The educated ear of a sick regime

Music in the Third Reich
April 28, 1995

While reading this book I became nervously attentive to the recurring hallucination that I was being encouraged by Levi to throw away my prejudices and think more kindly of the Nazis. "The major inspiration for Eichenauer's work (Musik und Rasse)'', he suggests, "came from the writings of Hans F. K. Gunther, a racial ethnologist whose books . . . were among the earliest expressions of a coherent racial outlook that attracted the attention of a considerable body of educated Germans during the Weimar Republic''. "Without any doubt there were major achievements during the Nazi era. The Staatliches Institut fur Deutsche Musikforschung, for instance, not only issued exemplary scholarly editions of early German music . . . but also published pioneering monographs on previously underresearched areas of German musical history''.

These statements are undoubtedly true in their way. Such fair-minded objectivity is surely preferable to the tendentious voice-over of television documentaries on Third Reich culture that relentlessly insists on the demonstrably poor quality of everything that they parade with relish before us.

But unexamined assumptions buoy up words and phrases ("coherent", "educated German") that take on unruly life of their own when cut adrift from critical theorisation of what fascism is or how it came to be what it was in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Frequently Levi stresses continuity between the Weimar Republic and the supposedly anti-Weimar Nazi period, as if to persuade us that the Third Reich did little more than administer an often self-contradictory but none the less effective dose of salts to a culture in chaos. Perhaps the danger of slipping into apologetics is an inevitable hazard of any music historian who attempts to respond to Pamela Potter's 1992 plea (in her contribution to Bryan Gilliam's Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and his World) that accusatory, Nazi-hunting accounts of Strauss's later years be mistrusted as "armchair political analysis''. Set Auschwitz to one side (as a hurdle to be "overcome"), she suggested, and we might be better able to consider the "promise of a bright future'' that the Nazis offered the average German. I wonder.

Levi's account is certainly fascinating. The formation of the Reichsmusikkammer, with Goebbels struggling to keep a step ahead of Alfred Rosenberg and his more extremist plans; the opposition to musical modernism ("Entartete Musik"); official plans to control music on the radio, in print, in the opera house, concert hall and factory and as reported in the press - all these aspects of Third Reich cultural policy are dealt with in a succession of pithy chapters that valuably condense hitherto untranslated German scholarship. Levi's own researches throw new light into a number of interesting corners, although one senses a firm editorial hand restraining him from telling us more about the operas of Werner Egk, Paul Klenau or Rudolph Wagner-Regeny, about the Nazi fondness for the music of Sibelius or Kienzl's musical contribution to Viennese complicity with the Nazis before and after the Anschluss.

One longs to know more of the music behind the names, particularly when the occasional well-known work, like Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony or Orff's Carmina Burana, looms audibly out of the mists. Something else the book lacks is visual illustration of the people, the processions and the stage sets that formed the context in which this music asserted its special meaning (analysis of the music in Leni Riefenstahl's films Triumph des Willens and Olympiad might have added a great deal).

Let me not, however, chide this book for what it is not. The period it deals with is of vital importance to any attempt to understand the role of music in European culture in the 20th century. The critical questions are simply too big, the historical analysis too complicated for it to be reasonable to expect one writer to solve it all. Others must take up the story and add what is left out here: like the developing historical critique, in other disciplines, of modernism itself; like questions about whether Nazism was not even a form of modernism. Music in the Third Reich might look, in one light, like compromised "old'' musicology, but it has much to offer the new. We must nevertheless learn from Levi's apparent disappointment (was it meant to be relief?) that Hitler's ideologues failed in practice to be true to principles that match our possibly demonising construction of them. He demonstrates that they were horribly much more like us than we might have wished to imagine. That is why Auschwitz, and the music that died there, may not be forgotten.

Peter Franklin is senior lecturer in music, University of Leeds.

Music in the Third Reich

Author - Erik Levi
ISBN - 0 333 47116 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 303pp

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