Ri­val or­ches­trates and their ac­com­mo­da­tion to Nazi ter­ror

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Rubin. Martin RUbin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


Univer­sity of Chicago Press, $50, 344 pages, il­lus­trated

No one can say that the topic of clas­si­cal mu­sic and its prac­ti­tion­ers in Nazi Ger­many has gone un­ex­am­ined. If by its very na­ture, a to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety sub­sumes into the state all as­pects of na­tional cul­ture along with ev­ery­thing else, mu­sic was a spe­cial case, given Hitler’s keen — to put it mildly — in­ter­est in mu­sic. There have been many works — ar­ti­cles, books, even plays — ex­am­in­ing how var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tions and per­son­al­i­ties be­haved dur­ing those shame­ful years.

But this book by Fritz Trumpl, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of mu­sic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Mu­sic and Per­form­ing Arts Vi­enna is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from any oth­ers I have read. Cer­tainly it is re­plete with de­tail about the sub­or­di­na­tion of mu­sic to the iron maiden of Nazi ide­ol­ogy and dis­grace­ful dis­missal of Jewish mu­si­cians from the po­si­tions in the two fine or­ches­tras at the heart of his study. But Mr. Trumpl digs deep to show that this was pos­si­ble be­cause of a trend that be­gan long be­fore Hitler.

The ri­valry between the Ber­lin and Vi­enna Philharmonics — in­du­bitably, from a mu­si­cal stand­point, or­ches­tral pin­na­cles in Europe and per­haps glob­ally — be­gan as na­tion­al­is­tic com­pe­ti­tion when they rep­re­sented the two great Ger­manophone Em­pires in whose cap­i­tals they were lo­cated. The pa­tri­otic fer­vor associated with World War I un­der­stand­ably en­larged and in­vig­o­rated this process, but what is re­mark­able is the ex­tent to which it con­tin­ued un­der the demo­cratic regimes in Ger­many and Aus­tria in the in­ter­reg­num between em­pire and to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Mr. Trumpl quotes that sage, Theodor Adorno:

“It was not, as is usu­ally as­sumed, the pres­sure ex­erted by the Na­tional So­cial­ist ter­ror that brought re­gres­sion, neu­tral­iza­tion, and a fu­ne­real si­lence to the arts, for these phe­nom­ena had al­ready taken shape in the Weimar Repub­lic, and in lib­eral con­ti­nen­tal so­ci­ety gen­er­ally.”

His own ex­haus­tive ex­am­i­na­tions of the two or­ches­tra’s writhing ac­com­mo­da­tion to the state in all its var­ied forms shows that their con­duct dur­ing the Third Re­ich had deep roots in the pre­ced­ing eras, as the no­tion of na­tion­al­is­tic mu­sic vied with and re­sisted the forces of Mod­ernism.

Which is not to im­ply in any way that this book min­i­mizes the in­iq­ui­ties vis­ited upon the Jewish play­ers in both or­ches­tras, not merely their abrupt dis­missals without re­gard to merit but only race as de­fined by the Nazis but also the all too of­ten dire fate await­ing them per­son­ally. But he shows that or­ches­tras be­came just an­other in­sti­tu­tion dic­tated to by the state which im­posed its stric­tures across the board.

Un­like many writ­ers who have be­come bogged down in fu­tile de­bates about ac­tions taken by in­di­vid­ual con­duc­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tors dur­ing the Third Re­ich, Mr. Trumpl, while giv­ing due at­ten­tion to such al­ready well-doc­u­mented fig­ures like Wil­helm Furt­wan­gler, con­cen­trates on the larger pic­ture. For in a regime as ob­sessed with its ver­sion of Ger­manic cul­ture as the Third Re­ich, Nazi Party fig­ures at the top, like Joseph Goebbels in Ber­lin and Bal­dur von Schirach in Vi­enna, set the tone and es­tab­lished the over­all pa­ram­e­ters, while in­di­vid­ual “com­mis­ar­ial lead­ers” within the or­ches­tras at­tended to the nuts and bolts in­volved in run­ning them. It is, as al­ways, fas­ci­nat­ing to see how much the to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes of mid20th cen­tury Europe had in com­mon: Soviet com­mis­sars were not alone in reach­ing deep down into every as­pect of na­tional cul­ture.

It is sad to note that the in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics that man­aged to sur­vive were all too of­ten neg­a­tive ones, like the ri­valry between the two great or­ches­tras which, since the An­schluss had in­cor­po­rated Aus­tria as a part of the Ger­man Re­ich, found them­selves vy­ing for the na­tional pri­macy each had pre­vi­ously en­joyed. Of course, they main­tained their long­stand­ing in­di­vid­ual qual­i­ties, like the mag­is­te­rial Ber­lin or lighter Vi­enna sounds, but given Goebbels’ ex­alted place in the Nazi peck­ing or­der, it was in­evitable that the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic would emerge vic­to­ri­ous, the cap­i­tal’s band in­evitably be­ing the na­tional stan­dard bearer.

Lest read­ers think that all these na­tion­al­ist ef­fects on Ger­man mu­sic are a thing of the past, Mr. Trumpl brings us up short by telling us that it can still make stormy waves in the 21st cen­tury:

“In 2006 a hot de­bate erupted over the “Ger­man sound” of the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic, which emerged from a polemic against the prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the or­ches­tra, Si­mon Rat­tle, from Great Bri­tain. The jour­nal­ist Axel Brugge­mann, who ini­ti­ated the polemic, stated that un­der Rat­tle’s ba­ton the or­ches­tra had lost its ‘soulseek­ing ro­man­tic sound’; now, he averred, other en­sem­bles could play in black, red, and gold bet­ter’ [the col­ors of to­day’s Ger­man flag] than the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic.”

Of course, in a free so­ci­ety, it is easy to de­fend such ro­bust na­tion­al­is­tic ef­fu­sions. But Mr. Trumpl’s highly in­formed study of the ne­far­i­ous flow­er­ings in other times, un­der dif­fer­ent rul­ing pas­sions, of just such at­ti­tudes makes his book not just an en­light­en­ing look at the sub­tleties of past his­tory, but a cau­tion­ary tale for our present — and our fu­ture.

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