Germany and new classical music

From ‘The Classical Revolution’, the Scarecrow Press, New York, 2013

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The country that suffered the most from the postwar modernist revolution, was Germany. Its musical tradition was considered contaminated by the annexation of the nazis, especially romanticism was seen as a pool of evil and bad taste, and Wagner – the former icon of ‘Aryan’ culture and its antisemitism – became the symbol of everything that was wrong with tonality, expression and the so-called ‘humanist tradition’ in music. Postwar new music had to symbolize the birth of a new Germany, a country fully integrated into western democracy, and joining western modernity of which the USA were the leaders. In music, modernism became the flagship of German modernity, but a flagship that had left its original harbor for a sea where audiences did not want to follow. While new modernist music was supported and funded by the institutions, the central performance culture was restored as a museum culture, where the ‘dangerous’ masterpieces of the past could be enjoyed as objects behind the glass of history, and thus reasonably ‘safe’. The Bayreuth Festival with its famous theatre, set-up by Wagner for his operas where they could be performed in the best theatrical and acoustical conditions, was cleansed after the war by his grandsons who introduced a thoroughly ‘sobered’ presentation which focused upon the timeless aspects of this impressive oeuvre. German culture of the past being safely locked-up in the museum, its present incarnation: modernism, showed its negation, which carried the symbolism of safety as well: atonal, modernist Germans were good Germans, however ugly, barbaric and nihilistic the results.

The story of the composer Walter Braunfels is typical: he was a young and gifted composer in the twenties who stuck to the German romantic tradition, in a fierce rejection of both Schönbergian atonalism and the current hard-edged neoclassicism with its associations with popular music. He got quite some success with his operas and was even approached by the upcoming nazi party to write something for them, an invitation which Braunfels rejected out of hand. During the thirties he was marginalized and lost his job at the Cologne conservatory for being a ‘half-jew’, and his music disappeared out of sight. After the war, he tried to make a career for the second time, in the conviction that his stainless past would give him the opportunity to escape the taboo upon tradition. But then, he did not fit the cultural identity that the country had created for itself and he saw his chances evaporate. Only recently, his opera ‘Die Vögel’ has been rediscovered and staged, in Germany as well as in the USA, and it appeared to be a good work – enjoying deserved success. In fact, his music – which is a kind of ‘soft Richard Strauss’, sympathetic and well-made but less vigorous – has been suppressed twice by totalitarianism: first by the nazis, then by the German ‘avantgarde’ who found that this music was not ‘Zeitgemäss’, not of the present time.

The German cultural tradition offers a wide variety of different strands, and its pre-modern musical tradition is a gift to the world and to Europe; the best of this tradition is not just German, but European through and through and thus open to re-interpretation as any cultural tradition is. In Germany however, this may feel like a dangerous arrogance and chauvinism – an exaggerated fear resulting from guilt over the past. The works of great artists may be rooted in their national culture, but their greatness transcends it: great art is universal by nature. But in present-day Germany, its cultural heritage is felt as being exclusively national, and thus the shadow of national guilt and remorse falls over it. German musical culture thus presents a most odd picture: it sits on an incomparable historical richness, but its contemporary composers repeat and repeat the postwar dictum of guilt obligation, creating a sort of symbolical confirmation of the ‘Untergang’ of their musical culture, which otherwise is widely celebrated in a museum culture of the highest standards, especially in Germany itself. Modern music is accepted as the expression of a modern, liberal, Westernized Germany and the almost insane contrast with its musical past is accepted as ‘normal’; attempts at revivalism as can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon world (David Matthews, John Corigliano) or France (Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon) seem, for the time being, too sensitive for Germany.

As long as ‘modern music’ in Germany strains under the taboo of the ‘dark period’, its new music is imprisoned within the walls of a moralistic totalitarianism not much less suffocating as the communist cultural climate in the former Soviet Union. As Alex Ross brilliantly formulates in his ‘The Rest Is Noise’:

The great German tradition, with all its grandeurs and sorrows, is cordoned off, like a crime scene under investigation.

No doubt, now Germany has found itself, to its own great surprise, as the economic and political heart of Europe, younger generations will eventually feel it as a normal inclination to delve into the achievements of their past and be able of handling it in a more objective way – and possibly new generations of composers will discover that they are the inheritors of an overwhelmingly rich source of inspiration and beauty and not merely of war catastrophe and Hitler’s taste to which atonality was a neurotic defence mechanism. Given the intensity of musical talent available in this tortured nation, it is to be expected that at some stage they will get enough of their ‘Nachkriegschuldbewältigungsmusik’ and move-on to more constructive perspectives. In cultural terms, atonal modernism is a ‘German’ invention, dialectically opposed to the philosophical and expressive tenets of classicism; if the postwar political rebirth of Germany can be considered a rebirth, metaphorically, of the humanist and classical Germany of the late 18th century (with its godfathers Goethe and Schiller), it is to be expected that a return to these original sources of timeless inspiration and humanism in terms of music, will at some stage break through the hard scale of self-imposed, outworn restrictions. After all, the riches of tonality had found in the German-speaking world its greatest realizations.

John Borstlap / 2013

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