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Requiem for a world war

Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo shows how four great 20th-century composers captured the horrors of conflict.

By William Boyd

Back in the spring of 1999 I was sitting in an editing suite at Twickenham Studios trying to affix a musical “temp-track” to the opening sequence of a feature film I had written and directed called The Trench, a story about the fate of a squad of young soldiers set during the two days before the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The idea of a temp-track is to give the composer – in this case it was to be the wonderful Evelyn Glennie – an idea of the musical score that you, the director, are hoping for.

The Trench opens with a montage of real black-and-white photographs of the British front line on the Somme in the summer of 1916. The Somme had been a quiet sector for the duration of the war thus far and the trenches were immaculate – sunlit, solid, deep, dry, well-constructed. The montage lasts at least a couple of minutes before the final “photograph” morphs into colour and action and the movie begins.

The music I eventually chose to put under these images was the opening of the second movement of Brahms’ magisterial A German Requiem. The slow crescendo of sonorous B-flat minor chords and rumbling timpani deliver a perfect, minatory note under the images of cheerful Tommies enjoying a cuppa, chatting, cleaning kit, peering out through periscopes over no-man’s land, and so forth, little knowing what hell was about to be unleashed. 

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I cite this anecdote simply as a serendipitous prefiguring of the central thesis of Jeremy Eichler’s fascinating book. Through Brahms’ music, I was adding “memory” or “remembrance” – “time’s echo”, according to Eichler. Brahms’ magnificent requiem (written between 1865 and 1868), with its doom-laden melancholy, was now supplying the complex emotional subtext to this cinematic narrative set in 1916. The music’s compositional and performative history, and its reception, had become a resonating part of the film.

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Eichler’s main contention in this richly detailed book is that music is a route back through time. He argues that a piece of music is a “memorial in sound” that can accumulate “layers of meaning over time”, not just through a history of the work’s performances but also through “other texts, other lives, and other stories” that it illuminates. For Eichler, music is “an archive of emotion and meaning, history and memory”.

As evidence for this intriguing idea Eichler, an American music critic, examines four works by four giants of 20th-century classical music: Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw; Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen; Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony (the “Babi Yar” symphony); and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. All of the pieces are linked to the Second World War in various ways and reflect individual horrors of that conflict.

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 Although Eichler provides some musicological analysis, his book is primarily a work of history. He looks closely at the historical and political context in which the music was written and the tensions experienced by the composers at the time. Britten’s war was unexceptional: he was in the US when hostilities broke out and registered himself as a conscientious objector when he returned to England in 1942. But Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Strauss all felt the weight of the history they were living through in the 1930s and 1940s, and after – Shostakovich in particular. It’s not too wild a claim to say that in writing the 13th Symphony, completed in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, Shostakovich was risking his freedom in so doing, not to say his life. The Soviet Communist Party’s strict policy was to suppress all reference to Jewish suffering in the war: it was as if the Babi Yar massacre had not occurred. Shostakovich’s symphony was an audacious challenge to the official narrative. It was, in Eichler’s estimation, “radioactive”.

The most speculative investigation is that of Strauss’s haunting and moving Metamorphosen, a symphonic tone-poem for 23 strings written in the last year of the war. It reflects, Eichler believes, Strauss’s personal agony over the self-serving compromises he made with the Nazis and the extent to which – even though he never joined the party – he was a fellow-traveller. Strauss never explained the inspiration behind Metamorphosen so Eichler’s interpretation is, I suppose, as good as any other. Some see it as a homage to Goethe (Strauss was reading his way through Goethe’s complete works at the time); others consider the piece a lament for the great opera and concert houses of Germany and Austria, in which so many of Strauss’s works had their first performances, now laid to waste by Allied bombing. Which is correct? 

[See also: How England lost the Hundred Years War]

Eichler is aware that any author is walking on thin ice in trying to explain what music “means” to a listener. Some wag (Frank Zappa? Elvis Costello?) once claimed that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, but the weight of documentary detail that Eichler brings to bear on these individual pieces is compelling circumstantial evidence for his various interpretations.  

Eichler visits key locations in the histories of the composers to see the physical situation of the music’s composition or inspiration. He goes to Coventry to see the bomb-blasted ruins of the old cathedral that inspired Britten’s magnificent War Requiem. He travels to Babi Yar, outside Kyiv, to see what remains of the site of the 1941 atrocity that informed Shostakovich’s symphony. More than 33,000 Jews were machine-gunned by Einsatzgruppen paramilitaries and their bodies thrown into the Babi Yar ravine. There is a memorial now but the ravine itself was filled in, as the Nazis tried to remove all traces of the massacre.

When Eichler travelled to the Strauss archive, held in Strauss’s home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Bavaria, and made a formal request to see certain letters in the archive that related to the composition of Metamorphosen, the Strauss family declined permission. The blunt refusal does make one wonder what exactly the family is worried about some 80 years on.

The histories of the four pieces of music are illuminating, and Eichler writes with great limpidity and vigour. However, the more one learns about each masterwork and its background the more one begins, paradoxically, to question the book’s central argument.

It was Rilke who so cogently described music as “language where language ends” and this has always seemed to me to explain its singular power to move and stir. But Eichler makes a larger and more ambitious case. All art, he concedes, allows us to live with history’s ghosts, but, he claims that 

When it comes to attaining a genuine felt contact with these multiple pasts, music indeed possesses a special relationship to memory… We listen to moments of lost time, summoning from the ether glimmers of what another era has written, heard, dreamed, hoped and mourned.

Do we really? Maybe you do, if you have done the immense amount of scholarly footwork that Eichler clearly has undertaken, but does that apply to the average music lover? 

As an experiment, having read Eichler’s book and having particularly relished the pages on Strauss’s Metamorphosen, a piece of music I know and love, I listened to it again. And, yes, it is a beautiful and plangent work, about 25 minutes long, as mesmerising in its way as the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. However, for all that I now knew about the piece, it was not the troubled context that held my attention. Deep down it may have been carrying “time’s echo”, but above all it was the thrill and majesty of the music that was working on me, speaking a language where language ends.

This could be a personal defect, of course, and in no way is my reaction meant to derogate Eichler’s key contention. But it strikes me that the facility he describes is not unique to music. Isn’t this ability to “live with the presence of the past” true of all great works of art? Aren’t all such works, to borrow Eichler’s phrase, “archives of emotion and meaning, history and memory”? If you look at Picasso’s Guernica, knowing when and why it was painted, don’t the reverberations of the past and the aesthetic frisson of the present coexist?  If you read, say, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – cognisant of the authors’ lives, the books’ composition and the roller-coaster of their reputations – aren’t you, in a similar way, connecting with history? And if you were watching Swan Lake, or Gone with the Wind, or a performance of The Cherry Orchard, or looking at Rodin’s The Thinker, wouldn’t this same collision be taking place?

Such thought provocation is a tribute to the energies and vivacity of Eichler’s book. It will have fulfilled the author’s challenging assertion about music’s power if it makes us newly aware of the multitude of layers and nuances that go into a masterwork in whatever form. Art does not exist in ring-fenced isolation: history, society, reputation, biography – and the autobiography of the auditor, reader, spectator – all add to the resonant whole.

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance
Jeremy Eichler
Faber & Faber, 400pp, £25

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[See also: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux]

This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List