Between War and Peace: The End of the Second World War

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This final concert of our 1994-95 season honors the momentous events of fifty years ago. In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. At the San Francisco Conference, the hope of humankind, the United Nations was created.

In the brief period between the end of Hitler’s War (and with it the full recognition of the unparalleled brutality and horror of Nazism) and the dawn of the Atomic Age on August 6, it was perhaps still possible to believe that the worst humanity had to offer had been overcome. The sense of triumph was not merely one of military victory and national pride. Amidst the despair visited on all that resulted from the destruction of Europe there was a glimmer of hope that the world had just experienced the war to end all wars; that the radical evil of the hate, terror, and atrocities exemplified by Nazi Germany would never be repeated. The United Nations held out the possibility that the old ways of power politics would be changed.

The arts were not left unaffected by the War. Each nation, on both sides of the conflict, marshaled its leading musicians into the battle for the heart and minds of its people. Marc Blitzstein was commissioned by the Air Force to write The Airborne Symphony. Although later on he distanced himself somewhat from the Nazis, at the start of the regime Richard Strauss accepted an official position as head of the music section of the Cultural Ministry. Arthur Honegger’s sympathies for the French Resistance were clear from the start.

In modern history, World War II shattered the illusion that music can remain neutral and value free, an aesthetic arena concerned with beauty that stands independent of politics. Good music is just good music, one might like to say. Even though this is not quite the case, since music is different from art and language, it offers a unique forum and vehicle for communicating. The often repeated claim that music is a universal language is somewhat true in that the variety of meanings to which it is subjected can never be exhausted and never remains stable. The motto of victory for the allies was the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Yet the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven was performed repeatedly under the Nazi flag in the context of the celebration of the Third Reich. And Beethoven is performed today without any shred of evident political meaning and without any residue of its use and abuse during the Second World War. Music resists evil by simply being elusive. It is susceptible at any hearing to any individual’s way of listening and ascribing meaning.

At the same time, music has been able to give voice to a sense of existential hope and despair in ways that remain recognizable and that transcend the historical moment. It is therefore not surprising that war has inspired the writing of great and lasting music. One thinks, for example, of the Napoleonic Wars and the work of Haydn and Beethoven.

This program chooses three examples of music inspired by the closing years of the war, when victory was within grasp, the recognition of suffering unavoidable, and the yearning for a better world matched only by a fear of the total destruction of civilization. In the case of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, the composer’s pessimism and despair led him to write a work whose musical language broke the barrier of his own narrow and amoral attitudes. A profound expression of sorrow and humanity could emerge from Strauss only in music, never in words. Here a sense of loss and defeat is expressed in terms that remind us all of our common fate and limitations as human beings; it overcomes our rage and resentment of those who were once our enemies. Dark as the work is, it is at the same time an expression of hope in that it shows the best of that of which any of us might be capable: the ever-present possibilities of redemption from evil.

Despite the rousing patriotism of The Airborne Symphony, Blitzstein was careful to end the work with a plea to reject the false sense of moral superiority that victors inevitably display. The lesson of America’s bravery in the air, the sacrifice of its fighting men, and the promise of modern technology was a world beyond nations–the open sky of a universe marked by international cooperation and tolerance.

This concert contains one work by the vanquished and one by the victor. The other work is by Arthur Honegger, who was Swiss. While he was actively anti-Nazi, he was formally a citizen of a neutral nation. In symbolic terms his presence in this concert represents the voice of the engaged bystander–the many individuals who were left to resist, withdraw, watch, and try to understand helplessly the killing and suffering. This great work–like Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1–reminds us of the horror of war and oppression. But unlike Hartmann’s work, Honegger’s looks ahead as well as back. Within its overtly religious framework it offers, in music, an expression of faith in humanity’s divine spark–our capacity to begin from the rubble again, perhaps in a more just and noble fashion.

Many readers of this program will reflect on how little progress seems to have been made in the last half-century. The events in Bosnia and all over the world–not to mention the hate and violence with which we live every day in our own country–can lead us to hopelessness. Our collective failure to restrain evil and violence and our callous adaptation to an environment marked all too regularly by suffering and death are perhaps signs of our inability to redeem the possibilities that faced the world in 1945. At the same time, this music, written fifty years ago, should remind us that it is never too late to start, to renew the idea of international cooperation, to secure human rights for all, to educate and extend ourselves to others, to display tolerance, to resist radical evil, and to prevent war. The music on today’s concert reasserts the unpredictable and staggering power and richness of the human imagination. The greatness that is possible in music by individuals should be equally possible in the conduct of everyday life.