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Culture and the Third Reich

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A review by Katie Barnes

In this weekend, devised by the Mastersingers and hosted by the Music Club of London, an absorbing array of lectures, concerts and film examined many facets of the cultural and scientific situation in Germany before and during the Third Reich, including possible influences upon the Nazis; the impact of the sudden move from the free and easy ‘no censorship’ ethos of the Weimar era to the repression of the Reich; the music and art that the Nazis banned and exactly why it was considered entartete (degenerate); the responses of individual artists and scientists to the Nazi threat; the tragedies of those who were persecuted; and those who chose to turn a blind eye. It was notable that while the Nazis knew very well what art and music they did not like, it was hard for them to articulate what they wanted instead.

Professor Derek Hughes drove a coach and horses through the oft-repeated accusations that Wagner was anti-Semitic. He presented compelling evidence that Wagner, far from advocating the extermination of the Jews, encouraged their integration into German culture and proposed a national militia in which Jews and Germans would fight side by side. While many commentators claim that a number of Wagner’s characters have unflattering Jewish traits, Professor Hughes demonstrated that the Nazi era was a low point for the detection of Jewish figures in Wagner’s operas (during World War I Alberich had been equated, not with the Jews, but with Albion, the hated English) and that in the present day we see more Nazism in Wagner than the Nazis did.

Dr Richard Staley’s paper set out the dilemmas faced by scientists under the Reich, some of whom actively or passively supported the regime while others spoke out or fled. The Nazis supported branches of science which would strengthen the country, including aerodynamics and eugenics, but condemned Einstein’s “Jewish” theory of relativity. The regime’s unwillingness to share data with scientists in other countries and their low prioritisation of the development of nuclear physics, because they expected that the war would too short for them to need a bomb, coupled with the Allies’ sabotage of the “heavy water” project at Telemark, contributed significantly to their defeat.

As Professor Erik Levi demonstrated, there were a number of reasons for a work, or a composer’s whole output, to be labelled as entartete Musik. Paradoxically this term, which enveloped concerns on creative, political and racial outlooks, was first postulated by the Jewish writer Max Nordau, whose views were uncannily parallel to those expressed in Mein Kampf, stating that “it is the duty of a Government to save its people from… intellectual madness”, in other words by taking control of art. The Weimar Republic’s constitution, in which there was no censorship, gave blanket approval to all forms of art. Sadly this gave rise to bitter in-fighting between the avant-garde and the musical conservatives, headed by Pfitzner, who claimed that “international Jews” were stifling musical creativity. The half-Jewish Schreker’s music was attacked as “impure” because of its sensuality and non-German influences. Gradually anything popular was denounced as “impure”, including Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and Krenek’s hugely successful Jonny spielt auf. The latter was especially reviled by the Nazis due to its depiction of the pull between the old and new musical worlds, ending in a triumph for the Negro jazz musician Jonny. A poster for the opera would be used, in distorted form, for the cover of the Nazis’ Entartete Musik pamphlet.

With the Nazis’ rise to power, music became politicised and Jews in prominent musical posts were dismissed. Music was censored on a racial basis, including the music of conservative Jewish composers, yet Bartok’s knotty modern music was considered acceptable because of the political alliance between Hungary and Germany and Boris Blacher’s jazz-inspired music was considered acceptable because of his racial background. Professor Levi concluded that the Reich’s suppression of Entartete Musik caused a hiatus in German musical development. Many of the composers and musicians who fled abroad found it hard to integrate in their adopted countries and ceased composing, while others, notably Korngold, changed their musical direction completely.

Enrique Sanchez Lansch’s moving and enlightening 2007 film on the Berlin Philharmonic under the Reich gave us valuable insight into the musicians’ experiences, many related at first hand and others by their descendants. Some claimed that it was “not a political orchestra” and that the musicians “were like children in their political thinking” because “they could not imagine that anything like this could exist”. But it was clear that, like so many others in Germany at that time, some chose to ignore what was happening or were too afraid to protest. Moving testimonies from others told us all too clearly of Jewish colleagues who vanished or fled, the feared and hated Nazi spies who infiltrated the orchestra, and the constant terror of arrest for the smallest misdemeanour, such as a failure to salute Hitler’s portrait. The film included priceless footage of Bruno Kittel, Knappertsbusch and above all Furtwängler conducting the orchestra, demonstrating that in this worst of times the orchestra could create the mightiest music. I found the film remarkable in the way it presented all the available testimonies in a completely non- judgmental way and left it for audiences to form their own views. Who is to say that any of us would have done any better? The film was well complemented by Dr Roger Allen’s comprehensive paper on Furtwängler in the Third Reich.

The visual as well as the performing arts were subject to censorship under the Reich, and David Elliott’s richly illustrated lecture on Entartete Kunst depicted the conflict between the non-modernist art favoured by the Reich which implicitly accepted the regime’s authoritarianism, and modern art which rejected authority. Many non-approved artists contrived to keep working in the teeth of state prohibition. It is ironic that to modern eyes the Reich’s state-approved art can appear more than faintly ridiculous, not least Heinrich Knirr’s Gainsborough-inspired portrait of Hitler and Arthur Camp’s Venus, attempting to divert an Adonis in Nazi uniform from his duty.

The core of the weekend came in the two evening concerts. On Saturday night Mary Carewe and Dale Rapley, with music director Stefan Bednarczyk, gave a Weimar cabaret. As they explained, there were as many different forms of cabaret as there were cabaret houses, all presenting music, lyrics and poetry which tried to make sense of the post-war world and the world to which Germany was heading. Some pieces were given in English translations, others in German. The translations ensured perfect communication, but nothing could compare with the bite and snarl of the original language. Carewe excelled in numbers written for Marlene Dietrich, the greatest Weimar cabaret singer of them all, singing the immortal Falling in Love Again in a husky German whisper and then in English full voice, followed by the haunting Alone in a Big City. Rapley made a strong impression with a series of pieces by Kurt Tucholsky, who was described by Erich Kästner (of Emil and the Detectives fame) as “a small fat man trying to stop a catastrophe with a typewriter”. Bednarczyk lightened the mood with Noel Coward’s Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans, which was banned by the BBC but adored by Churchill and Roosevelt.

But, predictably, the most powerful pieces of all were those written separately and together by Brecht and Weill. Bednarczyk’s renditions of The Song of the German Mother, which was was all the more moving for its restraint, of The Legend of the Dead Soldier, the poem which earned Brecht a place on the Nazi blacklist, and The Ballad of the Jew’s Whore were all superb. But the best of all were the pieces from Die Dreigroschenoper and Happy End, neither of which could have been written without cabaret. Carewe’s Surabaya Johnny was completely overwhelming, and Mack the Knife sent us away into the night with a chill creeping down our spines.

Where cabaret was spare and sharp, the music for the Sunday evening concert drowned us in its lushness. Soprano Philippa Boyle and tenor Michael Bracegirdle, splendidly accompanied by Kelvin Lim (who else?) and introduced by David Edwards, gave a selection of pieces written between 1920 and 1940, some by composers banned by the Nazis and others by those who managed to keep on the right side of the regime. The concert began with lieder by four different composers. Richard Strauss’ Das Bächlein, dedicated to Goebbels, has a witty, and surely intentional, sting in the tail with its final repeat of mein Führer, Korngold’s Glückwunsch, sung by Bracegirdle in a lovely baritonal tenor, and Alt-Spanisch, are gentle pieces quite unlike the heady passion of his operatic music, but his Sonnet 130 has Straussian ecstasy and expansiveness, and his Old English Song, a rousing shanty, is a teasing precursor of the classic film scores for which he is now remembered. Boyle’s wonderful voice showed to its best advantage in the stratospheric vocal line of Krenek’s Der Nachtigall, angular, modern, yet lyrical, while in Pfitzner’s Schubertian Wanderers Nachtlied and clarion Der Weckruf Bracegirdle plumbed the very depths of the tenor register.

For me, the greatest interest was in the operatic group which closed the programme. It was good to hear two substantial extracts from Jonny spielt auf, a work much discussed in the course of the weekend but all too rarely performed. Boyle clearly relished the Puccinian diva Anita’s soaring soprano lines and Bracegirdle made light of Max’s demanding Heldentenor music. It was interesting to hear how the lovers’ duet could move so swiftly between lofty emotion and conversational patter. It finished with a superb jazz riff, a timely reminder of how the music of this ground-breaking opera moves from the old world to the new. If only we could hear more of it. Bracegirdle charmed us with the familiar delights of Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen from Die Tote Stadt before Boyle took the stage by storm in the finale of Capriccio, in which, as Edwards noted, the young Countess’s vacillation between her two lovers could reflect Strauss’ indecision on his role in Nazi Germany. Malcolm Rivers made a notable cameo appearance as the Major-Domo. Bracegirdle sang exquisitely in the Dwarf ‘s aria from Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, which, as Edwards noted, reflected the composer’s own experiences in his thwarted love for Alma Mahler. The pièce de résistance was two pieces from Korngold’s rarely heard Das Wunder der Heliane, a piece condemned by its own libretto but containing some sublime music. Boyle was wonderful in Heliane’s testing aria, and the sublime, unearthly final duet was a fitting climax to the occasion.

What an amazing weekend this was. We learned so much and heard so much glorious, unjustly neglected music. I do hope that its undoubted success will encourage the Mastersingers to hold more such events in the future.



11.00 – 14.00

Professor Derek Hughes from Aberdeen University talks about the interpretation of Wagner by Nazi propagandists and intellectuals

Dr Richard Staley, Rausing Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, discusses Scientists under the Reich: On types of physics and moral courage in the Nazi Era.

15.30 – 17.00

Professor Erik Levi of Royal Holloway College describes entartete Musik, or what the Nazis termed “degenerate music”, principally but not exclusively by Jewish composers

18.30 – 20.00

A Weimar Cabaret  Celebrated West End vocalist and pianist Stefan Bednarczyk appears with Dale Rapley and Mary Carewe to perform satirical songs of the 1920s. Music by Kurt Weill, Misha Spoliansky, Friedrich Hollaender and others. Mary is one of the UK’s most sought-after and brilliant cabaret artists while Stefan and Dale have both been nominated for awards at The Offies for their performances in The Sorrows of Satan at the Tristan Bates Theatre, running until March 25



11.00 – 14.00

A complete showing of Enrique Sanchez Lansch’s film Das Reichsorchester (dubbed in English). Lansch’s acclaimed documentary interviews surviving members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Dr. Roger Allen, Fellow and Tutor in Music of St. Peter’s College Oxford, discusses The Politics of Music or Music as Politics: Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Third Reich

15.30 – 17.00

Distinguished international art critic and curator David Elliott gives an illustrated lecture on the art and architecture of the Third Reich

18.30 – 20.00

Kelvin Lim accompanies Philippa Boyle soprano and Michael Bracegirdle tenor in music of the period by Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Pfitzner and Krenek. Linking narration by David Edwards.