Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance

  • By Jeremy Eichler
  • Knopf
  • 400 pp.

This cerebral work explores music’s power to capture an age.

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance

Early in the long and complex Time’s Echo, author Jeremy Eichler states his purpose: to explore World War II through the study and analysis of the music of Arnold Schönberg (the author spells it Schoenberg in recognition of the time the composer spent in the U.S.), Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich, all of whom lived through the war and wrote music influenced by it. The book focuses on Schönberg’s “Survivor from Warsaw,” Strauss’ “Metamorphosen,” Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar,” and Britten’s “War Requiem.”

I am well suited to review this book. In addition to my Ph.D. in public administration, I have a bachelor’s degree in music, speak and read seven languages (including German but not Russian), and am familiar with the four works Eichler uses as his primary examples of music reflecting WWII. I also have an up-close-and-personal acquaintance with war, having spent considerable time in combat in Vietnam.

And I remember the Second World War. Granted, I was a small child, but I recall with unmarred clarity the declaration of the war, my concern for the life of my uncles serving overseas, and, especially, the celebration when the war ended. There were moments while reading Time’s Echo that I felt like the book was written just for me.

Eichler succeeds in his venture because music is timeless. It reflects the era of its creation yet speaks to listeners centuries later with the clarity of perpetuity. Bach’s fugues, for example, are as vital today as they were the day they were written.

The author stresses the importance of the concept of bildung, a difficult-to-translate German word that, according to Eichler, “signifies the ideal of personal ennoblement through humanistic education, a faith in the ability of literature, music, philosophy, and poetry to renovate life of aesthetic grace.” The word at its core means “development,” but according to Wikipedia, it also “refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation.”

Prominent in any history of World War II is the story of the Holocaust. The Nazis killed some 6 million Jews, 3 million Soviet civilians, and millions of others — Poles, Serbs, people with disabilities, Roma (gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, regime opponents, and homosexuals. It was a methodical slaughter unparalleled in history. Music from during and after the war memorializes the monstrosity, especially Strauss’ “Metamorphosen” and Shostakovich’s 13th and 14th symphonies.

One of the shocks Time’s Echo leveled at me was that one of my favorite composers, Strauss, was a Nazi collaborator though not a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the official name of the Nazis. I get the impression that he cooperated with them because he had little choice. And as far as I am concerned, he redeemed himself with the composition of his “Four Last Songs” in 1948 at age 84, the year before his death.

I was surprised to discover that Time’s Echo is Eichler’s first book, as he is an award-winning critic and cultural historian. Currently serving as chief classical music critic at the Boston Globe, he has received numerous accolades for his journalism and holds a doctorate in modern European history from Columbia University.

The author’s writing style at times slowed down my reading. He is fond of long, complex sentences and wording that often made me stop, go back, and read again. At one point, for example, he writes, “Over the years, one small set of actions taken in accordance with these memories has been the gathering up of the shards of Europe’s shattered musical past, a kind of re-collection in the name of recollection.” At another, these are his words:

“A chillingly beautiful symphony of songs based on poetry by Rilke, Lorca, Apollinaire, and others, the Fourteenth (Symphony of Shostakovich) strips war and human conflict down to their most essential — the intimacy of living and dying — and sets these truths against the immortality of art.”

Eichler includes a few photographs interspersed with the text, mostly of the people he is writing about. But one, of massed German soldiers shooting crowds of civilians at Babyn Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, visually captures the horror conveyed in the narrative. Over an unspecified period of time, the Nazis killed approximately 100,000 Jews at the infamous site.

My struggle with Eichler’s language notwithstanding, I suspect that Time’s Echo will become required reading for students of music and of the 20th century. It is the first and only book I have come across that cites music’s agelessness even as it captures the spirit and flavor of the time of its invention.

[Editor’s note: Longtime contributor Tom Glenn passed away in June. He completed this review, his final one for the Independent, shortly before his death.]

Tom Glenn is a fulltime author with six books and 17 short stories in print. Before he retired so he could write free of money worries, he worked for the National Security Agency as a linguist specializing in battlefield support to friendly forces in combat. He regularly plays his beloved Steinway grand piano.

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