By Jeremy Eichler
Jeremy Eichler’s new book, which has been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non fiction, sets out to show how, of all the major art forms, music most successfully enables us to comprehend and memorialise the past.
He draws in particular detail on three major works: Arnold Schoenberg’s cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), written in tribute to victims of the Holocaust; Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962), composed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed during the Second World War; and Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Babi Yar Symphony, partly inspired by Jewish suffering in Soviet Russia.
And he illuminates his argument with discussions of Bildung, the German notion that art can ennoble and educate its practitioners and adherents, Innerlichkeit, defined by the author Thomas Mann as the “purest sincerity of thought and conscience”, and contradictory offerings from the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who famously claimed that no poetry should be written after Auschwitz.
Eichler takes his reader on a stimulating and often provocative journey. It includes the return of German patriot and Christian covert Schoenberg to his Jewish roots in the face of Nazism, and Richard Strauss’s opportunistic career in which he was happy to cosy up to the Nazis as long as it helped enhance his status as a composer, all the while collaborating on the opera Die schweigsame Frau with the Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig.
He looks at Shostakovich’s see-saw relationship with the Soviet Communist Party, which saw him one moment regarded as a patriotic hero, the next a villain forced to denounce his own formalist music, and Britten’s pacifism, one that did not prevent him travelling to perform with Yehudi Menuhin in Belsen once the war was won (despite the experience, his War Requiem was more a commentary on the First World War than the one it was intended to commemorate and makes no reference whatsoever to the Holocaust).
Rather than test his proposition by discussing other art forms with abstract traditions, such as poetry and painting, Eichler chooses to pit music against commemorative monuments, most tellingly in connection with Babi Yar, where the Nazis massacred tens of thousands of people, many of them Jews, during their occupation of the Soviet Union.
(“There is no monument at Babi Yar”, Yevtushenko’s text for Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony begins. Last year, the Russians fired missiles at the monument that had finally been erected there.) As a result, we fail to understand why, of all the muses, music is “first among equals”.
The later fractured, elliptical verse of Paul Celan, for instance, is surely as powerful and appropriate a response to Nazi barbarism as Schoenberg’s atonality. Adorno, who admired Celan, might have considered the poet better-equipped for the task.
Though he initially celebrated the discordant notes of Survivor from Warsaw as appropriate to its subject matter, he eventually attacked Schoenberg’s composition on the grounds that “the victims are turned into works of art, tossed out to be gobbled up by the world that did them in”.
Non-vocal music, such as Shostakovich’s 7th “Leningrad” Symphony, referenced by Eichler and abstract rather than representational, would, in this reading, make for better memorials.
Did any of Eichler’s subjects set out to compose with the intention of documenting current affairs? Eichler sees Innerlichkeit’s separation of politics and culture as “a seductive chimera of German Romantic thought” and yearns for a return to Bildung-like ideals (strange in light of his chosen period, filled with examples of highly cultured men who had no qualms about genocide.)
Most composers set out to write music for music’s sake though circumstances can constrain them to become unwilling chroniclers of their times. Even then, music is an art form better-suited to reflection than narration.
Adorno saw that Beethoven’s life-affirming, middle-period music mirrored an era full of hope and promise while his later work, foreshadowing Schoenberg in its fractured dissonance, resounded with the clangour of youthful ideals subverted. Schoenberg’s own atonality, of course, perfectly reflected his age.
Eichler’s intelligent, thought-provoking book gives rise more to debate than certainty. Yet this is as much a function of its abstract subject; certainly it is no less successful for it.