How Classical Composers Made Music After the Holocaust

TIME’S ECHO: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance, by Jeremy Eichler

In 1947, the Black German musician Fasia Jansen stood on a street in Hamburg and began to sing the music of Brecht in her thick Low German accent to anyone passing by. Perhaps she’d learned the songs from prisoners and internees at Neuengamme, the concentration camp where she’d been forced to work four years earlier. Perhaps she’d learned them in the early days after the war, when she’d performed with Holocaust survivors at a hospital in 1945. One thing was clear: As Jansen wrestled with her trauma, song was at the center of her experience.

Jansen does not appear in Jeremy Eichler’s new book, “Time’s Echo,” but the impulse to turn to music during and after the Holocaust is at the heart of it. Eichler, The Boston Globe’s chief classical music critic, suggests that music can help us remember what we’ve lost. “Time’s Echo is an engrossing recovery project that reveals the depths of Europe’s ability — and inability — to mourn those losses.

On the surface, Eichler’s book is a cultural history of four musical works: Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen,” Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” symphony. More deeply, it is a fascinating call to place the stories of musicians into our acts of listening and a compelling testimony to the relationship between music and remembrance. Not only do we remember music but, just as importantly, “music also remembers us,” Eichler argues. Against countless attempts to bury the past, music “possesses a unique and often underappreciated power to burn through history’s cold storage.”

In lyrical prose, Eichler tells the story of German-speaking Jews in Europe who, beginning in the late 19th century, finally experienced some relief from the antisemitic laws that had hung over their lives and came to embrace German music, literature and art as a means to mold their new selves. “Theoretically at least,” Eichler writes, “anyone could embrace these ideals of personal transformation on the wings of culture.” Schoenberg came of age during this moment. For him, as for many other Central European Jews, anything felt possible, including the reimagining of music itself.

The rise of Nazism in the 1930s shattered this optimism. “How my heart was bleeding when the idea suddenly struck that I should not be a German anymore,” Schoenberg later reflected. Scorned by the society in which he had been raised, his works began to reflect more and more of his Jewish heritage.

Richard Strauss’s response to the Nazis continues to confound his admirers. Strauss, who was not Jewish, directly benefited from the purging of Jews from European institutions, accepting highly venerated musical postings within the Third Reich. When his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig complained about his cultural work with the regime in 1935, Strauss responded, “Be a good boy, forget Moses.”

In 1944, Eichler tells us, Strauss tried to extricate his Jewish daughter-in-law’s grandmother from a concentration camp north of Prague. “I am Richard Strauss, and I have come to take Frau Neumann away,” he declared to a guard, only to be met with amusement and ridicule. The next year, hiding from the world in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Strauss finished his “Metamorphosen.”

Some of Strauss’s earlier works, such as his 1911 comic opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” are sparkling, ironic, even nostalgic. But in the first moments of “Metamorphosen,” the basses immediately descend down a chromatic line toward deep mourning. “Gone are the glittering facades of irony and wit,” Eichler writes, “Gone are the liberated heroes.”

It is a lush piece and its beauty is all the more jarring when we consider Strauss’s activities during the war — which is exactly Eichler’s point. Knowing the stories of these composers, Eichler argues, becomes “part of what we come to hear in the works themselves.”

If there’s a plot twist in “Time’s Echo,” it comes in the second half, when Eichler transports us to Cold War Britain and the Soviet Union to show us how artists absorbed the Holocaust outside Central Europe. For Benjamin Britten in 1960s England, the horrors of World War II had cemented his pacifist thinking.

His “War Requiem,” first performed in 1962, is a haunting magnum opus that sets Wilfred Owen’s antiwar poetry to music. In an early passage, tolling bells and a choir’s prayer for fallen soldiers are interrupted when a tenor sings Owen’s searing question: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

That same year, Shostakovich composed a piece commemorating the 1941 Babyn Yar massacre, in which Germans murdered over 33,000 Jews in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Soviet government of the 1960s refused to recognize that antisemitic genocide was at the center of Nazism and attempted to censor the work. That December, the audience seated in the Moscow Conservatory for the symphony’s premiere erupted in applause. Still “Babi Yar” had only a handful of performances in the Soviet bloc before it was effectively banned.

Eichler’s book excels when it ponders the struggles, possibly futile, of these works to fulfill their own missions. What good is a pacifist message in the face of genocide and historical denial? In attempting to create a universal statement of loss with his “War Requiem,” Eichler writes, Britten “left the darkness of more recent history unrecounted and unreconciled.” On the last page of “Metamorphosen,” Strauss wrote the words “IN MEMORIAM,” but never made clear exactly who or what he meant to be remembered.

It’s worth considering whether these four canonical men serve as the best funnels through which to tell this particular story of the past. There is no room given here for the Fasia Jansens or Ruth Schonthals of the world.

In recent years, a debate has caught fire among historians about whether or how to bring colonialism and the Holocaust together in one frame. We might listen for classical music’s place within this fraught discussion in the work of the brilliant Nigerian choirmaster Fela Sowande, who composed orchestral pieces for the British Ministry of Information during World War II.

While Strauss and Britten were both tucked away in the countryside in 1944, Sowande conducted his “African Suite,” a blend of West African melodies and European instrumentations, for BBC radio in a bombed-out London. The suite takes on a new register when we hear it as an artifact that amplifies the complicated position of a colonized subject tasked with serving the war effort on behalf of the empire.

Despite these absences, the rich, historical details that Eichler chose to weave together in his book make for a moving read. “Time’s Echo” offers the same kind of immersive experience that he encourages us to explore in music. His beautiful meditation on the dark shadows that compelled, propelled and ultimately haunted classical music in Europe during and after World War II inspires our ears.

Kira Thurman is a professor of German history and musicology at the University of Michigan and the author of “Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.”

TIME’S ECHO: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance | By Jeremy Eichler | Illustrated | 383 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30

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