World War II Music

"In Music, Though, There Were No Victories"


© Alex Ross, New York Times, 1995


When Thomas Mann set about writing the novel that would encompass the limitless catastrophe of World War II, he made a curious decision. “Doktor Faustus,” his apocalyptic narrative of Germany's spiritual collapse, would have as its central character no demagogue or commandant. Instead, the protagonist would be a composer, a rather obscure composer of esoteric inclinations, a radical experimenter at the edges of musical possibility, a man outside the crowd. When Hitler takes power, the fictional music of Adrian Leverkühn is banned and forgotten; the composer dies insane as the war begins.

It is, however, this isolated artist who signs his soul to an ambiguous devil and comes to represent, in Mann's crushingly heavy allegory, the damnation of the German soul. The argument is simplistic but impressive: German music, which had sought sublimity, transcendence, disengagement from the ordinary world, must bear responsibility for what happened down below as it roamed through higher realms. Mann hinted further that this very “musicality of soul” was the key to Germany's fall; the aesthetic had triumphed over the merely human. In Nazi Germany, music became either a weapon of hate or an opiate of indifference.

In the war that ended fifty years ago, music lost on all sides. Classical composers, who had achieved a considerable degree of social influence at the turn of the century, failed miserably to have any effect or even make a plausible comment on the terrors accumulating around them. Protests fell short; triumph sounded hollow. Greatly gifted Jewish composers died in Nazi concentration camps; German composers fled to exile, fell silent or compromised themselves; and many of the victors and survivors retreated en masse into intellectual obscurity, attempting with mixed success to confront the war's cultural, social and spiritual aftermath.

This summer, war dominated the programming of many European festivals: an “Apocalypse” theme in Dresden, “Art and Resistance” at the Holland Festival, “Misunderstood Music” in Lucerne, musical victims of the Holocaust in Prague and Berlin. Record labels have released dozens of disks commemorating those persecuted by the Nazi regime. The fashionableness of the theme should not distract from the seriousness of the issue. While the opera houses of Dresden and other cities have risen from the rubble, music is still deeply haunted by the war, and it will never be as it was.   

During the war
Dresden, the great German cultural center destroyed as retribution for German crimes, confronted the war most intensely at its festival in May. An introductory essay by Michael Hampe, the festival director, quoted the final sentences of “Doktor Faustus”: “Clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, Germany flings down from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of utmost hopelessness — a miracle beyond the power of belief — will the light of hope dawn?”  There is one more sentence, although Hampe omitted it: “A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: ‘God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend and Fatherland!'”

Today there is a widespread feeling in Germany that the country need no longer cry for mercy; the “light of hope” burns bright. Many believe that Germany's moral debts have been paid off, that the country  can again show its face as a world power — as Mann said it never could. Although Adolf Hitler received vast public adoration and thirty-seven percent of the vote, Germany's unconditional surrender in 1945 is now generally referred to as the “Befreiung,” or Liberation, as if from occupying forces.

The pressing question on the musical side is whether German composers who did not go into exile can now be seen as error-prone human actors rather than as demons in league with the devil. Two figures, Richard Strauss and Carl Orff, invariably spring up in this context. In the Orff centenary year, “Carmina Burana” was heard in Dresden and then played no less than four times in one week in Orff's home city of Munich. Strauss's “Friedenstag” — Day of Peace — appeared in Dresden and Vienna.

Strauss and Orff both collaborated with the Nazis, at least early on. Strauss received an appointment as head of the Reich Music Chamber; he was asked to resign three years later after failing to cut ties with his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig. The ageing, melancholy Strauss never wrote anything of real use to Hitler, although “Friedenstag,” a one-act opera dramatizing the final day of the Thirty Year's War, has been interpreted as an argument for Austria's peaceful acquiescence in the greater German good. The completely unscrupulous Orff accepted a commission to write a replacement score for Mendelssohn's verboten “Midsummer Night's Dream”—one of the shabbiest acts in musical history.

These strangely congruent works of Strauss and Orff — ”Friedenstag” is Strauss's worst composition, “Carmina Burana” is Orff's best — provoked a certain amount of historical-minded discussion this past summer in Dresden and elsewhere. More often they were cast in an innocent contemporary light. In one press report, the bland, dutiful anthem of peace at the end of “Friedenstag” was found to resonate humanely not only with the tragedy of the Holocaust but also with atrocities in Bosnia. “Carmina Burana,” heard in open-air arenas across Germany, proved as adept as ever at rousing primitive, unreflective enthusiasm.

But it is unwise to look for too much sinister meaning here. Strauss and Orff were assiduously cultivated by the Nazi regime not because they had exceptional sympathies with the Nazi movement, but because they had a self-evident power to affect broad audiences. Their surrender to Nazi overtures is an ineradicable stain on the biography of each; but the music itself commits no sins simply by being and remaining popular. That “Carmina Burana” has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever.

What is the measuring-stick for righteousness in this time?  Who acted justly?  Witness a work written on the other side, the right side: Shostakovich's “Leningrad” Symphony, which traveled by plane to Toscanini for its American premiere and came to symbolize to an enormous Western audience the entire Allied struggle against Nazi military might. The composer appeared on the cover of Time magazine wearing a firefighter's helmet; Wendell Wilkie returned from a Russian visit and summed up the Soviet half of the struggle with the words, “Shostakovich is a great composer.”

The ironies are thunderous. Shostakovich was himself in thrall to a genocidal dictator who demanded musical triumphalism as a matter of course. When Shostakovich declined to deliver more bombast after the war — his much-anticipated Ninth Symphony was a suite of satiric sketches — he fell once again into official eclipse. In recent years the “Leningrad” has actually been interpreted not as a defiance of Hitler but as a secret protest against Stalin. Nothing illustrates more clearly the malleability of musical meaning. Beethoven, it might be mentioned, served a wartime propaganda tool to Hitler, Stalin and Churchill all at once.

The most agonizing example of music's helplessness was the fate of the artistic community in Theresienstadt, a Gestapo prison in Czechoslovakia that was enlarged to form a Jewish ghetto in 1941. It is a terrifying place, the more terrifying if one studies the painstaking history of SS operations assembled in the town's Jewish Museum. (The state-run museum at the prison makes little mention of the Jews.) Reinhard Heydrich, one of the devisers of the Final Solution, conceived of Theresienstadt as a “transit ghetto” for Jews on their way to the death camps. He also had the idea of assembling artists in the ghetto and employing them as a propaganda tool to convince Red Cross delegations that Jews were being treated well.

Some of the most talented younger Czech composers arrived in Theresienstadt and were allowed to continue their work. A film was made, “Hitler Presents the Jews with a City,” in which the ghetto residents appear to engage in happy labor. (In a documentary shown at the Holland Festival, survivors commented on that film, pointing out traces of the suffering that had been artfully concealed.) The film shows Karel Ancerl conducting Pavel Haas's “Study for Strings.” The music's forceful fugal motion speaks of a defiant spirit. But this astounding vigor is diabolically twisted around for propaganda purposes: the music communicates an illusion of Jewish safety. Haas died one month later in Auschwitz.

Music is adept at the larger, vaguer emotions, such as joy and despair. Joy or despair at what, the listener decides; anything more particular, such as political protest, usually falls outside the composer's reach. Perhaps the most moving musical document of the war is Strauss's 1945 elegy “Metamorphosen,” which glides down from despair to despair and ends with a quotation from Beethoven's “Eroica,” the Funeral March. It was inspired more by the destruction of opera houses than the destruction of human beings. But its message of deepest sorrow cannot be misheard.

After the war
“Composing has become too difficult, devilishly difficult,” the Devil tells Leverkühn in “Doktor Faustus.” It was partly in reaction to the easy triumphalism of the victory years that composers turned against any hint of a public, affirmative, tonally based style. The rapidity with which twelve-tone and serialist modes of composition took hold in the late 1940's has a great deal to do with a deepening sense of horror at the larger consequences of the war, particularly the Holocaust. No single tyrant had been conquered, as Schoenberg weakly implied in his “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte”; sensations of universal guilt and existential despair helped push music toward an esthetic of purposeful difficulty.

One of the musical sages of the postwar era was the philosopher and critic Theodor W. Adorno, who, as it happens, had advised Mann on musical aspects of “Doktor Faustus” and helped shape the portrait of anguished compositional complexity contained in that book. It was Adorno who most notably articulated the idea that music must isolate itself completely from a culture capable of mass destruction. Bourgeois mass culture, he notoriously argued, had become a mirror image of the Nazi engine of mass destruction. This was a far-fetched notion, but it caught the fancy of many European composers of the time, particularly in Germany.

So it was that Bernd Alois Zimmermann, one of the very few major voices to emerge in German music after the war, ironically juxtaposed Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” the Beatles's “Hey Jude” and a speech by Josef Goebbels at the climax of his overpowering orchestral, choral and electronic-tape epic “Requiem for a Young Poet.” Twenty-five years after his death, Zimmermann's works have gained considerable currency: the “Requiem” is to be heard at the festivals of Salzburg and Edinburgh, while Willy Decker's new production of the anti-war opera “Die Soldaten” palpably stunned its audience in Dresden.

Zimmermann's vision of a world ringed round by disaster is impressively realized in musical terms. He unleashes a tumult of genres, styles and historical quotations, superimposing the whole chaos on a rigorous atonal twelve-tone framework. But his esthetic of total catastrophe, of all-pervading apocalypse, is ultimately unsatisfying as a response to the singular crime of Nazism. It does not make distinctions: the Holocaust cannot be lumped together with Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, 1968 student protests and other political talking points of the day. The “Requiem” has an air of fashionable leftist paranoia about it, although Zimmermann's anguished suicide six months after the premiere showed he was in deadly earnest.

A less talented exponent of multi-textured disaster music was Krzysztof Penderecki, who released a “Dies Irae” subtitled “Auschwitz Oratorio” after making a name for himself with the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” There is an unfortunate tendency for composers seeking ultimate gravity to adorn their work with the inexpressible. Penderecki's vocabulary of air-raid sirens, eerie choral chanting and aleatoric orchestral free-for-alls fulfilled its destiny as a cliché of horror film scores almost overnight.   

When Benjamin Britten set about composing his own war memorial in 1961, he had the advantage of unimpeachable personal involvement in his subject; the focus of his “War Requiem,” a synthesis of Latin texts and anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, was to be the urgency of peace, and his lifelong commitment to pacifism put him in good stead. Britten's approachable style defied prevailing fashion; he summoned the gnashing destructive forces of his “Dies Irae” in tones strongly reminiscent of Verdi, raising them to a high pitch of intensity through a characteristic distortion of simple tonality.

The “War Requiem” culminates in a scene of intimate reconciliation between an English and a German soldier after death; it has therefore inevitably proved popular in the summer of war commemorations, particularly in German cities. It is at this point that something rings false. A work so steeped in the philosophy of pacifism is sadly inappropriate to the circumstances of World War II, in which Adolf Hitler nearly conquered Europe by playing virtuosically on the passive temperament of Western democracies. The closing words, “Let us sleep now,” are an empty reassurance, whether in 1962 or 1995.

Britten delivered a more private and powerful message immediately after the war's end. He wrote “Holy Sonnets of John Donne” after he saw Dachau; the last song in the cycle, “Death Be Not Proud,” ends with a furious plain cadence in B major and a long-drawn-out cry of “Death, thou shalt die.” It is a greater protest than the whole public and correct statement of the “War Requiem.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” the only truthful reply to the ultimate horrors of Nazism is unforgiving rage.

Doctor Faustus
“I find that it is not to be,” says Adrian Leverkühn to his friend and biographer Zeitblom. “The good and the noble, what we call the human, although it is good, and noble. What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced — that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back.” The composer's friend asks: “I don't quite understand, dear man. What will you take back?” “The Ninth Symphony,” he answers.

Ostensibly, the composer in “Doktor Faustus” represents Germany's moral collapse; but he is also a perversely moralistic figure, one who finds sincere expression for his hopeless predicament. His works are not Orff-like celebrations of collective vigor, nor are they purely cerebral constructions. They combine the rigor of twelve-tone music with the open expressivity of Romantic tradition. The underside of this marvelous versatility is unremitting pessimism, bordering on nihilism.

In one of the stranger phenomena of musical history, Leverkühn has himself become a figure of importance in postwar composition. Zimmermann seems to echo his methodology in “Requiem for a Young Poet” with his pluralistic approach and his travesty of Beethoven's Ninth. Britten, whom Mann later named as a model for his composer's style, echoed Leverkühn's poetic taste in his “Serenade” and “Nocturne.” Gyorgy Ligeti and Peter Maxwell Davies also seem to have drawn inspiration from the nonexistent composer.

And then there is Alfred Schnittke, the Russian of German descent who identifies with Leverkühn to an uncanny extent. At the Hamburg State Opera in June, Schnittke's masterwork, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten,” had its long-awaited world premiere. The text is the medieval Faust tale of 1587, the same text that Leverkühn employs in his final work. Other resemblances are manifold: a recourse to medieval elements, particularly Monteverdi's madrigal style; a ballet scene of satiric intent; the use of amplification and loudspeakers; the construction of musical motifs out of cryptic alphabetic codes; even details of orchestration such as a prominent use of harpsichord and celesta.

More than this, Schnittke duplicates the whole tone of Leverkühn's work: its exterior playfulness, its off-kilter Romanticism, its savage sarcasm, its underlying tone of monastic seriousness. Faust's descent to hell is cast in the form of a tango; yet the beat of this tango is announced at the beginning of Act III as a nightmarish percussive tremor. The virtue of having an unheard novelistic predecessor is that no one can accuse Schnittke of plagiarism; the musical material of this tremendous opera is drawn from the composer's long-established personal vocabulary, and its central tango melody sticks insidiously in the mind.

This “Faust” differs from its fictional model in one important respect, and that is the ending. Leverkühn's last work is described as having a faintly affirmative conclusion: a Mahlerian or Bergian adagio in which one instrument after another disappears until only a high tone on the cello remains, what Mann calls a “light at the end of the night.”  Schnittke's “Faust” ends with a ghastly percussive ticking. It is similar to the death-rattle heard at the end of Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony, except it is, if possible, even more skeletonically bleak.

“Historia von D. Johann Fausten” nowhere touches on World War II, yet it is thoroughly haunted by the memory. Its medieval, strictly theological conception of evil, unadorned by subtleties of modern or postmodern theory, bears in mind the essence of what transpired in Germany half a century ago. “Be sober and watchful!” chants the chorus: what other lesson can be drawn?  There is no “light of hope” in the opera whatsoever; yet the very act of its composition is perhaps an exorcizing of demons.

Music cannot heal the world; the most it can do is heal itself. Time passes, and composers try to make of their own time something durable. During World War II, there was a concerted attempt to destroy music; the only response can be to make more music, make new music. The rest, in Hamlet's words, is silence.