Schoenberg: A Survivor From Warsaw. Webern: Orchestral Works
"Уцелевший из Варшавы", op. 46 (1947)
Recordings: Vienna, Musikverein, Grosser Saal, 5/1989 (Schoenberg); 4/1990 (Webern opp. 1, 6, 10, Ricercare); 4/1992 (Webern op. 30)
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The strength of the Schoenberg school lay in its A apparent contradictions. Under the influence of contemporary painting and literature, Schoenberg and Webern, together with Berg, forged an "expressionist" musical language of unprecedented intensity, a language which stimulated, challenged and occasionally bewildered their audiences. At the same time, they saw themselves as guardians of the great Austro-German musical tradition, which they refined and extended, especially in their handling of form, line and harmony. Although expression and technique worked together, different pieces showed different emphases, as the present recording demonstrates.
Webern himself stressed how, in his Passacaglia op. 1 (1908), everything derived from the thematic material found in the first variation. The passacaglia principle, as transmitted by J. S. Bach, required that a set of variations should be elaborated above, or around, a regularly repeated line. Here the line is eight bars long, and is cast in duple rather than the usual triple time. After its first statement, there are 23 variations and a coda. The thematic derivations Webern referred to are partly motivic, partly canonic and partly formal - there are variations of variations. The large-scale groupings show a ternary form (ABA): eleven variations in the portentous, Schoenbergian key of D minor, four in a more relaxed D major, eight in the minor again, with further development in the coda. The parallels between this Passacaglia and the finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony are obvious enough, though the expressive world is more than Brahmsian: the instrumental delicacy of the first variation (solo flute, trumpet and harp) invokes Mahler; the intensity of the brazen climaxes, Strauss; the instability of the tempi, which constantly shift between three fixed levels, the late Wagner. Although this piece is the culmination of Webern's apprenticeship with Schoenberg, it is also a remarkable act of synthesis, one which set the scene for his later pieces.
Neither of Webern's next two works for orchestra could have been thinkable without Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16 (1909), which broke new ground from every point of view. Indeed, Webern's Six Pieces op. 6 were dedicated to Schoenberg "with greatest affection", and composed in the same year. As Webern revealed in 1933, their priorities were very different from those of the Passacaglia. Although each of the pieces was written as a ternary form, he consciously avoided exploring thematic connections within or between them, but stressed their constantly changing mode of expression. While they represent a new kind of epigrammatic music - the longest piece is 40 bars long, the shortest just eleven - their musical thought is much richer than before. The expansion of the eight-bar units of the Passacaglia into the 19-bar span of the first piece brings with it mercurial transformations of instrumental colour, a newly evolved atonal musical language, and a breathtaking rapidity of movement between expressive extremes. Although We-bern simplified the wind, brass and harp parts in 1928, the striking new role for the percussion remained. This role related to the titles which Webern, like Schoenberg, informally attached to the pieces: (1) the expectation of a catastrophe, (2) the certainty that it will happen, (3) a tender contrast, (4) a funeral march (in memory of Webern's mother), (5) and (6) epilogues of remembrance and resignation. This informal programme probably accounts for the fact that, with the exception of the fast second piece, all the tempi are slow.
Webern similarly attached titles to his exquisite Five Pieces op. 10: "Ideal", Transformation", "Return", "Remembrance" and "Soul". These were selected from 18 pieces composed between 1911 and 1913, at a time when Webern was making a two-piano version of Schoenberg's orchestral pieces. The music is no longer for full orchestra, but for 17 solo players. Its compression is such that the fourth piece lasts just over 30 seconds, and the colours throughout change with lightning rapidity. Ironically, the music was first heard in 1919 in a special arrangement for piano quartet and harmonium; it was not until 1926 that the full version was first performed.
"Something very colourful, but based on the strictest discipline" was how Webern described his Variations for Orchestra op. 30 (1940-41). The colour again arises from the spare, mercurial chamber instrumentation: there are single winds and brass (with bass clarinet instead of bassoon), celesta, harp and strings. And the discipline lies in the fusion of the highly motif-conscious, newly-evolved twelve-tone writing with complex formal thought: very typically, Webern wrote that everything in the piece derived from the two ideas heard at the opening in the double bass and oboe. As with the Passacaglia op. 1, the title describes principally a way of organizing musical continuity, with an introduction leading to six "variation" sections: these are compact, spare and lithe, and embrace the extremes of contrast with astonishing virtuosity. But more generally, Webern thought of the piece as an "overture" in the line of Beethoven's "Creatures of Prometheus" and Brahms's "Tragic", i.e. a kind of "adagio" (a sonata without development), with the added Haydn-like refinement that the recapitulation (the relatively rich section 4) involves further development. Once again, the tempi show a constant, volatile alternation of fast and slow, though now the metres are also subjected to constant change.
Webern's Fuga (Ricercata) of 1934-35 is an orchestration of part of J. S. Bach's Musical Offering. It is also a creative summation of the composer's historical and aesthetic attitudes of the time. The choice of the archaic type of contrapuntal movement, which is in six parts with unspecified instrumentation, reflected Webern's lifelong devotion to older polyphony: the addition to Bach's lines of dynamics, different types of articulation, tempi gradations and motivically-conscious phrasing extends the principles of the later twelve-tone works; the soloistic fragmentation of the line again reflects Schoenberg's concern for rapidly changing instrumental colour (in a letter, Schoenberg referred Webern to his own orchestration of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat from the Clavieriibung); and the fact that the Musical Offerings Royal Theme is rich in chromatic steps aligns it with the chromatic aspect of Webern's serialism.
The text for A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46 (1947) was written by Schoenberg himself. It is based partly on accounts which came to him "at first or second hand" of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. It draws on the truth that in the extremes of adversity, human beings are able to fall back on apparently forgotten songs and prayers for comfort: as they are led to the gas chambers, the Jews burst into the Shema Yisroel, the command to love God. The story is told by a speaker, and takes the form of a traumatic re-enactment, half-forgotten on the one hand, vividly recollected on the other. After a short musical and textual introduction, the main narrative starts (from "The day began as usual"). It draws strong contrasts between the brutal screaming of the sergeant and the suffering of his victims, and between the painfully slow movement of the Jews at the beginning and their final "stampede" like "wild horses". Obsessively pervading the score is the reveille motif of the trumpet. At the climax, the Shema Yisroel is sung, not to any traditional melody, but to a twelve-note line supported by a fraught orchestral texture. The juxtaposition of speech and song, with the English ceding here to the Hebrew, recalls Schoenberg's opera Moses and Awn (1932), just as the volatile instrumentation goes back to the Five Orchestral Pieces and beyond. But the effect of A Survivoris unprecedented. In the whole history of music, there can be nothing to match the overwhelming, almost unbearable immediacy of the seven harrowing minutes.
- Christopher Wintle
A Survivor From Warsaw
I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time. I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years - the forgotten creed! But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time.
The day began as usual: Reveille when it still was dark. Get out! Whether you slept or whether worries kept you awake the whole night. You had been separated from your children, from your wife, from your parents: you don't know what happened to them - how could you sleep?
The trumpets again - Get out! The sergeant will be furious! They came out: some very slowly: the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility. They fear the sergeant. They hurry as much as they can. In vain! Much too much noise, much too much commotion - and not fast enough! The Feldwebel shouts: "Achtung! Stilljestanden! Na wirds mal? Oder soll ich mil dem Jewehrkolben nachhelfen ? Na jutt; wenn ihr's durch-aus haben wollt!" (The sergeant shouts: "Attention! Silence! Are you ready, then, or do you need the help of my rifle butt? All right, then, if you really want it!") The sergeant and his subordinates hit everyone: young or old, strong or sick, guilty or innocent. It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning. I heard it though I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down. We all on the ground who could not stand up were then beaten over the head.
I must have been unconscious. The next thing I heard was a soldier saying: "They are all dead", whereupon the sergeant ordered to do away with us. There I lay aside - half-conscious. It had become very still - fear and pain.
Then I heard the sergeant shouting: "Abzahlen!" ("Count off!") They started slowly and irregularly: one, two, three, four - "Achtung!" the sergeant shouted again. "Rascher! Nochmal von vorn anfangen! In einer Minute will ich wissen, wieviele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzahlen!" ("Attention!" the sergeant shouted again, "Faster! Start over! In a minute I want to know how many of them I'm delivering to the gas chamber! Count off!") They began again, first slowly: one, two. three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the Shema Yisroei
(1949 by Boelke-Bomart, Inc.; used by permission)