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"and all of a sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing...": Languages and Commemoration in Arnold Schoenberg's Cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (Op. 46)

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Ian BiddleORCiD, Professor Beate Muller



In 1947, Arnold Schoenberg was approached by Corinne Chochem to write a piece about the Holocaust, and the result was the cantata for solo voice, orchestra and male-voice choir, A Survivor from Warsaw (Op. 46). Chochem had sent him the text of Hirsh Glik’s Yiddish-language Zog nisht keynmol which Schoenberg put to one side in favour of a text he authored himself in English and German, and completed with the core text (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) of the Hebrew prayer, the Shema Yisroel. This paper reads Schoenberg’s cantata as an early example of musical representations of the Holocaust, arguing that the three languages present in the piece unfold their significance only in relation to each other; it is this relational interdependence which is crucial to the testimonial character of the cantata. We will explore how the three languages negotiate witnessing and remembering atrocity, and how they help shape different communities of perpetrators, victims, and witnesses. The solo narrator shares his memories in English, using German only when he wishes to represent the speech (acts) of the perpetrators. He thus represents an interesting instance of a cross-linguistic testimonial voice. This paper asks how works such as this one might be said to draw on some of the conventions of testimony and to what extent they might be said to abandon the testimonial voice altogether. How, for example, are we to understand the displacement of testimonial voice at the end of the cantata for a sudden recitation by the chorus of victims singing the ‘long forgotten creed’, the Hebrew prayer? To what extent might we understand this cantata, written in Los Angeles, admittedly far from the events in Central Europe, as participating in what in Yiddish became known as zamler-kultur, the urge among Jewish victims of the Holocaust to ‘collect and record’ their experiences?

Publication metadata

Author(s): Biddle I, Müller B

Editor(s): Peter Davies & Andrea Hammel

Series Editor(s): Peter Davies

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Edinburgh German Yearbook 8: New Literary and Linguistic Perspectives on the German Language, National Socialism, and the Shoah

Year: 2014

Volume: 8

Pages: 199-216

Print publication date: 28/11/2014

Acceptance date: 01/01/1900

Series Title: Edinburgh German Yearbook

Publisher: Camden House

Place Published: Rochester, New York


Notes: This is the first article which sees Schoenberg's famous cantata 'A Survivor from Warsaw' not only as an early example of musical commemoration of the Holocaust, but as a piece which uses the three languages present in the libretto - English, German, and Hebrew - as an interdependent network of languages through which this musical testimony to the Holocaust unfolds. The three languages fulfil crucial roles for witnessing, remembering, resisting, and reflecting on genocide, as well as for creating different communities of perpetrators, witnesses, and victims.

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781571135971