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From the JFR Library – March 2024

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From the JFR Library

Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance

By Jeremy Eichler

Reviewed by Martha Anne Toll on October 2, 2023, for The Washington Post

In “Time’s Echo,” Jeremy Eichler knits together the history of the Holocaust and classical music before, during and after the cataclysm. Eichler explores two questions: How might we come to “know, honor, commemorate, feel a connection to, or most simply live with the presence of the past?” and how might we return works of art and music to history, so they become “a prism through which we ‘remember’ what was lost?”

Eichler, the chief classical music critic for the Boston Globe and a cultural historian, takes four prominent composers with differing backgrounds and nationalities — Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten — and grounds them in their cultural antecedents, exploring how their signature compositions reflect the horrific times in which they lived. (The more the reader knows about music, the more likely this dense, beautiful book will resonate.) In the key through line, he connects the fluidity of musical time to personal and historical memory. Despite detailed endnotes, “Time’s Echo” is not a reference book. Carefully researched and capacious in scope, it reads as elegy: mournful, elegant and gratifying.

Music is notoriously difficult to get on the page. It is a great challenge to describe the lamentations of specific composers.

We may know Strauss as a gifted composer of tone poems and operas, but he was also someone who had a troubling and opportunistic relationship with Nazi leadership. In an ironic twist, he ended up having to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren from the Nazi maw. We may know Schoenberg as the inventor of the 12-tone row, but here, we also see him as a secular Jew whose prescient efforts to sound the alarm for European Jewry went unheeded.

Eichler organizes chapters around themes, rather than people or events. He weaves in contemporaneous cultural influences from literature, visual arts, philosophy and academia.

The German-Austrian Jewish composers Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler and Schoenberg are considered in the first chapter, where Eichler describes the 19th-century Jewish dream of “emancipation through culture.” He interprets the German word “Bildung” (as in bildungsroman) to signify “a faith in the ability of literature, music, philosophy, and poetry to renovate the self, to shape one’s moral sensibilities, and to guide one toward a life of aesthetic grace.”

Subsequent chapters consider the impact of World War I on what was to come, and what it means both to remember and to forget history’s catastrophes. Nothing points up the psychosis of Nazi ideology better than pairing lofty concepts such as Bildung with the Nazi death machine. A chapter called “The Emancipation of Memory” juxtaposes the Nazi celebration of Friedrich Schiller’s 175th birthday with the story of Schoenberg’s cousin Arthur, a civil engineer who had played a leading role in creating Munich’s buildings and infrastructure. Arthur pleaded with the Munich city council not to nullify his citizenship and subject him to “the tragedy of homelessness” at age 60.

Eichler notes that later scholars would call this type of appeal a reflection of the “bureaucratization of genocide.” Within nine months of being deported to Terezin, Arthur and his wife were dead. The Nazis successfully killed the carefully woven connections between Jewish intellectuals and artists and the concept of Bildung. The genocide was so far beyond imagination that the BBC delayed airing Richard Dimbleby’s real-time descriptions of Bergen-Belsen. The London office just couldn’t believe it.

Encapsulating the literature of trauma, Eichler writes that the survivor cannot move on until the telling of the trauma “has been truly witnessed.” Music is part of that witnessing.

Having performed as a violist in a Britten opera and orchestral pieces, I was particularly moved by Eichler’s discussions of the English composer. Born in the coastal English town of Lowestoft, Britten was an infant when World War I broke out. His uncle was killed in the Battle of the Somme, and a shell fired by the German fleet narrowly missed the family home.

Eichler delves into Britten’s titanic composition “War Requiem,” which premiered in 1962 in the newly consecrated Coventry Cathedral (the original was destroyed by German bombs during World War II). “War Requiem” is scored for two orchestras and an organ. Three vocal soloists and two choirs sing World War I poetry by Wilfred Owen as well as the Latin Requiem. The piece was Britten’s “culminating artistic statement of a life spent responding in varying degrees to the human capacity for cruelty, and society’s capacity for violence against its own members once they had been branded as other.”

A short review does not lend itself to a thorough exploration of a book as rich as this, where a consideration of Shostakovich’s music includes a discussion of Sigmund Freud and Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Eichler pairs the music of Paul Hindemith with the literature of W.G. Sebald. Eichler is so taken with Sebald that he adopts the writer’s visual design — uncaptioned photographs interspersed with the text.

Toward the end, Eichler quotes a letter from Shostakovich to Britten that suggests the Russian composer’s tortured relationship with Stalin. The letter provides a wonderful summary for “Time’s Echo”: “Your music is the most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century. And for me it is the source of profound and powerful impressions. Write as much as possible. It is necessary for humanity — and certainly for me.”

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