Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Survivor from Warsaw, Op.46

Hi friends of AAI333, here's my listening analysis of one of Schoenberg's masterpieces, A Survivor from Warsaw, Op.46. I have no reason for choosing this piece, just went to YouTube to find something that is very alien to me. And yes, this took me over a day to digest!!!

Video References
(I will be using the Horst Stein recording for all video timing as reference)

Background Info
Title: A Survivor from Warsaw, Op.46
Date composed: 11-23 August 1947
Date performed: 4th Nov 1948 by Albuquerque Civic Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Frederick conductor

Narration Text
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 wird's mal! Oder soll ich mit dem Jewehrkolben nachhelfen? Na jut; wenn ihrs durchaus haben wollt!" ("Attention! Stand still! How about it, or should I help you along with the butt of my rifle? Oh well, if you really want to have it!")

The sergeant and his subordinates hit (everyone): young or old, (strong or sick), quiet, 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. I had become very still - fear and pain. Then I heard the sergeant shouting: „Abzählen!“ ("Count off!")

They start slowly and irregularly: one, two, three, four - "Achtung!" The sergeant shouted again, "Rascher! Nochmals von vorn anfange! In einer Minute will ich wissen, wieviele ich zur Gaskammer abliefere! Abzählen!“ ("Faster! Once more, start from the beginning! In one minute I want to know how many I am going to send off 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 Yisroel.

My listening (and analytical) attempts:
General musical perceptions
The first listen of A Survivor from Warsaw got my ears tuned to the timbre of sound associated with the events being described in the narration. In general, I hear sounds of woodwinds and low strings tremolo provide a dreamy or confused feeling at the time of semi-consciousness or recollection in a blur state (seen at the beginning of narration). Very brassy tones of the trumpets and percussions (snare drum) support the hostile gestures of the German soldiers treating the narrator’s character. 

As the description of the realistic recount became more intense, the music followed suit. A particular example was at 3:30-4:00, as the narrator became more agitated from his “recollection” of the pain of hearing the “groaning and moaning”. There was use of high screaming trumpet and violin notes to support the build in the narrator’s agitated description of others, preceding a sudden drop in energy as he continued the description about himself at the time when he heard the groans.

The percussions seemed to help liven up the imagery of the descriptions. The hitting of the cymbal with the stick and the striking of the gong (4:14 - 4:24) fitted the sounds of the soldiers beating the prisoners on the head and them falling to the ground respectively.

The realism of the narration was supported by the interesting use of three languages – what I eventually found out to be English, German and Hebrew. English was used by the narrator, a Jewish prisoner and German was used by the German soldier, as recounted by the narrator. As the narrator agonised the prisoners singing the Shema Yisroel, a Jewish prayer, a male chorus started singing the prayer, in its original language of Hebrew, presumably before they were executed (inferred from the abrupt ending of the piece). I did not know the significance of the chorus at initial listen, but instead thought it was about some procession (which reminded me somewhat to Duel of the Fates from Star Wars). This occurred as I could not hear the last words of the narrator as he was becoming drowned out by the orchestra. After some reference to the lyrics I began to realise the chorus section formed part of the description of what the narrator “heard”.

Meter and rhythms
I believed the piece to be in free time, especially of the narration as I could not feel any constant pulse present. Rhythm also sounded random, which made me question if the score was notated typically in western notation. Upon looking at the score, I realised that the score was in simple quadruple meter, but with various changes in tempo. It also had very intricate rhythms, so varied that it made the piece sound like it was in free time.

I made it through the first listen without any clue of what the structure of the piece is, and after multiple listens and eventual viewing of the score, I could only come to a conclusion that the piece is structured into three segments: instrumental, narration and chorus. 
  • Instrumental: 11 bars
  • Narration: 69 bars (1 bar overlap with chorus)
  • Chorus: 20 bars (1 bar overlap with narration)
Through more listening attempts, I began to become more convinced that the piece was designed to be more thematic to suit the (length of the) narrator’s recount rather than a regular structured form, the most obvious theme being played by the trumpets in a 4-note motif which seem to represent the shouting German soldiers, or at least the harsh nature of them, as heard in the opening. Apart from the trumpet motif to introduce the German soldiers, they are also portrayed by tense, scurrying passages, tremolos, and fast string pizzicatos and other loud sections.

A succeeding motif after the trumpet one is the snare, played quickly and suddenly before fading off in the distance, as though warning shots are being fired by the Germans to scare the prisoners into submission.

Melodic/Harmonic Structure
I could not pick out any standard repeated melody or harmony, but I eventually figured that the 12-tone technique was used, since Schoenberg invented the method to compose. Looking at the score both vertically and horizontally, there were instances where all 12 tones were used within the bar (e.g. bar 1, 10, 14, 15, etc.) and multiple sets of 12 tones were used in a bar (e.g. bars 16 and 17 within each crotchet beat).

After some painstaking counting of tones in some sections of the score, I have reason to believe that hexachords are being used within 2 different lines. This is seen in bars 18-21 (and 22), where the strings and harp form a hexachord while the horn line completes the two-series form, as stated by Lester to be known as a hexachordal combinatoriality. This two-series form is then moved along different instruments in bars 22 to 24.

The narration section, to my surprise, also has notation according to the pitch and rhythm of how the narration should be spoken. Schoenberg has cleverly notated the narration rhythm such that it is very realistic to an actual conversational speech. The pitches notated contains no clefs - which makes me conclude that the pitches are not made to be accurate in terms of tuning, but rather for the speaker to be instructed specifically to how the intonation of the narration should be expressed.

A Survivor from Warsaw may sound like a typical 20th Century piece that is very “usual” to a passing ear, but is extremely difficult to perform. The wide angular leaps demanded of many of the instruments to hit notes of every tone in the scale would require very high level of the player’s tuning capabilities. The demands of every rhythm are also not easy to achieve, despite having a simple 4/4 time signature.
The 12-tone technique used by Schoenberg, fused together with the suitable timbre of sounds to represent different emotions and levels of energy of the narration makes the piece a very complex masterpiece. It is of no wonder that, by the sheer degree of energy in this piece, Schoenberg returned to accept his Jewish identity after converting to Lutheranism in his early adulthood.