Listening Contrapuntally; or What Happened When I Went Bach to the Archives

Amy Lynn Wlodarski

Folio from Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (J.P. Kellner, scribe. Berlin, 1725). D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 288, Faszikel 13, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, via Bach Digital. CC BY-NC 4.0.
Folio from Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (J.P. Kellner, scribe. Berlin, 1725). D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 288, Faszikel 13, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, via Bach Digital. CC BY-NC 4.0.
I remember the first time I heard a Bach fugue—the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543—in a Music History class at Middlebury College. It was a time in my life when I identified as a singer, one whose ears were predominantly tuned towards the lyricism and phraseology of melodies. In this context, the figuration of this Bach fugue presented a challenge for me. Its angular sequencing and instrumental counterpoint were difficult to sing, and I promptly dismissed it as mathematical and mechanical (as the young are wont to do). Later, a listening exam forced me to return to the score (as exams are wont to do), and I set about memorizing it by my standard method: singing along. As I did, I discovered the depth of associations within the work, how its Hauptstimmen (main voices) and Nebenstimmen (secondary voices) ultimately create textures that generate new resultant melodies that were not written in the score but were apparent to my ears. In short, by ignoring certain notes in the score, I found not only a version for my own voice but also a more holistic understanding of the artwork. And maybe that is why I have always chosen to begin my music survey course with this Bach fugue, where it begins an intellectual journey that will ultimately conclude with John Cage's silent postmodern masterpiece 4'33". It represents a piece that has gone from silence to sound and back again in the arenas of my own life.

The notion of counterpoint has become theoretically central to my work as a musicologist studying Holocaust witness. Indeed, the process of testimonial witness evokes a series of contrapuntal relationships: between history and memory; between present and past; between survivor and interviewer; between various transnational and exilic identities; between what gets said and what remains unspoken. To be certain, none of this was in my mind when I conducted my first interview with Henry, a child survivor of Ghetto Theresienstadt (Terezín) who had performed in the celebrated performances of the children's opera Brundibár. I was a first-year graduate student in musicology, untrained in the nuances of oral history, and involved in a local production of a work that would feature Henry's testimony as part of its dramaturgical rendering. As we sat in the local JCC, Henry recounted his memories of Brundibár from 1943, noting that "every kid knew the songs or whistled the songs . . . I think that every child knew it in and out." With obvious delight, he recalled his group of friends from the barracks—the "Fivers," as they called themselves—and how rehearsals provided them with a collective musical experience from which they constructed memorable childhoods, despite the circumstances of their surroundings. As I was leaving the building, Henry presented me with Joža Karas's book, Music in Terezín, which he pressed into my hands with the following words: "It's the real story, with the facts to prove it."

Two years later, Karas's book would accompany me on my first research trip to the Czech Republic, where I sifted through documents at the on-site archives of Ghetto Terezín. Among its sketches and scores, testimonies and diaries, I found confirmation of Karas's thesis: that music had been a source of spiritual resistance and Jewish self-expression in the ghetto. Materials related to the ghetto's most celebrated composers—Pavel Haas, Petr Kien, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullmann—as well as interviews with amateur performers spoke of the myriad musical activities that the Jewish prisoners mounted during their time in the ghetto. Among these accounts was a postwar interview with Greta, another child survivor of Terezín, who had played the lead role of Aninka in Brundibár. "Music! Music was life!" she exclaimed to her interviewer—a remark that I had encountered before. Karas uses the vibrancy of her words to close Music in Terezín, arguing that participation in the Freizeitgestaltungen allowed the inmates of Terezín to "devote all [their] energy to [a] chosen field" and experience "exciting feelings [that] could not be dampened by the unpleasantness and difficulties of . . . life in the ghetto."

To be honest, this is what I had been expecting—and, if I am to be honest with myself, emotionally seeking—when I made the journey to Terezín. Such empowering narratives about the Freizeitgestaltungen appear regularly in scholarly literature, performance series, and memorial projects. Celebrated productions of Brundibár or the Defiant Requiem promote the Terezín repertory as what one prominent theater historian refers to as a "tribute to the indomitable spirit . . . which somehow flowered in a sinkhole of horror." And yet, as I sifted through the silent archival documents sitting before me, alternative musical narratives arose from the pages—the voices of ear witnesses whose stories did not neatly fit into what historian Wolfgang Benz describes as the "legend of Terezín." In the midst of these alternative representations of musical performance, I was suddenly reminded of a marginal aside in my conversation with Henry that I had disregarded at the time due to my own belief in the positive humanism of musical Terezín. He had described for me how he navigated the dying bodies lying the street in order to get to rehearsals on time: "You just ignored it. . . . You just stepped over them and kept going."

Similarly, traumatic memories of music in Terezín have been traditionally side stepped—or at the very least marginalized from cultural accounts of spiritual resistance that feature the Terezín repertory. Spiritual resistance is a thorny historiographical vine to follow. In Admitting the Holocaust, Lawrence Langer asserts that our cultural predilection for redemptive tropes stems from our own postwar difficulty assimilating the atrocity into our historical imaginations, but historian Shirli Gilbert argues that its roots awkwardly lay in German Romanticism and its nineteenth-century teleological construct of music as a redemptive if not prophetic language. Romanticism, she argues, "conceived of music as the paradigm of artistic expression, and the ultimate language of the emotions," qualities that have been mapped onto musical life in Terezín. As Joseph Toltz describes, Terezín is valued as an emotional "counterpoint to [the] factual reportage and witness bearing" often associated with more traditional modes of history.

Toltz's fugal characterization of spiritual resistance had a resonance for me as well—that of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, in which he called for researchers to return to the cultural archive and "begin to reread it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the [dominant] history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts." While Said's call to action evolves from his postcolonial critique of history, it is just as influenced by his deep love of classical music and his own training in contrapuntal listening: the process of locating the Haupt- and Nebenstimmen within a fugal texture and identifying the variety of species—that is, the types or degrees of relationships—in which they operate.

And thus I went back to the archives armed with a new set of texts and questions—with different eyes and ears—to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University. When I explained to one curator that my focus was on traumatic recollections about music in Terezín, she cautioned that such research might not be fruitful and attempted to redirect me to testimonies of music in Auschwitz. Even the finding aids at the archive held a bias in that those testimonies that appeared under the search terms "music and Terezín" produced witnesses with redemptive stories about the Freizeitgestaltungen, despite the fact that testimonies without a "music" designation also contained telling narratives about music that were more traumatic or negative in tone. I started to wonder: how had the archivists listened thematically to these testimonies? What metanarratives about Terezín were conditioning our hearing of these witnesses and their stories?

Further structural problems in interview formats and techniques have also impacted the collection of testimonial narratives about musical Terezín, an aspect that I recognize with some shame in my first interview with Henry—a testimony punctuated with interruptions, assumptions, and leading redirections on my part. And thus, it was with no false sense of superiority and a great deal of humility that I listened to the archive recording of Karas in which he described how he had handled contrapuntal or contradictory memories in his own oral histories: "I could show you on the tapes again, [how] I was talking to survivors and I was correcting them, because after the years they forgot and things changed in their mind, and I found documents which prove that I am right and the people who did that particular thing, they were wrong about [it]." It wasn't a surprising admission, but it made me think long and hard about what may had been lost in the resulting silences.

In his biography of Mozart, the musicologist Maynard Solomon referred to silence as "a state that calls for sound to be brought into being." Perhaps he had been reading Proust, who noted that the "work of art is the child of silence." Regardless, it is certain that Said was reading both of them when he posited the sound artist John Cage as an unlikely prophet of postwar classical music. In "From Silence to Sound and Back Again: Music, Literature, and History," Said praises Cage for rescuing silence from the periphery of the soundscape and recognizing it as "an essential component of art [that] symbolizes the difficulty but also the opportunity offered by the realm of the aesthetic." Within the realm of musical witness, our challenge is to aesthetically return to the archive, as I once returned to the Bach fugue with new ears: to hear the previous silences as sounding bodies and the new sites of musicological insight and inquiry—to move, as Said put it once, contrapuntally from silence to sound and repeatedly back again.

Some material in this article cited with permission from Joza K. Holocaust Testimony (T-327), Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Studies, Yale University Library.