Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
By mid-July, Arnold Schoenberg was hard at work on a composition he had conceived several months earlier, when choreographer Corinne Chochem sent him details on a song for a potential commission.
Although the price was too high for Chochem, Schoenberg remained focused on the idea of a work of up to nine minutes for a speaker, orchestra and chorus, saying: “I plan to make it this scene—which you described—in the Warsaw ghetto, how the doomed Jews started singing before going to die.”
In early July, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation offered him a commission, which allowed him to complete the work. Writing his own text, he began:
“I cannot remember ev’rything
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.”
Schoenberg finished his Op. 46, “Survivor From Warsaw,” in September 1947. According to a biography, at its premiere by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony in November 1948, “The work… was performed twice. After the first time the audience of 1,500 sat in astonished silence; after the second the applause was stormy.”
While the work remains one of Schoenberg’s most powerful, evocative works, “Survivor of Warsaw” was not mentioned in his Times obituary after he died July 14, 1951, at his home, 116 N. Rockingham Road in Brentwood (yes, just a few blocks from O.J. Simpson).
Shortly before the work’s premiere, he wrote of using “Shema Yisroel” at the end of the piece: “The miracle is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”
Note: The Los Angeles Philharmonic first performed “Survivor From Warsaw” under Zubin Mehta on Nov. 7, 1968, with Edward G. Robinson as the speaker.
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