Jeremy Eichler/TOM KATES

‘Time’s Echo’ puts words to the music of the Holocaust

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‘Time’s Echo’ puts words to the music of the Holocaust

Jeremy Eichler/TOM KATES

Some 76 years ago, Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw” made its world debut in a college auditorium in Albuquerque, an unlikely setting for the bold work by the renowned Viennese-born Jewish composer whose works were performed by the most prestigious orchestras.

Schoenberg, who fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1933, wrote the dramatic piece in 1947 as his musical response to the unfathomable horrors of Nazi death camps.

The widely anticipated performance, on Nov. 4, 1948, was conducted by Kurt Frederick, an accomplished Jewish musician who escaped Austria after its annexation by the Nazis.

Frederick valiantly led his Albuquerque Civic Symphony orchestra of amateur musicians featuring a solo narrator and a male chorus that included cowboys and ranchers.

At the time, barely three years after the liberation of the camps, the depths of the tragedy that would come to be known as the Holocaust was not widely acknowledged or commemorated in public memorials.

At only seven minutes long, Schoenberg’s dissonant composition, based on his groundbreaking 12-tone scale, was told through the voice of an imagined survivor and echoed with the brutality of a death camp. Its heartrending narrative includes a pleading choral recitation in Hebrew of the Shema, the central Jewish prayer that declares God is one.

Following its critical success in Albuquerque, “A Survivor from Warsaw” had its European debut in Paris, and was performed in 1950 in Germany.

“It was among the very first significant pieces to memorialize the attempted extermination of European Jewry,” wrote Jeremy Eichler, a historian, music scholar, and the author of “Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance.”

Since its publication last summer, “Time’s Echo” has garnered accolades and prestigious awards from across the globe, including the National Jewish Book award. Most recently, Eichler was named a finalist for the Sami Rohr literary prize for Jewish literature, a coveted award presented to an emerging writer, administered by the Jewish Book Council.

Since its publication last summer, “Time’s Echo” has garnered accolades and prestigious awards from across the globe, most recently winning the National Jewish Book Award.

With exquisite storytelling, “Time’s Echo” explores how music provides a unique lens to understanding one of the darkest times in history through the works of four towering composers of the 20th century: Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw;” Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen;” Benjamin Britten’s “The War Requiem;” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar.”

“Music is a witness for history and a vehicle of that history. It serves as a bridge to the past, that includes tragedy but also a vision of a just society,” Eichler said recently at Tufts University, where his riveting talk was accompanied by a performance of music related to memory and commemoration.

Eichler, the Boston Globe’s decades-long chief classical music critic who grew up in a Jewish family in Newton, pulls back the curtain of these monumental compositions in a richly layered panorama that is part history, part musicology, and part travelogue.

In vivid prose, Eichler transports readers to the places he visited that are central to this story – from Strauss’s home in Southern Bavaria to the site outside Kyiv of the Nazis’ 1941 Babi Yar massacre of 33,771 Jews.

The book has had a remarkable resonance among a wide swath of readers, noted Joseph Auner, a music professor at Tufts and dean of its University College, who moderated the program with an audience that filled Distler Hall.

“People develop a deep connection to one of the most harrowing times. While many will cry in places, it’s a book of hope,” Auner said.

While focused on the Holocaust, the book offers profound insight on the role of music during these challenging times, noted Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, who attended Eichler’s talk at Tufts. Summit, who served as the longtime executive director of Tufts Hillel, is also a Tufts professor of music and Judaic studies.

“When Eichler writes about seeing art as a way to redeem and reclaim shards of unrealized hope, he charges us to look deeper into contemporary compositions and experience how music can hold and convey hope during dark times,” he wrote in an email.

Among the captivating stories Eichler reveals is how Schoenberg devoted years of his life to championing the Zionist cause, following his reaffirmation with his Jewish faith more than 35 years after he converted to Protestantism.

Eichler captures the emotional turmoil that Strauss grappled with in his 1945 composition, “Metamorphosen,” through his close examination of Strauss’s collaboration with the Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, and Strauss’s controversial role leading the Third Reich’s Chamber of Music.

Through the story of Britten’s “The War Requiem,” Eichler sheds light on the poignant, lesser-known stories of Alma Rosé and Anita Laske, both Jewish women musicians imprisoned at Auschwitz, amplifying their significance in music and Jewish history.

Music and history have been Eichler’s lifetime passions, he wrote in an email.

He holds dear memories of listening to live performances, “and experiencing the music flooding off the stage as a series of wordless yet profound transmissions from the past – messages in a bottle,” he wrote, referring to the writings of philosopher Theodor Adorno.

“This was the beautiful and mysterious phenomenon that ‘Time’s Echo’ tries to capture,” he elaborated. “That it’s not just we who remember music, but that music remembers us.” Θ

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