Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance (Hardcover)
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • Finalist for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction • A stirring account of how music bears witness to history and carries forward the memory of the wartime past
In 1785, when the great German poet Friedrich Schiller penned his immortal “Ode to Joy,” he crystallized the deepest hopes and dreams of the European Enlightenment for a new era of peace and freedom, a time when millions would be embraced as equals. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony then gave wing to Schiller’s words, but barely a century later these same words were claimed by Nazi propagandists and twisted by a barbarism so complete that it ruptured, as one philosopher put it, “the deep layer of solidarity among all who wear a human face.”
When it comes to how societies remember these increasingly distant dreams and catastrophes, we often think of history books, archives, documentaries, or memorials carved from stone. But in Time’s Echo, the award-winning critic and cultural historian Jeremy Eichler makes a passionate and revelatory case for the power of music as culture’s memory, an art form uniquely capable of carrying forward meaning from the past.
With a critic’s ear, a scholar’s erudition, and a novelist’s eye for detail, Eichler shows how four towering composers—Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten—lived through the era of the Second World War and the Holocaust and later transformed their experiences into deeply moving, transcendent works of music, scores that echo lost time. Summoning the supporting testimony of writers, poets, philosophers, musicians, and everyday citizens, Eichler reveals how the essence of an entire epoch has been inscribed in these sounds and stories. Along the way, he visits key locations central to the music’s creation, from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral to the site of the Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv.
As the living memory of the Second World War fades, Time’s Echo proposes new ways of listening to history, and learning to hear between its notes the resonances of what another era has written, heard, dreamed, hoped, and mourned. A lyrical narrative full of insight and compassion, this book deepens how we think about the legacies of war, the presence of the past, and the renewed promise of art for our lives today.
About the Author
An award-winning critic and cultural historian, JEREMY EICHLER currently serves as the chief classical music critic of The Boston Globe. He is the recipient of an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for writing published in The New Yorker, a fellowship at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a Public Scholars grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Formerly a critic for The New York Times and a contributor to many other national publications, he holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from Columbia University. For more information, please visit timesecho.com.
*Listed as one of The New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2023 and one of NPR's Books We Love*
“[A] masterful debut . . . Vivid, luminous prose . . . [Time’s Echo is] a moving declaration of the power of music to transmit human feeling across time.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Time’s Echo is a remarkable book. Jeremy Eichler shows how listening to history through its music can transport us in mind, body, and spirit — resulting in a profound, detailed resurrection of the past into the living present. The composers at the book’s heart come across not as distant historical figures but as fully human characters with whom we can identify. The result is a kind of time travel with music as our mode of transport, a poignant journey back to an era that still affects us, and an inspiringly hopeful meditation on the power of art to remember not just the traumas of the past but also its highest ideals.”—Yo-Yo Ma
"We were stunned by [Time's Echo's] profundity, its masterful structure, its beautiful shimmering sentences. It is evidently a life’s work, a labor of love, and a testimony to the pain of war. It has an utterly unique voice, and it warrants being classed as a masterpiece of nonfiction writing.”—Shortlist citation, Jury of the Baillie Gifford Prize
“The outstanding music book of this and several years.”—Times Literary Supplement
"[Jeremy Eichler] connects the fluidity of musical time to personal and historical memory. Despite detailed endnotes, Time's Echo is not a reference book. Carefully researched and capacious in scope, it reads as elegy: mournful, elegant and gratifying... Toward the end, Eichler quotes a letter from Shostakovich to Britten... [which] provides a wonderful summary for Time's Echo: 'Your music is the most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century. And for me it is the source of profound and powerful impressions. Write as much as possible. It is necessary for humanity — and certainly for me.'"—Martha Anne Toll, The Washington Post
“Profoundly moving . . . An absorbing read for serious music lovers that may well become a classic in music criticism.”—Library Journal (starred review)
"Eichler, The Boston Globe’s chief classical music critic, suggests that music can help us remember what we’ve lost. Time’s Echo is an engrossing recovery project that reveals the depths of Europe’s ability — and inability — to mourn those losses. On the surface Eichler’s book is a cultural history of four musical works… More deeply, it is a fascinating call to place the stories of musicians into our acts of listening and a compelling testimony to the relationship between music and remembrance…Time’s Echo offers the same kind of immersive experience that [Eichler] encourages us to explore in music. His beautiful meditation on the dark shadows that compelled, propelled and ultimately haunted classical music in Europe during and after World War II inspires our ears."—Kira Thurman, The New York Times
“Evocative….Mr. Eichler is an eloquent writer with a poetic bent; his text is lyrical and well-researched.”—Stuart Isacoff, Wall Street Journal
“I was deeply moved by this wonderful book. Jeremy Eichler writes profoundly on music, and in Time’s Echo he focuses on music that expresses so much about the truly tragic history of the 20th century. He not only makes us understand, he makes us feel.”—Emanuel Ax
“Authoritative . . . Fascinating and, in its own way, inspiring.”—Kirkus Reviews
"...Erudite, passionately argued, and extraordinarily moving... In a seamless web of historical context, nuanced musical analysis, deft quotation, and his own first-person accounts of travel to relevant sites, Eichler fashions a narrative worthy of one of his principal inspirations, the elegiac novels of W.G. Sebald." —Christopher Benfey, The Boston Globe
“Profoundly moving. I am overwhelmed by what Jeremy Eichler has achieved.”—Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes
“Music is an airy, abstract art, yet every note is grounded in history and in the earth. Jeremy Eichler, one of our finest writers on music, captures that duality supremely well in Time’s Echo, his eagerly awaited first book. Delving into twentieth-century musical memorials by Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Britten, and Shostakovich, Eichler evokes not only the smoldering power of the music but also the haunted lives and places from which these masterpieces sprang. It is a work of searching scholarship, acute critical observation, philosophical heft, and deep feeling.”—Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise
“This passionate book delves deep into classical music’s responses to World War II, and the tragic intertwining of German and Jewish cultures. Eichler roves through history and language to express how music keeps cultural memory alive. Along the way, he paints an unforgettable portrait of an unspeakable time.”—Jeremy Denk, author of Every Good Boy Does Fine
“At a time when debates rage daily over what histories to memorialize and which to reinterpret, along comes Jeremy Eichler to reveal how music preserves the past in the form of intense emotional experience. With a historian’s deep understanding of how societies respond to the trauma of war, and an intuitive feel for music’s molten heat, he brings us a lucid, moving chronicle of four dramatically different works that were born of the same urge: Zachor—Remember.”—Justin Davidson, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, New York magazine
“How is the past remembered or forgotten? History can often amount to little more than a tired archivist logging away dates and factoids. But as Jeremy Eichler reveals in this splendid and uncompromising book, music is mankind’s imperishable monument to what memory will not and cannot suppress.”—André Aciman, author of Find Me
“In this brilliant, haunting debut, Jeremy Eichler expands our sense of how collective memory works in history. With music, humanity can engage its losses, registering monstrous crimes aurally if invisibly. And while the experience of hearing the notes provides no exact facsimile of what was lost — let alone makes things whole again — it can knit together past and present with remarkable poignancy. Eichler overlays the arresting insight and beautiful prose of the cultural interpreter on the scholarly perspective of a master historian, and the results are a gift for us all.”—Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
“A most rare book: extraordinarily powerful — magisterial, meticulously rich and unexpected, deeply affecting and human.”—Philippe Sands, author of The Last Colony