Time’s Echo

Time’s Echo


Current winner of the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize, Time’s Echo, is an extraordinary and (for me) an extraordinarily challenging book in which music critic author, Jeremy Eichler, analyzes music’s “ability to recall the past.” Music, Eichler posits, is a “carrier of memory," as potent as any stone monument and at times more affecting. Eichler references four composers, witnesses to catastrophes decades earlier, whose innovative musical works continue to be “felt” in their music.


Arnold Schoenberg’s composition, “A Survivor from Warsaw,” is not a piece of music meant for an evening of entertainment. Written to memorialize the suffering and persecution of victims of the Holocaust, its harsh dissonant sounds, accompanied by ferocious clashing of trumpets, drums and “atonal” cacophony requires, “deep listening for all seven minutes duration.” Schoenberg’s work ends in the choral chant of the Shema prayer. Written in 1947, the music evokes memories of a horrific time in history and triggers visceral feelings of discomfort, in part reflecting Schoenberg’s own experience in Germany. 


A convert to Protestantism, who in his youth venerated “all things Teutonic,” Schoenberg upheld the premise of “bildung,” the ennobling force of German art, literature, music and philosophy to guarantee the “cultivation of moral sensibilities.” Shocked by a personal encounter with antisemitism, Schoenberg left Germany for America, publicly denouncing his German roots declaring bildung’s utopian vision a profound delusion.


“Today more frequently performed then just about any other musical memorial from the era,” Metamorphosen, by composer Richard Strauss, poses doubt about Strauss’ allegiance to the Nazi party. President of the State Music Chamber during Hitler’s regime, Strauss wrote a song dedicated to Joseph Goebbels; yet he secretly collaborated with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. Can we separate the man from his, music? Eichler offers Strauss’ “moral compartmentalization was on a level that is indefensible.”


Premiered in 1946 Metamorphosen is a dark, melancholy piece based on the poem by Goethe. Its title speaks to the impossibility of truly knowing oneself. Strauss’ cryptic dedication to his work remains an enigma. Who does Strauss memorialize? The Jews? Or the demise of the once great German culture?


Notwithstanding Benjamin Britton’s musical memorial tribute to the destruction of the Canterbury Cathedral, by far Eichler’s most heartfelt investigation is his analyses of the symphony dedicated to the victims of Babi Yar. For years, the Soviet Regime successfully eradicated any memory of the site at the Babi Yar Ravine. There in 1941, thirty thousand seven hundred and seventy-one Jews were butchered in two days. Inspired by Serbian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s haunting poem, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, himself a victim of Stalin’s terror, wrote the 13th Symphony “as an expression of suffering and grief.” It would become his “musical monument” to Babi Yar.   


Inspiring, a must-read music students and conservators of Holocaust memory.