Expressionism in Music



A Survivor from Warsaw

A Survivor from Warsaw is an atonal twelve-tone composition written in 1947 when Schoenberg was seventy-two. Its tense, expressionistic style vividly sets off every detail of the text. This work requires an unusual style of vocal performance--sprechstimme (literally, speech-voice)--halfway between speaking and singing. This piece makes free use of dissonance i.e., disjunct and fragmentary melodies. Use of special techniques (playing with the wooden part of the bow by the strings). Employs three languages: English, German & Hebrew.

(Mouse over atonal or expressionism)



  Concentration camp segment of the special exhibition, "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story," at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Date: Feb 25, 1994
Locale: Washington, DC United States
Photographer: Edward Owen
Credit: Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives
Copyright: USHMM

Arnold Schoenberg's "The Survivor from Warsaw" is not performed very often, but whoever has heard it cannot forget its urgency and poignancy, its oppressive feeling of doom and frenzy, its exhilarating yet heart-rending climax on the intonation of the Jewish hymn "Shema Yisroel." "The Survivor from Warsaw" is a short piece, no more than eight minutes long, for narrator, men's chorus and orchestra. It was inspired by reports of survivors of the Nazi pogroms in the Warsaw ghetto. Shortly after the end of the war, Schoenberg, who was living in the United States, met some of these survivors who related their personal experiences to the composer. Profoundly moved, Schoenberg immediately wrote up the text, using some of the exact wording he had heard from his visitors. The work was completed in September 1947 and premiered by the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Civic Symphony Orchestra under Kurt Frederick fifty years ago on November 4, 1948.

Schoenberg based the "Survivor" on a twelve-tone row whose basic form is revealed only at the end of the work, where it supplies the melody of the "Shema Yisroel" hymn. The story begins as the residents of Warsaw's Jewish ghetto are brutally rounded up by the Nazi soldiers to be counted and transported to the gas chambers. The sergeant, for whom everything is going too slowly, urges them to hurry, and beats them until they fall. Finally, as the victims are being led away, they suddenly begin singing the hymn "Shema Yisroel" - "Hear, O Israel" - the Jewish command to love God, a prayer of comfort and hope.

- Roger Clement for Unitel