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"Break Forth in Melody & Song": Arnold Schoenberg

(1874 - 1951)

The Koussevitsky Foundation also commissioned what turned out to be one of the first musical works on the Holocaust. The manuscript of the work, completed in 1947, in the composer's hand is in the Music Division: A Survivor from Warsaw, For Narrator and Men's Choir and Orchestra, opus 46 by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). Schoenberg, who introduced the use of atonality and the twelve-note scale, was born in Vienna and grew up in that city during its era of manifest anti-Semitism. His radical musical innovation made him one of the most controversial and influential musical figures of the twentieth century. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he was dismissed from his post as a director of a school for musical composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. His response was a formal, public return to the Jewish faith which he had left early in life. America offered a haven and became his home.

"Dedicated to the Koussevitzky Music Foundation who commissioned it" by the composer, who adds a note on the title page of A Survivor from Warsaw:

This text is based partly upon reports which I have received directly or indirectly. A Sch

Schoenberg wrote the text as well as the music, whose theme is heroic defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto. Doomed men on the way to a gas chamber sing Schema Yisrael. Is the title Schoenberg chose of autobiographic import, the "Hear O, Israel" of one who defiantly returned to the faith of his fathers?

Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw, n.p., n.d. Music Division.

To the title page of the manuscript of A Survivor from Warsaw, Schoenberg added a note, "This text is based partly upon reports which I have received directly or indirectly," because he wrote the text as well as the music. His Narrator, describing a scene of heroic defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto, begins by saying:

I cannot remember everything! I must have been unconscious much of the time. I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing the old prayer they had neglected for so many years-the forgotten creed.

Text and music describe a roll call of doomed men on their way to the gas chamber.

They started again first slowly one-two-three-became faster and faster: so fast it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses and-quite of a sudden-in the middle of it they began singing the SCHEMA YISROEL.

The work concludes with the rhythmic singing of the Hebrew words of the traditional Jewish affirmation of faith:

Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul, all thy might.

As he had done in 1933, Schoenberg responded in 1947 to the enemy who would destroy his people and its faith, with a dramatic outcry affirming his loyalty to both.

Schoenberg's Kol Nidre (1939), written five years after his arrival in the United States, and his three great works on biblical themes — Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder), Modern Psalms, and his opera Moses and Aaron — all unfinished at the time of his death, show his continuing attraction to Jewish themes. He left his manuscripts and books to the National Library in Jerusalem. A portrait in oil of Schoenberg by George Gershwin hangs in the Library of Congress's Music Division.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).