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Work of the Week – Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw

This year’s BBC Proms will include a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) on 8 August. Simon Russell Beale will narrate, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices.

In 1933, Schoenberg, the son of a Jewish merchant, fled the Nazi party’s rise to power and emigrated to the USA. The Nazi dictatorship and subsequent Holocaust clearly impacted Schoenberg deeply, driving and intensifying the representation of human suffering and torment in his compositions, as evident in A Survivor from Warsaw .

A Survivor from Warsaw – A groundbreaking exploration of twelve-tone technique

In just 8 minutes, Schoenberg expresses musically the suffering and persecution of an entire population. The cantata text, written by Schoenberg himself, portrays a scene in the Warsaw Ghetto to illustrate experiencing the Nazi reign of terror. The cantata is in three different languages: The narrator speaks English, but quotes the commanding shouts of a soldier in German, and finally in a devastating emotional climax to the work, the narrator cries out in Hebrew ‘Shema Yisroel’, a Jewish declaration of faith.

Now, what the text of the Survivor means to me: it means at first a warning never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed and found it necessary to treat us this way. We should never forget this, even if such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the ‘Survivor’. This does not matter. The main thing is that I saw it in my imagination. – Arnold Schönberg

Other Schott works at the BBC Proms include Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time (1997) on 8 August in the same programme as A Survivor from Warsaw, Sir Charles his Pavan (1992) by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies performed by Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic on 9 August and a new Cello Concerto by Huw Watkins will receive its world premiere with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård and with the composer’s brother Paul Watkins as soloist on 12 August.