Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking account.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder-blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoistsshengguan ensemble—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China (e.g. playlist, #4, with commentary here).

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

You can find a newly remastered version here. For Celibidache’s Bruckner 7, see here.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistance. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence. [for Lebrecht’s more recent exposé, see here.]

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?”. In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), using both works of art and everyday material objects, he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:


MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar—here’s Part One:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Ernst Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926, cf. the 1966 GDR film The lost angel),


along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945—now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.

NB also posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenMetamorphosen, A Nazi legacy, The Ratline, and Gitta Sereny; as well as posts on Maoism in China, starting here; see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

36 thoughts on “Trauma: music, art, objects

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