Music of Conscience

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music of Conscience, performed on Feb 25, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Rarely in history have music and politics confronted one another with as much intensity as in our own century. This confrontation reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, the era of Hitler and Stalin. It had its roots, however, in the years before the First World War. Musical modernism, particularly in the form which evolved form the work of Arnold Schoenberg but also from that of Igor Stravinsky and his allies, was viewed both by its proponents and antagonists as motivated in part by politics. One can hear an explicit critique of the past in musical modernism–in its use of dissonance, its extreme extension and even rejection of tonality, and its incorporation of vernacular musical elements including folk music and jazz. That critique was directed at a perceived status quo of complacent, middle-class patrons and audiences whose presumed liberal beliefs masked a misplaced enthusiasm for capitalism, autocracy, and chauvinism. Musical modernists sought to rescue art from what they saw as stifling conditions, including the tyranny of late nineteenth-century aestheticism (a self-indulgent claim that art was only about beauty and itself), a commercially manipulated mass culture, and an elitist mésalliance, also inherited from the nineteenth century, between the tenets of “high” musical culture and a social political system which seemed to thrive on inequality and injustice for the European masses.

In their critique of culture and society, the musical revolutionaries of the early twentieth century sought to craft a new musical language and style consistent with the apparent contradictions of modern life. That meant using modernity against itself and not resorting to a stagnant or predicable continuation of the musical language of late nineteenth-century Romanticism. After World War I, a heated and deeply personalized war of words and music erupted. In one camp were the musical conservatives such as Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. On the side of the progressives were, in addition to Schoenberg, Ferrucio Busoni, Franz Schreker, and a host of pioneering critics and writers. In Germany, these aesthetic wars were fought against the backdrop of the shaky Weimar republic which emerged out of the defeat of the German military forces in 1918. In the new Soviet Union, a comparable struggle was taking place, not so much between Romanticism and modernism but between modernism and socialist realism. These aesthetic conflicts in Germany and the Soviet Union also extended beyond the realm of music into art, architecture, and literature.

In the tumultuous and unstable environment of post-World War I Europe, the cross-currents of debate over what constituted an appropriate musical aesthetic for the twentieth century coincided with the beginnings of fascism in Italy and Germany and the eventual triumph of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. It is in this crucible that the composers on tonight’s program worked and fashioned their outlook as artists and citizens. The 1930s only deepened the conflicts. Hitler came to power in 1933 and by 1938 the pervasiveness and gravity of Nazism were fully apparent. In the Soviet Union, the show trials of the 1930s and a non-aggression pact with Hitler bore witness to the totalitarian nature of Stalin’s regime. The Allied victory in 1945 put an end to the war, but it did not invalidate the premises at the heart of the cultural and political debates. As Jewish Chronicle demonstrates, progressive Germans, dismayed at the weakness of post-World War II efforts at denazification, feared a resurgence of fascism in the form of neo-Nazism.

The search by twentieth-century composers for musical meaning that was both relevant to the contemporary context and politically progressive was lent further impetus by the events of the Cold War. Hanns Eisler, who had fled to the United States form Germany, was called before the House Un-American Activities committee. The proceedings against him in 1948 occasioned a concert by his friends and supporters which took place in New York fifty years ago this Saturday. Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions among other participated, but despite the efforts of these artists and such other notables such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau, Eisler was expelled from the United States.

Although Jewish Chronicle was a collaboration of East and West German composers, it was not altogether successful as an effort of reconciliation between the two alternative approaches to constructing an anti-fascist post-war German. Hartmann, for example, an unequivocal anti-Nazi, withheld permission to perform the work for years, in part because of his ambivalence about the German Democratic Republic, with which Eisler and Paul Dessau were closely associated.

It is tempting at first to accept a reductive opposition that equates musical modernism with progressive attitudes to politics and an adherence to neo-Romanticism with a sympathy for fascism. But like his contemporary Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler was troubled by the fact that modernist music could not reach, however didactically, even middle-class audiences, let alone the masses. For Eisler, the goal was to find a way to compose new music that was at once free of commercialism and sentimentality and yet accessible and liberating to more than a sophisticated and somewhat pretentious elite. But because of the close association between conservative musicians and Nazi cultural policy, this “third way” proved to be an elusive and difficult option, and resulted in some ironic ventures for those like Eisler and Weill who sought to write a new kind of music that bridged the concert hall, the cabaret, and the street. Before the war Eisler had found an ideal medium for this goal in German film, but later found himself in the ultra-commercialist Hollywood film industry. He never ceased, however, to capitalize on the advantages of film to make a compelling artistic and political statement: his best-known score is for Alai Resnais’s searing portrait of the concentration camps, Night and Fog (1956).

From our present perspective at the end of this century, these controversies may appear dated, especially since we are surrounded by a wide and seemingly apolitical eclecticism in which late Romantic gestures subsist side by side with new compositions that sustain the legacy of Schoenberg. Tonight’s concert, however, is not an effort at remembrance. The works we perform tonight were motivated by past politics and a discrete historical moment, but they continue to communicate nearly a half century later the intensity and beauty of great musical art as well as the power and profound significance of the historical issues which lay behind their composition. The concentration camp remains more than an image of memory.

The predicaments facing composers at mid-century, precisely because of the politics involved, were also personal and involuntary. Each of the composers on tonight’s program was personally caught in the maelstrom of terror, intimidation, and propaganda. Hanns Eisler was born in Leipzig in 1898. His father was a well-known philosopher and his brother was a very successful journalist. He studied with Schoenberg and in 1926 joined the German Communist Party. He eventually broke with Schoenberg, for whom he never lost profound respect, and in the 1930s began to work with Bertolt Brecht. Since he was both of Jewish descent and a Communist, Eisler was force to flee in 1933. His music was banned by the Nazis. He spend much of the 1930s in America, where he taught at the New School before joining Ernst Toch, Thomas Mann, Franz and Alma Mahler Werfel in Los Angeles. The last period of Eisler’s life, the years after 1949, was spent in East Germany, where Eisler worked vigorously on behalf of a new education system and that country’s musical life. For Eisler, music and politics remained inextricable. He believed the task of the musician was not to detach himself from the mundane, but rather to fulfill an obligation to speak out through art on behalf of a just political system and against tyranny. Prolific until the end of his life, he died in 1962. His Deutsche Sinfonie represents a synthesis of his music and politics. It can with little doubt be considered his magnum opus and most lasting large-scale work.

The first work on this program, Jewish Chronicle, serves as an echo of the political issues that inspired the Deutsche Sinfonie. These specific events which brought this work into being–the outbreak of anti-Semitism of 1959 in Cologne–took place at a time when Eisler was in the twilight of his career. Boris Blacher, Eisler’s somewhat younger contemporary, who was instrumental in organizing this unique collaboration of five composers and one poet, has a markedly different history than Eisler. Blacher was born in 1903 in China into a well-to-do German family of Baltic descent. He moved to Germany in 1922. Unlike Eisler, Blacher was not forced to flee when the nazis came to power, but managed to keep working in Germany until 1938. He was not entirely “Aryan” but he had the support of powerful individuals, among then the conductor Karl Böhm, who used his influence in the Nazi regime to protect the composer. Blacher continued to explore his own modernist aesthetic credo (which included a special affection for jazz), but at the same time, he struggle to exist under the Nazis. Some of his music continued to be performed until 1940. That year, the facts about Blacher’s maternal grandmother, the daughter of baptized Jews, were confirmed and Blacher’s tenuously peaceful co-existence collapsed. He lived out the war in Germany in fear. His music disappeared from German programs. Blacher survived and played a significant role in the life of post-war West Germany until his death in 1975.

Rudolf Wagner-Regény, who wrote the second movement of Jewish Chronicle, was born like Blacher outside of Germany. Wagner-Regény was raised in a German community in what was then Hungary and is now Romania. He was closely associated with the designer Caspar Neher, who found fame through his association with Kurt Weill. In the twenties, Wagner-Regény became a German citizen and married a woman who was half-Jewish. He functioned reasonably well as a composer during the Third Reich. His works were performed by Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. In 1941 an opera of his was premiered in Vienna, where Wagner-Regény’s friend, the local Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, was well-known for his penchant for high culture. The premiere of this opera inspired the ire of Goebbels. As punishment, Wagner-Regény was drafted into the military in 1943. He was fortunate enough to land a desk job in the army and survive. As a composer, Wagner-Regény struggled to find a musical language distinct from the extremes of modernism but without any association with fascist aesthetics. He eventually found the most sympathetic environment after the war to be East Berlin, where he died in 1969.

Paul Dessau, who wrote the last movement of the Jewish Chronicle and worked with Hans Werner Henze on the fourth movement, was born in 1894. Like Eisler he was of Jewish origin, but unlike Eisler, his Jewishness was a central part of his identity. He was the grandson of a Cantor. In 1933 he emigrated to Palestine and came to New York in 1939. In the early 1940s he met Bertolt Brecht with whom he worked extensively. When Brecht cam to the DDR and settled in east Berlin, Dessau followed him. Like Eisler’s, Dessau’s music ranges across the genres from popular song to opera and music for the radio. But Dessau’s open allegiance to Judaism led him down different paths; for instance, he wrote liturgical music. In 1936 Dessau wrote an oratorio on a Judaic text written by Max Brod, the writer and friend of Franz Kafka. After the war, Dessau was one of the few individuals who were free to travel between West and East Berlin, where he died in 1979. As in the case of Eisler, music and politics in Dessau achieved a symmetry and clarity that make his artistic accomplishment engaging and relevant to this day.

Hans Werner Henze, who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, is the youngest composer represented on tonight’s program. He was born in 1926; his formative youth was deeply marked by the era of Nazism. In his autobiography, published in 1996, Henze recalls growing up in a context dominated by the Hitler Youth. Henze especially remembers how everyone remained silent about Kristallnacht. His father was wounded early in the war, and he himself was drafted in 1944. The impact of the Third Reich on Henze was to make the issue of politics a central aspect of his life and work, particularly in term so his construction of modernism. Like many of his generation, the experience of Nazism made the vocabulary of musical modernism a necessity as an act of defiance against the past, but Henze is particularly distinguished by the originality and range of his accomplishment. His artistic experimentation was defined by a consistent engagement with contemporary politics, ranging form the Cuban revolution to events in Chile in the 1970s. Henze revered Paul Dessau’s successful reconciliation of the task of the composer and the obligations of the artist as citizen. Like other contemporaries in the worlds of post-war German literature and painting, Henze rejected the convenient escape form political engagement offered by the simplistic dichotomies of Cold War politics. He actively pursued his role as a voice of conscience for post-war Germans.

The contribution of Karl Amadeus Hartmann to Jewish Chronicle may perhaps be the finest artistic moment in this extraordinary piece, and in many respects, of all the composers on tonight’s program Hartmann was the most extraordinary individual. Unlike Blacher or Wagner-Regény, he refused all participation in Nazi Germany, yet he did not emigrate. His inner resistance to Nazism was unparalleled. Much of Hartmann’s music was written in secret during the 1930s and early 1940s and then re-emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, often in revised forms. The integrity of his politics and personal behavior is matched only by the unique power and clarity of his music. Without a doubt, Hartmann is one of the finest composers of this century, whose moment of proper recognition is yet to come. Hartmann’s example as an artist of conscience is all the more remarkable because he was entirely “Aryan” with no reason to resist collaboration except for an unimpeachable ethical sensibility.

We are accustomed now to judge music in a manner that divorces a work entirely from the context in which it was written and from the occasion for which it was written. We carelessly place labels of approbation or criticism on works as if they were sealed off, as it were, from other dimensions of life. Defending works that are not in the standard repertory by citing their “good intentions” in non-musical terms if often done apologetically. In the same vein most critical discussions render the extra-musical meanings connected to those works we now deem masterpieces irrelevant. Greatness in music is often defined as an ability of a work of music to transcend origins and historical contexts.

Tonight’s concert suggests several alternatives. The music heard tonight is music that deserves more than the occasional performance. It does so not because it transcends its context, but precisely because it inspires future generations to make contact with history in a way that only music can accomplish. To deny the extra-musical circumstances of this music would be to insult its power. But to define that musical power as being comparable to the impact of a memorable journalistic or documentary photograph is to belittle the aesthetic achievement of the composers. Perhaps the best parallel to the music on tonight’s program is Picasso’s Guernica, which we revere as a work of art created as an act of outrage and of conscience. The ethical force of Guernica is inextricable from and synonymous with Picasso’s formalist achievements in that work. Eisler’s Deutsche Sinfonie is one of this century’s greatest choral and symphonic works: long after audiences can recognize the tunes for what they once meant, this work will move and inspire listeners. Jewish Chronicle, which is an exception to the rule that a work of music written by many composers–even great ones–rarely succeeds (compare, for example, the F-A-E Sonata by Dietrich, Schumann, and Brahms), reminds us that powerful music must and can be written in response to political challenges. The music of the composers on tonight’s program reminds us that artists, precisely because of their special gifts and talents, must speak out through their art.