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December 14, 2004

The End of the World - Music in the Third Reich

Posted by David Conway

Le IIIe Reich et la Musique
– exhibition at the Musée de la Musique
221 avenue Jean-Jaurčs, Paris
8th October 2004 - 5th January 2005

I wept twice during this exhibition.

The second time was after watching a two-minute extract from a film, one of the last exhibits, in fact. It shows a string orchestra performing in what appears to be a large village hall, with an attentive audience of all ages. The piece being played is lively, and sounds like a cross between Bartók and Hindemith – it is well played and warmly applauded. A child in the audience gives a bouquet to the young, handsome, conductor.

The film was made around 1940, to demonstrate to the world outside and to the Red Cross Commission the free and active life supposedly available to Jews, thanks to the benevolence of the Führer, in the town of Theresienstadt (Terezín). The music was by one of the internees, the Czech Jewish composer Pavel Haas. The audience are all wearing yellow stars. Within a short time, almost everyone in the film, including its director and Haas himself, would be transported to Auschwitz and killed. One of the very few survivors was the orchestra's conductor, Karel Ančerl. With such layers of horror and irony, weeping is easier than ratiocination. I watched the loop, transfixed, three times round.

Of course one is free to weep about Terezín. When I visited it a few years ago, the young Prague cab-driver who took me there knew nothing of the town or its history, and asked if he could walk around with us. By the end of our visit, he was weeping too. But the first time I wept at the Paris exhibition about music in the Third Reich, which is richly illustrated with music and video as well as imagery, was about halfway through and was at music which in itself is warm, supportive and radiant – the end of Wagner's 'Mastersingers', in von Karajan's 1951 recording. I confess that tears can come to me without too much difficulty at some great musical moments, but these were no tribute to the sublimity of the performance. Rather, it seems to me, they also reflected a frustration at the impossibility of reconciling great art with the negation of humanity, at all levels from the petty to the murderous, which this exhibition displays and forces us to confront.

Let me firstly dispose of the exhibition's shortcomings, which are however by no means fatal. They are largely problems of context. Of course there is a concentration on Germany in the period 1933 to 1945, with just some retrospect of the Weimar period. Inevitably there is a mention of Wagner's vicious anti-Jewish pamphlet of 1850 (revised in 1868), 'Jewry in Music'. But there is more, much more, to the love-hate relationship of Jews and music in Germany than Wagner and the Nazis. As Michael Steinberg has provocatively written in the Musical Quarterly, referring not only to Felix Mendelssohn but to the composer's grandfather, the philosopher Moses, and to the family's banking dynasty:

"Germany" as an idea was produced by Christians and Jews. In this quite literal 'production of Germany' the Mendelssohn family in its multigenerational, multi-cultural and multi-professional eminence plays a key role.

Art and culture were fault-lines in the relationship of Jews and Germans from the earliest days of emancipation and the careers of Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Heine, the conductor Hermann Levi and many others demonstrate this with unambiguous clarity. My reservation is therefore that this exhibition may fall into the trap endemic in what has become the historical Holocaust industry: that of perceiving Jews as a group who had things 'done to them' by the Nazis, rather than looking at what they actually achieved and the ways in which these achievements disturbed their relationship with German nationalist culture. To tell the story of 1933-1945 properly, you need to go back to, say, 1821, when Felix Mendelssohn's musical tutor Zelter remarked of him, 'wouldn't it be weird if a jewboy could turn out to be an artist?'

Not of course that all the Nazi musical undesirables were Jews; indeed they even included pan-Germanic sympathisers such as Webern, who obstinately held to the theories of his teacher Schoenberg. Listening to the works of other non-Jewish 'degenerates' such as Hindemith, Eisler and Krenek reminds one of how relentless was the drive to suppress any originality. (How rather depressing, by the way, to see a letter from Stravinsky to his German agent in 1938 stressing his unimpeachably Russian aristocratic ancestry and his right-wing politics in an attempt to keep himself on German concert programmes).

A secondary contextual issue relates to what was happening, at the same time, in Stalin's Russia, where culture was also driven underground. Artists there did not in general have the option or opportunity of choosing exile before any final crisis. Many died in the camps, many chose an internal exile, more or less equivocal, like that of Shostakovich. Some ten years ago an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Moscow-Berlin 1900-1950 culminated in a shattering effect, a great hall lined on one side with gigantic art-works showing Stalin as beloved by children, country-girls, soldiers, etc, and on the other side almost identical works from the same period with Hitler in the central role. Like the beasts at the end of Animal Farm, one looked from one side to the other, but it was already impossible to tell which was which.

What this exhibition does remind us forcibly is that Wagner was by no means the sole musician chosen to embody the Nazi ideal. Hitler's ascent to power was accompanied by a smash-and-grab raid on everyone acceptable as representing the new Germany, collaring them for the Nazi cause. We see film clips of the Führer at the ceremony to install his fellow-Austrian Bruckner in the Valhalla monument at Regensburg. We see posters for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony featuring the composer (whose family was of Dutch origin) offering a suitably Aryan scowl. We note that Hitler's favourite light-music (top of the pops in the bunker) was Die Fledermaus of Johann Strauss – a bit of a slip-up here as Strauss was one-quarter Jewish, a fact conveniently overlooked, in view of their leader's enthusiasm, by the compilers of the official guides to degenerate music. And we hear the radio announcement of Hitler's death accompanied – again very disturbingly in more than one way – by (the Austrian) Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

This appropriation of Germany's cultural past was almost too successful, substantially inhibiting the future of German culture. When the (part-Jewish) poet Celan recited his poetry to a young radical audience in Berlin in the early fifties, he was slated because his diction was, in their opinion, identical to that of Goebbels. Goebbels, of course, had adopted in his broadcasts the style of the old German theatrical tradition, the same tradition in which Celan had matured. This sort of blight of perception, undermining all traditions and producing an effective cultural vacuum, may have been a substantial contributor to the post-war political traumas of Germany.

The Nazi project was simply to make everything (and everybody) that didn't conform to its arbitrary criteria simply vanish, and to condition the minds of its populace, as far as art-music was concerned, to the third-rate crap of its tame composers such as Carl Orff, Werner Egk and Rudolf Wagner-Regeny. Some of their pitiful efforts can be heard on the audio guide to the exhibition. It should be recorded however that Egk at least took a stand in refusing to write new music for a Midsummer Night's Dream to replace Mendelssohn, daring to state that the original was excellent. Orff and Wagner-Regeny could not wait to comply. Let's see more about this sort of thing in the programme notes the next time someone puts on a performance of Carmina Burana.

The stories of the people and music excluded by the Third Reich are clear and well-known and strongly recaptured by the exhibits in Paris. What is difficult is an evaluation of what remained. In Germany and in occupied France, Knappertsbusch, Furtwangler, Karajan, Richard Strauss, Jochum and others were conducting; Gieseking and Kempff were playing, Schwarzkopf and Hotter were singing, and so on. Listening to performances of the Nazi period without knowing their provenance one hears great pieces of music, often excitingly performed. Knowledge of provenance brings with it irrevocable taint. It is something to do with the consciousness that the audiences to these performances were, in a bizarre way, the mirror-images of the audience in Terezín; that art cannot breathe unless it is free to share and compete. Art-taste dictated by the state, whether in the Judenfrei version of the Nazis, the 'proletarian art' of the Soviets, or even arm-twisting to love Britart or multi-culturalism, is a denial of art. A chorus singing, with whatever intensity, 'alle Menschen werden Brüder' from the end of Beethoven's Ninth, must, if they are performing in Berlin in 1942, be the gigantic embodiment of an appalling, gross, impudent and criminal lie.

The exhibition extends itself to the consideration of popular music in the Nazi period and this raises other interesting issues. For of course, whilst you can easily persuade hypocrite-auditeurs of 'art music' that Orff is quite as good as Mahler, the man on the Potsdam omnibus is not so easily fooled. We can see and hear how, as Jewish and radical singers and performers are forced off-stage, those who replace them are bound to perform the same sort of music if they wish to retain any popularity. Some of the music is of course preposterous: the extract from the operetta Frau Luna (1941) of the Nazi-honoured Paul Linke could well be a trailer for Springtime for Hitler in The Producers. But there was always the need for good old sing-along numbers like the one Zarah Leander belts to the boys in (Panzer) uniform in the film Die Grosse Liebe (1942). As they sway to her rhythm, Leander tells them Davon geht die Welt nicht unter ('The world's not going to end'). But it did.

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