plot of the “Survivor from Warsaw,” which Schönberg wrote himself, describes a scene, typical of national socialism’s organized terror, of roll-call selection, where the human inventory was inspected, and those sentenced to death were pulled from the prisoners’ ranks; in this way, it was possibly to portray the significant patterns of everyday life in the concentration camps. Schönberg’s literary method of obscuring the Warsaw Ghetto – the symbolic location – by focusing on a locationally indefinite episode along the continuum of a larger historical process, entails that it remains factually undefined, as well. It is not, however, the authenticity of the details, but rather the interpretation thereof that is important for the reading and understanding of the terror of extermination as the signature of modern social history: “Now, what the text of the Survivor means to me: it means at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. We should never forget this, even such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the Survivor. This does not matter. The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.” (Letter to Kurt List, November 1st, 1948)
The tone-row structure of “Survivor from Warsaw” is, like most of Schönberg's twelve-tone compositions, based on a specific organization of the two six-tone halves of the tone-row (hexachords). For Opus 46, this means, concretely, the relationship between the tonal qualities of the prime row, and its inversion, transposed down a fifth; the first half of PI and the second row-half of IVI complement one another to form a chromatic whole, while the second half from PI corresponds with the first half of IVI, but in diverging order. Using the first row-halves of PI and PV horizontally, it is possible to have a simultaneous combination of the first halves of IVI or IX as a vertically arranged chordal field, without the repetition of any single note. Hexachord complimentarity in the case of the inversion's being transposed down a fifth is evident in the majority of Schönberg’s twelve-tone pieces; for instance, in the Op. 46’s chronological neighbor, the string trio Op. 45, or the violin fantasy Op. 47. A further significant row characteristic in Op. 46 consists in the fact that the tones 3, 4 and 5 of the prime, or its inversion, form a major third, which also appears identically when the row is transposed upward or downward by a major third. Since the major third belongs to three forms each of the prime, inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion, 48 transpositions of the four modes form four groups of twelve row-structures each. A special harmonic constellation crops up in the last part of the story before the beginning of the closing prayer (T. 72-80), in which the sound, which moves in half-steps, attains, in its intense concentration, significance both formally and in terms of content.
The semantics of the cantata’s text is reflected by a number of equivalent motifs as “hermeneutically meaningful elements of the narrative discourse,” which refer compositionally to the perspective of the narrative. The discontinuity between objective (chronological) time over the course of the narrative, and subjective (mental) time in the psychology of the narrator, meets its formal and motivistic equivalent in the musical texture. In the closing chorale, Schönberg refers back to the Jewish statement of faith, the “Shema Yisroel”, which plays a central role in the lives of religious Jews. The “Shema” is recited as the central confession of Judaism in times of happiness and suffering, to express praise, hope and optimism, as well as reinforcement for those who doubt and as the last words of the dying. In Schönberg’s interpretation, the creed ends with Deuteronomy 6,7 (“and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”) – apart from being a possible reference to the position of the Reformed Prayer Books, it is also, perhaps, a way of accenting the metaphorical moment: the act of standing up against the repression of violent rule, and “rebirth of the Jewish nation” (Timothy L. Jackson).
In Schönberg’s interpretation of the confession of faith, there are three coordinates which interrelate: the commitment to monotheism, the meaning of religion for the assimilated Jew and the thematization of Jewish identity: “The Shema Jisroel at the end has a special meaning to me. I think, the Shema Jisroel is the ‘Glaubensbekenntnis,’ the confession of the Jew. It is our thinking of the one, eternal, God who is invisible, who forbids imitation, who forbids to make a picture and all these things, which you perhaps have realised when you read my Moses und Aron und Der biblische Weg [Moses and Aaron and the Biblical Way]. The miracle is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.” (Arnold Schönberg writing to Kurt List, November 1st, 1948).

Therese Muxeneder
© Arnold Schönberg Center