Books

Time's Echo by Jeremy Eichler named book of the year 2023 by Big Issue

Music carries memory, says Jeremy Eichler in Time's Echo, and as such is the ultimate expression of the human soul

Time’s Echo is a book with enormous ambitions. That it achieves them, in fact overleaps them, is astonishing. In this profound and scholarly study, Jeremy Eichler attempts to show how music retains the memory not only of its creative context, but also the intent of its composer. And when that context and emotional trigger is traumatic – in the examples in this book, the trauma is related to the Holocaust, perhaps the greatest human tragedy of the 20th century – the music has an impact almost beyond human ken. 

Eichler focuses on Strauss, Schoenberg, Britten and Shostakovich. As anyone who has heard the works of these composers played by a live orchestra will attest, they have created bodies of work so powerful as to be visceral; if art can be an assault on the senses, these composers have come as close to attacking listeners’ nervous systems as one could imagine.

Eichler offers rich biographies of his subjects so that these almost mythical figures of 20th century music are made real, and the personal experiences which informed their extraordinary music are detailed and understood. It is hard to imagine anyone reading this and not immediately downloading all of the mentioned music, considering whether the realities behind their creation can be heard or felt in the score. 

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Eichler’s most impressive achievement in Time’s Echo is his convincing case that music has – and conveys – a historical ‘memory’ like no other art form. He is influenced by WG Sebald’s obsession with memory and the ways contemporary artefacts can illuminate, and also spark anew, understandings of the past.  

Eichler draws the reader in by evocatively weaving a kind of manipulative spell, until one can almost hear the music he is describing, and even more remarkably, can feel the weight of the history it carries. The effect is immensely moving; the notion of music as the ultimate expression of the human soul, uniquely equipped to communicate the full spectrum of emotions is overwhelming. Eichler believes that this is how music can bring the past to life in the present, re-awakening history so that we might experience it as it occurred – as it felt – at the time.  

It seems particularly timely in 2023, a year steeped in horror, with unspeakable events recorded in warzones all over the world, that a book about music borne of atrocity should cast a new light on the qualities of art as a magnifying glass, and also as a healer.  

Jane Graham is The Big Issue’s books editor. 

What the author says 

I am delighted that Time’s Echo has been chosen as the Big Issue’s book of the year, and the thrill is about more than just the positive recognition of one’s work. That this publication – dedicated to serving the interests of those experiencing homelessness – chose to recognise my book feels particularly meaningful. 

Writing about classical music for most of my professional life, I have often encountered the baldly elitist assumption that this particular art form speaks exclusively to the wealthy, the well-heeled, the well-established. Time’s Echo pushes back against this way of thinking. 

It is a book about how art carries forward not only the memory of trauma but also humanity’s highest ideals, its vision of a world in which – as Schiller described in his famous Ode to Joy set by Beethoven as the glorious final movement of his Ninth Symphony – all people will live with dignity, freedom, fraternity, and, yes, joy. 

The 20th century’s wars tested this vision with a barbarism so complete that it ruptured, as one philosopher put it, “the layer of solidarity among all who wear a human face”. Closer to the present, as readers and vendors of this publication will not need to be reminded, daily breakdowns in our society’s safety nets and social contracts can make that layer of solidarity seem as remote as ever. 

Time's Echo book cover

But art “remembers” what many would like to forget. Time’s Echo is a book about listening – to the music of history, and to this moment. It is a memorial that stands angled toward the needs of the present, and the future. 

Thank you to The Big Issue and its community – for its own tireless work on behalf of social justice; for recognising the deeper humanist vision that animates Time’s Echo; and for continuing, through this award, to celebrate the importance of reading as such. Our next book might just be, as Kafka wrote, the axe for the frozen sea within us. 

Time’s Echo by Jeremy Eichler is out now. (Faber & Faber, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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