Tapping Into Music As Unconscious Chronicle Of Post-Holocaust Era

The opening bars of Richard Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen,’ one of the works explored in Jeremy Eichler’s book, ‘Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance.

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance. Jeremy Eichler. Knopf, 2023. 400 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — What do we want to remember, and how should we? What human creation, monument, or artwork can appropriately perpetuate a memory? And what if that memory is so greatly terrible — should the Holocaust even be memorialized?

These enigmatic questions, coupled with the combative history that makes these questions inescapable, sit at the core of Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance.

Elegantly, Eichler states the aim: to explore music as the  “unconscious chronicle” of the post-Holocaust world. He presents music as the only honest, appropriate, and enduring view of the past, collecting a mound of evidence to detail the futility and dissembling that hobbles political discourse and public memorializing.

Eichler chronicles four composers who lived through the Holocaust — Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The focus is tight: on select music of these composers, in relation to one cataclysmic event — the Holocaust. Eichler often uses the synonym Shoah, and we will here.

This is not just a book for musicologists, or Jewish scholars, or historians. It is all those things. Eichler, Boston Globe music critic since 2006, has published widely in The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as other major publications. Time’s Echo grew from a dissertation topic in cultural history and has been deeply enhanced over more than a decade by intermediate publications, residencies, and academic appointments.

Eichler acknowledges the well-trod publishing path he travels when it comes to World War II history, but he simply touches history on the way to telling his story. Time’s Echo is not a Jewish book, although Eichler robustly details his portrait of the German-Jewish artistic identity, focusing on Schoenberg and Strauss but starting first with the Mendelssohns. And Eichler treads lightly as a musicologist as well, including some analysis but predominantly telling the story of composer and composition. His writing about music is deft, insightful, and to the point.

Visits to each of the crucial locations get vividly represented, personalizing this account. Kyiv and Babi Yar; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Strauss’s last home; Aldeburgh, Britten’s retreat on the North Sea coast, as well as Coventry, whose destruction during the Blitz fueled the composer’s later War Requiem; and the peripatetic trail of Schoenberg, forced to abandon Vienna and escape Europe, ending up incongruously in Hollywood for his last decades.

The Shoah is a challenging topic, and Time’s Echo can be a challenging experience. The raw facts can still bring any reader to a halt. So much inhumanity ended the deep German-Jewish belief that art improves humankind, and for many, after humankind’s failure, art became a mockery, showing only half-truths to be avoided.

Music, history, memory: Eichler tries to coax us to the place — impossible, or aspirational — where the three coexist harmoniously.

By the 1930s, Strauss was a towering figure in Germany and throughout the classical music world. His success had begun in the previous century. Even further back, his father had famously played first horn in multiple Wagner premieres with the Bavarian Court Orchestra and at the Bayreuth Festival. But Richard Strauss’ final years (he died in 1949), spent in Vienna and the deep south of Germany at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, were fraught.

As a composer, he worked steadily in the 1930s and ’40s, collaborating with the poet Stefan Zweig on Die schweigsame Frau, writing Capriccio and still other operas — unbelievable compositional achievements, given what was happening. But all other paths were uncertain.

There were Jews in Strauss’ immediate family, and at times he used connections to protect them (some died). He replaced Jewish conductors (including Bruno Walter) for performances several times at the last minute, when they had been removed by authorities, and Strauss considered it best for the other musicians to continue. His collaborations with the Jewish Zweig, which at first energized the older composer, gradually collapsed as Zweig’s life became untenable in Europe (he eventually died in Brazil by suicide, in 1942).

To oversimplify, too many times Strauss acquiesced to the Nazis because he believed he was saving some part of a greater German tradition. Many of those choices seem immoral now. Strauss was no Nazi, but he was forced to make ignominious choices. Eichler’s loving analysis of Strauss’s Metamorphosen — the 1947 work for strings — creates a subtext to the music’s complexity and the composer’s intractable situation: Music can speak what cannot be spoken aloud, neither by skill nor choice.

During those same years, Arnold Schoenberg had feelings similar to Strauss: to preserve, and to further, the essential greatness of German music. In the light of the Shoah, that now seems hopelessly trivial. But when Schoenberg left Vienna in 1933, never to return, having realized how much his own Jewishness limited him, he wrote, “How my heart was bleeding when the idea suddenly struck that I should not be a German anymore.”

Schoenberg’s transformative musical voice endured the contradictions inherent in being simultaneously German and Jewish. At times he was fervently one or the other. His desire to see the two aspects coexist within himself was destroyed by the Shoah, of which Schoenberg was eerily, sadly prescient. In 1938, he wrote about any presumed relocation of Europe’s Jews — a relocation he had already experienced: “Is there room in the world for almost 7,000,000 people? Are they condemned to doom?”

Eichler details the ambivalence felt toward actively remembering the events of the Shoah when discussing Schoenberg’s brief cantata, A Survivor from Warsaw. Premiered in 1947, it was among the first artistic works detailing the Holocaust’s depravity. It did so unstintingly, through a survivor’s “eyewitness” account of living “in the sewers of Warsaw,” from Schoenberg’s own libretto. It proved a truth too soon — in 1947, the initial impact of the Shoah was still a shock wave, and its reception uneasy. That reception remains uneasy, for a reason: After hearing an eyewitness account of abject terror, does one applaud? Music itself runs into the ambivalence inherent in remembering.

Jeremy Eichler (Photo by Tom Kates)

Political interference and nationalistic propaganda also fuel this ambivalence, often clumsily blending ideologies and prolonging the misery. Eichler details Russian, German, Ukrainian, and American dissembling when it comes to public statements about tragic memories, and the memorials that eventually (or sometimes never) commemorate those events.

Contextualizing the past, especially the difficult past, runs counter to memorializing it. The memory belongs to the person remembering, like hearing music belongs to the listener. And without the rememberer, without the listener? Well, as cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz, said in London after the war, “I thought we would change the world with our experiences. But nobody asked.”

In the book’s second part, Eichler links the experiences of Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. Their own hair-raising wartime lives were tempered some by their mutual fondness and late-in-life artistic exchange. Eichler writes about works premiered in the 1960s: Britten’s War Requiem and Shostakovich’s 13th (Babi Yar) and 14th symphonies.

In examining the War Requiem, which incorporates text from World War I trench poet Wilfred Owen, Eichler also illustrates Britain’s particular way of commemorating the Second World War by remembering the First.

Shostakovich’s long life of official persecution put him at the center of many artistic/political conflicts. He was not immune to compromise, and Eichler tells almost apologetically of various public humiliations Shostakovich endured. But Russia’s “forced amnesia” about the Holocaust could not hide from the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and, in 1962, when Shostakovich premiered his 13th symphony using Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” it briefly inflamed a spark of freedom. Shostakovich’s resistance, and his “success” in memorializing past events, makes Eichler’s strongest case for music as the finest savior of memory. Like Strauss, Shostakovich’s public life was filled with forced compromise. But his music tells his spirit, and Eichler demonstrates the more direct link between his music and the truth.

Time’s Echo makes for a beautifully through-composed read, and small threads woven gently through the book make it so. For example, he tells of the Rosé family, Viennese musical royalty, with links stretching from father Arnold’s tenure as Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster (for 50 years, until being removed by the Nazis), with premieres of Schoenberg in the 1920s, through to his daughter Alma, conducting the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz before she died there. Insights from mid-century thinkers and artists — Benjamin, Adorno, Sebald, Mann, Mikhoels, and many others — bring past events alive. As do anecdotes like Britten’s tour of displaced person camps, filled with surviving prisoners, with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1945, just months after the war ended; or Schoenberg’s unlikely premiere of A Survivor from Warsaw in Albuquerque, N.M., with cowboys in the chorus.

Each of the four composers dealt with social and political forces that were beyond their imagination or control. How they compromised in life can be examined in hindsight, but their music speaks to that better than any revision, and remembers better as well. “Hearing history,” as Eichler puts it succinctly, proselytizing not for the composers or the works, but for music itself.