His Master’s voice: Music and Death in Paul Celan’s “Fugue of Death” and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist

Image source: whatculture.com

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

                          It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:

                         O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

W.H.Auden, in his poem “Refugee Blues”, uses the structure of ‘Blues’, a style of music that evolved from the African-American slaves, in order to express the fear and despair, as experienced by a refugee couple during the Holocaust. In fact music, both instrumental and vocal, runs as a recurrent motif throughout the various public and private narratives of the Holocaust. At times, as Paul Celan wrote in “Fugue of Death”, music became the voice of the “master from Germany”, engaged in the Final Solution to the Jewish question, inside the ghettos. On the other hand, music also provided a source of defiance and hope amidst the horror of the Holocaust, as an Auschwitz survivor, Shoshana Kalisch, testifies,

“Yes, we sang in the ghettos and concentration camps. Songs were sung even in the death camps. They were the only means of expressing our sadness and grief, defiance and hope.”

According to the definition of the San Francisco Bach Choir, a fugue is the most complex polyphonic musical form, involving imitation among the parts called “voices”, be it vocal or instrumental. Paul Celan uses the structure of a fugue, in his “Fugue of Death”, in order to express the repetitiveness of death within the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos. Being a Jew, who had lost his parents to the Nazi genocide, Celan was always in search of a language to express the trauma of the Holocaust. If Death is a “master from Germany”, it is a master in the sense that it totally controls its puppets, the Jews, while commanding them to “strike up for the dance” and “play sweeter death’s music”, as Celan writes,

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

                        master from Germany.

            The question that may arise is where and how does music feature against the larger canvas of the Holocaust. Once a camp system was set up, loudspeakers were installed at every corner. Most of the concentration camps had its own anthem, generally considered to be an official signature of that particular camp. In some camps, certain Pro-Nazi music from the radio or gramophone were played on the permanently installed loudspeakers. This system was probably used for the first time at the Dachau camp in 1933 to civilize and re-educate the inmates. Along with various speeches of Hitler, the propaganda of the Nazi party and the national music by the German composer and anti-Semite Richard Wagner were also played on the loudspeakers. Later the loudspeakers were used to announce Adolf Hitler’s victories and achievements, in order to break the inner resistance of the camp inmates. Music, probably in its cruelest form, also evoked from the commands of the “master from Germany”. Celan writes, in order to control his puppets, the maestro “grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it”. In a particular scene of The Pianist, a Nazi officer whips on the ‘dirty Jews’ to teach them some discipline and to “celebrate the New Year”. The drunken Nazi officer, the maestro, commands the inmates to “March and Sing!” just the way in which the “master from Germany” shouts at “his Jews” to play “sweeter death’s music”, in Celan’s “Fugue of Death”. Both Celan and Polanski evoke the absurdity within the concentration camps and narrate how the spontaneous human activities like singing and dancing were controlled by the ‘power’, to quote Mao tse-Tung, which ‘grows out of the barrel of a gun’. Ironically in The Pianist, the Jewish inmates were ordered to sing something nice in a “loud and clear voice”. The inmates sang out a song of unity with a fist full of courage and a heart full of anger:

                       “Reunite tonight

                       And follow the white eagle,

                        Stand up and fight

                        Our mortal enemies;

                        Rise on the day

                        Let’s give them fire and brimstone,

                       We’ll do away

                       The Yoke of slavery.”

Polanski’s The Pianist begins in Warsaw 1939, with Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrien Broody, performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor in the Warsaw Radio Broadcast centre. Within a few moments, the sounds of explosions pierce through the walls of the Broadcast centre and violate the sanctum. The Nocturne in C# minor was composed by Chopin in 1830, when he was only 20 years old. Although Chopin continued to make revisions to his original piece of Nocturne in C#, it was published 15 years after Chopin’s death. In fact, Chopin’s Nocturne in C# urges forward, restlessly searching and yearning for something, perhaps consolation, even as it continuously repeats itself and returns to its own beginning.

The very search for consolation and solace has always been a recurrent motif in the memoir of both Celan and Szpilman.  Shoshana Felman firmly believed that in Celan’s “Fugue of Death”, the wound within the culture opens up in the discrepancy between the ‘golden hair Margarete’ and ‘ashen hair Shulamith’. It is in this radical disruption of address between the “we”, who drink and dig, and the “he”, who writes and commands that Celan locates the very essence of the Holocaust. Death as a maestro conducts an orchestra with “his Jews”, “stroke darker the strings” and the Jews climb to the sky as smokes, where there is a “grave in the clouds” and it is “ample to lie there”. In a way, Celan uses the visual and aural pleasure of an orchestra to narrate the horror of the Holocaust, probably the most brutal performance of “death’s music”.

In various camps like the Mauthausen concentration camp or in the Birkenau extermination camp, the camp orchestras were played as background music, both during punishment and the selection process for the execution of the Jews. Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, how punishment served as a “ceremonial procedure” before the eighteenth century. With the advancement of the modern penitentiary system, punishment has shifted its focus from the prisoner’s body to his soul. Jeremy Bentham’s notion of “panopticon surveillance” and Foucault’s views regarding “punishment as a spectacle” get an all new dimension, when read vis-a-vis the tortures inflicted upon the inmates in the Nazi concentration camps. Erika Rothschild, a concentration camp survivor, recalls that during the process of selection, a band, made up of the best musicians among the prisoners who were already there, played Polish, Hungarian or Czech folk music, while some of the prisoners were “forced to march into the camp”, the rest were “driven into the crematorium”

The brutalities of the Holocaust had such a profound impact on Szpilman that language failed as a medium of communication. A traumatic experience is generally followed by silence as Andrzej Szpilman wrote in the foreword to his father’s book:

“Until a few years ago, my father never spoke of his wartime experiences”.

One probably hears the sound of silence in a particular scene of The Pianist, when Szpilman hides in a room where “everything has to be done without a sound.” Linda Hutcheon writes that an adaptation might include “an extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work”. Although there was no piano in the room according to Szpilman’s memoir, it was Polanski’s reading of Szpilman, “an extended intertextual engagement”, through which one hears a pianist in silence. Szpilman sits at the piano, looks at the keys, moves his fingers suspended just over the keys and starts miming playing Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, one of the few pieces of Chopin, not meant for solo piano. Szpilman performs the piece in silence, probably a creative solution to the reality of his inner torment, loss, isolation and silent solitude.

The Art collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum show that various musical compositions were played by the orchestra at the Auschwitz camp, including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the popular song “The Best Time of Life”. Although certain musicians were allowed to survive for the sake of music, they were always subject to the whims of the Nazi soldiers. In The Pianist, Szpilman was finally discovered by the German Captain, Wilm Hosenfeld. The Captain orders the Jew, Wladyslaw Szpilman, to “play something” on a piano. One might find a striking resemblance between the piano and Szpilman, both covered with dirt and dust and neglected for years, amidst the destroyed ghetto. Unlike the “master from Germany” in Celan’s “Fugue of Death”, Captain Hosenfeld hears Szpilman playing the piano. Szpilman plays Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G minor and plants the seed of music inside a destroyed ghetto. Alexander Stein thus writes,

“It is not that he is making music which is so important, but that his music-making is heard.”

The Pianist ends with Szpilman concluding Chopin’s Nocturne in C# in a grand concert hall, accompanied by full orchestra. In fact, the film begins with Szpilman playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, which was interrupted by bombing the Warsaw Radio Station, and ends with the similar piece by Chopin, completing a circular structure, suggesting the triumph of music and art. Music stood out as a source of both pain and pleasure, a source of life and death, during the Holocaust. One can never imagine the traumatic experience the inmates felt, when Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was played during the execution process. On the other hand, music came as a messiah for many musicians who were part of the camp orchestras. Thus music, with all its ambiguities, has always been and will be a recurrent motif in various narratives of the Holocaust, be it of Paul Celan’s or Wladyslaw Szpilman’s.

– Sagnik Chakraborty


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