Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation. By Amy Lynn Wlodarski. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN 9781107538849.

Reviewed by Samantha M. Cooper


Musicologist Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s debut monograph contributes a tremendous intervention to Holocaust witness, memory, and trauma studies. Responding to philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s famed pronouncement, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Wlodarski chronologically traces the compositional techniques and reception histories of five, postwar Western art music pieces and the aesthetic, contextual, and ethical-political realms of what she calls “secondary musical witness” (1). Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation responds to a paradox she sees in how musical witness compositions can function as “important cultural vehicle[s] for memory and empathy” while enacting “aesthetic trauma against historical memory and the actual victims” (8). Though these representations offer only “textures” of fact and memory for audience consumption, Wlodarski demonstrates that they nevertheless serve as crucial cultural-historical objects of study (6).

Wlodarski dedicates two chapters to Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), a score central to postwar discourses about musical witness. From the very formation of Schoenberg’s expressionist and dodecaphonic Survivor, Wlodarski claims that the composer sought to encode the topics of witness, memory, and trauma into a personalized textual and musical remembrance of the Holocaust (13-14). To reveal his creative process, she pairs findings from the composer’s pedagogical, autobiographical, and compositional sources with extended analysis of secondary literature. In surface and structure, Schoenberg’s Survivor transforms his theories on memory into a series of self-referential musical procedures, capable of invoking the divine presence.

Wlodarski’s discussion of the reception history of Survivor primarily relies on Adorno’s assorted postwar writings. Like Adorno, Wlodarski questions “whether the memorial benefits of Survivor outweighed the potential damage such representations did to Holocaust memory by attempting to translate the Holocaust into accessible artistic forms for listener consumption” (38). Read against the historical backdrop of the American and West German premieres, the “paradoxical and shifting status” of Adorno’s early and later critical response over time—in which he first praises and later debases Schoenberg’s composition—does not trouble Wlodarski. She instead argues that Adorno’s writings about Survivor’s aesthetic ramifications themselves “inhabit an unresolved liminal space between cultural memory and aesthetic forgetting” and thus serve as another form of musical and philosophical witness (38-9). Wlodarski’s decision to insert Adorno’s assorted philosophical writings into the lineage of musical witness reception is itself a compelling move. By expanding the reception scope beyond immediate critical response, Wlodarski reminds scholarly readers of the role that their words may one day play in the sculpting of historical memory.

Subsequently, in chapter 3, Wlodarski introduces German-Jewish exile and composer Hanns Eisler’s film score for the abstract documentary and memorial project Nuit et Brouillard (1956). With this film, French director Alan Resnais intended to produce a politically resonant and aesthetically resistant work that could simultaneously oppose Leni Riefenstahl’s captivating propaganda creations, respond to Heinrich Himmler’s 1941 ban on filming the genocide, and target French audiences for collectively denying their role in begetting Holocaust atrocities. In order to balance Resnais’ political goals with Eisler’s aesthetic aims and seek a middle-ground between “empathetic scoring and musical unsettlement,” the composer drew on Brechtian distancing techniques alongside emotional and subjective musical material (89). Celebrated and censured, Nuit et Brouillard’s controversial French and German receptions involved the audience in historically based practices of memorial work.

In chapter 4, Wlodarski traces the Holocaust cantata Jüdische Chronik (1961) from its production through to its public reception, focusing on its deployment as a public memorialization project by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). After situating Chronik’s collaborative and dodecaphonic compositional process, Wlodarski explores how the Socialist Union Party (SED) incorporated Chronik into its official curricula, policies, and commemorations. Despite East German composer Paul Dessau’s intended use for the Chronik as a social protest against the problematic treatment of returned Jewish exiles throughout post-war Germany, the GDR instead leveraged the work to bolster state-sanctioned understandings of the Holocaust, and propagate its historical, ideological, and political agendas (93-4). Wlodarski’s final cautionary reflections suggest that when intervening forces manipulate creations of secondary witness to the extent of the Chronik, they become dangerous, without the power to sincerely contribute to ventures of memory restoration (124-5).

In the penultimate chapter, Wlodarski deconstructs Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988), a theatrical string quartet and tape composition in which the composer interweaves three Holocaust survivor’s spoken recollections. To prove this minimalist piece of “postmodern musical witness” is “susceptible to […] representational dangers,” she closely reads materials held at Yale University and the New York Public Library (130). Neither musicologist Richard Taruskin’s effusive praise nor Reich’s repeated claims that Different Trains constitutes an objective “musical documentary” withstand Wlodarski’s uncovering of the biased “techniques of selection, suture, and substitution” Reich applied to the testimonial excerpts (160, 140). After reconsidering the moral and political success of his composition, Wlodarski understands Different Trains as Reich’s musical testimony, albeit layered with the voices of others.

Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation concludes with a moving epilogue about the importance of self-conscious acts of musical witness in aiding the next generation to empathize with victims of historical genocides. For Wlodarski, Chaya Czernowin’s opera Pnima … ins Innere (2000) embodies this vision. Modelled on the testimonial approach and first chapter of David Grossman’s See Under: Love (1989), Pnima recounts the meeting of a young boy and an elderly Holocaust survivor in three parts. Unlike those before her, Czernowin vocally and self-consciously casts herself in the narrative. Though spatiotemporally distant from the genocide in question, Czernowin’s libretto offers:

“an allegory for the changes faced by second-generation artists when creating musical witness – the testimonial gap between traumatic experience and artistic translation, the attempts to make contact and the failure to understand fully, the possibilities of witness and the impossibility of understanding an event as cavernous as the Holocaust” (174).

The strength of this book lies in Wlodarski’s generative contextualization and assessment of her archival findings (especially in the case of Reich’s Different Trains), as well as her meticulous deconstruction and synthesis of vast and interdisciplinary literature collections. With the notable exception of her epilogue, I would have appreciated a broadening of Wlodarski’s musical considerations beyond European male contributors to the Holocaust witness canon. Since she most aligns with her one female composer of choice, considering creations by other women would allow Wlodarski to critique the very gendered nature of musical witness production history. Fortunately, her text sets a commendable precedent for future investigations.

Despite its deceptively compact nature, Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation is formidably detailed and persuasively delivered. It deservedly won the Lewis Lockwood Award of the American Musicological Society for most outstanding book. Though relevant for scholars in cultural studies, émigré and exile studies, European studies, Jewish studies, and trauma studies, Wlodarski’s complex musical-theoretical analysis and score readings render this text most suitable for academics and graduate students of musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory. With its engaging argument about the aesthetics and ethics of musical witness creations, Wlodarski’s monograph provides an indispensible scholarly model for analyzing the artistic shocks that follow traumatic events.


Samantha M. Cooper, New York University