About this work
Schoenberg, a refugee from Nazi anti-Semitism, wrote this six-minute music drama expressing searing outrage over German brutality during the wartime occupation of Poland. It tells of an incident during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The text is by Schoenberg and uses both English and German, with a concluding chorus in Biblical Hebrew using the "Sh'ma Yisrael," (Hear, O Israel, from Deuteronomy).
The work is for full orchestra, narrator, and male chorus. The work is 12-tone throughout, which works perfectly with the subject matter. In form it is cinematic, following the eyewitness account of the narrator. The survivor is found hiding in the sewers. A crowd is rounded up by the Nazi sergeant and the survivor is caught. The narrator shouts out the commands of the sergeant in German and in the present tense. From the beating and murder of the defenseless Jews arises the electrifying and defiant singing of the "Sh'ma," which is an exhortation to "love the Lord thy God with all thine heart and with all thy soul" and to pass this love on to the next generation. In this context of pure evil it becomes a radiant beacon, a triumph of belief and confidence that the faith shall endure into future generations.
The Narrator's part is written in Schoenberg's technique of "Sprechstimme," or "speaking voice." Schoenberg's text has a quality perhaps the composer did not fully appreciate. While it is in fluent and correct English, there are syntactical features that indicate the author conceived it in German and then wrote it down in English. Slightly foreign turns of phrase make the narration seem that much more authentic and immediate.