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Music and Genocide


Wojciech Klimczyk and Agata Świerzowska

At first glance, no two experiences could be further apart than genocide and music. Yet real, live culture usually goes beyond rational divisions. It is now fairly commonly known that art is not absent from the sites of mass killings. Both victims and prosecutors engage in artistic activities in prisons and camps, as well as at other places where genocides take place. What is the music of genocide? Can the experience of ultimate terror be expressed in music? How does music reflect on genocide? How do we perceive music after genocide? What is music and what is silence in a world marked by mass killings? Is post-genocidal silence really possible or appropriate? The goal of the volume is to reveal and, maybe even to some extent, resolve the most profound dilemma that was expressed by Theodor W. Adorno when he asked «whether it is even permissible for someone who accidentally escaped and by all rights ought to have been murdered, to go on living after Auschwitz.» It is not for the sake of pure curiosity that the relation between music and genocide is examined. In a sense we are all survivors who accidentally escaped genocide. It might have happened to us. It may still happen.
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“… as if the shame before the victims would be offended” – Adorno’s Verdict on Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw


← 154 | 155 → Ralph Buchenhorst

“… as if the shame before the victims would be offended”1 – Adorno’s Verdict on Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw


In this article I shall explore the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s radical interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal composition A Survivor from Warsaw, completed in 1946. To this end, I attempt to examine Schoenberg’s intention in composing a piece directly related to the memory of the Shoah as well as to highlight the purpose of Adorno’s criticism of the work both within his thinking on the relation between art and genocide and his aesthetic theory in general. Thus, in what follows, I will first present some details of the composition in question, then shed some light on the relation between the musical material in the piece and Schoenberg’s idea of how to represent the memory of Jewish survival, and finally I will scrutinize Adorno’s approach to Schoenberg and his concepts directly related to the two questions if and how to represent the Shoah in art. In what follows, the focus of my analytical labor will be the question of whether any elements of Adorno’s interpretation of art relating to genocide − developed mainly between the 1940’s and the 1960’s − are still relevant for us contemporaries of the 21st Century.

It is essential to remember that the issue in question is part of the wider context represented by the ongoing debate concerning the limits beyond which representations of the...

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