Music of the Other Germany

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music of the Other Germany, performed on Jan 25, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the fall of Communism. Almost until the very end, the idea that Communism would be a permanent albeit evolving presence in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union was a firmly held belief among the most sophisticated and knowledgeable observers. The wisdom of hindsight (the metaphorical retrospectroscope) should not diminish the momentous and unexpected character of the collapse of the Communist system. Part of that Cold War structure was a divided Germany. Until 1989 the unification of Germany was at best a vague aspiration, and it too occurred with breathtaking rapidity.

Among the nations that were part of the Soviet sphere of influence, East Germany developed a reputation as a stable and doctrinaire socialist state. Its loyalty to Moscow was unquestioned, and it provided a reliable reactionary counterweight to progressive developments in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia during the 1950s and 1960s. East Germany was literally the front line between east and west, the physical locus of that famous phrase the “Iron Curtain,” the most powerful symbol of which was the Berlin Wall. Berlin became the epicenter of spy novels and intrigue, a microcosm of what appeared to be the permanent division in Europe, the geographical and ideological bequest of the defeat of Nazism.

In the twenty years since 1989, there has been a tremendous amount of historical revisionism regarding what actually happened in East Germany after 1945. Conventional wisdom before 1989 held up the creation of a separate East German socialist state as a de facto victory over Fascism. But as it turned out, there was as much continuity between old and new in East Germany as there was in West Germany. A large portion of both bureaucratic and intellectual elites remained in place despite the regime change. Over time, the East German secret police, the Stasi, became emblematic of all Soviet-style secret police agencies. The Stasi successfully infiltrated every dimension of life, including art, culture, and science.

At the same time, however, East Germany as a separate entity began and ended with some measure of idealism. The émigrés and exiles who returned to East Germany in the wake of Hitler’s defeat included Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Arnold Zweig. They hoped they could create a radically new world founded on principles of social justice and equality. Even when the wall fell, there were many who thought—perhaps rightly—that there were traditions and beliefs identified with the East and that could and should be preserved in a united Germany. There was something of value to be cherished. For them the fall of Communism did not mean a blanket vindication of Western practices and conceits, particularly in the area of economic and social policy. In the arts in particular, East Germany had developed an enviable system of state subsidy, supporting a fabulous network of theater groups, opera companies, orchestras, publishing houses, and educational institutions, much of which quickly disappeared when the subsidy ran out, depriving the East German population of its local traditions of affordable, excellent artistic achievement and cultural access. It is for this paradoxical reason that the life and culture of East Germany has been such a successful subject for films marked by irony, humor, and a sense of loss, such as the recent Goodbye, Lenin (2003) and The Lives of Others ( 2006).

Ultimately, however, the collapse of Communism particularly in East Germany was caused by a massive gap between ideological rhetoric and reality. Whether in industry or in the arts, the illusion of success and health was really only that: illusion. East Germany was always especially vulnerable to a process of critical self-recognition within its population because of demographic and familial links between East and West, and modern communications, notably television. It was hard for the East German government to isolate its population completely. During the run of a famous television show imported from America named Dallas, the joke was that the theaters and concert halls of East Berlin were empty when Larry Hagman could be seen driving his Rolls Royce around his Texas ranch.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss over forty years of cultural and artistic activity in East Germany as negligible or valueless merely because of the complex and compromising role played by the state and ideology. What the music on today’s concert suggests is that composers in the East faced, albeit under different circumstances, problems not entirely dissimilar to those of their Western contemporaries. Given the close association between the musical language of late Romanticism and strains of populism with Fascist aesthetics and Nazi ideals of “healthy” art, what sort of music could and needed to be written that would match the aspirations for a new era?

One central difference between East and West was that in the East there was never– either officially or unofficially–anything approximating the engagement with history, especially regarding the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, that there was in West Germany. The official triumph of socialism in the East over its arch-enemy Fascism, made any public debate or soul searching seemingly ideological superfluous. Nevertheless, the aesthetic problem remained and Hanns Eisler became the central figure in the first decades of East Germany’s musical culture. Although he had an early phase influenced by the radical modernism of Schoenberg, already in the 1930s Eisler rejected modernist developments as somehow detached from people and human experience. He sought to craft an accessible language of music that could at once reach the public and yet be distinguished aesthetically from both commercial Western popular music and the appropriated traditionalism so dear to the Nazis. A moral equivalent of socialist realism in literature ultimately became the ideal in music. But for a composer to find a language that corresponded with ideology and yet was authentically personal or subjective, two ingredients were required that were not in the recipe book of the East German regime. The first was freedom, and the second the consequence of freedom: the expression of individuality. The critique of individuality and freedom as bourgeois illusions could hold sway ultimately only as rhetoric. Therefore each of the composers on today’s program pursued a path which created a dialogue fashioned in coded and particularly personal ways with history. Radical modernism argued that music in the modern age needed to shed history and confront tradition by highlighting its absence. East German composers understood this as a delusive imperative, since history and tradition never failed to hang over the modernist movement that gripped West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, for instance in the music of the then most celebrated protagonist of modernism, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In Paul Dessau’s case, history and tradition meant his own past as a Jewish composer and as an idealistic socialist whose perspective ultimately differed from that of the regime. For Rudolf Wagner-Régeny, the past meant an internal dialogue with his own early career that flourished, though with ups and downs, under Nazi rule. And for Eisler, the past meant not only the interwar experimentation and political agitation, but the experience of exile to and deportation from the United States. Above all for Eisler, the past also held the hope that the most treasured part of the German heritage could be celebrated without an obvious connection to Fascism or destructive nationalism, the era of Goethe and Schiller and classical Weimar. It could be reborn in a new Communist Germany without the reservations inherent in the critique of Enlightenment contained in the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer. Despite the deconstruction of Enlightenment, if there was one thing that bridged East and West Germany after 1945, it was the effort to reclaim a “good” Germany rooted in the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment—the Germany of painting, literature, architecture, and music before the onset of modern nationalism.

For the younger generation of East German composers, represented on today’s program by Matthus and Zimmermann, the past meant not one that was experienced but one that was imagined. After 1968, East German composers were more able to absorb influences from developments in the West. Modernism could be adapted for purposes that still put forward ideals compatible with the socialist state. Tradition, as is audible in Matthus’s Responso, could be reborn and reconfigured. In Zimmermann’s music, the discreet use of J.S. Bach and the relation between text and music could justify a measure of experimentation. In both of these works we encounter the special gift of music: its indeterminacy as music with respect to ordinary meaning and significance. Zimmermann’s text is a memorial elegy to Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish poet and victim of the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. That war was after all a common post-World War II ground between East and West: the so-called last great cause, a lingering symbol of freedom and idealism placed in resistance and contrast to brute force, tyranny, and apathy.

The purpose of this concert is to inspire a tolerant and candid engagement with our past. East German life and culture before 1989 are easily susceptible to ridicule. They are undeserving of nostalgic sentiments. The suppression of freedom, the violence of the state, and the corruption and hypocrisy should not inspire admiration. But at the same time, through music, more than one generation of talented composers in East Germany sought, despite tyranny and the pressure to conform, the redemption of human possibility through music. They employed tradition and innovation in unique and memorable ways. We acknowledge without difficulty that East Germany provided many distinguished contributions to performance practice, from the era of the theater director Walter Felsenstein to that of Kurt Masur. There is a parallel richness to be discovered in the work of East German composers as well, those who lived in the German Democratic Republic between 1945 and 1989.

Music therefore has unique possibilities as a means of human expression, even in eras of censorship and under regimes of autocracy and terror. It is harder to speak of collaboration and complicity for composers than it is for writers and painters, not so much in regard to personal conduct, but in regard to the nature of the works of art themselves. When it comes to music, we should give the period of the German Democratic Republic the same latitude we have afforded to the Soviet era and the era of Metternich.